Vision for a Bicycle Utopia: Part 1

The coming age of urban expansion will have a greater emphasis on brownfield redevelopment than greenfield development. By the end of this century many cities are likely to have doubled their populations and doubled their building stock, largely by redeveloping derelict or poorly utilised industrial lands. Would it be possible to imagine these districts built on a bicycle mobility platform, not to eschew private car transport as an end in itself, but to reveal the untapped potential of bicycle motion if it were built for?

Western Harbour in Malmo, a classic brownfield redevelopment project

Western Harbour in Malmo, a classic brownfield redevelopment project

If the idea of a bicycle mobility platform for city growth seems too much for our little legs and soft derrieres, consider how people in the nineteen twenties and thirties might have responded when told they would soon be living out in what were then farmlands, and that the seemingly incomprehensible travel distances could be drawn together time-wise if cities didn’t just accommodate, but were designed around cars.

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Working class people in the era of the Depression could no more have imagined themselves owning and relying a cars than most people in this age of physical pampering can imagine themselves owning and relying on bikes. Mass car ownership, and building cities around that, was an absurd proposition.

1939 GM Futurama-07

However, thanks to a generation of visionary designers producing models and drawings of new kinds of car-centric buildings and road infrastructure, my grandparents’ generation found the courage to build something completely untested: suburbia.

Early Levittown NY

Early Levittown NY

Look too closely though at the utopian visions that inspired urban sprawl, and you start to wonder if our ancestors didn’t go way too far with plans that were just meant as jokes. Le Corbusier’s straight-faced presentation of his Plan Voisin was the best performance by far: pure comic genius. As though an architect of his standing truly believed Paris could be compulsorily acquired to make way for high rise apartments and freeways!

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In the case of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, the cars are the giveaway that someone was taking the mickey.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Car_1

But what about the utopian scheme that impacted the public directly, Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama, at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York?

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Post-modernism has taught us all to be cynical of shared visions carrying us all arm in arm into the future, so we look at the Futurama and all we see are those same circular cities that every cornball from Plato to Walt Disney dreamed they could build but actually couldn’t, and we see “cars of the future” so absurd not even Hot Wheels would make miniature versions these days.

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If we can even bare to watch the 23 minute propaganda film version, with its violin sound-track and a narrator who sounds as though he was trained in elocution by god, our only conclusion could be that people in 1939 were just plain stupid to fall for such nonsense.

We’ve become too accustomed to Utopia’s failing. Look at Paolo Soleri. Did he really think Arcosanti would ever really get off the ground?

Arcosanti-Panorama-800

Or what about Jacque Fresco, now aged 97, still playing with models and really believing his Venus Project will one day save all of us from ever having to work.

Jacque-Fresco-Venus-Project

But there is a difference between The Futurama and these. The Futurama came to fruition. The details all changed. The 14 lane highways for 150mph travel got changed to 8 lane highways for 70mph travel, and the fantastic buildings were replaced by what the Venturis would later term decorated sheds with big signs out the front.

Nevertheless, America returned from WW2, elected president Truman, then set about building freeways and sprawl, just as 28,000 people per day had seen at the Futurama exhibition just a few years before. And in Australia, we did exactly the same.

1939 GM Futurama-09

By today’s measures The Futurama’s success was a disaster, but let’s not forget that proper highways did reduce road deaths, energy back then did seem as though it was infinite, and people had good reason to want to spread out: a lot of them could still remember influenza killing 1 in 20 people in 1918.

Flu1918

It’s not very nice criticising past generations according to the concerns of our day (wars over oil, global warming, social isolation, obesity and so forth). It’s not very nice either criticising people who are still trying to live the dream of a house in the suburbs and a car to get there, when no one has has come up with a new dream; the cruelest thing anyone can do, when cities are growing, is buy a house in the inner city and tell themselves those slobs in the burbs had their chance when prices were low.

Super Saturday

I believe it is our responsibility as designers to capture imaginations with a contemporary and relevant utopian vision, that everyone can be a part of and love. With my next post I’ll explain why I think that vision should involve bikes.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore.
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