Designing a modern city from first principles
June 2, 2016 4:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for writing that envisions cities designed from the ground up, for the modern day, ignoring all the urban planning assumptions that have persisted for centuries.

Look at Manhattan, and it's basically the same setup as a frontier boom town, just taller and with utilities. I'm wondering if any urban planners have described a totally new paradigm for a city that doesn't start from ingrained beliefs like "we need streets for cars" or "buildings have to be aboveground" or "people are awake during the day and asleep at night" or whatever.

It has been hard for me to find information on this because of the preponderance of web pages and publications that are concerned with incremental improvements to the existing urban paradigm (like banishing cars from the central business district or increasing housing density in exchange for bigger public spaces).

I am looking for the city equivalent of Buckminster Fuller applying the practice of aircraft construction to reinvent the brick house as the geodesic dome. (Though I'm not talking about his ideas for floating cities, which do not seem to be scientifically sound.)

I'm not looking for ideas built around unrealistic (for now) technologies like matter compilers and stepping discs, though I'm fine with tech that seems on the verge of doable, like autonomous cars, vactrains, or even the rolling roads from "The Roads Must Roll." (I know Google just announced their own town, but it sounds like it will be a traditional paradigm laced with information infrastructure.)

I think the closest I may have found are Paolo Soleri's arcologies, but I'm looking for ideas more recent than the 1970's. On the other hand I'm probably not looking for arcologies as described in science fiction, which are usually described as a whole city in a building you never have to leave for your entire life.

Im asking only because I think about this topic a lot while walking through Manhattan and I wonder what people smarter than I have thought up. I'm not sure any writing like this even exists, but if anyone knows, it's MeFi. Also, I'm not soliciting your ideas so as to avoid chatfilter. Thanks in advance!
posted by ejs to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Research Brasilia, I think you'll find it interesting. Although that's from the 50's
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:42 PM on June 2, 2016

Reston, Virginia or Columbia, Maryland, perhaps? Both planned communities, although from the 1960s-1970s.

You do NOT want things like Levitttown, right?
posted by easily confused at 4:48 PM on June 2, 2016

Like the Garden City movement?
posted by praemunire at 4:49 PM on June 2, 2016

I think the OP wants modern theoretical examples, not old existing cities that happen to have been planned all at once.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:02 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Babcock Ranch in Florida is a new city in the planning, that claims it will use solar power and shared automated vehicles. It might not be quite as revolutionary as you're thinking of, but the number of historical examples is in keeping with the fact that this type of thing really flourished from the 1920-1970s or so.
posted by chocotaco at 5:04 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Google urban planning + science fiction. I just did this and while I don't have time to dig into it now, it looks promising. It isn't "fake future tech" stuff at all.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:05 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

showbiz_liz has it right—I'll specify "theoretical examples from the last twenty years or so."
posted by ejs at 5:10 PM on June 2, 2016

towards a new architecture maybe? oh, on edit, but it's not last 20 years.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:12 PM on June 2, 2016

You might find some interesting stuff if you look into the relatively new subfield of food system planning, which overlaps a lot with the slow food movement and tends to involve incorporating food production more directly into towns and cities.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:21 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

ReGen Village?
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:22 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

The first ~10% A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, et al., consists of regional and city scale design patterns that seem to me to avoid many of the old assumptions. It was published in 1977, so is not as new as you would like.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:33 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is New Urbanism "totally new" enough for you? Or is it too connected to pre existing infrastructure? There's nothing I'm aware of that is highly theoretical and also from the past 20 years. The Garden City stuff and Le Corbusier were my first thoughts as well, but those are much older.
posted by salvia at 6:33 PM on June 2, 2016

Oh, also look into permaculture village design.
posted by salvia at 6:34 PM on June 2, 2016

Dubai, particularly Palm Jumeirah.

.. With the new principle being "only the rich will live there".
posted by joeyh at 6:42 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also the south pole station is essentially a real-life arcology, although a small one.
posted by joeyh at 6:47 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is a tangent, but you should probably read "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:52 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Masdar City?
posted by ssg at 7:03 PM on June 2, 2016

Singapore might be interesting for you to read about.
posted by srboisvert at 7:17 PM on June 2, 2016

Freedom Ship International purports to be a city built from scratch on a giant ship hull, which sails forever outside of any nation's territorial waters.

The project has been around for something like 20 years but construction has yet to begin. Supposedly it would be home to about 50,000 people, a large percentage of which would be employees, and the latest estimate is $10 billion to build it.

The supposed attraction is that it would be a tax haven.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:03 PM on June 2, 2016

Thinking about this one a little more, I think one of the reasons that you're not getting many recent answers is that many - maybe most? - of the big ideas in "new cities" in the mid-twentieth century didn't really succeed (if you define success as wide adoption). Thus there's generally less interest. I'm not an expert here, but I dug around and found some links that might interest you.

International New Town Institute

Brasilia and Chandigrah: Symbols of Modernist Hope and Failure

Nakagin Capsule Tower - this one is a great example of a compelling idea (modular construction) that turned out to be poorly thought-through.

Finally, the zeitgeist currently seems to be in Smart Cities, which means different things to different people, but is basically applying technology and Optimizing Everything. There have been several international Smart City competitions and programs. USDOT is about to select the winner of its own Smart City Challenge.
posted by chocotaco at 8:14 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I too recommend Christopher Alexander and A Pattern Language, though it is deeply rooted in the past.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:55 PM on June 2, 2016

I think other commenters are right that this is not a particularly verdant field, because 'cities from the ground up' were done (Chandigarh and Brasilia being great examples) and we've had enough time to work out what was fucked up about the first principles that went into building them to be wary of ground-up schemes. The predominant architectural / urban planning mood is that the cities that currently exist are mostly where you'd want cities to be, and the task for the current era is to make smart decisions on top of the pre-existing plan.

Perhaps perhaps you look at China, where there is still bona fide central planning about building cities in anticipation of population shifts, combined with a desire to win the 21st century by bypassing decades of iteration in western city-building. Even there, though, it's hard to see new paradigms: what you get is old paradigms (because cities are being built for people familiar with old paradigms) just with room for new infrastructure.
posted by holgate at 10:10 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Urban agriculture and vertical farming will give you a couple more leads. There is a growing movement to centralize agriculture and food production within cities. Google scholar has several interesting articles on the matter.
posted by lydhre at 3:54 AM on June 3, 2016

I'd imagine there's lots of this going on now on scattered websites and architectural schools from people who haven't made a big name yet but one of the unique groups of the 60s -70s could be Archigram, who were big into mobile, modular cities.
posted by syscom at 7:01 AM on June 3, 2016

I also would recommend A Pattern Language.

There's a website,, that proposes a plan for a city of 2 million or so that would, well, not have any cars.

Holgate makes an interesting point about China. Villages are being transformed almost overnight into cities the size of Chicago. Its mind-boggling.
posted by adamrice at 7:19 AM on June 3, 2016

William McDonough's work may interest you. He's had some successes, mainly on the scale of buildings, factories, and houses. His attempt at a larger scale in China did not fare so well.
posted by at at 8:54 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

the cities that currently exist are mostly where you'd want cities to be

although building new ones about two meters higher in elevation may also be desirable
posted by clew at 12:55 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Metabolism (chocotaco mentioned Nakagin Capsule Tower above) but it was really larger than that. Look at Kenzo Tange's Plan for Tokyo. And tour Kiyonori Kikutake's Marine City.
posted by Gotanda at 4:33 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thank you all for your informative answers. Mainly because you confirmed that I can't find the very specific thing I was looking for because it doesn't seem to exist! Despite its age, Metabolism is the closest to what I was looking for, and I had never heard of it before, so special thanks for that. I promise that when I completely reinvent the city, MeFi members will get the life-pods with the best views.
posted by ejs at 3:08 PM on June 4, 2016

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