Have our visions of future cities become more positive?

A vision of a future city by Eugène Hénard, 1911.

My future city contains flying cars, shimmering architecture and vertical parks. Yours is probably different, but whether you’ve thought about it or not you’ll definitely have some conception, some image. There have always been future cities – architects, writers and filmmakers have long dreamt up fantastic visions of them. Some of these have come to fruition, some are just dusty ideas that still inspire, or are forgotten. But visions of tomorrow’s cities populate the past, as well as the present.

Almost 20 years ago, the celebrated prophet of doom and disorder JG Ballard wrote about the future of the city in his novel Cocaine Nights:

Townscapes are changing. The open-plan city belongs in the past — no more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. People are locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems.

This is something we are now seeing in reality as public space becomes ever more commercial, ever more privatised. Look at Liverpool ONE or the gated communities of New Caledonian Wharf, Docklands or Bow Quarter in East London.

Liverpool ONE. Image: iancarroll.

But it’s not all quite so bleak out there. We may be moving toward a future more positive in outlook, albeit with echoes of the nightmarish cities we thought up in the past.

Future visions

We’ve been dreaming up visions of future cities as long as the city has existed. A recent government report, A Visual History of the Future, examines what such visions sought to communicate and why. Many of these visualisations were never built and remained imaginary – this does not mean they are unworthy of attention. Speculative futures and the technologies projected within them are important. They reveal a lot about how we expect to progress.

The "Garden Cities of To-morrow" by Ebenezer Howard.

Let’s take the legacy of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision, first published in 1898. It has been both celebrated and derided. Its combination of bucolic landscaping and polycentric planning captures a very British attitude toward the future. The agenda of much post-war planning in the UK was suburban and provincial. With Britain announcing its intention to build a new garden city by the Thames Estuary at Ebbsfleet, we appear to be regurgitating ideas from over a century ago.

Another future city of around a century ago is that of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which wasn’t quite so idyllic. Inspired by the Futurist Italian architect Antonio Sant'Elia this rapidly industrialised monster city has also been a touchstone for many subsequent ideas for future cities. Metropolis is an automated system of control and hierarchy, with explicit social class division. Wealthy industrialists have privileged lifestyles in high-rise towers whilst the lower class workers live underground.

The fears and desires borne by industrialisation were also the inspiration behind Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World where years are measured “After Ford” in tribute to the influential sponsor of assembly line mass production. Interestingly, this supposedly far future dystopia set in London of AD 2540 (632 A.F.) was heavily influenced by Huxley’s visit to the ICI plant in Billingham, Stockton-on-Tees.

These themes were taken even further in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982, where class division is between human and non-human. The addition of flying cars, a familiar and recurrent staple of future city visions, accentuates the dense verticality of a Los Angeles reimagined for the 21st century. The dark, brooding and claustrophobic atmosphere of the city in the film proved popular with those creating near-future scenarios and reflected concerns about cities toward the end of the 20th century. It was reinterpreted in numerous subsequent films including Tim Burton’s Batman, 1989, and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, 1996.

Spanning across the latter half of the last century we have the myriad dystopias given by Ballard. Cities of the future in his work were above all dysfunctional, often due to environmental and technological apocalypses.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Broadacre City Project, 1934–35. MoMA. Image: Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Architectural approaches

And of course future cities are not the sole domain of fiction. 2014’s retrospective at MoMA, New York, Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal explored Wright’s unease about the growing American city in the 1920s and 1930s. This was explicit in his work – simultaneously focusing on radical new forms for the skyscraper and his seminal masterplan for the urbanisation of the American landscape, Broadacre City. While seemingly more humane than Ballard’s hellish visions, the reality of such megalomania and consumer-driven design would arguably have been just as unpalatable if built.

So which future is here? Encouragingly, nearly a century on it appears we are shifting toward a more people-based approach. The recurrence and growth of more socially engaged future city visions in the early 21st century is notable. The reemergence of street-level urbanism, which favours the pedestrian and active public realm in the manner of Jane Jacobs, reflects our increasing environmental concerns coupled with technological possibilities. Further evidence also supports our growing worries about the longevity of the city, adaptability to climate change, resource management and resilience of changing social dynamics and populations.

Past visions of future cities have been outlandish, they have been dark and dismal, they have also been clairvoyant. They embody a range of ideas of the cities we have and have had. The power of these images demonstrates deep cultural resonances from the time they were produced.

Future cities, even in fiction, reveal an enormous amount about how a society views itself. So after more than 100 years of dystopian cities of the future it is positive to see that many artists, architects and designers have remembered that perhaps the most important element of cities are their people.

Nick Dunn is a Professor of Urban Design at Lancaster University. He was commissioned by the UK Government Office for Science to write a report on the visualisation of future cities as part of their Foresight: Future of Cities programme.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Final image: Frank Lloyd Wright, Mile High, Chicago. 1956. MoMA. Credit: Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.