Cities of the Future?

I have long been fascinated by the future and the future of cities. Most often, when cities are depicted in films, cities are aesthetically dark, edgier, more dystopian than our cities today and certainly in sharp contrast to most cities of the past.

I have been noticing—over the past two decades, in particular—that the costs associated with maintaining critical urban infrastructure has overweighed the ability (and perhaps desire) to maintain that same infrastructure. Simple services that focus on overall maintenance and cleanliness have already slipped off the docket. Almost universally, grass along highways and in public parks is no longer cut on a regular schedule, but instead maybe once or twice (if at all) during the season. In the past, the grass clippings would have been collected and mulched at some off-site location. No longer. The clumps of cut grass—when grass does get cut—just lingers. Similar changes can be observed in the upkeep related to basic sanitation, collection of litter, public amenities (like restrooms, benches, and public lighting) mundane and routine road maintenance (stripping, filling potholes), and remediation of graffiti. These “services” are simply too costly there is simply too much work to be done for cities to deliver them in any cost-effective manner. Citizens have grown used to long grass, graffiti, litter, and pot holes and aren’t demanding otherwise and tolerance of disorder slowly grows.

One fundamental concept at work in cities today is the “broken windows” theory, introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The broken windows theory holds some evidential truth, put simply: vandalism, disorder, and disrepair lead to crime and social unrest.

Wikipedia summarizes the broken windows theory and the attendant turn-around in late 20th century New York City: In 1990, William J. Bratton became head of the New York City Transit Police. Bratton described Kelling as his “intellectual mentor” and implemented zero tolerance of fare-dodging, faster arrestee processing methods, and background checks on all those arrested. After his election as Mayor of New York City in 1993, Republican Rudy Giuliani hired Bratton as his police commissioner to implement the strategy more widely across the city, under the rubrics of “quality of life” and “zero tolerance.” Influenced heavily by Kelling and Wilson’s article, Giuliani was determined to put the theory into action. He set out to prove that despite New York’s infamous image of being “too big, too unruly, too diverse, too broke to manage,” the city was, in fact, manageable.

Giuliani’s zero-tolerance program was part of an interlocking set of wider reforms, crucial parts of which had been underway since 1985. Bratton had the police more strictly enforce the law against subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti vandals, and the squeegee men, who had been wiping windshields of stopped cars and aggressively demanding payment. Initially, Bratton was criticized for going after “petty” crimes. The general complaint about this policy was why panhandlers, hookers, or graffiti artists should be dealt with when there were more serious crimes to be dealt with.

Anyone who spent time in Manhattan in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, knows the near-immediate impact that mending “broken windows” had, both on the perceptions of the city as well as the quality of daily life for its residents. It also doesn’t take a genius to notice that since these strategies have been relaxed that the quality of life in the city has slowly begun to change.

This slow slide both in New York and elsewhere is unsettling, disturbing. Just like housekeeping, we don’t go to sleep one night in a perfectly clean house and wake to find it filthy, roach infested, and falling down. These deficiencies are the result of cumulative deferred maintenance and neglect. Slowly, minute by minute, day by day, year by year, the deferred maintenance becomes a problematic eyesore while the costs of remediating the problem grow and grow.

What will be next on the chopping block? I predict it will be policing, fire protection, and infrastructural services like sewer maintenance and water delivery. Increasingly, the costs of labor will force cities to scale back these services as well. Again, it won’t happen overnight, but little bit, by little bit, the resources (and the resultant efficacy) will chip away, until we live in cities that are very different in character and scale than those that we have today.

Many major cities like Berlin are good examples of the urban environments that are headed for the rest of us: a vast and evident disparity between rich and poor; civic and public support for new construction, while older buildings crumble in disrepair; and a glut of citizen-centered services eliminated from public budgets. As self-driving vehicles and the model of personal vehicle ownership changes in the coming decade and as technology increasingly becomes an echo chamber for speaking to and interacting with others that are more like ourselves than not, the opportunities to interact in the public sphere, on public transit, and in public with people unlike ourselves will decrease. Differences will become rifts and tensions will rise.

Which gets us to this interesting video posted by the folks at ARS Technica, leaked from a US Government training program that sees the future largely as I described it above. It is J.G. Ballard’s High Rise come to fruition, but multiplied among every building in every city in every country around the world. It’s no wonder that Jane Jacobs referred to the coming era as a “dark age.” They’re right. It’s coming at us fast and furious, bit by bit, hour by hour, day by day, year by year. Here’s a glimpse:

This… is our future? I find this film to be both disturbing but likely accurate. Plenty of evidence exists to demonstrate that this is indeed our trajectory.

What’s the alternative to this as the future? Education, rationality, involvement, inclusivity, passion. These attitudes and attributes can shape our future and the future of our cities. If this video isn’t a call to action and a wake-up call to become involved, I’m not quite sure what is.

More analysis at: Bizarre leaked Pentagon video is a science fiction story about the future of cities | Ars Technica