Why you should care

Because the way we live is changing faster than you can imagine.

It’s an epic sort of poetry, one of longing, temptation, needs met and dreams deferred. No, we’re not talking about Milton. This is the modern race to find, and define, the paradises of tomorrow. If that seems melodramatic, perhaps you haven’t been awake this past year, when the way the world is designed became more crucial than ever. Join this trip into the near future, of giant jellyfish and oxygenating parking garages, of mass surveillance but also improved safety, of cities on stilts — or maybe even in the clouds.

visions (or delusions) of grandeur


Way of the Jellyfish. Sometimes, nature provides. Jellyfish and mangrove roots are desalinating machines, converting saltwater into the usable fresh stuff as easily as taking a breath. Water wars are already beginning, with a lack of access to potable water a looming city-killer as climate change and population growth strain the world supply — despite the fact that 71 percent of the globe is made of water. Picture the solution: a city-wide jellyfish or a mile-wide mangrove, effortlessly pumping fresh water for millions, a living freshwater factory. Crazy? Futurists in the United Arab Emirates, the desert-strewn Gulf nation, think it’s a real possibility for coastal cities. Read more on OZY.

Dreams of Dubai. The UAE is just half a century old, yet its most populous city, Dubai, is at the forefront of exploring humanity’s potential (even as it reckons with its own massive gap between haves and have-nots). Its Museum of the Future is scheduled to open this year by flipping the museum concept — focusing on incubating new ideas rather than calcifying ancient ones. One vision: 3D-printed cities, using a “city kit” that would combine biotech and robotics to construct 100 percent self-sufficient cities in weeks rather than years. Another? “AutoFarms,” urban agriculture that would grow in parking garages made obsolete by self-driving cars, automatically delivering fresh foods locally with an Amazon-like knowledge of your personal preferences.

Breaking New Ground. The concept of utopias has always been nebulous, as one person’s hell can be another’s paradise. But it is safe to say that during the pandemic, people are more actively rethinking their ideas about what a perfect community should look like. That ranges from small, individual shifts — like this YouTuber who left California to build a 50-acre tiny house village — to seismic societal ones, with Burning Man-esque soul searchers taking over Tulum, Mexico. In September, 19 Black families bought land in Georgia to build a Black-only city called Freedom amid a national racial reckoning. And a cryptocurrency CEO wants to build a new blockchain-reliant city in the Nevada desert — with his company acting as the local government.

Stormy Skies Ahead. If you’re going to start building upward, why not reach for the stars? Humanity has long held idyllic images of a sky-bound future. But we predict such ambitions will prove less Jetsons and more Altered Carbon, the Netflix sci-fi show about a not-so-distant world where the rich live forever in the clouds and the poor are grimly earthbound. The distance between the haves and have-nots is already huge monetarily. Soon there could also be a geographic gulf, with the wealthiest not just living above us but beyond us, as billionaires like Elon Musk plan private spaceship missions to the moon, Mars and other places far from the problems of mere earthlings.

“Smart” Cities. Will future historians say that the new world order began with the Alexa Echo or Google Nest in your bedroom? Smart devices make smart homes, and cities are a collection of homes. Some smart shifts are small and benign, such as Barcelona, Spain, creating traffic lights that adjust to public buses and ambulances. Others may not be so innocuous: mass surveillance enhanced by mass public Wi-Fi, road sensors for self-driving cars and ubiquitous facial-recognition cameras. The latter are already being tested in Chinese classrooms, where they scan students’ faces to measure their active engagement. And with Delta Air Lines recently showcasing a “parallel reality” board that can deliver tailored information to different travelers at the same time in the same place, the ads that follow you online after Google searches will soon follow you in real life too.

how covid-19 changes everything

Pastoralia. Driving through Vermont, an ostensibly rural U.S. state, evokes a different definition of “rural” than, say, Georgia. The latter is miles and miles of uninhabited Southern farmland, while the former is New England pastoral — a landscape that never quite escapes humanity, with white farmhouses and pastel cottages perfectly spaced in acre-wide increments to allow for long, verdant expanses. The Vermontification of the world could be inevitable as city dwellers consider moving away from downtowns after finding remote work during the pandemic. Such trends would create less clogged urban cores and more soft, rolling, suburban communities that stretch and connect cities across wider distances. In short: People flee the major cities, creating a world of more, smaller cities.

The “15-Minute City.” Paradoxically, the spreading out of cities could cause their downtown hearts to condense. As we’ve mentioned, self-driving cars may make parking lots — which take up a huge chunk of most modern cities — less necessary. Why? You don’t need a parking spot if your car is constantly dropping you off and picking you up. Some cities closed streets to car traffic during COVID, allowing people to walk and enjoy outdoor dinner, retail and entertainment. Locals soon found the world at their feet, a vision that may be preferable going forward. Creativity could win out over efficiency, with quirky downtown tiny homes, for example, replacing soulless skyscraper apartments. Saudi Arabia is going a step further with “The Line,” a new city planned within its NEOM business zone along the Red Sea that will have no cars, no streets and zero carbon emissions. Travel times within the city aren’t supposed to exceed 20 minutes, thanks to high-speed public transportation.

The Globalizers. Meet the gentrifiers bringing their affluence across borders. While those who preach multiculturalism and diversity should welcome an influx of immigrants, people resettling en masse during the pandemic are causing huge infrastructure problems for the most popular destinations. Mexico City, a historic hub for transplants with a crumbling public transit system, has been overwhelmed by “influencers.” Digital nomad visas have surged as a way to encourage COVID-19 tourism, yet Bali was forced to finally reform its system after a decade of quietly allowing nomads to run amok. Many globalizers boost the economy but flout health standards and cultural mores while exacerbating inequality, creating just as many problems as they solve.

Share My Location. The pandemic all but forced people to get comfortable with being tailed, particularly in nations that implemented contact tracing, with apps tracking their every move. But even if you trust your government, are you sure you trust Google and Apple to protect that profitable information, without trying to monetize or weaponize it? Last year, both tech companies announced a COVID-19 tracking system designed for public health researchers to follow the virus’ path. 

climate of transformation

The Heat Is On. There are a number of practical ways cities can adapt to climate change, from enhancing battery storage to building smarter and alternative-energy grids. And action is necessary, given that 40 percent of the world lives within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the coasts, which are most affected by global warming. After Hurricane Sandy, New York City committed $615 million to build more than five miles of levees to control water flow across Staten Island. Copenhagen is building dikes, while the Xiong’an New Area near Beijing is experimenting with wetland and forest development to reduce the urban heat island effect. Learn More on OZY.

World on Stilts. If it feels like the ground has shifted beneath you lately, imagine living in Bangladesh. In the last three decades, the South Asian nation has survived at least 200 natural disasters — last year alone, 1.5 million were left homeless when the nation was ravaged by floods. Globally, there are two novel ways to respond to emerging climate threats. One, return to a more nomadic lifestyle, where change is the only norm. Two, build stilts. “Unused bales of fodder or straw become steppingstones,” as one Bangladeshi told the BBC. Bamboo can create a raised refuge, as indoor bricks lift bed frames up, with children already getting accustomed to floating classrooms. Once safely dry, historic sites are being raised and renovated to address changing environments, prompting preservation concerns. The next step could be lifting us all up.

Steer Into the Waves. Colombia’s sprawling port city Barranquilla is taking the opposite tack in the face of rising sea levels: It’s actually inching closer to the coast. After a half-century of decay, its economy is finally awakening with a number of tourism projects where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea. Never mind that climate change could pour over that riverside development: The city once prone to massive flash floods has enhanced infrastructure to stave off the rising waves. Already touting 220 public parks, Barranquilla committed to quadrupling its green cover while planting a quarter-million trees in seven years — necessary shade given the sticky Colombian heat that often sits in the 80s. Read more on OZY

Rising Sun. If you want to see whether the world’s ambitious sustainability goals can be achieved, look to the East. After all, if the billions of people crammed into sprawling South Asian and Pacific Rim cities can keep growing without cooking the planet, mankind will have dodged a major bullet, as Parag Khanna writes for OZY. This is also where some of the grandest smart city plans live, from the UAE’s Masdar to India’s Amaravati and China’s Tianjin Eco-City, districts with dreams of going fully green with self-driving electric cars and zero-emission buildings. Their impact is decidedly small-time thus far, as their populations combined could fit in one neighborhood of the Chinese city of Chongqing. Read more on OZY.

the biggest challenge: politics, not tech

Slamming on the Brakes. The tech for self-driving cars is already here, and it is poised to dramatically disrupt the ways our communities are structured — but only if politicians can get their heads around it first. It’s a thorny issue even for the smartest minds: Everything in modern cities is built around cars, from parking spots to zoning laws. Less sprawling cities, such as New Orleans, Albuquerque and Tucson, were deemed to be among the U.S. cities most practically ready to adopt autonomous vehicles, while Baltimore and Fort Worth, Texas, were by far the worst. One Dutch design company plotted plans for a bikes-only city in Colorado, and a state senator from Los Angeles is trying to press the pedal early on a comprehensive strategy, but federal lawmakers remain stuck in neutral when it comes to mapping a new direction.

Brewing Dystopias. The combined budget shortfall for American cities and towns is likely to reach $360 billion by 2022. But if the pandemic continues to bring mass unemployment, that gap could surge even higher, both because of dwindling tax revenues and rising crime. As Carnegie South Asia director Milan Vaishnav tells OZY, recessions are often correlated with rising crime. Murders, for example, spiked during the Great Depression. In that case, we might see more aggressive policing against Black and brown communities already facing disproportionately punitive outcomes in the U.S. criminal justice system. That could give elected leaders fits as they try to adopt new tech and adapt to fresh ideas while also having less money to work with and more crimes to contend with.

Reimagining Spaces for Women. Smart policy can lead the way if it gets some help. Award-winning architect Lori Brown designs safe spaces that keep the politics of the moment in mind as well. That means taking extra care while designing abortion clinics, as many conservative states enact strict regulations that could shutter them if they don’t meet the same standards as surgery centers. “Our discipline has turned a blind eye to that aspect of serving the greater good,” she says. While working along the U.S. border with Mexico, Brown has built spaces for migrants in transition. She is editing an encyclopedia on women in architecture and co-founded the nonprofit ArchiteXX, which advocates for greater gender equity in the field.

Smarter Planning. While it’s a myth that no building can be built in Washington, D.C., taller than the White House because of security concerns, there is a maximum height limit in the district. Urban planners may now want to start considering weight limits too. A new study shows big buildings, especially ones in San Francisco, are causing cities to sink at the same time that water levels are rising from climate change. Is it time to break out a scale?

history’s strange visions of paradise

Ancient Athens. For a brief 24-year period, Athens hit a cultural peak that is almost unparalleled throughout history: You can thank the Greeks if you’ve ever voted, watched a movie, read a novel or “had a rational thought,” as Eric Weiner of The Atlantic argues (perhaps with a hint of melodrama — another Greek invention). Regardless, ancient Athens was a paradise of philosophical influence … and a mess in tangible reality. The roads were narrow and filthy. The houses, whether belonging to rich or poor, were shoddy. Some historians believe that their “private squalor” led to “public opulence,” in the sense that nonlinear buildings can be the perfect inspiration for some pretty creative thoughts.

‘Metropolis.’ Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist movie Metropolis was tremendously influential on the next century’s worth of dystopian novels and films. It basically created a now familiar genre: a world where the uber-rich live above poor working people, with no middle class in sight. Sound familiar? Dubai, as well as a host of other Gulf nations thrust into wealth through their discovery of oil, are creating modern gleaming cities that bear more than a passing resemblance to Lang’s pre-World War II visions. As the late Syd Mead, a designer who visited Dubai and was behind the dystopian futuristic film Blade Runner, put it, the sheer size and ambition of urban projects in the Middle East were “catching up to the future” — even if we’re not yet sure that’s a positive.

Arcosanti. Call it living history. This experimental town in the high desert of Arizona was created by Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri in 1970 to realize his principle of “arcology” — a field combining architecture and ecology. Constrained by using only resources that minimize harm to the environment, close to 8,000 volunteers have helped build Arcosanti over the years. It’s never fully reached its paradise potential, in that it is more of an educational community than a long-term one. But the precepts Soleri passed on to dozens of architects and urban designers before his death in 2013 have reverberated in cities across the world.

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