Urban Futures: Foundations for a new theory


Victor Hugo, when questioned about his book Notre-Dam by the king offered to give a tour of the city to explain the concept of the book. He proceeded to “read” the city to the king through the dominant architectural pieces that proliferated the city. In his book, Hugo speaks of the threatening nature of new technologies on the establishment and offerings of such buildings. Victor Hugo proposed “This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice.”






Before we discuss the potentials and obstructions of history we must define the terms history and memory within our new taxonomy and terminology of the Anthropocene as laid out in the previous paper. What are history and memory within the contemporary city? Having scaled up from the object orientated historical preservation of architecture where aesthetic values are valued above all else, do contemporary urban preservationists protect fleets of architecture?


If preservationists prioritise the physical memory of things, promoting the aesthetic above all lese. What then becomes of events and rituals that have no robust and permanent existence, they are completely ephemeral. Rahul Mahotra, in his illustrations of the Khum Mela in India – an event that occurs every 12 years – portrays activities forming around the calming of the Ganges river prior to the yearly monsoon. The event is not static, 100 million people that attend and their memories move with them, until finally the Ganges swells and reforms the landscape. Through my anthropocentric lens I ponder whether these intermittent cycles of mass inhabitation encode a memory into the Ganges through soil compaction, fertilization and agriculture. Creating a form of preservation in the way the Ganges has meandered through the century. Has the close and respectful relationship between religion and the river manifested itself in discrete form of anthropocentric Ganges transformation? If cities are indeed Anthropocentric biomes, as Chris Reed states in Projective Ecologies then one ponders whether the altercations between city and landscape create their own form of preservation, be it for good or bad. If one were to lift all the cities from the surface of the Earth, their memory could be seen in the landscape for miles. Is this a form of memory?


This question becomes part of a broader investigation of how human history differs from landscape history. Historically, society had sought for dominance over the landscape; the landscape had no history. It was not perceived as a living system – simply a backdrop to the industrial revolution. Viewed as a barbaric system that should be separated from the city – it was unordered, chaotic and threatening. This continual fortification and shoring up of edge conditions altered its operating mechanisms and the memory of this terrestrial warfare catches up with us by way of climate change. The historical transformations of the city are more adequately registered against the landscape than as individual buildings that represented institutions. In this sense the landscape has become a litmus to human history, permanently adulterated by the altercations between society and nature. Even landscapes that had been allowed within the city were groomed and maintained for picturesque values as grand gardens and boulevards. Organisations such as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), UNEP (United Nations Environmental Protection) and even UNESCO have rallied to the cause of preservation of landscapes based on function, not aesthetic. As Urban Design becomes increasingly plagued with development driven neo-liberalism and economic growth, what kind of new interplay is created with the city and the landscape? If the city has been and continues to be a resistor in the global circuitry of ecology, then how can society find a way in which to preserve the function of natural environments, and the city by extension?


“There exist a great variety of Landscapes that are representative of the different regions of the world. Combined works of nature and humankind, they express a long and intimate relationship between peoples and their natural environment” (World Heritage Centre)




The American economist Jeremy Rifkin argues that the modern age has charecterised by a “Prometheon Spirit”, a restless energy that prays on speed, unmindful of the past, uncaring of the future, existing only for the moment and a quick fix. (Rifkin, Pg 93) The era of hyper-capitalism squeezes space-time of the everyday man. It is concerned with the distribution of goods and commodities at an extremely fast global scale that reduces the concerns of the everyday person to the week or the day, confined to the self and ignorant of global consequences. The superficialities of everyday surplus and excess deter humanity from engaging the reality of widespread capital waste society. We cast asside out styrofoam cups, innocent of their preservation and presence within the landscape. We live in what the hyper-reality philosopher Jean Baulliard describes in the dessert of the real, in Simulacra and Simulation. This day-to-day pursuit of personal wealth perpetuates a self-centred subjectivity within the world. Timophy Morton describes an age in which future archaeologists may contemplate the existence of plastics within geological strata. What Morton invites us to with this sentence is a projective potential of history, that within our life-times we contemplate reflexively, the history of the human race. As cities themselves are faced with the model of the dis-astron, painted in the light of storms, sea level rise and destruction, society is faced with the first tinges of extinction. However, cities themselves do not need protected, but it’s future preserved. The two do not necessarily intertwine. Such projective preservation of the city requires the management of interobjective forces between it and the landscape. The concept of proactive preservation is not a static one but at best an evolving an unfolding process.




We have now entered into a phase of blind entropic projection, wherein the exponentially increasing change in global ecologies, greeted with the immobilising inertia of humanity, creates an ever-increasing spectrum of potentially catastrophic futures. The degradation of vision in the contemporary city creates an atmosphere of the laissez faire where cities evolve ad-hoc as power and mite are reluctantly passed over to the developer for his promise of economic stability and growth – queue neo-liberal urbanity. The adherence to econometrics at the global scale is not synonymous to the requirements of urban regions at another. Generally speaking, the absence of an overview in planning and the tendency for individual actors toward a juxtaposition of antagonistic interventions creates hermetic urban regions that have led to the present crisis, modern urbanised areas have totally camouflaged and obliterated their natural substrates. In fact, the continued favour of economic growth and “we must continue building” attitude as a stabilizer for global development overlooks the productiveness of landscapes, that are often seen in hind-sight. When we discuss proactive preservation, we cannot distinguish between the city and landscape, the relentless terreformation of interobjective forces and landscape systems for productive societies has created a state of imbalance but an endlessly interconnected one non-the-less.


“The fact of the matter is that the acute pragmatism and the short-term goals of current planning trends has remained in great part oblivious to the sensitive physical and visual realms of the landscape.” (Girot, pg 92)


Boston city centre is faced by increasing threat of storm surge and sea level rise, having gained its current land size through infill and shore extension. In a city of such prolific threat of inundation, one may find the moving of mechanical facilities to the roof a building rather naive. The anthropocene these reiterates the need for projective preservation of a system that is equilibrius, not simply the protection of one object over another. In some cases the destruction of shorelines may be the most radical form of protection for the city by allowing natural marshlands to be re-introduced and act as sponges for storm water. Given the short-sighted nature of economy driven development, how might planning embed developers into conversations of time that work with the landscape to create productive synergies? Tabling the conversation of time with different stakeholders in the city forces an engagement of interobjectivity instead of a defence from it. One might project and investigate a spectrum of alternate Boston coastlines that form productive ecologies, and begin to blur the stark line of defence between city and ecology. After all, if at a global scale we have entered into an era of indeterminacy between organic and inorganic, surely our buildings and city fabric can engage this hybrid future in a way that fosters productive dialogue between natural and city material pallets. Boston’s innovation district architecture is prepared for sea level rise by offering the first two floors for flooding. By placing commercial activity and rentable spaces on the ground floors developers can later evacuate these spaces and offer it over to flooding, begging the question of what kinds of ecologies and fish might one day inhabit the walls of a present Apple store? One might imagine radical futures for Boston that remove large swathes of infill to create a venetian type landscape where lower floors of buildings are removed to allow water to pass, flipping contemporary paradigms to place circulation and mobility at the top of the building. This kind of projective conversation pushes for a proactive preservation of balance. One that facilitates negotiations between the needs of the landscape, markets and residents.



“everything we inhabit is potentially susceptible to preservation. That was another important discovery: the scale of preservation escalates relentlessly to include entire landscapes” (Koolhaas, P2)




As we watch development continue along Boston’s Innovation District, ominously close to king tide levels, while Mumbai’s informal slums are pushed to low elevation land, we ask whether social and economic groups are capable of registering the totality of climate change. The threat of unpredictable futures and catastrophic damage places already at risk city residents – typically low income – with disproportionate increase in vulnerability to climate risk, as insurance prices increase and land quality and housing prices decrease. Similarly we find that developers continue to build upon land proposed to flood along coastlines, in a relentless pursuit of shirt-term profits. Each stakeholder lacks the tools to quantify the pervasiveness of change and risk within hyper-urbanism. In turn this creates a vicious cycle between development, social housing, insurance and climate change.


To examine the potential for alternative futures to limit environmental interaction we must first turn to Karl Steinitz. Steinitz uses scenario based alternative futures as a way to form policy for prudent course of action regarding dynamic ecological regions. Steinitz first studio run at the Harvard Graduate School of Design studied an expected population increase of 90,000 additional people to Monroe County, Pennsylvania. Facing a classic dilemma of conservation versus development, the study followed through six hypothetical futures, each pushing a separate agenda to see which conclusions yielded the most favourable results for the preservation of a functioning ecosystem.


Karl Steinitz and his team ran these studios in collaboration with district planners and government. The purpose of these exercises was not to aid any particular stakeholder but disseminate information on the possible transformations that policy decisions can bring to urban regions. Steinitz’s team followed cycles of research that allowed for public engagement and review of each wave of information analysed by the team. Although Steinitz team primarily focused on the policy and planning side of decision making processes he had, at least taken on the idea of environmental change and flux in his remit for possible futures. Outlining that a main goal would be to ensure protection of ecologies. I would argue that by articulating the possible variations of sustained ecologies as an output of urban governance Steinitz prioritized environmental protection through providing a spectrum of “feasible” human action. One could update Steinitz’s model to create a spectrum of urban development along a coastline. Although the variables and risks have increased since this work, urban practitioners now have the computational tools and know-how to factor in risk mitigation and environmental management. In such a scenario projective futures of urban development could be weighed up and deliberated democratically for the proactive preservation and promotion of coastal synergies. (Fig1)


“This study is not an attempt to steer the community in a particular direction. It is, rather, a means to help local planners predict the consequences of the regions potential alternative futures.” (Steinitz, Pg 14)


If we drag Steinitz’s Alternate Futures research into the formation of the anthropocene and an engagement of hyper-urbanism then our model and distinction of human/non-human becomes blurry and our futures span centuries instead of decades. At hyper-scales of interaction one might think of Boston’s continued extension of its coastline and shoring up of the Charles River. What was once an estuary output for the river has now become a hardened bay of commerce, exposing the newly increased city area to greater risk of storm damage and sea level rise. When hurricane Sandy hit New York City, Boston received an onslaught of storm surges. Boston narrowly missed catastrophe, on the serendipity that the event occurred at low tide. Boston is ranked among the top 5 US cities at risk from climate change, and although the city pushes policies of “Grow Boston Greener” and “Boston Complete Streets” that introduce greenery as a way to combat the threat, such measures do not go far enough to preserve a form of equilibrium between the city and landscape. If one were to apply the notion of Alternative Futures to Boston’s newly formed relationship with hydrology one might engage developers of coastal regions into Steinitz’s flow-chart of action. (fig-2). By doing so development may be monitored to track additional risk inflicted on other areas by: extending shorelines or increasing elevation of land. Planners could move beyond these measures, and within the spectrum of “feasible” solutions, offer incentives for risk inheritance, where risk is taken away from socially impoverished areas of the city through construction of: wetlands, storm channels and parklands. One might imagine scenarios where, instead of constructing schools or playgrounds, developers building around the Emerald Necklace must add a knew park to it’s lineage. Sequences of large green spaces, such as the Emerald Necklace, store and slowly discharge large volumes of inland flooding. Risk incentivised development could see the lineage of parks connected to the coastline, or other such systems formed as a way surgically divert and anticipate localised flooding. Urban centres might find trajectories for preservation by re-instating natural landscapes, such as those documented in the Manahatta project by Eric Sanderson.


“Decision makers, and stakeholders in general, have a difficult problem. They must try to foresee the potential consequences of their choices, and policies and plans must be seen together, as an asset. Studies of alternative futures based on different assumptions provide a way to investigate the possible outcomes of current policy options and decisions.” (Steinitz, Pg 15)




Unlike Steinitz, who’s work was published over fifteen years ago, we have more advanced technologies at disposal to calculate ecological flux and hydrological change. However, what the Alternate Futures model for implementation created was public engagement. Alternative futures could be made visible to the public through Steinit’z type of system as method for public engagement, and an ultimately more democratic process of planning, which in recent decades has become more elusive to the everyday resident. Scaled models have been previously successful in understanding the change of urban conditions on hydrology. In the mid 1940’s the US army corps of engineers built a 200 acre scalar “Mississippi River Basin Model” (Fig 3). The models size was required to be accurate; reaching its limit of dynamic similitude – the concept that coefficients of friction must also be scaled down (Fig 4). One might imagine contemporary versions of this type of model, constructed by 7-axis routers and catalogued digitally by scanning (Fig 5). Iterative testing of hydrological conditions offered by these models creates a spectrum of equilibrium – a projected preservation if you like – likely created by the landscape. It would then be the purpose of Steinitz’s type of public interfacing to provide knowledge on how different stakeholders, developers or government might increase levels of risk within the landscape. Projecting possible and alternate futures of development and changes to coastal conditions would allow planners to create, review, and incentivize conditions that would lead to feasible levels of management in the Anthropocene. Over time, coastlines could even be deconstructed to lower the level of storm risk to inland communities in urban areas such as Boston and Mumbai. This type of digitized future affords cities a level of sentience about it’s interobjectivity with the landscape and offers some clairvoyance regarding it’s complex entanglements of people, infrastructure, mobility, energy and space that constitute an athropocentric biome.


“These geographies need to be understood ontogenetically, as something continually brought into being through specific practices that alter the conditions under which space itself is (re)produced.” (Sheppard, Pg 136)




Within the spectrum of hyper-urbanism, such models could be digitized and catalogued for preservation. The continual statistical capturing of land-formation and human agents decision-making within it allows for data assessments to be made and polices to become more acute based on a historical lineage of predictions versus outcomes. Digitization of data allows society to catalogue and “preserve” conditions of landscapes, and the relationships that cities held with them. Although this kind of iterative hypothetical testing and predicting can allow for an empirical archive of land transformation through time it can also, as data and algorithms become more finely tuned, allow for predictions for desirable societal transformations within these landscapes. Such models offer urban clairvoyance. Storing the memory of the condition while preserving the possibility for future conditions to persist in balance with human agents. Victor Hugo predicted accurately that the book would kill the building as a catalogue of knowledge. Perhaps then, computational urban modeling will supersede the map as a preservation of landscape, and become a harbinger for projective futures. This type of four-dimensional data logging and mapping can render lengthy processes of landscape alteration as something tangible to the everyday resident. Mapping the projective potentials of Boston as visual imaginaries and maps can captivate wider audiences of city residents by illustrating the long-term totality of increased storm events exacerbated by sea level rise. The goal of such visualization and conversation of potential futures is not simply to advertise the long-term deleterious actions of development, but also to allow conversations and conservation of productive interobjective forces, process and relationships to become an everyday consideration. The visualization of this information can allow for tacit knowledge to be gained regarding the requirements for proactive preservation.


“Maybe we can be the first to actually experience the moment that preservation is no longer a retroactive activity but becomes a prospective activity.” (Koolhas, Pg 2)



























Manaugh, G. 2011. Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions. Actar Publishers


Morton, T. 2013. Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnosota Press


Rifkin, J. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hyper-Capitalism, Where All Life is a Paid For Experience. NYC. Putnam Publishing Group


Steinitz, K, 2002. Alternative Futures for Changing Landscapes: The Upper San Pedro River Basin in Arizona and Sonora. 1st ed. Island Press


Sussman, H. 2012. Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change. 1st ed. Open Humanities Press.


Turpin, E, 2013. Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, 1st ed. Open Humanities Press


Girot, J, in, Waldheim, C. 2006. Landscape Urbanism Reader. Princeton Press




Maddox, D . 2015. Taking “resilience” out of the realm of metaphor. How do you measure resilience in cities? How would you know if your city or your community was resilient?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thenatureofcities.com/2015/05/19/taking-resilience-out-of-the-realm-of-metaphor-how-do-you-measure-resilience-in-cities-how-would-you-know-if-your-city-or-your-community-was-resilient/. [Accessed 3 December 2015]


World Heritage Centre. 2015. Cultural Landscapes. [ONLINE] Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/culturallandscape/. [Accessed 13 December 2015]


Journal Articles:


Sheppard, M, 2015. Predictive Geographies. New Geographies, 07, 159-167




Rem Koolhaas, “Preservation is Overtaking Us,” Future Anterior, GSAPP, Columbia University, Volume 1, n. 2 (Fall, 2004), Pg 1–4.

Rahul Mehrotra, “Constructing Cultural Significance – Looking at Bombay’s Historic Fort Area”, Future Anterior, GSAPP, Columbia University, Volume 1, n. 2, Fall 2004, Pg 24-31.

Rahul Mehrotra, “Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities,” in Andreas Huyssen (ed.), In other cities, other worlds: urban imaginaries in a globalizing age, Duke University (2008), Pg 205-221

Rahul Mehrotra, “Post-Planning in Mumbai,” In the Life of Cities: Parallel Narratives of the Urban ed. Mohsen Mostafavi (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2012), Pg 334–344.




Figures 1 + 2:

Steinitz, K, 2002. Alternative Futures for Changing Landscapes: The Upper San Pedro River Basin in Arizona and Sonora. 1st ed. Island Press. Pg  17 + 32


Figures 3 + 4 + 5:

Provided by Enruiquetta Llabres-Valls, Lecture Notes, Distributed Class: Relational Urban Modeling. November 2015, Harvard Graduate School of Design.





© Hayden White