18 Visions Of The City Of The Future, From The Past

From fanciful flying cars to garden-covered rooftops, here’s a look at what designers have imagined for our cities–and how they’ve shaped our urban future.

In 1939, visitors stood in line for hours to see the Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, an incredibly detailed model imagining 1960s America. Complete with half a million tiny buildings and a million handmade miniature trees, it also visualized a network of highways crossing the country. And while the interstate system probably would have been built without it, it’s arguable that the visualization–sponsored by GM–helped the roads happen.

A new exhibit called the Future City, up now at London’s Royal Institute of British Architects, looks at how drawings and models of futuristic cities can shape the cities that actually are built.

Designed for a competition focused on emergency housing for disasters, “Cloud Skippers” lifts buildings above floodwaters using helium balloons.© Clouds Architecture

“Visualizations of future cities contribute to our collective imagination,” says Nick Dunn from Lancaster University, one of the authors of a report that inspired the exhibit. “They provide us with visionary projections of how we might live. Reexamining these from a historical perspective can give us new insights and greater understanding of the developments and patterns that shape the present, and in turn, their implications for our future.”

The researchers combed through almost 1,000 examples of futuristic cities from the last century, including streets filled with flying cars and a vision for a post-disaster city with buildings that float in the air. They chose 100 projects to represent trends in architectural thought.

This 2010 master plan for Sejong, Korea turns the roofs of city buildings into a park.Courtesy of Balmori Associates. © Photography Efrain Mendez.

Though most of the designs may not have manifested in real life, the researchers say they’ve had an undeniable influence. “The significance of these images is that they question reality, reshaping our spatial conceptions or by providing expressions of alternatives,” says Dunn. “This is important as it reminds us that cities, especially of the future, should be shared resources for all.”

As people look through the images, Dunn hopes that they’ll realize they can have a role as co-designers of the future. “The days of the master builder or architect’s grand single vision has very little currency in the 21st century,” he says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Co.Exist who focuses on sustainable design. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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