Whether we think of the dystopia of HG Wells or see something hopeful in the act of imagining the future, more akin to Thomas More’s vision in Utopia of humanity pursuing valid and honorable endeavours if only left to it, the future of cities is complex. It’s one that London Literature Festival sought to explore in their Future Cities debate, part of the Living In Future Times series for 2016.
Chaired by chaired by Joe Smith, Professor of Environment and Society at The Open University, the panel kicked off Elisabetta Gasparoni, convener of the Future Cities Project Readers’ Group, and her thoughts on what Marinetti and the Futurists saw as a natural path of the world being viewed as made up of individuals at centres of different social groups which will increase the sense of humanity and thus identity with location. A more optimistic angle on the Futurist Manifesto, but one reliant on people rather than technology, which was a recurring theme of the debate and speakers
In Justin McGuirk (chief curator at the Design Museum and the head of Design Curating & Writing at Design Academy Eindhoven) says in his book Radical Cities, written on his travels through South America, it becomes clear how architecture has social and political implications and contributions. London is similar to many of the sprawls in what we consider to be developing countries, being incredibly socially divided and polarised. Whilst slums and favelas have their obvious drawbacks, one positive is the involvement of communities. They are formed by and for the people who live there.
In order so solve some of the issues we face city making will need to be collaborative and building of own communities, linking with urban planners and governors to deliver the infrastructure that allows them to flourish. This dual top down and bottom up approach offers a way of bridging and knitting back together the social, psychological and physical divide between proper city and slum in South America, and rich and poor enclaves in western cities. The flow of learning from the southern hemisphere to the north, or east to west, currently feels unfamiliar to us, but it’s these community projects, informal recycling, using available materials as the reliance of carbon has to decelerate, that will all play a big role in how we respond to the future and climate change. As Justin says, we tend to see future as shiny and technical but perhaps it will be more earthy and attuned to the natural environment than we have seen to date.
Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse: The (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities, has spent many years walking around the numerous cities she has lived in. Having grown up in the suburbs one of the things that struck her about the urban environment is the liberation of being able to walk and not have to drive in suburbs. For her and others on the panel, both the future and cities offer possibility and infinite opportunity in their ever evolving urban space. Places are less static than we imagine, their meaning shifting and changing with each visit and interaction. Spaces are made into places by moving through them and relationship with them. In a place like London where over 10 million people are moving, working, living and being in the places around them, that’s a lot of meanings.
The thing about the future is that it is constructed in the present by living moment to moment. A ’non place’ as Lauren described it, it never arrives and is always differed. How we choose to act now in our cities will by necessity lead to that future – be it utopian, dystopian or something in the middle. And the role of writers in all of this is the role that writers always play – inspire and imagine, plunging their readers into ideas and potential opportunities.
We’re left with a quote from The Tent by Margaret Atwood, one of the headline draws at the festival.
‘The roads are forking all the time, like slow lightning. A road is a process, not a location.’
None of us know what the multiplicity of city futures will look like, but we can all play a part in creating them.