The triumph of the megacity is no more than a myth
'In the country were neither means of being clothed nor fed.
Mechanical appliances in agriculture had made one engineer the equivalent of 30 labourers, there were no efficient doctors for an emergency, there was no company for loneliness and no pursuits? Instead there was a vision of city beyond city. Cities on great plains, cities beside great rivers, vast cities along the sea margin, cities girdled by snowy mountains? Everywhere now through the city-set earth the same cosmopolitan social organisation prevailed and everywhere, from Pole to Equator, the whole world was civilized.The whole world dwelt in cities.'
This extract is taken from The Sleeper Awakes, the celebrated science fiction novel by H G Wells, a volume still admired for its insights into the causes and consequences of the future. First published in 1898, its action takes place 150 years later, in 2048.Wells' concept of the British Empire in his distant future was of a civilisation of cities; advanced, globalised megastructures ruled by a corrupt elite. The most striking element in this picture is the total urbanisation of the population, and the evacuation of the countryside that is its corollary.
Wells' vision of 2048 is compelling, and remains so, as is evidenced by its influence on science-fiction films - ranging from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner - that continues to this day. Its terrifying idea of the triumph of the megacity now has the status of a Holy Writ. No one dares to say that Wells was wrong about cities.The myth of an inevitable triumph of the city has hoodwinked politicians, historians, and social commentators for more than a century.
Given the durability of the urban myth, it is surprising how little attention has been paid to an almost synchronous anti-urban prediction.Only five years after the publication of The Sleeper Awakes, a very different and completely contradictory book was published in London. Tube, Train, Tram and Car, by Arthur Beavan (Routledge, 1903), argued convincingly that the combined effect of these, then new, means of transport - coupled with the increasing distribution of electricity - would be to open up vast areas of previously inaccessible countryside for development by dramatically shrinking time and distance along all-weather corridors into and out of cities, thus giving birth to the commuter lifestyle that survives to this day.
Beavan sees the principal benefit of this coalition of new technologies as making slum clearance possible, but he concedes that the creation of cheap rural building land further out is also a factor.He foresees suburban railway stations becoming transport interchanges with large car parks for motorcar commuters.
But 100 years later, Beavan is forgotten while Wells'world of cities uncannily anticipates, not our present, but the urban future so extolled in Towards an Urban Renaissance, the 1999 report of the Urban Task Force chaired by Richard Rogers. This report also fails to acknowledge the rise of private transport in the shape of the motorcar, and thus misses out the greatest agent of land-use change of the 20th century: the car and the disurbanising recolonisation of the countryside that it has brought about. Because it presents an essentially 19th-century image of the city of the future, Towards an Urban Renaissance shares this blind spot with Wells. It shows us that despite more than 100 years of motoring and 50 years of motorway construction - all of which has encouraged dispersal and decentralisation in living and working patterns all over the world - our official vision of the future remains stubbornly urbanised and historicised, compact and densely populated.