What do we talk about when we talk about cities of the future?

A 1902 design for a Garden City. Image: Ebeneezer Howard.

Unless urban jargon renders you temporarily deaf, you’ve probably come across some phrase of the form “The something City”. The “something” could be garden, smart, connected, digital – in fact, pretty much anything the speaker hopes will come to define the city they’re talking about.

This impulse to define the future of cities through a single word has finally been thoroughly catalogued, in the form of a report from the Future of Cities research project (part of the UK’s Government Office for Science). Grandly titled “A Visual History of the Future”, the report tracks a century of visualisations of our urban future.

The study runs through various visions of the city – the "continuous city", the "city on water" – from sources as diverse as planning departments and the computer game SimCity, before drawing them all together in a visualised taxonomy of city terms. The result is, er, quite complicated:

The titles on the left are visualisations; those on the right are the paradigms used by the study’s authors to categorise their source material. Here’s a closer view of the bewildering array of city categories the authors identified:

Some of these are pretty abstract: “Crossing City” is defined by the researchers as "cities functioning as crossings both geographical and virtual”. Others are more straightforward, like Vice City, which is apparently “focused on catering of immorality, wrongdoing and misconduct”. (Also, a location on Grant Theft Auto.)

The researchers also plotted each of these paradigms on a timeline:

The Spectacle City (“cities which generate memorable consummative events, primarily visual”, whatever that means) and Crossing City seem to have died out, but other paradigms are still contribution to what’s becoming a deafening roar of competing terms. It’s only a matter of time before planners move onto compound labels – the Garden-Vice city, say, filled with immoral horticulturalists.

The study also contains lots of attractive historical urban designs that never came to anything, like this 1981 rendering of a "high rise city" development for New York, where homes and gardens are stacked on an iron framework:

You can view the full report here

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.