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

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.