Just how much will technology impact city infrastructure in the next century?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)

The American highway system is a marvel of 20th Century technology, the product of complimentary myths that took root in political and economic life in the years after the Second World War. Its creation helped the auto industry sell more cars, spurred a suburban construction boom, and supported a manufacturing and distribution network that would sell Coca Cola and RCA TVs to newly hatched suburbanites. These systems of organized pavement sprinkled jobs across the country, like Cold War pixie dust that was good because it was causing growth. At the dilapidating endpoint of that era, the American highway system seems more like an an awkward mistake with no easy way of undoing itself.

In a story for Fast Company, Next City founder Diana Lind speculates about how American cities might be improved without the imposition of massive cement superstructuresvivisecting and funneling one-time neighbors into increasingly distant tract home enclaves. She cites a list of cities damaged by the addition of highways, like New Orleans, where Clairborne Avenue "was once a bustling corridor with grassy medians lined with majestic oak trees; after the highway was built, its neighboring community of the Treme slid into decline." 


The cities of the future will have to be a secondary concern, giving way to the infrastructure necessary for machines to have free and convenient passage.


There are similar stories around the country, from St. Louis to Detroit to the Bronx, New York. In my hometown of Fresno, California, the construction of Highway 99 cut across the downtown district that had once been a multiculural hub sometimes referred to as a mini-San Francisco. After the arrival of the freeway, business slowly migrated out of downtown to richer areas, while West Fresno, the residential area on the other side of the freeway, was cut off from stores and city services and eventually became one of the most concentrated areas of poverty in America, second only to post-Katrina New Orleans.

Designing our cities to accommodate technology is not just an affect of Cold War economics, but an ongoing habit. John Kasarda, a researcher and city planning consultant, has forwarded the idea of the Aerotropolis, a city built around an airport where "distant travelers and locals alike" can access business districts, shopping, dining, entertainment, and hotel provisions within 15 minutes travel from an airport. The idea may seem mostly intellectual at this point, but as Barabara Porada notes in Business Insider, city formation in America has a long history of depending on transportation hubs. Boston, Charleston, and New York were built up around seaports, and later railroad stations would become centrally important.

In a way, the importance of highway access is the anomaly in this tradition, an element of infrastructure that supported medium distance commuting with the same mode of transport used by long distance travelers. Few people used seaports as part of their daily commute in the 18th century, and not many workers in the 19th century rode the rails back and forth between home and factory.

Reversing this anomaly and building cities around a central transportation hub would burst two myths, the promise of escape from other people that commuting and home ownership brought with them, while also revealing the commercial artificiality of cities built around industries of outside interests. There is a subconscious sense of dislocation in airports and their aesthetics of neon-light consumerism sitting atop a creaking machine world of cargo holds, luggage belts, and mechanical bays. Airports feed us distractions that make up for the lack of nourishment--the impulsively bought paperback, the fast food meal--by offering instant accessibility.

In 1925, Popular Science imagined how life would be lived in 1950, placing highways underground. All forms of long distance transport were hidden below the city surface, with trains occupying the lowest level, fast moving cars the middle layer, and slow-moving cars closest to street level. It's impossible to imagine Dwight Eisenhower rallying congress to support The Federal Aid Highway Act based on the idea that all highways should be tunnels beneath all major cities. The absurdity of the idea is also what makes it the most human-centric, it requires a certain degree of extremity to keep human interests in mind when machined transformations start to affect the way we live.

Reconsider the idea of an Aerotropolis in light of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent radio appearance where he acknowledged that drones would only become an increasingly common presence above the city. "We're just going into a different world" he said. "Uncharted, like it or not." These sentiments echo the spirit of the highway, in their own way, an acknowledgement that human needs in the cities of the future will have to be a secondary concern, giving way to the infrastructure necessary for machines to have free and convenient passage.