Letters & Science Magazine

The Future of Cities

Photo illustration of face of woman looking left superimposed on a city scape.
(Getty Images)

Is this a historic moment for reimagining our urban spaces?

The recent pandemic set new demographic trends in motion for cities around the globe as offices closed down and remote work became widespread. Downtown business districts in cities like San Francisco and New York were hit hard as affluent residents, remote workers and the newly jobless left for smaller communities or to live closer to friends and relatives. One study found that high-income areas in large U.S. cities lost 15% to 20% of residents in the pandemic’s early months. Cities in the San Francisco East Bay Area and Sacramento, on the other hand, saw more people move in than leave — a pattern that some migration experts say predates COVID-19, but has since accelerated. Overall, people are moving from major metro areas to the suburbs and beyond. 

Is this the moment to reimagine our urban environments? We asked two scholars in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science for their perspectives on the state of cities and the prospects for creating spaces that, rather than divide us, build community and provide safer places to work, live and play.

Here are excerpts from interviews with:

  • Simon Sadler, professor and chair of design who studies the history and theory of architecture, design and architecture.
  • Julie Sze, a professor of American studies whose research focuses on environmental justice and inequalities and the relationship between social movements and policy implementation.
Portrait photo of UC Davis design professor with line-drawing filter

Simon Sadler

Planning for diversity

A big takeaway from the pandemic, and the associated strife that we’ve seen over the past year or two, is a heightened awareness of the intersecting crises of climate change, structural racism and cultural division.

A famous book — which, thanks to the pandemic, we will be reading yet again — is Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but Jane Jacobs said all these things we’re doing with cities — zoning, displacing people, making way for highways — are crazy, unjust and killing cities. Urban design has been wrestling with the consequences of that for the last half-century. After the pandemic, we’ve finally caught up, and you’ll start to hear even hard-bitten business types and city leaders conceding that Jane Jacobs was right. We can see it — central business districts over the last year have died.

I think we will be looking at ways of mixing things up, getting away from zoning, getting away from urban monoculture. Economically, we double down on thinking about cities as places where people live, and rest and play and work. There’s also an opportunity to think about the same thing socially, where different generations, different modes of disability, different races get back together. And as well, let’s be less spatially distanced, as counterintuitive as that is to think in a pandemic.

The chance to rethink all of this stuff, the urgency of it, is absolutely electrifying.

An echo of history

We’ve seen this once before in the most critical, early days of the modern city. In the mid-19th century, London had grown out of control to become far and away the biggest city the world had ever known. And it was a crisis. As we now know, in retrospect, it wasn’t the exception. It was the new rule. This was going to be the modern world. By the mid-1840s, it was also clear that there was something dramatically inviolable about London, and it was disease and the speed with which it spread. Tuberculosis and cholera routinely killed tens and hundreds of thousands of people. Moreover, disease didn’t discriminate between rich and poor. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert was killed by cholera. It was a universal problem.

This leads to the birth of modern epidemiology. Dr. John Snow traced cholera back to the water supply. Within 10 years, London had a new water supply, new systems for waste, parks, public fountains, bathhouses, streets, housing — all built on the single unequivocal truth that cholera was spreading through the water. Science had come through, and it led to a program of universal reform.

We’ve been reminded again that we can plan for the future of cities. We can have discussions, we can touch the third rail. We don’t necessarily have to just leave it to the market. We’ve got to figure this out together.

Portrait of UC Davis American studies professor in line-drawing style

Julie Sze

Urban flight

Historically cities have been places where labor is organized in service of capital. You can see this idea in the media that wealthy people are leaving. That’s not new. Rich people have always tried to insulate themselves from poverty and violence. But remote work makes it pretty obvious in a different way. Now, what’s the rationale for the city? Places like New York and San Francisco are really grappling with that question. 

Is this a reality point that intensifies and magnifies what was already happening — extreme income inequality and racial divide — or is there some kind of opening, something different? Nobody knows. People like to prognosticate, but it’s got to be different in every city. New York’s different than New Orleans, Philadelphia and Detroit. Global elite playground cities like New York and Shanghai are very different from cities like Vallejo or Stockton.

Vallejo boosters were trying to make this argument, ‘You can live in Vallejo and then go work in San Francisco.’ That thinking is going to accelerate processes of inequality, racial and economic inequality. 

A window for transformation

Social movements ask us to imagine futures that people in their particular present never quite imagine. I think this is one of those convulsive historical moments. There are certain times where there’s alignment between convulsions and critique and transformation. A kind of utopianism plays itself out, not just in an urban or spatial context, but in all kinds of ways — and I think that’s what we’re in. It’s really exciting and terrifying, but there’s a lot of possibility.  

—  Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science, wrote this article for the fall 2021 issue of Letters & Science Magazine.

A New Commons

What form might a multiracial disability community take today? That’s a question that two UC Davis design faculty — Javier Arbona and Brett Snyder — and colleagues in the San Francisco Bay Area are exploring in a design proposal for several blocks in Berkeley, California. 

The team includes designers, artists and theorists with varying disabilities, architects and community-engaged designers, and historians of utopian communities. 

Their project will be featured in an exhibition “Reset: Towards a New Commons,” which opens February 2022 at the Center for Architecture in New York City and explores how environments foster cooperation and inclusion. 

Arbona, Snyder and colleagues said they chose Berkeley because it’s the birthplace of the independent living movement, the free speech movement and the Black Panther Party, as well as single-family zoning in the United States, which is being dismantled there and in other cities.

“Our team,” they wrote, “gives shape to an architecture that represents impairment and disability as a way of building a future, exciting and equitable world from the scale of the brick to the neighborhood.”