Imaginary Metropolis

Our perfect cities, like our perfect selves, will never be built.

An illustration of pencils filling in a drawing of a city

Jen Wick Studio

Imagine the most beautiful bridge you can. It should span a body of water to connect two cities. Make it carry cars, trains, bikes, and pedestrians, all comfortably. It should be a marvel of engineering and an aesthetic feat. If you like spires, give it spires; if you like cables, give it cables. Let the bridge do everything you have ever wanted a bridge to do, be everything you have ever wanted a bridge to be. Fix it in your mind. See it.

You can't have it. Your city can't have it. Your city doesn't get to look like that. You don't get to move in, through, or out of it on that bridge. It costs too much, so slash the cables and spires. It's not efficient, so get rid of the trains and bikes. Substitute concrete where you had metalwork; put straight lines where you had curves. Revise your imagination and adjust your dream. You're not selling anybody that bridge.

That's what the states of Oregon and Washington have been doing recently—arguing over a bridge. Oregon's legislature agreed to pay for half the budget of a new I-5 bridge spanning the Columbia River. Washington declined. The bridge, though it may never be built, exists nonetheless. It has been a sketch with soft edges, a model with moveable pieces, an absent center around which multitudes are employed studying and planning, a stack of papers distributed in two state capitals for review and response. It is a figment, but with real effects. In some people's minds it is a vision that majestically connects the cities of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington. In others' minds, that vision is vigorously erased. Their vision is not of a different bridge, but of a different future. They see different cities.

The stakes and emotion behind civic arguments like these are not difficult to understand, because these are the cities most of us live in: speculative cities. There is an actual, built city, of course, but we can't see it. We're limited by our routines or by our experiences, both remembered and unremembered, which take the place of any objective sense of the city. Visitors and tourists note details invisible to us, delight in locations we find mundane, or raise an eyebrow at institutions in which we take pride—they see a different city than the one we experience. When they leave, we return to using the city our usual way, but the office worker's city is not the city of the student, the fireman, or the shopkeeper—there is no single experience of the city, so no single city. Some find a city livable because they use only its most livable aspects, or because they have shaped their lives to fit the city rather than the opposite. Some find the same city boring and make sure always to compare it to some better, more festive city—perhaps because they are frustrated personally and project this onto the streets. Others find that city dangerous. Maybe they are frightened of change and feel the city is always changing. Or maybe they want change, and at some level are looking for danger—because danger is sometimes a door to change.

In other words, our lives are stories, stories bound up in the cities where we play them out. We live in speculative cities, because our lives are speculative lives. The proposed bridge, the new grocery store, or the disappearance of the hardware store our parents used to go to strike us with the force of doom or revelation, because when the city changes, it alters who we might become. And because we maintain a belief that there are ideal versions of ourselves somewhere out there, waiting for us to find them and assume their shape, it's important that the story of our city be that it was a place where we became our happiest or most powerful selves—the city of our personal victory. The belief that a better life is possible becomes inextricable from the belief that a better city is possible.

This link between stories, lives, and cities explains the broad cultural power of the two speculative cities that most affect us: the ones city officials and planners try to convince us will lead to our happiness and should therefore be built, and the ones storytellers try to convince us are nightmares to be destroyed. These cities have broad areas of overlap; sometimes they are even exactly the same.

In the offices of urban planners, the idea of the totally planned city and the careful studies and models created to depict it are presented as progressive and freedom-oriented. Drawings appear in newspapers and magazines alongside charts, graphs, and thoughtful discussions. We see these presentations and agree it is smart to plan the city, so that we can control it—because who doesn't want control over their life? Storytellers have a tradition, however, of approaching the same speculative cities from the opposite perspective. The big secret of the totally planned city, storytellers have long suggested, is that it has been planned so that we can be controlled. (The fact that in real life control is rarely a secret is inconvenient to drama, so control must be presented as a conspiracy. If someone reminded everyone that the Decepticons presented their evil plan as a ballot measure thirty years prior and it was passed, so that what they're doing is actually perfectly legal, the movie would devolve into a discussion of government and zoning laws, and you'd lose the youth audience.) Audiences see these movies and agree it is smart to defy the city, because the city is an attempt to control us—and is a life in which others control us really a life at all?

The world of film has answered that question with a resounding “no” since the medium's early days, when Metropolis (1927) established the pattern of presenting the idyllic, totally planned city as always being established on the backs of a hidden underclass exploited for labor. In Metropolis, the effete rich folks live in skyscraper gardens while the proletariat shuffles through shadowy, subterranean German Expressionist neighborhoods. The narrative follows a young man and woman whose lives play out in the pleasure gardens but who try to help the workers, amid complications that include a fancy robot and a dancing harlot. Because audiences have responded positively to depictions of planned cities as sites of oppression, filmmakers have been happy to continue producing them. Forbidden Planet (1956) presents a city that outlives the planners—the planet has the remnants of some vast, mysterious power system, but the makers are gone, the planet empty. Most films keep the narrative less psychological, more sociopolitical: the cities have crystal skyscrapers and glass transportation tubes and people walk around in odd robes, all while repressing some unpleasant social secret. This is not always subtle—Logan's Run (1976) depicts a society whose only plan is that on your thirtieth birthday you die—and not always science fiction. Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990), for instance, takes a particularly aggressive tack in that it doesn't locate the city-planning oppression in a speculative future city, but instead in a caricature of a post-war American suburb. The film suggests Metropolis isn't a German future-nightmare embodied by a robot, but a contemporary American soporific purchased at a Tupperware party.

This is not a pattern limited to film. The literary tradition of critiquing the city-state is vast. Brave New World and 1984 were books many of us were made to read in school—novels that teachers suggested were critiques of government or about totalitarianism, but which most students (because young people have limited experience with government) understandably read primarily as depictions of weird, awful places to live. If they are asked to read Shakespeare, they may discover that we have “Et tu, Brute?” in part because some of the guys in togas had visions for the city that involved getting Caesar out of the way. Further back, we find Plato, in The Republic, depicting Socrates as primarily interested in critiquing how the city was run. Some read Socrates' suggestion that poets should be banished from the city as earnest, others as Socrates maintaining a straight face while shining on his interlocutors—the equivalent of suggesting at a cocktail party that the homeless should be given free bus tickets to other cities, waiting to see who agrees with you, and making a mental note. Though Socrates was killed for “corrupting the youth,” it seems clear that it was his constant critiques of the city that really got him in trouble. Nowadays, there are bloggers and tweeters in every major city who are far more derisive of their city's leadership than Socrates ever was. If current city councils commanded all of their critics to drink hemlock, there wouldn't be enough mortars and pestles to mash the necessary amount of poisonous leaves.

To be fair, urban planning has its own narrative tradition, in which the planners are not the heavies. The field suggests that if Scissorhands-esque cookie-cutter subdivisions and HOA lawn standards are all that's oppressing you, then you're doing well—it's uncontrolled growth that leads to real problems. In film, this is the Robocop argument: if we don't plan cities, chaos and crime will grow, criminals will take over the streets and, contra Metropolis, we'll eventually need a robot to clean up. The origin of this tradition is the Western—whether in film or in its earlier, James Fenimore Cooper fiction incarnations—in which you have to have (law and) order if you want to have a city. The new sheriff in town is essentially a heroic urban planner: he has a vision for the city. Contemporary planners and politicians often speak about managing “growth,” but growth is an abstract concept. What is being managed is the behavior—the lives—of people. It would be considered poor form for a mayor to openly report frustration with the citizens of a particular neighborhood and tell them the city will soon alter their lives. On-screen, though, Clint Eastwood shoots as many people as he needs to in order to reclaim public space, and we find it galvanizing.

These diametrically opposed takes on speculative cities each feature a repressed counter-truth. Urban planners, though they lobby for what amounts to broad powers of social control, are, for the most part, earnest civil servants who don't have massive power and who often operate from a belief in liberal humanist individualism. Planners want the city to work so that its citizens can thrive, usually because the planners sit in the same traffic jams we do and don't like them any better. Hollywood studios, on the other hand, craft narratives that suggest they stand for the rights of the heroic individual who stands out from the city's crowd—but the studios are mostly owned by massive corporations and demand from their filmmakers movies that fit a narrative template and contain elements drawn from market-researched demographic checklists. Urban planning is an attempt to tell a story of the city, but it is a failure if that story does not resonate at the level of individuals. What we see on the screen are attempts to tell the stories of heroic individuals, but the makers need those stories to appeal to entire cities. So which group's speculative cities are built to liberate the individual and which are built for social control? Like a Möbius strip, one side seems to become the other. Perhaps our cities are Möbius cities: when we attempt to follow the story of the city, we end up confronted by the stories of individuals within it, but when we follow the route of an individual, at some point it becomes the story of the city.

Both groups—those making city-level plans and those individually resisting them—will fail, for the same reason that we can't build our dream bridges: ideals, in order to become real, must compromise the ideal. We each have our own individual psychological tensions between freedom and control that manifest in our decisions about what we will do and where we will do it, and we never—thankfully—become perfect people. Cities allow us an opportunity to play out our freedom/control drama on a broad canvas, and the result is that cities fail at perfection just as predictably as we do. The city of total control fails because there are people brave enough to defy control, while the city of total freedom fails because there are always those ready to provide the comfort and safety of order. Amid all of this failure and frustration, we move through the city, simultaneously acting in the narratives of our individual lives and that of the city. The speculative city in which we might become our best speculative self will never be built—some other city will be built instead, one that is frustratingly not designed according to our individual desires. Writers and filmmakers are lucky—the lives and cities they can't build in the “real world” are made anyway, on the page and screen. These works are even sometimes referred to as masterpieces, despite the fact that they're not real. If we were all allowed to count every unrealized dream or abandoned plan as a nevertheless significant vision, we might all be counted geniuses, with impressive bibliographies and IMDB pages. But because our unbuilt masterworks—whether bridges, buildings, or homes—exist primarily as settings for our unrealized superior selves, in addition to counting ourselves geniuses, could we also count ourselves happy? Something tells me models of unbuilt happiness aren't as satisfying as models of unbuilt bridges. Perhaps untroubled happiness is just another ideal, though—which means it only exists in cities that don't.


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Also in this Issue

Into the Welter

This Land Planned for You and Me

Imaginary Metropolis

Design for a Crowded Planet

What It Means to Say Portland

In-Between Place

Belonging and Connection

On the River

Why We Stay