Digital futures predicted for the metropolis of the 21st century

Cities seem tired. Despite all planning interventions, urban centers display all the signs of being run-down. In acknowledgment of this, planners and architects are discussing new urban entities: cities without cars and metropolises that will run on digital technology. The 20th century will remain in the history of urban sociology as the century of rampant growth. In the 21st century, we are now bandaging the wounds; the dream has turned into a nightmare, with built-up areas relentlessly taking over green spaces, the separation of man from nature and all-pervasive pollution. Today, 2.8 billion people live in cities. Four-hundred cities have over a million inhabitants each and 25 over 10 million, the so-called mega-cities, supposedly self-sufficient, enormous urban environments with constant demands on energy sources and producing nightmarish amounts of waste. Environmental degradation can perhaps be reversed through the use of new alternative technologies and the air and water can be made cleaner. But the question is what happens to the natural landscape, culture and human beings themselves? Banishing cars One of the visions of urban planners and architects is a city without cars. Would it be feasible? Venice would appear to be a tangible example. The proposal, made by international planners’ associations (, aims at ridding cities of private vehicles and aspires to be the planning pioneer of the next few decades. Utopian? Perhaps. It is, however, the reference point for the debate that is emerging over the development of cities in the 21st century (especially by the American New Urbanism movement and the International Network for Urban Research and Action). The trends are for a reduction in car use and the development of advanced systems of public transport. Los Angeles, for example, a city strictly oriented around private transport, has boosted mass transit systems over the last few years as well as pedestrian networks. Large swathes in the French city of Lyon were pedestrianized after the implementation of a program which significantly upgraded public transport (known as the Lyon Protocol). The same applies to Groningen. Public transport is the key. But it has as a prerequisite the design of urban areas with high building density and mixed uses, including residential areas, stores, businesses and places of entertainment so as to keep the need for travel to a minimum. This planning approach is not so much about building cities for pedestrians from scratch as about the transformation of existing ones. If such cities are designed in the future, however, planners envisage urban entities with no more than 1 million inhabitants. While moving around the city, people will not have to change more than once and stops will lie no more than five minutes away from the final destination so as to facilitate the movement of children, the elderly and people with special needs. Green spaces will lie the same distance away, while buildings will be no higher than four storys (on the Venice model). Circular cities At the other end of the spectrum of views on how to solve problems in existing cities, ideas for the building of new cities wholly upend the concept of the city as we know it today. Resting on the principle that it will cost more to fix cities than to build from scratch, these proposals are based on existing social and technological changes. The Venus Project (www.thevenusproject. com) belongs to this category. Dreamt up by controversial 86-year-old futurist Jacque Fresco, who specialized in industrial design with the use of advanced technologies, the Venus Project will have buildings constructed in ways and with materials that overturn existing engineering principles. Such a city will be based on cybernetics – everything would be designed so as to be run by a central super computer – and on satellite technology. The concept combines high technology, the rational use of natural and renewable energy resources and will strike a balance between the environment and urban societies. Concentric circles will be the hallmark of futuristic urban design, with educational facilities, communications networking systems and health and child care facilities in the center. Cultural activities and entertainment will be located in the second circle (theaters, cinemas, concert halls, art galleries, etc.). The third circle will contain apartment units set in a natural landscape and green spaces. Combining planning principles with cybernetics and Hollywood films like Bladerunner, the Venus Project even envisages cities at the bottom of the ocean, flirting with the idea of technology for technology’s sake. But the digital city is not a futuristic concept, the Venus Project’s vision notwithstanding. A first taste was given in Athens during the Olympic Games, with information kiosks and electronic signboards that provided information on traffic on the roads and in car parks. Internet services The Internet portals of digital urban centers can offer a plethora of services. The European Union has included in its development programs a number of actions to introduce telematics into the urban network fabric. Berlin, Amsterdam (and 500 other European cities, small and large) are digitalizing at a rapid pace through such programs, thus reducing the number of people moving or driving around. Songnam in South Korea, for example, is a city that has been digitalized from end to end. Sophisticated networks enable transactions to be concluded over a cell phone or at the special telematics kiosks that have been placed at central points. In Berlin, Amsterdam and Songnam, real time is being urbanized and real space is being de-urbanized, to recall the French philosopher Paul Virilio and his predictions of the super city. Speaking of the generations that will live in such cities, the French thinker predicted they will experience a sense of imprisonment if digital organization escapes all bounds and people are stuck in front of a computer as they will no longer need to leave the house to carry out daily tasks.