Will The Future Be Fun? With These 20 Ideas, It Could Be
All we need to do is change the way we organise ourselves in cities. Here are ways we will, or might, or maybe should do that, writes Simon Wilson
1. Learn from the horse crisis
There’s a famous story about horses in cities, from the end of the 19th century. New York had 60,000 horses on the streets, pulling all the wagons, omnibuses and hansom cabs. They produced 500 tonnes of manure every day and no one knew what to do about it. The crisis led to the First International Urban Planning Conference, in 1898. But the conference broke up early. There were no new ideas.
As Henry Ford said later, the horse-manure crisis made everyone think they needed faster horses. Their thinking got stuck. But in 1898, motorcars had already been invented and the city planners knew it. They just couldn’t imagine they were about to make horses irrelevant.
It took only two decades. In 1905, cars accounted for one per cent of traffic. By 1925, they were 99 per cent. A photo of New York’s 5th Avenue taken in the 1900s shows the street full of horse-drawn vehicles, with one car. Another taken in 1913 shows the same street full of cars, with one horse-drawn vehicle. It’s called disruption and, when it comes, it changes everything.
But we’re still not good at thinking about how it works. Transport is once again one of the most challenging problems for cities and big ideas are in play: light rail, new highways, tunnels under the Waitematā Harbour. We need these things, or some of them, but they’re extraordinarily expensive, they’ll happen slowly and they won’t be disruptive.
In fact, they’re usually designed not to be disruptive. Putting light rail in a tunnel, as is now the plan, is a way to not disrupt the existing use of the roads. Essentially, it’s a faster horse.
In the future, starting now, we should be asking, where’s the disruptive technology that will solve the crisis and improve our lives?
In transport, could it solve all the crises at the same time? That’s carbon emissions, congestion, the appalling lack of road safety and the way driving everywhere undermines public health.
2. Give an e-bike to everybody who wants one
The answer is: quite possibly yes. E-bikes could do that.
The only problem is that they’re expensive. So how long will it be before the Government realises it should buy them and give them to whoever wants one? They could restart local bike manufacturing to ensure supply.
In the European Union, there’s a big e-bike subsidy available to everyone. Making them free here would be far cheaper than any of the big infrastructure they’re planning.
Who would take up the offer? Commuters, parents taking children to school, shoppers, people wanting a runaround vehicle for excursions and visiting friends… there are e-cargo bikes that could replace most courier vans in an instant. E-bikes designed to carry toddlers. E-bikes for on-road and for off-road, for function and for fun.
And they really are fun. Ask anyone who owns one. People with ordinary bikes leave them in the garage most of the time. People who own e-bikes will tell you they look for reasons to ride them. So how many would take up the offer? We don’t know. Maybe hardly anyone, maybe hundreds of thousands. But what a great thing to find out.
If there’s lots, we might find we don’t need to spend billions on some of the new transport projects.
3. Reallocate road space to bikes
With more people riding bikes, or wanting to, we will reallocate existing road space to make cycling safe. It’s cheap and easy to do and it’s happening in Paris right now, because e-bikes are heavily subsidised and the streets are filling up with cyclists. What a legit reason to change how we use our roads. Including, in Auckland, giving up space on the Harbour Bridge.
4. Live your greenest life
This might come as a shock to the residents of Coromandel and Golden Bay, but for most people the greenest place to live is right in the middle of the city. True, you won’t have a composting toilet but you won’t drive much, if at all. Your apartment won’t be in a draughty old house and will probably meet modern standards for insulation and heating. And your building will use services more efficiently than standalone private homes. All of this will make a big difference to your carbon footprint.
5. Live your funnest life
Living right in the city will boom because it’s also about quality of life. Easy access to concerts and shows, the festivals and galleries and the other cultural life of inner cities. All the hospitality, the clubs and bars. The best of all the bump and excitement of streets full of people. And you’re close to great natural beauty. Not a joke! The proof is waiting for you now in Albert Park, Victoria Park, Myers Park, Western Park, the Domain and along the waterfront. Also in the city centre of the near future…
6. New life for old buildings
After Covid, not all the office workers will come back. So office blocks will be converted to apartments. There will be schools. Tennis courts on the roof. With more people around, day and night, the streets will be safer from crime and the choice of shops will improve. Residents will become the biggest force for progress.
7. Buildings made of wood
Concrete is a bad carbon emitter, so we’ll be using a lot less of it. Instead, more buildings will use wood in the structure as well as the cladding. These buildings are really nice to live with and are better for the planet too. Auckland already has a showcase for this: the City Mission’s new Homeground building on Hobson Street, designed by Stevens Lawson Architects, which is 11 storeys tall.
8. Urban farms in the sky
Urban farms will start up, using permaculture and other growing techniques on multiple storeys of tower blocks.
9. Grow your own
Those vacant lots with temporary car parks now? They’ll be turned into allotments, so you can grow your food or just get your hands dirty helping others. Public planting of fruit trees, vegetables and herbs will proliferate.
10. Save the shops
Quite soon now, we can only hope, there’ll be a big “save the shops” movement, where all sorts of pop-up stores will compete to thrill the crowds with new things to watch, take part in and even buy.
11. The universities will join in
The universities could participate, using shop fronts for public lectures, debates and scientific “this is how it works” presentations. Won’t it be great when they finally learn how to be outward-facing?
12. A river will run through it again
Queen Street was built over a stream called Waihorotiu. It’s still there, running in pipes underground. Cities all over the world have “daylighted” their old rivers and streams — one day, this will come to Auckland too. The artist Chris Dews has already imagined how it might look.
13. Travel without a car
You won’t need to own a car to travel. One day soonish, light rail will take you to Takapuna Beach and, perhaps, we’ll have electric water taxis too. Uber needs to disrupt the harbour. And when you want a weekend away, you’ll be able to choose from all the hire firms offering the coolest new EVs.
14. The Waiheke Experiment
Wouldn’t it be great if we could find some part of the city where the pace of life is slower, there are beaches and greenery and the blue sea everywhere, the roads are narrow and winding and not much good for cars and most of the people already love the good life. Oh yes, Waiheke! Would they be up for an experiment? Make the place a Bikes First Paradise.
The speed limit is kept low. Cars are still welcome, but the priority goes to bikes. The roads are for them. Cars have to keep out of their way, just as bikes have to keep out of cars’ way now. On the main roads, maybe you’d need vehicle lanes on the side, for cars to squeeze past.
What would this do to road safety? To all the other qualities of island life? To all the deeply felt convictions we have about who we are and how we relate to each other in a society? Too many hills? Get an e-bike. Be given an e-bike. See above. Maybe this is how we’ll live, in the soon-to-happen future: experiments to see if we can do things better.
So: give the Waiheke Experiment a whole year and see what happens.
15. Get paid to be alive
More pandemics, fewer jobs, what’s next? Whatever’s coming at us, we’ll cope with it better with a guaranteed minimum income (GMI). If you don’t have a job, the state will provide. We already do it for superannuitants, even when they do have a job. We do it with a complicated array of other benefits, too.
In the future we’ll simplify all that. We’ll understand we all win when everyone knows they belong. A GMI will be the proof of it.
16. Reinvent the suburbs
WFH is here to stay. Not for everyone, not all the time. But for some of it. So we’ll have a better range of shops in the local village.
More cafes, restaurants and bars. Smart hospo owners currently dying in the city centre will be looking for local premises to relocate right now. If a third of them moved to the suburbs, life would be better for everyone in the city centre and in those suburbs. There’ll be less traffic, too, as fewer people commute and more walk or jump on a bike to get to the shops.
In side streets, neighbours will restrict vehicle access and repurpose their streets for playing, social events and planting: public vegetable allotments, pocket parks, orchards, big trees. Next Anniversary Weekend, we could experiment with this: how about a massive Street Party Day, all over town?
17. Integrated living
As apartment blocks flourish and the population ages, there’ll be a move for more integrated living: old people living alongside young families, singles and young flatters. All helping each other, growing local communities with new friendships, sharing the childcare, practical skills and emotional support. It’s called co-housing and it’s set to boom.
18. Turn schools into community hubs
Why should schools close at 3pm? All that space and those resources, just sitting there. In the future, schools could become centres for public health services, after-school activities, sports, social and cultural interactions and lifelong learning of all kinds. They could become the secret to success in the suburbs. The way we create for ourselves a great, diverse society where everyone gets a real chance to feel invested.
19. Learn from Chicago
In July 1995, a heatwave in Chicago killed 739 people, most of them in poor neighbourhoods where there wasn’t much air conditioning. But it wasn’t consistent. In Englewood and Auburn Gresham, two very poor suburbs right next to each other, both 99 per cent African-American, they had very different outcomes.
Englewood suffered 33 deaths per 100,000 people, but in Auburn Gresham there were only three deaths per 100,000. Auburn Gresham did better than many affluent suburbs. Why? Researchers got to work and the answer they came up with was: community.
Englewood was deserted and depressed. Half the residents and most of the shops had gone and with them, social cohesion. People didn’t know their neighbours and they were scared.
But in Auburn Gresham, where they were just as poor, the residents were all still there and so were the shops and restaurants and community organisations. Everyone knew their neighbours, and looked out for them, and the community workers knew the people they worked with too.
The researchers also found that women tended to manage better than men. They thought it was because women are better at social relations.
The future, it seems safe to say, will be full of danger. The climate crisis, pandemics, the poverty that isn’t getting better. The Chicago experience suggests that how well we cope comes down to how well we’re able to look after each other.
That’s what all these ideas are about. Technology will help us handle the future — see e-bikes, above — but the most important thing will be stronger communities. That’s going to be our big work-on.
20. More wow
So what happened to flash mobs? Best. Community. Engagement. Ever. Bring back flash mobs, that’s what I want.
This article was originally published in volume seven of Viva Magazine.