Crazy stuff is going to happen in the cities of the future. P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age considers some of the possibilities in a section called “Futuropolis.” He describes “fantastic cities equipped with moving pavements, travelators, airships and aerial taxis landing on the tops of skyscrapers, personal jet-packs, computer-controlled vehicles, vertiginous glass skyscrapers, and even bioluminescent trees to replace street lights.” That all sounds pretty stupendous, so here’s hoping.

Smith’s account led me in search of other catalogs of future cities. The internet crawls with these catalogs, particularly of the cities of science fiction. Academic writing is likewise fixated. John R. Gold writes about the cinematic treatment of future cities, in “Under Darkened Skies: The City in Science-Fiction Film.” And urban historian Carl Abbott has written an entire book about science fiction citiesImagining Urban Futures.

Two themes emerge. First: City planners, architects, futurists, and other like-minded people envision an urban techno-utopia. In the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller proposed putting a geodesic dome over most of midtown Manhattan. He calculated that the savings in heating and air conditioning alone would repay the costs of the dome in a matter of years. Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. is proposing to build a futuristic city that will feature “infrastructure for driverless cars, data sensors, connected vehicles, and public WiFi.” But by far the prevailing utopian vision of the moment is the eco-city. One of the world’s most prestigious architectural firms, Foster + Partners, is at work designing and building Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which will be “carbon neutral and zero waste.” And you can’t even imagine what Vincent Callebaut has in mind for the future of Paris.

Second: Leave it to the science fiction crowd to ruin the party. Smith, Gold, and Abbott each linger over the dystopian urban tomorrow of fiction. As they describe it, the specter of the “layered city” haunts the future. In such a city, the privileged live in secure towers while the destitute prowl the city streets below. Smith names Blade Runner as envisioning the paradigmatic layered city, in which the “Hades landscape” of the opening shot reveals “dark Satanic mills” illuminating a smog-filled night sky. In fact, every single one of the cited catalogs talks about Blade Runner. Gold claims that the movie “codified the future noir city.” As described by Abbott, that codification involves “dim lighting, omnipresent rain, and a drab color palette.” The image is so familiar that it has become a visual shorthand; come what may, the future will require umbrellas.

I had initially intended to write an inventory of these imaginary cities, but there seems no need. Just search for “science fiction cities” and/or “future cities” and you’ll find sufficient material to fill a long afternoon or two. I will pause to address one question: Why does the real-world imagination of city planners and architects see utopia, while the literary and cinematic imagination sees Blade Runner? Perhaps because city planners and architects are trying to solve problems, while writers and filmmakers are just telling stories. Dystopia is more fun. To paraphrase Tolstoy: Happy cities are all alike, but every unhappy city is unhappy in its own way.


And so this note is about the city-states, not cities, of the future. How will these future cities, whether or not they be dimly lit and drably colored, be governed? Of course, they will be embedded in nation-states, with rural and exurban populations bemoaning their decadence, right? Benjamin R. Barber, despite a faith in municipal leadership strong enough to realize itself in a book called If Mayors Ruled the World, thinks so. His poker-faced concession is that, of course, the city must always defer to its host nation-state. The best the world’s mayors can hope for is a loose confederation of shared knowledge and aspirational goals, with minimal meddling by the federal tinkerers.

Indeed, we take the nation-state for granted. But it a very recent phenomenon in political organization: Paris, London, and Rome long predated France, England, and Italy. The nation-state did not arise until the 19th century. The term itself joins two concepts. The “state” is a political entity and the “nation” is a cultural entity. The nation-state, then, is the form of organization in which the political apparatus (the courts, the military, the legislature) is joined with an allegedly coherent cultural unit. It is very easy to see the state in America. Just don’t pay your taxes, and the state will surely come find you. The nation is more elusive. Where is the soul of America? Is it in the “elites” of the coasts and the cities, or the “real Americans” of manufacturers, farmers, and small business owners?

Examples of a mismatch between the nation and the state eagerly raise their hands for attention. Czechoslovakia was a single state governing two nations; today, the states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia are better matched to their accompanying nations. So also with Yugoslavia, initially formed in 1918 as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Eventually Yugoslavia broke up into seven separate nation-states, six of which are members of the United Nations. Even the nation-states with the most durability couldn’t always take cultural unity for granted. To justify state activities such as taxation, regulation, and even conscription, nascent nation-states engaged in myth-making of the historical necessity or God-given destiny of the nation. We call that “patriotism” when we approve of it, and “nationalism” when we don’t. Whatever the name, the cultural fiction of the nation is necessary to ensure more or less voluntary compliance with state instrumentalities like courts.

Today, the existing nation-states are under various degrees of stress, particularly with respect to the coherence of the national identity. In Canada, the Quebec sovereignty movement is a relatively benign form of such stress. Europe breeds separatist movements with enthusiasm, to the degree that there is a (very long) Wikipedia listing of “active separatist movements in Europe.” Most of these movements are fanciful, but Scotland and Catalonia are close to separate status indeed – perhaps with Wales and Northern Ireland not far behind, depending on how the whole Brexit thing works out.

It seems fair to say that even the United States, a paradigmatic nation-state with an unusually rich tradition of national myth-making, is itself straining at the joints. “We have never been so polarized,” they say, and indeed it often feels like two (or more) nations mashed into a single federal state. That’s what the talk of “real” America, the America that could be “great again,” is all about. We are debating the very identity of our nation, and the debate doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

I don’t think we have arrived at a truly separatist mood in the United States, yet, but there are suggestions. Keeping out immigrants, for starters. But also there have been some more-than-half-serious suggestions about letting the South secede again, or freeing the country from the coasts, and so on. But the real political divide is between rural and urban areas. The graph below shows the share of counties carried by Clinton and Trump, by county population:

So there you have it. But wait there’s more, as shown in the precinct-level, color-coded map of the 2016 presidential vote:

With the exception of Alaska and the interior southwest, this is essentially two maps in one. The first shows election returns (Republican in red) and the second shows population density (urban areas in blue).


Thus the possibility: The future might involve, at least in part, a return to the city-state model. Particularly if nations continue to struggle, separatist movements continue to thrive, and cities remain the economic engines of the modern economy. Cities are already disproportionately powerful, relative to their political stature. According to The Atlantic‘s CityLab, the ten most economically important cities in the world are New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, Los Angeles, Seoul, Vienna, and Stockholm/Toronto (tie). The combined GDP of these eleven cities in 2014 (purchasing power parity) was $7.7 trillion, which would put those cities fourth on the list of countries by GDP – behind only China, the United States, and India. How much power and influence might these cities have as free, self-governing states in a cooperative model? How might those cities change if they were no longer engaged with national-level problems?

The obvious objection is that no self-respecting nation-state would allow one or more of its major cities to secede. Fair enough. But I can imagine scenarios in which it might happen: For example, if the current no-nothing, anti-elite mood escalates even further in the American heartland, urban secession might be more than welcome. Or maybe the nation-states might have no choice, for any number of reasons ranging from ecological disaster to financial meltdown to military intervention. As I wrote to begin, crazy things are going to happen.

Or, the most intriguing possibility, a visionary city might privatize. Imagine, if you will, an entire city under common private ownership, determined to minimize the degree to which external government is imposed upon it. Not even Bill Gates could buy New York City outright, of course. But what about a corporation funded by citizen investors, whose contributions could be in the form of cash or property? Or, from a different approach, what about an existing corporation building a new city from the ground up? We’ve done that before, from mill villages to trading posts. Google might very well decide that a campus isn’t enough for its aspirations.

Corporations as quasi-state actors are nothing new, despite the talk that privatization is a modern development. The East India Company was the de facto ruler of large parts of India, and had its own private army. The International Association of the Congo, a Belgian private association founded by King Leopold II, controlled most of the Congo Basin. For that matter, many commentators (of various political outlooks) claim that private corporations already run the United States.

In short, it is not hard at all to imagine that the city of the future will be independent and self-governing. It might even be privately owned by a single corporation or association. And it will probably be rainy.

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