The City of Tomorrow…Today

I recently attended an event in San Francisco sponsored by Ford Motor Company called ‘The City of Tomorrow’, focusing on the future of urban mobility.

http://fordcityoftomorrow.com/

Topics included driverless technology, such as recreational driverless cars, delivery and public transit. Speakers from the public and private sectors as well as academia moderated discussions on the implications of this new technology and some positive, and potentially troubling outcomes. Since Ford is bullish on driverless technology, the overall spin was a positive one – though critical questions from the audience were addressed (such as the potential mass unemployment that automation might induce). Millions of jobs depend on ‘driving’, from delivery and logistics to taxis and other services. Speakers discussed the positive benefits – time saving; cleaner air; fewer accidents; less sprawl; less congestion, and a public realm free of parking lots and exhaust. But there were also questions like, ‘will people walk less, if their car will drive them places? Will this lead to more, rather than less, obesity?’. Different speakers had different angles.

But all speakers agreed on one thing: these changes are underway, not hypothetical. Tomorrow is today. 

One of the speakers was Ford C.E.O. James Hackett, who discussed Ford’s future vision to the roughly 600 attendees (a mix of industry types, city planners and mobility policy officials, and the odd academic like myself). The overall feel was rather utopian, with futurist quotes and slogans about inclusivity, participation and just outcomes.

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I found the event chillingly timely, given the comparisons to the Ford pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. That fair’s concept was ‘The World of Tomorrow’, and Ford presented a model ‘City of Tomorrow’ with ‘Roads of Tomorrow’, showcasing the emerging trend of superhighways and modernist-sprawling urban forms.

Ford Pavilion ‘Roads of Tomorrow’ at 1939 World’s Fair, New York

Then, as now, society was at the cusp of exciting, yet dramatic technological changes that would re-shape and reconfigure cities and urban life. More darkly, I was reminded that now, as was the case then, we are at time of rising authoritarianism and rising right-wing and left-wing social movements. The many other parallels to draw between 1939 and today are well documented in current popular discussions.

As we now know, the ‘tomorrow’ after 1939 was not utopian, but extremely dystopian, with the world descending into war, and right-wing hysteria leading to the invention of industrial-scale genocide. War aside, we also now know that Ford’s vision for a personal-car based urban world of mass suburbanization, which seemed like a good future at the time, was fundamentally unsustainable. The deliberate destruction of public transit systems (in the USA, a process that was pushed by Ford and its suppliers); the stretching of cities into highway-clogged agglomerations, and the dispersal of jobs into far-flung locations has resulted in a host of problems, from fossil-fuel related climate change to the structural poverty, obesity, and social alienation endemic to sprawl. Sprawl has been blamed for everything from the current socio-cultural divides that are tearing apart America’s political fabric, to the housing bubble that caused the 2008-2009 financial crisis. ‘The City on the Highway’, as Peter Hall outlined (in his book ‘Cities of Tomorrow’, 1988) is fundamentally a segregated and dysfunctional urban form.

Once again, Ford is promising a vision of the future. Once again, we await tomorrow, today, with optimism and a tinge of fearful apprehension.

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