Auto-Centric Urban Futures?

Automobiles will rule the future city! Yes it is true, there is no doubt. At least judging from the spate of urban design conferences and workshops proliferating around the globe which are sponsored, or otherwise conceived of, by auto makers. It is now apparent, the car’s manifest destiny is to expand beyond the industrialized nations into all corners of the populated planet. It is not ironic or happenchance that, at a time when so many urbanists, designers and intellectuals are focused so intently on making the streets more pedestrian friendly and even getting rid of city damaging auto infrastructure, that the auto industry would be stepping in to push these “cutting edge” ideas forward. So please excuse the indignant and complacent tone I take during this post.

According to, “Audi is the first automobile company to gather important players around one table in order to connect international experts, overcome deadlocked ways of thinking and chart a sustainable course for a mobile urban future.” The buildup for the Audi Future Urban Summit, which happened last month week in Frankfurt, has been ongoing since earlier this year with events in New York. Audi is interested in investigating the question of, “ENERGIES – What forces will change the cities of the future?” They will do this through a series of workshops including: Energies of Data – Networked City, Energies of Resources – City of Abundance and Energies of Social Relations – City of Cooperation. With architects, designers, engineers, urbanists and an array of other professionals making up the panels it seems like a balanced group that will evaluate the dilemmas wrapped up in their problem statement…  

There is rapid urban growth worldwide as more and more people move to megacities. Free-flowing traffic in urban areas seems to be a utopian vision. Without such traffic flow, there are disadvantages for the quality of life, the environment and the appearance of cities. Experts from fields such as architecture, urban planning, trend research, economics and the automobile industry thus have a responsibility to react to this major trend flexibly and with a variety of strategies.”   

 Audi’s Urban Future Initiative was also featured during the Festival for Ideas for the New City. to investigate, how new conceptions of mobility will drive the future of the New City. Of course this was narrowly defined as “what its roads and buildings will be, and how they will function.” (*emphasis mine)

Meanwhile the BMW Guggenheim Lab (much blogged about here already) is a series of three pop-up structures traveling to nine different cities over the next six years with heavy programming over multiple months in each city. The Lab recently ended it’s first iteration here in downtown NYC. I attended the lab on several occasions and can say that I don’t necessarily see it as so much of a straightforward insertion of the automobile into the future city, perhaps that’s because it is in NYC, the least auto-dependant city in America, or perhaps it is because the partnership with Guggenheim has watered down BMW’s cause, who knows. Either way I am relatively surprised at the lack of car propaganda present at these workshops, lectures, documentary screenings and other events.   In fact, I played their Urbanology Game and, as the team rejected a proposal involving expanding the subway system due to excessive costs, the transportation aspect of our hypothetical city suffered. I was glad to see mass transit incorporated but this is only expected in such a game. Note that the jury is still out on this game as evidenced by the comments on their page. I must admit, I’m not really surprised by BMW’s lassie faire attitude in sponsoring this urban exercise as they have been a long standing sponsor of the wonderful TED conference that explores all sorts of “Ideas Worth Spreading” including those that may or may not necessarily help or hurt the auto industry of the future. 

Possibly most egregiously of the bunch is General Motors, who is currently working with Chinese officials to help create the concept eco-city of Tianjin. This concept eco-city, will be the eco-prototype for autocentric city design of the eco-future, with new eco-types of eco-automobiles, that probably shouldn’t even be considered cars (but it’s amazing how much you change things by adding the eco-prefix). They are smaller, lighter and safer, which are all good things but lets not confuse the issue here. I don’t like to see this sort of thinking gaining ground not because of oil consumption or safety issues, after all, smart electric vehicles are sure to be the only vehicles in the future. The issue I am arguing is that of the cities wellbeing and for it’s ability to act as a social environment for its many inhabitants. Cars have damaged the landscape of cities via highways, parking, and creating dangerous and hostile pedestrian spaces for years, they have completely done away with small towns in favor of planned communities (AKA suburban sprawl) and cars, stolen from the municipal budget via subsidized roads and parking and completely annihilated our ability of individuals in society do have random interactions whole traversing the city, aside from the occasional outburst of road-rage.


Image of Tianjin City taken from CureByte blog

It should be noted here that, mentioned above, was incorrect in stating that Audi is the fists auto company to table this idea or progressing urbanism. General Motors is no newcomer in the world of manifesting destinies, as they sponsored the 1939-40 World’s Fair with their exhibit “Futurama: Magic City of Progress“. This along with some other GM shenanigans, worked to undo what was previously known as the American city and ushered in an era of individual consumption, government subsidization of the auto industry coupled with urban flight into first and second ring suburban neighborhoods.  Next up is for GM to extend the dominance of automobiles beyond the age of cheap oil and into the next phase of human development. 

The primary issue I have with this type of urban schemes is the idea that the individual must all own some form of private transport means in order to access daily needs. Even if they are small and eco-friendly, privatized autos take up space in the commons. In fact, cars are one of the most subsidized space hogs in cities via parking and roadways and they separate people from their surroundings and fellow commuter/traveler, reducing society to a collective of individuals rather than a unified public. I can see why many would pine for the prior rather than the latter but I fall in the camp believes that the decentralization of cities, towns, villages and communities due to designing for the automobile rather the person has lead to a lowering of societal values, a decrease in “quality/family time” traded for commuting time an insulation of the individual from society at large through the escapism that is the private automobile and an overall decline in both mental and physical health due to sedentary lifestyle and isolation brought on as a direct result of autodependant lifestyles and development patterns.

I guess this post begs the question of exactly how corporate entities participate in what should be academic inquiry through their sponsorship. This question has been around for years but it is most commonly in terms of actual academic institutions being paid to take on certain research and the acceptance (publication) or rejection (of the outcomes of said research based on whether or not it jibes with the corporations interests who sponsored it.) Suddenly I’m having flashbacks of my research ethics class in undergrad, but I digress. The “research” seems to have jumped right out of the universities and onto the streets. Corporations are now crowd sourcing to come to the conclusions desired. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of crowd sourcing for big, multifaceted, specialized ideas such as urban design and planning, it is fairly understood that the process of charretting and enabling the public to voice their opinion in composing these solutions, brings a certain level of acceptance of the outcomes, outcomes that may have been (and are easily) cooked by the sponsors and organizers in order to yield the highest returns to their stock holders.

*Full disclosure, I could potentially be under the employment of the BMW Guggenheim Lab by proxy of blogging about the on-going spurse Fieldwork experiments at the BGLab mentioned above.




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