What stories do we tell ourselves about the kind of world we want to live in?

In his recent presidential address to the American Economics Association, Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller talked about “narrative economics.”   He argues that economists, like other disciplines need to begin to recognize that human cognition is structured around story-telling.

” . . . narratives, stories that seem outwardly to be of entertainment value only, are really central to human thinking and motivation.”

There’s something to this, and this week at City Observatory we’re exploring the question of what kinds of narratives are evident in the popular culture about cities and in particular the future of city living. Images can be a powerful way to communicate, and to sell ideas. Over the next few days, we will want to break away from our usual statistics heavy focus and talk explicitly about the images that are being used to describe cities and imagine their futures.

In the recent history of the American city, General Motors famous Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair captured the imagination of Americans, and served as an iconic model of a new, auto-centric lifestyle that promised an end to traffic congestion and urban crowding. There’s no doubt that this image of a bright, mobile future appealed to a nation just recovering from the Great Depression. That image ultimately got reflected in policy–and pavement–with the enactment of the federal interstate highway program in the 1950s.

Vision statement, circa 1939.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show–which is now the place for automobile companies to roll out their newest ideas, technologies and models–Ford presented its remake of the Futurama, which it called “The City of Tomorrow”.  A short video illustrates their vision. It starts out with an immediate future (presumably 2020s world) where there are autonomous cars, and bikeways, and forests built right up the edge of high-rises (we think they’re subconsciously channelling Vancouver BC as the model here).

See? The future is multi-modal.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that this is a road and vehicle-centered view of urban space.  Cars dominate. Sure, there’s a sop thrown to biking, pedestrians and transit, but notice this:  All of the pedestrians, and cyclists are shown traveling in parallel to the cars.  Walking and biking are just alternative ways of doing the same thing one would do, if one only had a car.  And never mind that a cycle-track in the middle of a four-lane arterial would be a hellish experience, and difficult to access, or that the bulb-outs for the cross walk are grass, rather than paving (this is after all, a car company’s visualization of what it would be like to be a pedestrian).  Its a striking consistency that illustrations of what future cities are like show individual human beings as tiny specks, and show a perspective of what the city will look like from someone floating somewhere in mid-air.

As the video progresses, Ford looks even further ahead, imagining what cities will look like decades from now when the full vision of vehicle autonomy is achieved. Now, small self-driving pods weave in and out, with computer-controls making sure that they don’t collide with one another (or with pedestrians, who simply walk across the street, sans signals.

In the not too distant future?


Clearly Ford is channeling some earlier thinking by MIT proposing that we do away entirely with traffic signals, and have cars flow steadily through intersections in all directions, with the speeds of individual vehicles controlled to allow gaps to open up and traffic to cross, marching-band style.

But who’s to say that Ford’s vision doesn’t actually morph into something more like the dystopia depicted in the 2008 Disney-Pixar movie, Wall-E.  Blob-like humans carted everywhere in floating electric reclining chairs with view screens permanently set in their line of vision.

Advance images from next years CES?


This is one image of what the future of transportation might look like. But there’s a real question as to whether anyone would want to live in such a place. As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, Americans are now paying an increasingly large premium to live in places that are highly walkable, where they don’t have to drive so much. And more people, especially well-educated young adults are choosing to live in close-in urban neighborhoods. A city awash in vehicles and optimized for movement may have precious little reason for people to come, to stay, to work, or to live.

What this all boils down to is whether we build our cities as places to “be in” or places to “move through.” The automobile companies, and by and large technology companies and the engineering profession are all optimizing cities for moving vehicles. But as we’ve learned, a place that you can move through quickly, especially in a car (or private pod) is not a place that people want to spend time in. And while technologists in the car world are intent on pushing a vision of remaking the city in the image of ever more sophisticated vehicles, the folks at car companies that actually have to sell something today are much more attuned to the fact that people really don’t want to live in this kind of place.  We’ll present their images of how cities should work, and how people might live in them tomorrow.

As the largest car company in the world tries to sell the best-selling car in the world to the next generation of consumers, it recognizes that it has to tell a story not about cars and driving, but about entrepreneurship, eating, hiking, biking, and hanging out in urban places.