Is There a Future for the City of Tomorrow?
For all its pretense of futurism, EPCOT today feels like an anachronism. The first park to open after the death of Walt Disney, it dispenses with Disney World’s traditional cartoon characters and Main Street, instead celebrating its founder’s preoccupation with progress. Early promotional materials for the park—originally envisioned by Walt Disney as a full-scale Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—invite visitors to imagine a world of technological progress, centralized planning, and scientific management.
Proposed in the twilight years of our collective love affair with urban utopianism, the park was opened in 1982. But for the next 40 years, when cities of tomorrow came up at all in culture, they were invariably dystopian, from the rampant crime of RoboCop‘s Detroit to the casual traffic violence of Akira‘s Neo-Tokyo. Until quite recently, urban settings were so central to dystopian fiction that entirely new cities were often invented to host them, as with Cyberpunk 2077‘s Night City, or Ghost in the Shell‘s New Port City.
In our initial attempts to build the city of tomorrow, we sliced up cities with freeways, remade neighborhoods along untested design principles, and locked communities into the zoning straitjacket. The results were an unambiguous failure, yet the nightmares they conjured led subsequent generations to double down on growth controls. The ironic result is that cities like Los Angeles today suffer from many of the crises predicted in cyberpunk futures, but in a form that is, for lack of a better word, boring. Say what you will about Blade Runner 2049‘s Los Angeles, at least it has holographic sex robots.
After a century of fantasizing about what it would be like to have technocrats set the terms of urban life—or fretting about what might happen if they don’t—perhaps it’s time for a city of tomorrow that lets individuals plan for themselves.
Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow
For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans were infatuated with the idea of technological progress and prudent planning ushering in a golden age.
It isn’t hard to see why: As innovations like steel framing and the elevator liberated building heights from the constraints of load-bearing walls, the rapid spread of streetcars and the automobile allowed cities to expand deeper into the countryside. An American once tethered to a low-slung hovel and a half-mile walking commute could now conceivably work out of a 30-story tower and commute each day from a distant suburbanizing periphery.
Books like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 became runaway bestsellers. An unusually didactic piece of early science fiction, Looking Backward envisions a future America perfected by the nationalization of major industries and the micromanagement of the economy. Boston plays a starring role, replete with what would become standard fare for utopian cities, from climate control domes to instant delivery. Such innovations ultimately came to pass—but in the capitalist form of shopping malls and Amazon.
Inspired partly by Bellamy, Ebenezer Howard set out an equally fantastical urban vision in 1902’s Garden Cities of To-morrow. In place of the dense, dynamic cities of his day, Howard envisioned self-sufficient “garden cities” of exactly 32,000 residents on 9,000 acres. Residences and commerce were to be strictly separated by successive rings of greenbelts, with up to six garden cities orbiting around a central city of 58,000 residents, all to be connected by railroads and canals.
As with Bellamy, Howard’s work kicked off an international movement, with dozens of garden cities being built across the developed world. Here in the U.S., Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin, were built by the federal government as part of the New Deal–era Greenbelt Towns program. And as with Bellamy, details of Howard’s vision would be realized by the private sector, with garden-city ideas informing the design of subdivisions.
The rise of mass automobile ownership likewise seeded new strains of popular urban utopianism. In an update on Baron Haussmann’s remaking of Paris, the architect Le Corbusier variously excited and terrified French audiences with his 1925 proposal to replace much of historic Paris with rows of identical modernist high-rises towering over free-flowing traffic. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, General Motors’ Futurama exhibit proposed something similar, inviting Americans to imagine a “future” 1960 city carved up by 14-lane freeways.
Arriving in the mid-1960s, Walt Disney’s original vision for EPCOT drew liberally from these various disparate traditions. After all, Disney didn’t intend his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow to be just another theme park—it was supposed to be a trial run for the city of tomorrow.
“EPCOT will be a planned environment, demonstrating to the world what American communities can accomplish through proper control of planning and design,” a narrator explains in an early pr
Article from Reason.com