What Happened To All Those Plans For Gleaming, Efficient Cities Like In The Jetsons?

Futuristic City Hall San Jose, CA

Andy / Flickr

This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?When did we lose the dream of tomorrowland?

You remember: the gleaming city of the future, with its clean streets and sunny days, low crime rates and happy citizens.

How can we ponder where to live in 2032 when our collective imagination has given up on it?

The future used to be way more fun. The future used to be The Jetsons. Commuting to school by jet pack, cheery robots doing all the messy work, walkways when you got tired.

Now we’re expecting Blade Runnerand Minority Report. We used to be so psyched about what lay ahead; now we’re running scared.

Who can blame us? The global economy is bad and getting worse, and no one is being held to task for it, except possibly a few South Asian bankers. Politics get more divisive and polarised, and legislation only makes it easier to pursue hate as an agenda.

Religion has shifted its focus from love to loathing. For the first time in generations (and possibly even recent history), children don’t have a brighter future than their parents.

We’re excited about technology and the wondrous potential of the internet, but we’re wary of the loss of privacy that comes with being too plugged in.

What’s the best place to live in 2032? Ideally above sea level, for starters

And then there’s the small matter of the environmental Armageddon on the horizon. Though debates may rage about the causes and the solutions, no one can honestly argue that we’re doing good things for the planet.

What’s the best place to live in 2032? Ideally above sea level, for starters.

We’re slowly dying. No wonder we’ve lost faith in the utopia of tomorrow.

But damned if we’re not resilient creatures. We trudge on and keep playing the hand we’ve been dealt, making do as best we can.

MORE: ‘Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?’ at The Great Debate →
The good news is that it’s easier than it seems. I know I sound like a big bag of doomsday. I’m totally the opposite. In fact, my business is telling people how to enjoy their free time. I founded a travel website,Fathom, that’s full of destination guides and personal stories from journeys around the world. My idea is simple – the world is awesome – and my mandate is to help people connect with their places and experiences they’re going to love. 

So I travel the world and try to figure out as quickly as possible what makes a place tick. Are the people happy? Are they nice? Are they welcoming? (These qualities don’t always go together.) Is this a nice place to spend time, and if so how much? Do I feel safe? Could I live here?

The best place to live in 2032 will most probably be Scandinavia 

The flip side of travelling is coming home. Mine is one opinion, but nothing makes me appreciate home more than leaving it and missing it. Obviously, where you travel for a few weeks is very different from where you live the rest of the time. I vacation on the coast of Italy every year but I live in New York City and London, neither of which tops anyone’s list of the best places to live. 

If we stay true to the path we’re on and if the prognosticators are right, then the best place to live in the year 2032 will be northern Europe, and, specifically, Scandinavia. The region totally outpaces everywhere else in recent rankings of the best places to live. 

Here’s a survey of top five listings, with comparisons to United States rankings:

The Better Life Index compiled by the organisation for Economic Cooperation rates countries on their general work-life balance. Denmark wins, followed by Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and Belgium. The United States was #27.

Mercer’s 2011 Quality of Living Survey for worldwide cities gives top honours to Vienna, followed by Zurich, Auckland, and Munich, with Düsseldorf and Vancouver tied for fifth place. Honolulu is the first US city on the list; it comes in at 29. San Francisco ties Paris and Adelaide for 30; New York City is 47.

MORE: ‘Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?’ at The Great Debate →
Monocle’s most recent Quality of Life survey was done in 2010; they skipped 2011. (Have they caught the doomsday bug too?) Munich and Copenhagen were deemed #1 and #2 for two years in a row. Zurich, Tokyo, and Helsinki rounded out the rest of the top five. No US city cracked the top 20.

But when American cities are the only criteria, as they were in Business Week’s 2011 listing of the top 50 US cities, Raleigh, NC, came first, followed by Arlington, VA; Honolulu, HI; Scottsdale, AZ; and Irvine, CA.

What are the constants on all the lists? Smaller tends to win over bigger. Colder trump warmer, unless you’re magical Honolulu. And with the obvious exception of the Business Week survey, socialism and social democratic policies make people happy.

The other quality the winning places have in common is homogeneity, which I rank as a negative

Americans will bristle at the thought of high taxes rates, but try to imagine what your budget would look like if you didn’t have to pay for education or health care. I know I’d be buying a lot more shoes. 

The other quality the winning places have in common is homogeneity. Scandinavia isn’t exactly known for its ethnic diversity. I rank this as a real negative. I live in New York City — and plan to be living here in 2032 – precisely because it’s diverse. Which yes, makes it messy and complicated, but also inspiring, challenging, tolerant, and awesome.

I don’t think 2032 is going to be all that radically different from 2012. (Really, how different is 2012 from 1992?) That said, if I can write the wish list, then here’s what I want for the future: I want there to be fewer of us, if only in terms of density. I want us to be living in cities (because they’re more efficient) but I want green spaces to be more easily accessible. I want us to have less stuff (and better quality in what we have) and less packaged food (because it will make us healthier and happier).

I know, I know: I’m designing Portland, Oregon, and Copenhagen. So maybe the urban prototypes for the future are flourishing today. I’m hoping they can figure out how to add true diversity to the mix and then export the winning formula. Now that would make for real hometown pride.

MORE: ‘Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?’ at The Great Debate →

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