The Hazards of Predicting the Future of Cities

City planners should be wary of any predictions that downplay the unknowability of the future by projecting present conditions onto it.
Andrew Lynn
By Matt-80 (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Envisioning cities of the future can sometimes be more at home in science fiction than urban planning. Optimism generally looms large in these visions. At the 1939 World’s Fair, the exhibit, “World of Tomorrow”—with its motto “For Peace and Freedom”—featured an elaborate futuristic model city called Democracity, a tribute to the reigning techno-utopian hopes of the time. Millions of visitors were awed by it. In a dark twist of irony, the model was melted down only a few years later to provide four thousand tons of steel for making bombs in World War II. This was only one of many 20th century futuristic urban visions that failed to materialize.

The New York Times columnist and George Mason economist Tyler Cowen has produced a vision that no one can accuse of being techno-utopian. In Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, Cowen sees reason for cities to accept some grim realities of the present as they plan for their future.

Cowen’s argument centers on the labor market. He points out that technological development and increasing foreign competition have decreased the demand for middle-wage workers. For the last twenty years in the U.S. as well as sixteen European countries, low-wage occupations rose as a share of the total labor market while middle-wage occupations declined. The recent 2008-2009 recession only solidified this reality, as many of the middle-wage jobs were replaced by new low-wage jobs.

Cowen’s prognosis is both more complex and more simplistic than the typical “vanishing middle class” laments. His concerns revolve almost entirely around the influence of technology. According to Cowen, the labor market divides and polarizes workers into those who can complement the work of intelligent machines and those who cannot. Those on the losing end of this polarization are competing for fewer and fewer middle-wage jobs, which the economy has been “structurally shedding”—an ominous phrase—for the last few decades.

Though there are other economists writing in the same area, such as Enrico Moretti, Cowen’s work stands out in his move from description to prescription. After pointing to the high rates of people moving to Texas for its cheaper cost of living, Cowen poses a challenging question for cities:

What if someone proposed that in a few parts of the United States, in the warmer states, some city neighborhoods would be set aside for cheap living? We would build some ‘tiny homes’ there; tiny homes might be about 400 square feet and cost in the range of $20,000 to $40,000. We would build some very modest dwellings there, as we used to build in the 1920s. We also would build some makeshift structures there, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela.

Cowen argues planned shanty towns are preferable to the alternative of unplanned shanty towns, which emerge as working class people are priced or zoned out of all but the most economically under-resourced places. Indeed, shanty towns and “tent cities” have already popped up in places like London, Madrid, and numerous American cities.

So should prescient city planners take their cue from Cowen and begin laying out these neighborhoods?

In some regard, the answer is relatively obvious: no city should be planning substandard or unsound housing that fails to respect basic human dignity and rights to safety. Cowen’s vision drew the ire of both Brookings Institute’s William Galston, who served in the Clinton administration, and political science professor Patrick Deneen, a regular contributor to The American Conservative. Most people across the political spectrum would agree no future scenario warrants planning substandard housing.

But what about Cowen’s larger read on future economic realities? Should his predictions be imported into urban planning?

Here the answer is more complicated.

For one, there is the classic problem of trying to see into the future regarding technological development. As philosopher Karl Popper famously pointed out, no one could have predicted the invention of the wheel. Predicting the wheel would entail inventing the wheel. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know when a society is standing on the brink of something like the dot-com bubble or the shale energy revolution that could drastically shift labor markets.

Problematically, predictive models and (dys)utopian ideals typically gloss over the future’s dependence upon choices, discoveries, and events yet to happen. Revolutions, international conflict, famines and natural disasters, natural resources discoveries, monetary system collapses, entrepreneurial activity, and labor movements are typically not worked into economic models. City planners should be wary of any predictions that downplay the unknowability of the future by projecting present conditions onto it.

The other reason to take Cowen’s predictions with a grain of salt is the narrow focus on economics as the driver of the future. There is a danger of single-causal explanations, such as a faltering labor market, that overlooks the important non-economic contingencies driving social outcomes. Scholars like William Julius Wilson have long posited under-resourced neighborhoods as the result of an array of complex factors that are historical, cultural, social, as well as economic.

However, Cowen’s narrative can (and should) supplement other explanations of growing divides in postindustrial American culture, including research on neighborhood effects, racial legacies, the decline of unionized labor, and class-polarized childhood experiences. In fact, Cowen’s book joins a long line of newer works charting rising inequality and residential segregation in recent decades, including Robert Putnam, Claude Fischer, Bill Bishop, Charles Murray.

In the end, city planners should certainly pay attention to the wider conversation on postindustrial American society, even those that paint a less-than-utopian vision of the future. Yet, against the weighty determinism of model-wielding economists, it is possible to view these conversations through the lens of epistemic humility while holding to particular commitments regarding a social contract with those displaced by economic forces.

New planning initiatives or political efforts that aim to counteract present social trends, far from resigning to predictive determinism, can work to mobilize the social, institutional, and moral resources capable of preserving social arrangements necessary for a flourishing society.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social theory, and questions surrounding social solidarity and civic commitments.