The Elevated City

retrofuture city
When you look at the above photo, do you see a vision of a future that is naiively utopian or one that is prescient and compelling? Your answer probably depends on how often you crane your neck and gaze skyward.


With increasingly more people than ever before in history living in urban environments and with increasingly more people on our planet than ever before in history, our cities are governed by a couple inescapable truths. One is that we live on a finite planet so there’s only so much land to go around. Another is that there are diminishing returns on humanity’s favourite way to get around (just ask commuters in Los Angeles or Brussels). And with personal jetpacks or teleporters unlikely to be invented anytime soon, these two truths present a fascinating design challenge for contemporary citybuilders. How do we move residents of our urban jungles?

Gardiner_Expressway_Rises_From_Toronto_WaterfrontThe answer for many is that there’s nowhere to go but up (and down, but I’ve written about that before). We build raised highways like the Gardiner Expressway, shuttle people through the sky on suspended tracks like the People Mover in Detroit, and link buildings with flying tunnels as they do in Hong Kong. Regardless of the approach, the construction of these mid-air arterials creates a suite of new problems just as it solves the one for which it was designed.

Highline_NYC_4043997124_cbcac90545By raising the city above the ground, we orphan and condemn to shadow the land below. And when we no longer need this airy infrastructure, and it falls into disuse and disrepair, we are left with spans of concrete and steel inaccessible to all but the birds. Necessity being the mother of invention, though, we are beginning to learn how to live in and play with the elevated city. Although the High Line in New York City (pictured above) is the poster child of the kind of design intervention we need, there are lots of great examples emerging around the world.


In Toronto, the Underpass Park has transformed part of the Gardiner Expressway into a combination playground and interactive art installation. Copenhagen is getting in on the suspended action with its Bicycle Snake. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, urban planners are working to reinvent the elevated city to work for pedestrians, not cars.

As we get better at managing the altitudinal geography of our cities, more questions are bound to arise. In the meantime, however, we would do well to recognize that our present doesn’t look all that different than the future imagined. Except we’ll get self-driving cars before ones that fly.

Danny Brown is an urban planner and an editorial and research assistant OpenCity Projects. He is passionate about technology and the potential of unused and neglected public spaces among other things. Follow him on Twitter @dannybr0wn

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Retro-Futurismus


Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on LinkedIn0