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What do we talk about when we talk about cities of the future?

Unless urban jargon renders you temporarily deaf, you’ve probably come across some phrase of the form “The something City”. The “something” could be garden, smart, connected, digital – in fact, pretty much anything the speaker hopes will come to define the city they’re talking about.

This impulse to define the future of cities through a single word has finally been thoroughly catalogued, in the form of a report from the Future of Cities research project (part of the UK’s Government Office for Science). Grandly titled “A Visual History of the Future”, the report tracks a century of visualisations of our urban future.

The study runs through various visions of the city – the “continuous city”, the “city on water” – from sources as diverse as planning departments and the computer game SimCity, before drawing them all together in a visualised taxonomy of city terms. The result is, er, quite complicated:

The titles on the left are visualisations; those on the right are the paradigms used by the study’s authors to categorise their source material. Here’s a closer view of the bewildering array of city categories the authors identified:

Some of these are pretty abstract: “Crossing City” is defined by the researchers as “cities functioning as crossings both geographical and virtual”. Others are more straightforward, like Vice City, which is apparently “focused on catering of immorality, wrongdoing and misconduct”. (Also, a location on Grant Theft Auto.)

The researchers also plotted each of these paradigms on a timeline:

The Spectacle City (“cities which generate memorable consummative events, primarily visual”, whatever that means) and Crossing City seem to have died out, but other paradigms are still contribution to what’s becoming a deafening roar of competing terms. It’s only a matter of time before planners move onto compound labels – the Garden-Vice city, say, filled with immoral horticulturalists.

The study also contains lots of attractive historical urban designs that never came to anything, like this 1981 rendering of a “high rise city” development for New York, where homes and gardens are stacked on an iron framework:

You can view the full report here
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