A Century of Cities

Eugène Hénard, ‘The Cities of The Future’, published in American City, January 1911.

By Jacob Bruggeman

The human era—the Anthropocene—continues to alter the Earth through its intensifying industries. Beginning from a desire to break humanity out of its centuries-old earthbound constraints, we have organized ourselves in economies, most of which have produced steep climbs in human productivity. Productivity, growth, and ever-expanding economies: these are the principal aims of the modern age. In aiming for indefinite—though somehow “controlled”—growth, we foolishly flail our arms as if reaching for the stars. In extending our arms upward as if to grasp the Elysian dreamlands of indeterminate economic growth, we blind ourselves to the dystopian dealings down on Earth.

The loci of our economies—and thus the hubs of human economic activity—are our cities. Humanity has become an urban species: our urban space now house more than half of humanity.[i] We build, create, and produce for neither ourselves nor our neighbors; while our labors and their fruits drift elsewhere, we drive to the supermarket. This is both the beauty and terrifying truth of a globalized economy. It is a simultaneously sad and necessary truth that the ease with which many of us move through the world is paralleled in another place by unthinkable struggles. Those within the upper global wealth percentiles live in paradises when compared with others’ daily trials of poverty. Almost unconsciously consuming food and water, returning to safe—sometimes “smart”—shelters, those of us enriched by the globalized economy are too preoccupied with its trappings to commit to memory that most other people are occupied with finding the food, water, and shelter we take for granted. In fact, a small sliver of humanity, mostly housed in Silicon Valley, has altogether moved beyond Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Replacing “self-fulfillment” with “self-transcendence,” some of modernity’s brightest minds strive for their own immortality, all the while failing to see the more visible challenges posed by daily preventable deaths of people without water, food, and shelter.

The 21st Century is a century of cities, and so we must critically examine how urban life and city designs contribute to the dystopic realities of many peoples’ lives. This is manifest in the massive amount of resources inhaled by our cities, typically replaced only by an exhalation of pollution and waste. Aside from the problems (such as pollution) cities project elsewhere, there are problems within our cities themselves: crime, decrepit infrastructure, economic injustices, failing educational systems, and racial tensions, just to name a few.

This year Miami University’s Humanities Center has dedicated its annual Altman Program to such a critical examination through its selection of the 2017-2018 theme, “Urban Futures.” This year’s Altman Program will bring top scholars of urban design, sociology, and urban history, and creative thinkers of many crafts, to Miami University to work through the challenges facing humanity’s urban futures, and, just maybe, to imagine better, safer, more sustainable pathways into urban futures of our own design.

The immensity of the trials facing our cities—economical, environmental, and social—require more than innovative public policy: they demand radical ideas, impossible solutions, and hope.  Last year marked the quincentenary anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. Writing of the idea of utopia in an essay at the end of a quincentenary edition of More’s Utopia, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that “Utopia is the application of man’s reason and his will to the myth (of the Golden Age), man’s effort to work out imaginatively what happens – or might happen – when the primal longings embodied in the myth confront the principle of reality.”[ii] As we confront the issues inherent in today’s dominant urban models—and thus those of the underlying capitalistic economic model as well—we ought to color our plans with a hue of Utopian thinking. Indeed, if understood to be possible paths of action and not one-way highways, radical imaginings of tomorrow might present unthought of routes to more sustainable and equitable urban futures. Such urban futures, and the routes we take to reach them, might transform the century of cities into one of sustainable—not indefinite—prosperity.

[i] “World’s Population Increasingly Urban with More than Half Living in Urban Areas | UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations, United Nations, 2014.

[ii] More, Thomas, et al. Utopia (London, United Kingdom: Verso), 166.

About Stephen Norris