The Failure of the Futurists: Picturing the Cities of Tomorrow

Sean Posey I Urban Issues I Commentary I June 11th, 2014

Today, the notion of progress in a single line without goal or limit seems perhaps the most parochial notion of a very parochial century.

- Lewis Mumford

America has long had a problematic relationship with the city. A country weaned on romantic notions of Jeffersonian agrarianism and rugged individualism didn't take well to the rapid urbanization of the nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet it was urbanization that turned America into the industrial colossus of the world. Still, American futurists alternatively have rejected the city as the habitat of tomorrow and dreamed of a future urbanism couched in the idea of continued technological progress-and ultimately, utopianism.

"Cities of the future" became the centerpiece of numerous world's fairs. Publications from Popular Mechanics (a serial offender) to the New York Times painted fanciful scenarios for future cities. Of course, the futurism of the past is often ripe fodder for ridicule: flying commuters, domed cities, terraced skyscrapers with aircraft landing fields, or even endless sprawl and commercial homebuilding, where the bubble would never burst.

Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb aptly describes the problem: "We also represent society according to our utopia of the moment, largely driven by our wishes - except for a few people called doomsayers, the future will be largely inhabited by our desires. So we will tend to over-technologize it and underestimate the might of the equivalent of these small wheels on suitcases that will be staring at us for the next millennia." [1]

However, urban futurism today discounts this notion, and is instead drifting into a dangerous world of self-deception and make-believe. We are limping into the future, while too many of our public intellectuals see us flying into tomorrow, often with little more than wishful thinking fueling our jetpacks.

The 20th Century City that Was and Wasn't

As the nineteenth century waned, the people of Chicago and America were wowed by the "White City" of the 1893 World's Fair (also known as the Columbian Exposition, in honor of 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage.) Architect Daniel Burnham and famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead unveiled their vision of a future metropolis to the City of the Big Shoulders. The exposition provided a powerful example of what American cities-mostly ugly, degraded, and industrial at the time-could look like in the near future: classically influenced, electrified, and filled with wonderful gadgets. Towering neoclassical architecture and the birth of modern city planning are often the most remembered legacies of the White City, but the technology displayed by the likes of Nikola Tesla and Elisha Grey ultimately had a larger impact on a society that would soon become increasingly in thrall to modern inventions and conveniences.

For a time, Beaux-Arts architecture, and the City Beautiful movement with which it was often connected, shaped the early "American Century." However this movement was ultimately eclipsed. The first principle of the City Beautiful was "the celebration of the idea of the city itself." [2] Unfortunately, early twentieth century cites were mostly industrial, dirty, overcrowded, and generally not very likable. And as the century progressed, Americans turned their backs on urbanism. Instead, they embraced the dream of the late Andrew Jackson Downing-the father of landscape architecture-that "there is a moral influence in the country home."[3]

Americans didn't get country homes, instead they got the suburban tract home. The flight from cities increased as the century went by. Futurists' predictions changed steadily during this time: sometimes recognizing trends as they happened, but often completely missing the whole picture. In 1925, Popular Science Monthly pictured 1950 New York as a towering city of skyscrapers (the skyscraper craze was still fresh in 1925 but on pause by 1950) with an enormously large population that required multiple city "levels" of transportation. Yet by 1950, the population of the city had tapered off (it actually declined in 1960) and the zeppelins flying overhead had vanished from the scene-understandably, considering the Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey in 1937. Harvey Corbett, the architect featured in the article, even predicted that cities would not decentralize in the future. [4] Exactly the opposite happened.

Americans moving to suburbia got something closer to a version of Frank Lloyd's Wright's "Broadacre City" plan. First described in his 1932 book, "The Disappearing City," the plan for Broadacre called for sprawling, decentralized cities that were to replace the industrial metropolises Wright despised. [5] Though fundamentally different from suburbs, which are by their very nature attached to central cities, Broadacre proved to be closer to post-war America than most predictions made by futurists in the early part of the century.

It's odd that futurists picturing cities of tomorrow remained so positive and utopian right up through the 1960s, considering America's then increasingly ambivalent feelings about urban living. The 1964 World's Fair, unlike the New York World's Fair of 1939, trafficked in a George Jetson-styled future: flying cars; raised, moving sidewalks; and jet packs. General Motor's 'Futurama' exhibit portrayed underwater living. Isaac Asimov even foresaw those underwater cities being featured at the 2014 World's Fair. Today, many Americans aren't even aware that world's fairs are still held.

Techno Futurism

Even as Americans soured on urban living in the second half of the twentieth century, the country's collective obsession with technological utopianism only grew. Movies dabbled in urban dystopian themes that often more honestly echoed America's fear of the city-producing nightmarish visions of future urbanity in the 1980s, like Escape from New York, Blade Runner, and Robocop. These dark artistic visions, though, were entirely absent from the gathering techno-theology that emerged in full bloom in the 1990s. The idea that technological innovation will solve future problems-many resulting from the increasing complexity of technological systems themselves-is of course not new. However, the blooming of television, and the world of computing, brought this kind of thinking to new heights. Its roots sprang from the work of futurist Marshall McLuhan.

An erudite student of the media, advertising, and technology, McLuhan foresaw such future evolutions as the coming of the Internet and the idea of a technological "singularity." In 1967, he stated that, "The city no longer exists, except as a cultural ghost for tourists. Any highway eatery with its TV set, newspaper, and magazine, is as cosmopolitan as New York or Paris.'"[6] In his characteristically obtuse way, he misjudged the importance of place, social space, urban design, and even economics. But McLuhan's writings would-rightly or wrongly-greatly influence the denizens of the computer age and the singularian futurists, who claim that the problems of a rapidly urbanizing planet will be solved by a coming "age of abundance."

The Magic of the Microchip

The enormously influential computer culture that came out of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s is, in many ways, a product of the futurism of McLuhan. With the magic of the microchip (and the economic boom era of the 1990s) the "Californian Ideology" was born. A strange mix of 1960s liberalism and 1990s libertarianism, the Californian Ideology took individualism and techno-theocracy to a new level. This suburban phenomenon-hatched in Silicon Valley-is part of what became the cult of Moore's Law and the extreme utopianism of futurists like Michio Kaku and Ray Kurzweil.

In his 2011 book, "Physics of the Future," complete with a cover featuring the ever wished for flying cars and Logan's Run look-alike cities, Michio Kaku describes a tomorrow when "land, capital, natural resources, no longer matter."[7] He touches on the current enormous problem of resource scarcity, but Kaku more or less brushes those aside; instead he simply skips to the part where we magically have a hydrogen and solar-based economy by the middle of the century.[8] He doesn't adequately address the enormous problems with hydrogen, which is actually not a fuel source.

Among its many issues, hydrogen is a net energy loser. It takes more energy (usually burning natural gas) to produce the hydrogen than what you would get out of a typical fuel cell. Much of the energy is lost as heat. In other words, the energy return-on energy-invested is unacceptable, especially when you consider scaling hydrogen to fuel hundreds of millions of vehicles in the United States alone.[9]

Kaku also makes similar questionable statements regarding Chinese urbanism. He claims the Middle Kingdom has learned from the mistakes of the building of American cities.[10] Instead the Chinese are replicating the same missteps Americans made-making the car the locus of transportation policy. The country is now, in the words of David Owen, embarking on the "fastest motorization in history." [11]

And are they really building cities of tomorrow? Kaku sees a future where millions of chips are stored in the road, communicating information to prevent accidents or traffic jams. But the Chinese are building their mega-cities right now using enormous amounts of concrete and steel that, steel especially, have large carbon footprints. The roads snaking through rapidly growing cities are spawning enormous traffic problems-and the attendant pollution-including a 100 kilometer-long traffic jam that lasted for ten days in 2010.

It's Ray Kurzweil, however, who has taken the cult of Moore's Law and Marshall McLuhan's idea of "the extension of the nervous system in the electrical age" to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. Kurzweil is mostly known for his proselytizing about the coming of the technological "singularity." According to Kurzweil, "As we gradually learn to harness the optimal computing capacity of matter, our intelligence will spread through the universe at (or exceeding) the speed of light, eventually leading to a sublime, universe wide awakening." Kurzweil's imagining of the eventual melding of humans and machines is based on Moore's Law, which states that computing power doubles about every two years. This exponential growth is what Kurzweil sees leading to the eventual singularity.

He has taken that idea and extrapolated it to things outside of computer hardware, like the medical field and nanotechnology. Kurzweil sees a post-scarcity future, one in which solar energy powers all of our needs within fifteen years. Flying cars will be with us by 2026. More pertinent here, he predicts cities will be obsolete in a few short decades-due to full-immersion virtual reality-because of this, populations will radically decentralize. [12]

No Magic Wand

Kurzweil's views on solar partially reflect what many left-leaning environmental groups are advocating: Solar and other renewables are the obvious answer to fossil fuels. For many years, solar energy has accounted for less than one percent of the world's total energy. And solar panels that convert the sun's energy into electricity using the photovoltaic effect contain a tremendous amount of embodied energy. This includes everything from the diesel-powered vehicles needed to mine minerals, to the cost and scarcity of the 'rare earth elements' needed to produce many thin solar panels, including tellurium, which is a key element in the construction of some of the most efficient solar cells available.[13]

Oddly enough, many environmentalists combine silver bullet utopian fantasies about solar power, electric cars, hydropower, et cetera, with problematic anti-urban notions.[14] Urban theorist James Howard Kunstler tackled this head on when he described his two visits to the Aspen Environmental Forum: "…I listened to the cream of the Green movement rhapsodize over all the cool new 'green' ways you can run cars other than on gasoline. They didn't once mention walkable communities or public transit. They're just not into it. I consider their position utterly disgraceful."[15]

Lewis Muford's comments about the problems of "progress" apply-so far-just as much to this century as they did to the twentieth century. The planet is reminding us that we do not live in a boundless age. "Progress" without limits will prove to be as problematic for the Chinese, the sheiks of Dubai, and the tech industry in Mumbai as it has been for us. On the whole, we are idly texting toward a Dark Age Ahead, as Jane Jacobs put it. Environmental daydreams and Age of Aquarius solutions wrapped in solar panels and lithium-ion batteries will not suffice. Common sense solutions are staring us in the face, even as we stare at our smart phones.

Fortunately, the Millennial Generation is embracing non-automobile oriented lifestyles and moving to walkable, mixed-use communities. If anyone is going to build the sustainable city of the future, it will be the Millennials. It remains to be seen, however, if they will lead effectively on energy and environmental issues when their turn to do so comes.

The near future will be much more about changing the way we live: sustainable design; curbing sprawl; planning for climate change scenarios; deemphasizing the automobile; and preparing for a low-carbon economy will be key elements. None of that will be easy, especially for Americans.

The futurists of today who see a clear path to a post-scarcity utopia are going to be in for as big of a surprise as all those who waited in vain for automated roads and commuter spaceships. Cities of tomorrow will have to be guided by the principles of our more sustainable recent past, rather than the fantastic futurism of Buck Rogers-inspired daydreaming.


[1] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House, 2012) 314.

[2] Robert Freestone, Urban Planning in a Changing World: The Twentieth Century Experience (Oxford: Taylor and Francis, 2000) 115.

[3] Andrew Jackson Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (1850; repr., Mineola: Dover Publishing, 1969), xx.

[4] "The Wonder City You May Live to See" Popular Science Monthly, August 1925.

[5] See Frank Lloyd Wright, The Disappearing City (New York: William Farquhar Payson, 1932).

[6] Priscilla Boniface, Dynamic Tourism: Journeying Through Change (London: Cromwell Press, 2001), 8.

[7] Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (Norwell: Anchor Press, 2011), 320.

[8] Ibid., 234.

[9] For more on the problems with the "hydrogen economy" see Joseph J. Romm,The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate and Matthew L. Wald, and "Questions about a Hydrogen Economy" Scientific American, May 2004.

[10] Kaku, 321.

[11] David Owen, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability (New York: Riverhead Trade, 2009), 218.

[12] See Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking Publishing, 2005).

[13] See Nicola Jones, A Scarcity of Rare Metals is Hindering Green Technologies (Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: Yale Environment 360, 2013). and Fthenakis, Vasilis M.; Kim, Hyung Chul; Alsema, Erik (2008). "Emissions from Photovoltaic Life Cycles". Environmental Science & Technology 42.

[14] See Andrew Light, "The Urban Blind Spot in Environmental Ethics," Environmental Politics Volume 10, Issue 1 (2001): 7-35; and Angie Schmitt, "When Will the Environmental Movement Embrace Cities?" Streetsblog, August 10, 2011.

[15] "Straight Talk with James Howard Kunstler: 'The World is Going to Get Rounder and Bigger Again,",