The Cities of the Future


– By Jacob Foxx –

The future of humanity is in the cities. Over half of the world population have left the farms and more leave every year. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the Wachowskis and their Neo Seoul of Cloud Atlas, science fiction has produced a diverse and fascinating array of future urban environments. While some are aspirational and utopian, many serve as dark warnings of future upheaval and spiritual decline.

In ancient times, cities emerged from the practical need for defense. It was easier for a population to defend itself within a small space surrounded by defenses like city walls. There was also the advantage of strength in numbers. As they steadily grew, cities became places of trade, one of the essential building blocks of civilization. The concentration of buyers and sellers in one location allowed for the efficient exchange of goods, services, culture, and most importantly knowledge.

As cities and knowledge grew, civilizations became interested in the aesthetics of their cities. The architecture came to symbolize its social and cultural values . Greek city-states were often built around grand temples dedicated to the gods. Muslim cities traditionally promoted trade in the bazaars but usually the most striking feature of the skyline were the mosques. In Medieval Europe, it was grand cathedrals. Monarchs and despots often drew attention to their power through extravagant imperial palaces. In less peaceful regions, it was the keep, the most heavily defended structure inside the walls.

In America, towering skyscrapers are often the most prominent features. In New York it is Freedom Tower, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building. In Chicago, it is the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower). Most of the buildings are commercial properties, privately owned and operated. They are spaces used for business and trade, not worship or imperial balls. The shift from an emphasis on religious and secular power toward commerce is a feature of the modern era.

Many cities also sport impressive national monuments like the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument in DC, and the Golden Gate Bridge. These are monuments to national pride and greatness, dedications to the principles of freedom and liberty, or just egotistical displays of power and engineering genius.

So where will we go next? What do science fiction writers and moviemakers think of when they imagine the cities of the future?

Nostalgic Ethnocentrism

The Capitol 2
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

One unfortunate trend in Western science fiction is the portrayal of futures dominated by Western culture. Even while Europe and the United States represent less than 20 percent of the world population, most writers see a future of English-speaking, Westernized peoples. I understand the need to “write what you know” but I think a writer’s credibility is stretched thin when they present a dominantly American future for humanity. Some go a step farther, building visions that pay tribute to our cultural heritage. Many look like Ancient Rome, with towering marble and limestone structures, Greek columns, and wide paved avenues. The Capitol of Panem sports an enormous circus maximus with the tributes riding in on chariots. Character names include Plutarch and Caesar.

The recent movie Jupiter Ascending was clearly influenced by Mediterranean architecture. In addition, there is a character named Titus and a galactic police force known as the Aegis. Finally, the best seller Red Rising includes Roman names, titles, and attire in a future Martian civilization.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

There is something romantic about imagery inspired by the Roman Empire. There is also an odd nostalgic approach to the old feudal system. Power held within warring houses, ruled via hereditary right and a powerless peasantry. You see it in the popularity of Game of Thrones for example, as well as Jupiter Ascending and Red Rising. Yet there is no logical reason to believe human civilization will revert back to its ancient and medical political and architectural practices.


Familiar Cities

Many science fiction writers and moviemakers use existing cities as their setting. Spielberg’s Minority Report takes place in Washington DC, Escape from New York takes place in, you guessed it New York. The classic Blade Runner takes place in Los Angeles. The Starfleet headquarters is in San Francisco. Will the great cities of today continue to be the great cities of the future?

Blade Runner City
Blade Runner (1982)

I doubt it. Just look at recent history: the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai were impoverished backwaters in the mid 20th century. Today they are among the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. Phoenix, Arizona wasn’t even a city until the early 1900s. Today it is one of the ten largest in the United States. Classic supercities like Rome, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), and Alexandria have faded into obscurity, becoming mere tourist destinations. Cairo, Baghdad, and Jerusalem are in the midst of religious and political upheaval as well as drowning in poverty.

Even within the US, the big growth is in newer cities like Austin, San Antonio, Raleigh, and Denver. Meanwhile the great cities at the turn of the century are stagnant or declining in size and importance. In the near future the greatest cities might not be familiar to us today.

Megacities and Overpopulation

Thomas Malthus influenced many thinkers at the turn of the century. Most of his predictions have proven false yet many accept his assumptions, including science fiction writers and moviemakers. Science fiction typically envisions crowded, polluted megacities with widespread poverty, crime, and inequality. Metropolis was among the first to present a vision of glorious prosperity standing on a foundation of slavery. Later came the cyberpunk version in Blade Runner. Massive video billboards dominated the skies. Aside from the neon signs, it is dark, heavily industrialized, and uninspiring.

Arrakeen, capital city of the planet Arakeis. Dune (1965)
Arrakeen, capital city of the planet Arakis. Dune (1965)

Who would choose to live in such a place? The implication is that it is the only place to live after the natural environment is depleted until it resembles a lifeless desert. The classic Mad Max presents such a world. Here humanity has done irreparable damage to the planet, leading to an existence dependent on living in civilization’s decaying ruins.

The dystopian cities are a criticism of modern urban life, beckoning back to a more fundamental and natural existence in nature. It is also a criticism of consumerism and the tremendous energies that are turned toward commerce, advertising, and marketing. Eventually, we will become nothing but servants of mega-corporations, mindlessly consuming goods and services we don’t need with money we don’t have.

Massive corporations and business interests dominate. The Tyrell Corporation has a massive headquarters in Blade Runner. In the movie I, Robot, it is the US Robotics tower that dominates the Chicago skyline. In many stories the government does not play a significant role as events unfold. Corporate interests are what move the world.

Green Cities

Not all sci-fi cities of the future are dystopian hellholes. Some imagine utopian paradises in our future. The big trend in recent decades is the desire to shift away from the traditional industrial age urban model towards an eco-friendly, sustainable, zero emission, resource renewing city. Instead of tightly packed skyscrapers, they are more horizontal with lower population densities. There are more open spaces for parks and forest preserves. Factories and warehouses are replaced with solar-powered office buildings and smaller, more efficient carbon neutral workshops. Huge traffic jams and superhighways are replaced with carbon-free mass transit systems and large pedestrian walkways.

Sir Ebenezer Howard was among the first to propose such a planned city, which would include green belts around them. The layouts are

City of Domes, Logan's Run (1976)
City of Domes, Logan’s Run (1976)

often less than ideal for commerce and come with high price tags. Many cannot afford to live in such cities today. For example, housing prices in San Francisco have chased out most lower and middle class families from its city limits. They simply cannot afford the property taxes or rent. The displacement of low income families is a side effect of urban renewal and the desire for a progressive, state-of-the-art, urban environment.

It won’t be easy to build and maintain an eco-paradise. Many of the technologies that green cities are dependent on are not fully developed. Some don’t exist yet. There is also the idea of abandoning urbanization altogether and embracing a purer pastoral lifestyle. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings hints at this with the virtuous and happy hobbit farmers having to battle the industrialized orc society. Green cities are a sort of compromise between Tolkien’s pastoral fantasy and the realities of modern life.

In fiction, writers have a suspicious attitude toward utopian green cities. They are “too good to be true.” Real cities have problems. The green utopia is used as a plot device, testing the moral integrity of the characters.

In the Star Trek: TNG episode “Justice,” a seemingly utopian paradise exists on the planet of Rubicun III. It appears as a suburban or less dense realm with parks and greenhouses. It is beautiful. Even the inhabitants are beautiful. Of course, such perfection comes at a cost. Almost all violations of the law are punishable by death. It is a venerable Garden of Eden with similar consequences for breaking the rules. Just Adam and Eve are thrown out for eating an apple, Wesley Crusher foolishly falls into a small flower bed. Another example of a green-like city is the City of Domes in Logan’s Run. It is a paradise inside a dome but with a cost. At age 30, you must die.

Cloud Cities and Floating Cities

Bespin Mining Colony
Bespin Mining Colony, Empire Strikes Back (1980)

One of the coolest ideas for future cities involves abandoning land altogether. The Bespin Mining colony portrayed in Empire Strikes Back is the perfect example. It captured the imagination of many, bringing the world of The Jetsons to life. If Earth becomes too polluted and ugly, we can rise above it. Another vision sees humanity avoiding any environmental impact by taking to the skies. We become transcendent, joining God and the angels in the heavens and leaving our Earthly realm behind.

Cities that float on the sea are a bit closer to reality. Stargate Atlantis portrays the legendary city as a futuristic stronghold with energy shielding and automated weapons to protect it from the wraith. Matthew Mather’s Atopia Chronicles presents a futuristic city dedicated to virtual reality and adopting free market, libertarian principles. Most of life is experienced in virtual reality, including the creation of proxxiis or virtual assistants.

Atlantis SG1
Stargate: Atlantis

Some dream of living among the floating mountains of Pandora. Although there are no cities there, many artists have created visions of living on small settlements among the mountains. Some steampunk universes have floating cities and towns, relying heavily on blimps and small turn of the century aircraft.

Colonization of other Worlds: Domed Cities

If we colonize the Moon or Mars we will need something to breathe. Mars has a toxic atmosphere and the Moon doesn’t have one at all. To ensure safe atmospheric conditions, we will need to live in domes. A city inside a dome comes with certain advantages. First, you typically get to control how many people live there due to the limited amount of the most precious resource: breathable air. Second, if you need extra space you can always drill downward, creating a nascent mining industry along the way. Sometimes this is used to create an H.G. Wells style caste system. One lives above in the domes while the rest live in caves and tunnels. The inhabitants of Total Recall and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising live on the Martian version of this scenario. There is also the video conflict of miners versus management in Red Faction.

We seem to see one’s elevation as symbolic of their status. We’d rather be closer to heaven above than hell below.

Cities of Progress

Then there are the stories that aren’t trying to make a social critique or utilizing cultural nostalgia, they are simply presenting a vision of what cities of the future could be if we continue to advance. Star Trek Into Darkness is a perfect example. San Francisco is a beautiful city with towering futuristic skyscrapers and is home to the large yet not overbearing headquarters of the United Federation of Planets. Movies like Minority Report and Serenity also make us imagine all the possibilities with a sense of optimism (minus the psychic crime fighters and flesh-eating reavers). The Spielberg movie Artificial Intelligence does show the consequences of global warming but also show how we have adapted and managed to progress in spite of the challenges ahead.

The cities are typically silver and gray with glass facades and modest appearance. Functionality is far more important than aesthetics. They are also clean, absent smokestacks, congested highways, or anything else that is unpleasant to look at. The people peacefully go about their business in similar, almost identical apparel. Apparently harmony requires a certain amount of uniformity, which is unfortunate.

What Does the Future Hold?

I am not a prophet or psychic but there are some demographic, economic, and cultural trends today that give some idea of what the major cities and nations of the future might look like. First, our world is becoming less white and Christian every year. The demographic studies suggest human civilization will see greater Chinese, Indian, and Muslim influences. Look for the cities of the future to be more diverse as people become freer to migrate. While most buildings in the future will probably look pretty dull, I think there is a chance for a trend toward more creative designs. “Corporate art” may become more common place, as well as attempts by city and national leaders to erect spectacular monuments to their own greatness. My guess is they will get more opulent.

While it is fun to use Ancient and Medieval social and cultural institutions, the odds of them making a come back are close to nil. With the exception of a few Arab Kingdoms, there is no real movement toward reinstating feudalistic monarchies or a caste system. We won’t be seeing a resurrection of the Roman Empire, chariots and all. Future cities probably won’t have massive temples or palaces at their center, but will continue to have private commercial skyscrapers and government-built monuments. The style may be different but there is no new societal force that challenges the corporate interests that dominate skylines.

Green and floating cities are much more feasible than flying cities, for now. Recent developments in energy production and electric cars suggest we could eliminate air pollution as an urban problem. Climate change may remain a concern but I am optimistic we won’t be living in a flooded world. Most cities in the developed world are getting cleaner and more energy efficient. However, many cities in the developing world have horrific pollution. It remains to be seen if they will become cleaner as our cities did during the 20th century.

Unfortunately, there will always be inequality and slums in cities. Urban areas attract people through the promise of a better life, more work, and the chance to move up the social ladder. For some this is true but many will remain in tiny apartments, working menial jobs, unable to make the climb. No city can provide opportunity and ascension to all within its city limits. As a result, large cities will have slums and darker neighborhoods where some struggle.

There is a good chance I will be completely wrong on my predictions but there they are. One thing I know for sure, science fiction will continue to create imaginative visions of cityscapes, portraying their own views of the future of humanity and how we will choose to live with one another. While not always realistic, they speak to us in a way other forms of fiction cannot. We get to see how we could be living in the near future or perhaps the far future. It is easier to strive towards progress when you have an idea of your goal, whether it is pollution-free cities, economic equality, architectural beauty, or stunning vistas.