A while ago I was asked to help write a short piece on 'future cities', no more specific than that. The context was Australia, but fairly free. I suggested we start it with the following passage:
— Fade in —
The city of the future is established initially with north-south and east-west axial streets, and the city is laid out as a grid. Each block is envisaged as a programmable slot and is mixed-use, containing apartments, houses, shops and workshops, creating a dense city core. Between the urbanised zone and the city boundaries is a buffer zone, and beyond lies agricultural lands. Urban amenities such as plumbing, reservoirs, drainage and sewers, pedestrian sidewalks and traffic calming measures are employed throughout the city, along with public amenities like markets, public baths and toilets, theatres and religious and governmental buildings.
Socially, the city's population is actively engaged in public life, through sport, food and drink, and an outdoors '24/7' culture, but also political discussion. Active transport ensures a strong, healthy populace, almost all waste is recycled, and food production is localised and distributed throughout, orchards, vines and herb gardens integrated into living spaces. Light industrial production is also distributed throughout the city, and connected globally through trade networks. Global communications are at the centre of the city's success.
Housing is based upon the courtyard house model, with an average of 3.5 people living in a space featuring two private courtyards, one of which collects rainwater that feeds subterranean water tanks. Cooling is achieved through passive design, and heating through the inherent thermal properties of ceramics.
Although dense, 69% of land use is green space, leaving 11% for infrastructure and 20% for built area. Of that built area, fully 52% is public space and 48% is housing. Of the green space, only 2% is devoted to parks as the other 98% is a productive landscape of urban agriculture, far more ubiquitous than the hemmed-in green spaces of the 20th century city. As citizens spend much of their time in this verdant space, dedicated parks feel less necessary.
The entire urban form is modular, flexible, and capable of being repeated across numerous contexts and locales. It has been tried and tested throughout much of the known world, each time iterated and refined through adaptation.
— Fade out —
In case you didn't already guess, the mention of "public baths" might be the give-away, for this is actually a description of the archetypal Roman city circa 500 BC—500 CE (drawn from the recent book '49 Cities'). Of course, the Roman city had more than a few flaws, particularly if you were a slave. And for even the healthiest, life expectancy was far lower than we'd accept today. Similarly, there are newer technologies that we should certainly take advantage of, such as renewable energy production, wireless connectivity, bicycles and of course the espresso machine. Yet it's surprising to consider how similar visions of contemporary urban planners - with their own versions of urban agriculture, active transport, walkable densification, courtyard housing with passive design, recycling, localised production, and so on - are to this Roman city from two millennia ago.
As stated, that introduction was adapted from the entry on the Roman city from the great collection 49 Cities, a compendium of utopian city projects linked to an exhibition at the Storefront for Art & Architecture in New York City, developed by local architects Work AC.