Henry Ford’s Muscle Shoals

Content Warning: Antisemitism

At the end of World War I, Henry Ford was one of the most famous and powerful men in America. Between his company’s explosive growth, his massive popularity in Michigan and beyond, and his close friendship with President Woodrow Wilson, Ford was on top of the world. At this point, as often happens with men of power, he took an interest in public issues.

At the same time, a massive construction project was grinding to a halt in the Tennessee River Valley. The Wilson Dam had started as a wartime necessity, but the fighting was over. The dam stood half-complete and the river unexploited.

Ford saw this as an opportunity to combine several of his ideals. Here he could push his pacifist tendencies, ideas for new urban design, opposition to the gold standard, and distaste for Wall Street (largely based on his offensive anti-Semitic views). All of these threads came to bear on the as-yet-nonexistent town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Read more

Teaching an Old City New Tricks in Vienna

Vienna, Austria stands apart from other cities I have written about in a number of ways:

  • It’s the first–although probably not the last–I’ve noted that existed well before being envisioned as a city of the future.
  • It’s one of the most successful cities in the world. It is widely recognized both for its exceptional quality of life and, more recently, as one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.

However, such a community still faces problems. The Smart City Wien (literally, Smart City Vienna) initiative, created in 2011, lays out the issues of the modern city and Vienna’s commitment to solving them.

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Ebenezer Howard and Letchworth: The First Garden City

Ask anyone who’s studied urban planning to explain the field’s history and one of the first names you’ll hear will is Ebenezer Howard.

Howard was an English shorthand typist in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies. While working in Chicago, he saw the troubles of modern cities, such as rampant growth and housing shortages. He witnessed the struggle to resolve these issues in England after returning to London as a parliamentary reporter.

In his 1898 book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow), Howard laid out his solution: the garden city. Just five years after the book’s release, the first of these communities was founded: Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire County, north of London.

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Eco-city, Smart City, or Laboratory of Dubious Success: Masdar City, Abu Dhabi

Early rendering of Masdar City plans. Credit: Nrman Foster/Flickr

A 2010 brochure for Masdar City states, “One day, all cities will be built like this.” Unfortunately, this brochure doesn’t seem to be publicly available outside the Khalifa University Library, and apparently the slogan is disused. The sentiment is, however, is a constant in coverage of the Emirati eco-city, which broke ground in 2008 and is still partially under construction. Now generally described as either the first or the most sustainable city in the world, it was founded under the auspices of One Planet Living, an international framework for sustainable cities; and with backing from the World Wildlife Fund. Unfortunately, as it is now, Masdar City’s example may be a poor one to follow.

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EPCOT: Smart City?

The original project that spawned this blog asked the question: Was EPCOT a smart city? The term “smart city” has sprung up in the early 21st century to describe any city using new technology and data-driven strategies to improve the lives of residents. Dr. Margarita Angelidou, in her paper titled “The Role of Smart City Characteristics in the Plans of Fifteen Cities,” lays out 10 characteristics of smart cities, and sees how well various modern smart city projects measure up. Here, I’d like to do the same for Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Read more

Launching September 1st!

While waiting for the full launch of Urban Utopias, I thought I would summarize what this blog will look like. Broadly speaking, my goal is to discuss “Cities of the Future.” People have been designing cities since before the ancient Greeks, but the idea of solving urban problems through design is more recent. I aim to flesh out this idea, one visionary city at a time, looking at where some went right, others went wrong, and most fell somewhere in the middle. Expect a broad range of topics, including physical design, socioeconomic ideas, and historic context.

New full posts come out on the first of each month, with occasional smaller pieces–usually related to that month’s city–on the fifteenth.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to let me know!