The Tale of Two Sci Fi Cities

sci fi cities

Just like there are multiple different genres of science fiction, there are also many imagined outcomes for the spaces where we live. In post-apocalyptic futures, survivors of nuclear fallout or deadly contagion hole up in abandoned buildings and underground bunkers.

For space opera sagas, people call space stations, colony ships, and mining rigs home. And cyberpunk cities are filled with smog, neon lights, and poverty. It’s clear that the spectrum of sci fi cities—or sci fi habitats, in general—are all dependent upon each individual value-set of the genre.

For example, cyberpunk has long been defined by end-game capitalism, where mega-corporations blatantly control governments and dictate the habits of the population. Any and all infrastructure projects are designed to benefit the corporations, and the everyday person ends up working longer hours for less pay, if they work a job at all.

The cyberpunk city reflects the high-tech, low-life motto of the genre. Tech isn’t used to create a better collective future, instead it’s the tool of authoritarian, capitalist regimes or the hobby of “punks” who see their individualism tied with technology.

Thinking about how political, economic, and social factors impact the kinds of cities we live in, I was interested to learn about the “real life” sci fi cities that pop up once and again in WIRED articles or news coverage.

More specifically, I am intrigued by the mindset that dictates the design choices for these cities. If we were living in a sci fi novel, what would our genre be? That’s how I wanted to look at the following sci fi cities.

Songdo IBD, South Korea

Songdo is one of the more popular sci fi cities you hear mentioned today, and it’s certainly on of the most complete. What started as a tidal flat home to a few fishermen, is now a “green” metropolis that houses around 170,000 people.

Songdo, and the Songdo International Business District, are located along the Incheon waterfront, an hour away from Seoul, South Korea. The city was designed to be a sustainable city, with green spaces and LEED-certifications galore.

In the past 20 years, multiple governments and investors have contributed $40 billion to Songdo city, making it one of the most expensive megastructures in the world.

The city, in keeping with the goal of environmental sustainability, features:

  • Pneumatic waste systems that sort garbage and recycling
  • A lofty 100 acres of park space
  • Multiple LEED-certified buildings and spaces (approximately 106 buildings, when construction is complete)
  • Bike lanes and accessible public transportation

Pictures of Songdo city might lure you into thinking it’s the future of urban living. The precursor to a solarpunk city, if you will.

However, under its bright green environmentalism, Songdo reveals the ideologies upon which urban life is built.

sci fi cities songdo
An overview of the Central Park in Songdo, seen from the Observatory on the 29th floor of G-Tower. 18.08.15

On an innocent level, sensors and built-in computers around the city monitor water flow, energy usage, and traffic patterns. This data is collected under the guise of advancement of green tech—gathering data to better perfect urban infrastructure.

But these auxiliary computer systems act as an appendage to the hand of authoritarianism. Throughout the city, government-funded cameras are mounted on light posts, street signs, traffic lights, and buildings, connecting back to the U-Life Center. What’s detailed as a precautionary measure to prevent crime and respond quickly to disasters can easily be equipped for intelligence-gathering and a demolition of any sense of privacy.

What’s more, Cisco, one of the developing partners, proposed that all children be equipped with GPS tracking chips in their bracelets. Albeit back in 2014, this tech is still just as haunting today, where it’s hard to find any kind of privacy from prying, online eyes.

Forest City, Malaysia

Just a six-hour plane ride from Songdo, another smart, green city is under development. Forest City is located in the Johor Bahru District in Malaysia, spanning around 3,400 acres. The project was meant to be an energy-efficient, low-waste city to help solve the growing population problem in Malaysia. Forest City was a collaborative effort between Johor People’s Infrastructure Group and Country Garden Holding Ltd.

sci fi cities forest city

Construction for the project began in 2006, but has stalled multiple times due to political, environmental, and economic factors. Environmentally, the construction project has compromised water hydrology, traditional fishing grounds, and mangrove orchards. And many experts are saying that the land is sinking, seen through cracks in new foundations and shifting buildings. The man-made islands weren’t given enough time to settle, and will create problems in the future.

Despite having raised over $100 billion for the project, Forest City remains one of the least populated cities in the world, with only about 500 full-time residents.

The idea for this sci fi city was sound—a metropolis filled with green spaces and next-level technology—but corruption and environmental oversight have landed Forest City in the margins of history.

A Capitalist Future

It’s clear that there are some strides being made toward sustainability and an environmentally-friendly future. However, there’s a difference between end-goal sustainability and continuous sustainability.

The land Songdo is built used to be a costal flat, with a few fishermen calling it home. Over the course of a few years, the whole landscape changed, with earthmovers bringing in tons of sand and soil to create the foundation for the city. And at one point, construction ground to a halt because it threatened local ecosystems.

And Forest City is no different. The man-made islands it sits upon were once an Environmentally Sensitive Area, which prohibited development that wasn’t related to low-impact tourism and research. Construction of Forest City began without the proper legal documents and eventually impacted coastal wetlands and traditional fishing families.

If these sustainable cities were more than a venture by capitalist well-doers, they would have taken the proper precautions to abide by local restrictions and environmental protection acts. In the pursuit of a “green city”, the developers have overlooked the biodiversity and importance of the coastal wetlands.

I think we can best sum up both Songdo and Forest City with a quote from Bruce Sterling, from his Manifesto of January 3rd, 2000. Talking about CO2 emissions—and largely about sustainable building practices—he says, “it’s not centrally a political or economic problem. It is a design and engineering problem. It is a cultural problem and a problem of artistic sensibility.”

Economically, these cities are possible. If not for capitalism, the Songdo and Forest City projects might not have raised billions of dollars from private and government investors. But culturally, the projects turned into vanity projects, and abide by the same autocratic policies that plague urban centers all over the world. Information privacy is thrown out the window, and the foundations for the cities were built using the same strategies as every other city.

The only way to truly create a green city, be it today or 10 years from today, is to start with a good foundation. That foundation is both a literal and a metaphorical thing.

You need to build in a place that’s not a protected environmental zone, obviously, but you also need to make the construction a collaborative effort between scientific and thought leaders in the field and local authorities. And under capitalism, that cannot happen. Corners will always be cut for the sake of profit, a focus will always be placed on recouping investment, and design elements will favor the needs of the state, or in this case, the developer.

If we learned anything from our deep dive into Solarpunk, it’s that the best places are built outside of the conventional sphere—with “punk” energy, if you will.

So, until those things happen, hopeful sci fi cities like Songdo and Forest City will only every be that: hopeful.