The city of the future has dissolved from something imaganable into a will-o'-the wisp -- a shattered mosaic of images and projections of urban planners sundered by the uncertainity of rapid social change.
"We make a decision, a plan for 20 years in the future, and within six months circumstances have changed so greatly that the decision is no longer appropriate ," explains Arthur Skolnik, an architect-conservator from Seattle. He spoke at a recent forum on the future of the city at the University of Colorado Here.
At this conference it was apparent that the pace of change -- including inflation, rising energy costs, telecommunications technology, and the breakdown of the "nuclear" family -- is having a profound and unpredictable impact on urban structure in America.
A question provoked by the problems of New York and other major cities is whether the metropolis is becoming obsolete. Many urban planners reject this suggestion out of hand.
Recent years have seen the reversal of a major demographic trend. Instead of flocking to the big cities in ever-increasing numbers, people are seeking more rural environments. Public opinion polls suggest that a major reason for this trend is the perception of high crime rates in large cities.
At the same time, advances the telecommunications are eating into cities' communications advantages. This erosion began with the telephone and will get an even bigger boost with increasing utilization of satellite and computer capabilities.
"When I think of the city of the future, I see a giant restaurant," said one urban planner at the conference. "In the future, I believe, entertainment will be a major reason for people to come together, and the city is well suited for this."
Weighing against this optimistic vision is the fact that a number of cities have found it difficult to attract people from surrounding areas. This has led to what Mr. Skolnik calls "the convention city syndrome." Because of downtown area cannot attract those who live in the immediate area, boosters fabricate attractions to draw out-of-towners. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to attract local area patrons, he explained.
William Simon, director of the Institute for Urban Studies at the University of Houston, rejects such analysis. For him, "the city is not a set of functions , but a state of mind."
When the idea of colonies in space -- a concept which has intrigued many urban planners because it is the ultimate man-built environment -- and its antithesis, the "small is beautiful" movement, were brought up, Dr. simon dismissed them both as examples of unrealistic romanticism.
"I see the hand of the past trying the shape the future," the sociologist commented. His view of the future is substantially different.
He foresees an intensification of what he calls the "community of limited liability." This is a community adapted to a transitory, mobile life style where people stay in an area only so long as their needs or "personal metaphors" are fulfilled. When they are not, they move elsewhere. Bolstering this perception is Mr. Skolnik's observation that there has been an influx of single adults into city centers.
As the discussion continued, it became clear that much of the uncertainty stemmed from a conflict of the basic values of the speakers. This is similar to the clash over environmental protection and nuclear power.
On the one hand, there is the concept of the built environment as a machine, a tool which people must learn to use to their own advantage. In this view the city serves to free people from onerous responsibilities and gives them unprecedented freedom and multiplicity of choice.
Yet there are those who reject this view. Lewis Mumford argues that most of the choices presented are trivial, like choosing between 100 different styles of belt, and, by cluttering people's lives, make choices of substance have a more mystical and organic view of communities and stress social value over economic function.
Still, there is basic agreement that America's cities have to maintain an unprecedented amount of flexibility if they are to survive. It is a flexibility which, in many cases, now is lacking.
Carl N. Hodges, an expert on controlled environment agriculture at the University of Arizona, told of his attempts to build a greenhouse in a New York ghetto. The idea was to provide urban poor with inexpensive vegetables either to eat or to sell. After more than $25,000 was spent, the attempt was abandoned because of the difficulty of complying with city regulations.
"There are a number of new technologies which hold considerable promise toward the city, but I fear that, with many of these, we may have to start with a clean [municipal] slate," Dr. Hodges respectfully observed.
Mr. Skolnik agrees that overregulation is a major problem in the big cities.
Unless the participation of neighborhood organizations can be institutionalized, Mr. Skolnik foresees big-city decisions being made by fewer and fewer people.