Everyday I see a new article predicting the technological city of the future, “Better living through technology.” Some scientific or engineering breakthrough will redefine the way we build, the way we live. While I have no doubt that smart grids and other such innovations—extant and otherwise—will take root, such thinking conjures Corbu’s Radiant City and the dystopian futures of Blade Runner or Back to the Future 2. Cars will fly, houses will be replaced by gleaming towers, memories will be recorded on implanted chips to insure accurate retrieval. Segways will have their own elevated freeways. No matter the iteration, the thinking is that the cities of the future will be radically different than the cities of the past. Maybe they will, but I doubt it. I mean, are the people of the future (us) really so different than the people of the past?
I remember reading a bit by James Howard Kunstler a few years ago in which the irascible JHK gave his best guess as to what cities of the future might look like. A hint: not Dubai. Kunstler reasoned that cities of the future would look a lot more like cities of the past than cities of the present. A combination of—among other things—explosive population growth, the rise of the automobile, the rise of the (predominantly rural) United States, and various government policies conspired to stretch cities and towns horizontally. Eventually, a limit would be reached at which point this pattern of settlement would no longer be satisfactory. Kunstler figured that the walled medieval city, built for people instead of cars, built for a social community, built to last, would essentially be updated in a modern context. The recent shift toward bike and pedestrian friendly places, complete streets, New Urbanism, etc., seem to be proving him right.
We humans love to plot our existence on time lines. Make the world linear. Everything has a beginning, a middle, an end. The universe in vectors. But how often does reality comply? It seems to me that no geometric figure can accurately represent the dynamism of civilization. Sometimes a vector may well be appropriate. Other times, a triangle or a step pyramid. The closest model to my mind, however, is a helix, or rather multiple helices. Some are bent, some wrap around others, some are vertical, some aren’t. All, however, are roughly orbital. A new development (such as the automobile) creates a new ring, the course of action spurred on by that development plays out, and eventually things come back around to a new approximation of where they began.
The salient point I’m circumnavigating here is that cycles are more common than straight lines. Truly transformational technological innovations are rare; most simply send us spinning until we come back around. What was old will be new again. I agree with JHK and a growing legion of voices who recognize that pre-automotive urbanism is rife with near-perfect cities and towns. The models for the cities of the future are the cities of the past. Some tweaking is needed, of course, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Besides, as Jorge Luis Borges so deftly illustrates in “The Plot,” history will repeat itself whether we want it to or not.
“The Plot,” by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Elaine Kerrigan:
To make his horror complete, Caesar, pursued to the base of a statue by the relentless daggers of his friends, discovers among the faces and blades the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his favorite, his son perhaps, and he ceases to defend himself to exclaim: “You, too, my son!” Shakespeare and Quevedo echo the pathetic cry.
Fate takes pleasure in repetitions, variants, symmetries. Nineteen centuries later, in the south of Buenos Aires province, a gaucho is assaulted by other gauchos, and, as he falls, recognizes a godson and with gentle reproach and gradual surprise exclaims (these words must be heard, not read): “But che!” He is killed and never knows he dies so that a scene may be re-enacted.