On 19th November, Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS) hosted an interdisciplinary symposium on Imagining city futures, organized by collegium researcher Lieven Ameel. The symposium aimed at bringing together researchers of future narratives across disciplines, focusing on representations of urban futures within different genres such as literary fiction, futures scenarios and policy. The symposium was organized together with SELMA (Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory, University of Turku) and the Association for Literary Urban Studies. In this blog I will reflect briefly what I took home from the symposium as an environmental social scientist leaning towards humanities, formerly engaged in urban studies and developing my thinking on futures.
The keynote talk was delivered by Paul Dobraszczyk from the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. He discussed images of drowned cities after climate change in fiction writing and visual arts. Dobraszczyk talked, for instance, of the future vision of the climate fiction novel New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017). In the book, Robinson presents a future that has faced extreme 50-feet sea level rise, and as follows, most of New York is under water. The city has been transformed into a Venice-like environment where people move about by boats. The wealthy live in the skyscrapers, connected by sky bridges, while the rest pool their resources best they can. In the cover of the book we see submerged New York from a bird’s eye perspective, perhaps from a helicopter. Dobraszczyk criticized both literature and architecture for failing to reimagine the social and focusing on the cityscapes and urban structure instead. He emphasized the need for imagining attractive futures that can motivate action to move towards them, instead of the all-too-familiar dystopian future images in popular culture.
Cultural historian Kimi Kärki from the University of Turku discussed the future visions in the two Blade Runner movies and suggested that their imaginary is simultaneously both dystopian and utopian. While the visual images portray a hellish future of darkness, flames and eternal rain, the soundtrack by Vangelis seems to message light and hope. Again we have an extreme social division between the people living in the pyramids of Tyrell corporation, and the multicultural mix of people trying to make a living on the street, in the underbelly of the city.
All people in the world do not have to stretch their imagination anymore to think of life with climate change and sea level rise. Milla Vaha discussed the different approaches taken by the small island states of Maldives and Tuvalu. Whereas Maldives has taken the route of land reclamation and is constructing artificial islands to compensate for the land lost to sea, the small state of Tuvalu has, according to Vaha, taken a more ecological but slower solution to create more land through natural processes. The reclamation project at Maldives is controversial as the reclamation is done with foreign money, and now the state is forcing its citizens to relocate to the artificially constructed island to sell the natural paradise islands to investors. Despite the imminent threat of sea level rise, people at the island states are unwilling to leave their homes. They look back to their history as people of the sea and expect to find solutions in the future as well. As an international relations scholar Milla Vaha reminded that relocating people from the drowning islands is not a simple matter either due to national borders. Interestingly in her talk geographer Hanna Heino reminded that immigration is a vital driving force for the growth of cities in Finland.
Outi Luova, the director of the Finnish University Network of Asian Studies, discussed in her talk Chinese eco-city experiments – and how they have gone wrong. There have been many ambitious, futuristic eco-city projects carried out with foreign investment (also Finnish) in China to create ecological cities of the future. Due to various reasons, many of these visionary projects have not turned out as success stories. Outi Luova discussed an entire newly constructed city that is currently a ghost town, where hardly anyone lives. The project failed to create attractive living environment and was totally disconnected from the social realities of people who were expected to live there. As such, these eco-city projects have turned out to be huge waste of resources and all but sustainable. Instead of megalomaniac top-down projects, Outi Luova emphasised the importance of bottom-up solutions to climate change within existing city and social structures.
The issue of agency became the central theme of the symposium in imagining city futures, and different methods for strengthening agency were addressed. Kaisa Schmidt-Thomé from Demos Helsinki presented different drivers identified for urban development. Interestingly, in her opinion, a good scenario has to include something surprising and something slightly annoying, as confronting our discomfort supports agency. Johanna Ylipulli from the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies discussed the city planning in Oulu, and a design process where the Japanese concept “Ikigai” was taken as a research method. Ikigai translates as “reason for being”. The design process aimed at taking a truly bottom-up approach to city planning and instead of starting from spaces and structures, it was discussed what is the purpose of the city and how to define good life there.
In conclusion, the city futures are multiple, and different disciplines and genres such as literary fiction, visual arts and sciences all have roles in imagining and preparing for those futures. While it seems that the dystopian imaginaries sometimes take the better of us, comparative literature scholar Jouni Teittinen posed the question “What is it exactly that we are afraid of?” What we will be facing with climate change and rising sea levels, he reminded, is perhaps the end of capitalist urban experience, but it is not the end of the world.
Minna Santaoja is a postdoctoral researcher in the Turku Institute of Advanced Studies (TIAS). She works at the FFRC’s Tampere office.