Science fiction (cyberpunk) and science fact: William Gibson, Urban Theory and the future of the City Concept

Here’s a great quote from a punchy little interview with William Gibson that appeared in Scientific American website back in September.

It seems to me that they must, inevitably. Paris, as much as I love Paris, feels to me as though it’s long since been “cooked.” Its brand consists of what it is, and that can be embellished but not changed. A lack of availability of inexpensive shop-rentals is one very easily read warning sign of overcooking. I wish Manhattan condo towers could be required to have street frontage consisting of capsule micro-shops. The affordable retail slots would guarantee the rich folks upstairs interesting things to buy, interesting services, interesting food and drink, and constant market-driven turnover of same, while keeping the streetscape vital and allowing the city to do so many of the things cities do best. London, after the Olympic redo, will have fewer affordable retail slots, I imagine.  (Read full article…)

– William Gibson in American Scientific, Sept 2011

This was in response to a question about Gibson’s views on the continuing “Disneylanding” of major cities, where attracting tourists comes at the price of devaluing the experience of people living there.

It’s a great little article, well worth the read and I enjoyed Gibson’s speculations.

vancouver canada photo by David J Rodger

The fact is, is that cities are here to stay but quite how they will function is very likely open to some major redefinition over the next decade or two. Take the concept of the dense cluster of high-street outlets: will they diminish in physical size and importance in the rising tide of online outlets; are these shops going to be replaced by edge-of-city warehouse and distribution hubs?  Or will those corporations have the clout to further grow their influence within city centre locations, further driving out smaller cottage businesses?  Or will the small, agile, quick to adapt business model prevail in the wake of the coming mass re-evaluation of the value of everything (in the West)?

As more and more people get caught in the vicious cycle of debt, as jobs vaporise and strained relationships fragment to leave a growing army of skilled people homeless, what happens to all the property that gets sold off at defaulter auctions?  What does this vacant property become? Scenes of opportunity compete with the apathy of waste.

Look at what is happening in Detroit. A mass exodus of the population is leaving vast swathes of the city abandoned; to the point where nearly a third of it has now been reclaimed by prairie land.

And where do these homeless people go? Do they try to survive in the city, are they allowed to even try… or are they displaced?  Marginalised physically as well as financially and emotionally.  Do cities become ever more fortress-like with the wealthy inner hubs protected by saturated CCTV and social network scans, where dense concentrations of private security and public police motivated through lucrative bonus scheme on… performance stats?

Will the anti-crime slogan “zero tolerance” become a euphemism for “you don’t look like you belong here?”

All thought-provoking stuff. I guess we’ll just have to live it and see.

Dog Eat Dog a science fiction and dark fantasy novel set in the post-apocalyptic world of Yellow Dawn

A Yellow Dawn Novel

In the post-apocalyptic world of  Yellow Dawn  – The Age of Hastur the city concept was nearly wrecked by the millions of rotting bodies left by the first killer pathogen: disease, super-swarms of rats and flesh eating bugs; the loss of critical infrastructure systems; roaming gangs of bandits and the insane… all of these things and more drove most of the survivors out into the rural landscape with a harsh winter chasing their freezing backs.  Yet the notion of the city ideal is ingrained too deeply into the minds of many survivors. It’s a notion that people cling to: an idea of hope.  Those with the right skills and the right attitude dug in and did what they could to clear out the dead, to protect their lives and rapidly dwindling resources, to even get major infrastructure systems back up and running.  And then the Infection came… the 2nd pathogen, the zed-wave, and Things that should not walk or make sounds came sprinting through the abandoned spaces, shrieking, their minds lost within the alien Hell of Carcosa as the monstrous entity Hastur tainted the very fabric of Reality.  And yet still people fought to keep the city ideal alive; they fabricated boundary walls, established gates with flame-throwers to create Infected Free Zones and began to run kill-patrols.

But across the whole planet only a few dozen cities actually manage to pull off this feat and continue as places where people can live.  Those first survivors become the new governments, and here human history opens itself up to the vagaries of the human condition… charity versus greed, fairness versus oppression, freedom versus control.   The price of upholding the city concept is a life surrounded by the Dead.  The city becomes a psychological prison where property near to or overlooking the Infection-ruined “Dead Zones” is cheaper because most survivors don’t want to be reminded of what is out there.

And what is out there… is keeping the city alive. The Rural Support Zone.

Take the risk of traversing a Dead Zone, punch out beyond into the rural landscape beyond and there’s a whole new world of hope and opportunity unfolding; an often harsh, gritty and uncompromising existence, but one where a man or woman can make their mark through honest graft and skill – rather than sinking into the often faceless mass of the city crowd.

So even in a post-apocalyptic setting the City Concept will continue to remain with us; perhaps not in a shape or function that we would recognise today.  But even today, there is a new and emerging City Concept evolving right now, within in our time-frame, in line with evolving technologies such as the Internet and shifting social tides.

What’s your Urban Theory?


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David J Rodger – DATA

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