Envisioning a Planet City
Planet City’s beekeepers care for 90,572,730 beehives.
Photo — Liam Young
As part of our The Ideal City 2040 exhibition program, we invited speculative architect Liam Young to present his vision for an alternative future city, Planet City. On a late-summer’s afternoon, we gathered at SPACE10 HQ to discuss what it might look like to generate urban forms and ways of living through collective action.
Our new exhibition The Ideal City 2040 transforms the inspiring projects, designs and perspectives that feature in our The Ideal City book into three speculative bioregional cityscapes — the Coastal City, the Garden City, and the Solar City.
With these envisioned futures, we propose what our cities could look like in the year 2040 — using the technologies and know-how of today. These are possible futures where cities exist in harmony with nature, while improving our environment and quality of life.
In the Garden City, we present a city cooled by its green canopy and regenerative gardens that reduce food miles. Communities enjoy the benefits of shared living and a circular economy. In the Solar City, decision-makers centre local and Indigenous knowledge to build affordable, solar-powered homes. Meanwhile, in the Coastal City, the urban landscape has been adapted to co-exist with the fluctuating tides of the surrounding waterways — and everything residents need is only a short walk away.
While we believe in painting optimistic visions for cities that could be Copenhagen, Nairobi or Shenzhen in 2040 — safe, desirable, collectively shaped cities that feel achievable and attainable — we also understand that what is utopian is subjective.
‘The question of utopia and dystopia is a very subjective one based on the audience that is experiencing and understanding the project,’ Liam Young says.
We need multiple visions for how we create a better everyday life for people and the planet. Curious to explore the tensions and contrasts between diverse possible futures, we invited speculative architect and director Liam Young to share the research and concepts behind his film that rethinks the city — Planet City.
Video — Liam Young
By 2050, two-thirds of the global population will live in cities. While cities account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions, living closer together improves access to healthcare and education, and could help to minimise our environmental impact. But housing is a precondition for access to essential services, and currently only 13 percent of the world’s cities have affordable housing. The challenges of how we live together in growing cities are extensive, but so are the opportunities.
Planet City is a work of critical architecture and speculative fiction, examining the social and environmental questions we are grappling with today. In this fictional future, humans have cooperated in returning stolen lands and surrendered Earth’s surface to a global-scale rewilding. Over multiple generations, the entire population of the Earth has retreated to a single city. Here, they’ve built a hyper-dense metropolis to reverse centuries of colonisation, globalisation, endless economic extraction, and the exploitation of both natural and human resources. The film shares how living together in a Planet City would create a vibrant borderless city of 10 billion people and 7,047 languages, where there’s a different cultural festival every day.
‘The urban imaginary has always been this site in which we can prototype new scenarios and emerging culture,’ Young says. ‘In their speculative streets, we can play out multiple unexpected or intended futures, and their associated social and political ideologies.’
The project is layered with years of research and site visits by Young’s urban futures think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today and nomadic workshop Unknown Fields Division. Additionally, it brings together the knowledge and perspectives of scientists, theorists, technologists, food start-ups, and Indigenous storytellers to ground the work in science and tech that, if invested in and multiplied, could sustain human life and non-human life amid anthropogenic climate change.
‘I want to be clear that Planet City is more a thought experiment than a proposal,’ Young says. ‘It’s a real working model of the city. I know how many tomatoes that city can produce, and how many it needs to produce. At the same time, it’s utterly ludicrous.’
‘But if we can get Planet City working at the scale of 10 billion people, there’s nothing stopping us from reimagining LA or London using those same models.’
‘We are already citizens of a planetary city’
As Young guides us on a cinematic excursion of both real and rendered imagery, he unfolds the tales of two cities that fit the entire population of the Earth. One is fictional, Planet City. And the other, which we currently occupy, our planetary city.
‘The real fiction is not Planet City. The real fiction is the idea that we can keep on doing what we’re doing and not go extinct. The real fiction is the way that we make our existing cities.’
Young shares the concept of the Ecumenopolis, a planetwide city, which has long been a focus in science fiction. As megacities stretch out to meet smaller cities, human settlement would bring about total planetary urbanisation. ‘Of course, today, the Ecumenopolis is no longer fiction. Urban development has forever changed the composition of the atmosphere, the oceans and the earth. Landscapes have become resource fields, countries have become factory floors, and oceans are conveyor belts.’
What if we radically reversed this planetary sprawl?
Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Earth theory proposed that human development should be contracted to 50 percent of the planet, with the other half designated a human-free recovery zone to preserve biodiversity and regenerate the land and marine environments on which we depend. This was one of the starting points for Planet City — except Young calculated it would be possible for 10 billion people to live on just 0.02 percent of land, an area roughly the size of an average US state.
So, how can we live more compactly? How can a compact city be a circular, closed-loop system?
We have all the knowledge we need
From researching the densest urban constructions on the planet to understanding humanity’s current impact on the land, oceans and each other, both problematic exploits and hopeful interventions have shaped the components of Planet City.
Visually, this translates into vertical solar fields kept clean by autonomous robotics, and algae canals that act as the city’s batteries. Stacked farms both absorb carbon and produce food, while clothing is crafted from zero-waste patterns. City infrastructure is built by recycling and upcycling what we already have — no new materials, no waste. ‘All of the technology that’s in Planet City is already here, in most cases, it’s been here for 10 or 15 years,’ Young says.
‘One of the takeaways from the project, we hope, is this idea that climate change is no longer a technological problem. It’s a cultural and political problem. The solutions required to dig us out of the hole that we’ve created for ourselves are here and they’ve been here for a long time. What would happen if we rolled these technologies out at a scale that’s meaningful or planetary?’
Worldbuilding, grounded in possible realities
For Young, science fiction is not about predicting a future that we all then try to work towards. Rather, it creates a series of prompts that enable action today — and holds up a mirror that can help us become more informed about the decisions that we’re currently facing.
‘The more stories we tell about a future — both positive and negative, aspirational and dystopian — the more that landscape becomes illuminated. And the easier it is to understand the next step that we might take.’
By bringing authors, thinkers, ideas and conversations that usually exist in the peripheries into the centre, Young hopes Planet City acts as a prompt for the many people to keep making stories and imagining futures from a plurality of perspectives — to become vessels for critical ideas about our shared futures.
‘Fiction is this extraordinary language. It’s how cultures communicate and disseminate ideas. In many ways, we’re all literate in stories. And narratives of imagined worlds can help us to visualise other possible futures. These stories are a product of culture. But hopefully, they also produce culture. So as we write stories, we also begin to write the world.’
Liam Young is an Australian speculative architect and director who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures. He is co-founder of Tomorrows Thoughts Today, an urban futures think tank, exploring the local and global implications of new technologies; and Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic research studio that chronicles these emerging conditions as they occur on-ground. His visionary films and speculative world designs for the film and television industry are both extraordinary images of tomorrow and urgent examinations of the environmental questions facing us today. His fictional work is informed by his academic research and he has held guest professorships at Princeton University, MIT, and Cambridge. He runs an MA in Fiction and Entertainment at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles. He has published several books including Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post Anthropocene and Planet City.