Drawing pictures of cities

We need to visualize the kinds of urban environments we want to live in

This is a famous picture by the artist Imperial Boy (帝国少年), who works in the anime industry. I sometimes claim that the entire genre of solarpunk is simply a riff on this picture. That’s an exaggeration, obviously — a few people have thought very seriously about the design principles of solarpunk — but the influence and appeal of Imperial Boy’s design is undeniable. And other solarpunk art, while often lovely, tends not to immediately look like the kind of city you’d want to build; often it’s either a picture of a high-tech farm, or some variant of “put a tree on the side of every building”.

Planting a bunch of trees on buildings is a popular (and controversial) idea. The premise is simple — we need to live in dense urban areas, but forests are nice, so why not a mashup of the two? But when you actually do it, while the results are generally fine, somehow it doesn’t seem to capture the magic of Imperial Boy’s illustration.

So if it’s not just “trees on buildings”, where does the Imperial Boy picture get its magic? Looking at it carefully and trying to analyze what I like about it, I think that much of it is about architecture, and even more of it is about the use of urban space — about how the structures in the picture shape the kinds of things you’d do if you were there. For example, here are five things I like:

1) Open, walkable multi-level retail. The building on the right, which appears to be some sort of retail space, has a second floor that you can walk to from the outside. It appears to have a veranda on the second floor and possibly another on the third floor, where a bunch of trees are planted. These are places you can walk to, where you can presumably sit, admiring the city, surrounded by pleasant greenery — an oasis of calm in a bustling metropolis. It’s not a perfect match, but it reminds me of Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku, which sits at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Tokyo:

It also reminds me a bit of Daikanyama, or of various trendy shopping centers and train station plazas in Japanese cities where they’ve tried to integrate lots of greenery into the design.

2) River with low bank. Urban rivers are nice, but if the banks are very high it still feels like a concrete chasm, even when lined with the nicest plants. Here’s Nakameguro in Tokyo:

The river in the Imperial Boy picture looks more like the River Walk in San Antonio:

If you can be sure the river’s not going to overflow its banks and flood your shops, that’s pretty nice.

3) Walkable streets. There’s a small cobblestone open space in front of the shops, and a guy is able to just sit there reading a newspaper or something. There are a lot of plazas like this around the world; my favorites tend to be in Seattle and Vancouver, but just for fun here’s a picture of Triangle Park in Osaka:

More generally, people like walkable urban spaces where they can stroll around to shop and hang out and see other people.

4) Varied architecture. The round-topped buildings in Imperial Boy’s picture are fun and exotic. But even more importantly, there’s a lot of variation in the design of the structures. Some edges are rectilinear, some are curved. Some facades are smooth, some are broken up. There are various kinds of windows. The skyscraper in the background is actually pretty ugly in many ways — its tiny, deep-set windows make it look a bit like a prison. But since it’s just one element of the jumble of styles, you don’t really notice it. I don’t know much about architecture, but I do believe that a variety of styles practically always beats one uniform style. In fact, I think San Francisco’s residential areas generally do a great job in terms of switching up styles from building to building:

5) Shade. It’s nice to sit and walk in the shade much of the time. The trees in Imperial Boy’s picture are nice because they provide shade to the people at street level. But one problem with the “put a tree on it” approach to solarpunk is that trees don’t really tend to grow out at a steep angle from the sides of buildings. The better way to create shade is just to have buildings have lots of overhangs and to put a bunch of big, spreading trees at ground level.

There’s one more thing that lots of people probably like about the city Imperial Boy depicts — it isn’t very crowded. Of course, if you want to create a dense city, you’re going to have to have to pack a lot of people into a small amount of space. But cities can be designed so that there are crowded parts and less crowded parts, even near the city center. Japan does a good of this; America, less so.

So that’s really the secret of Imperial Boy’s magic. Not some biopunk science fiction that merges foliage and concrete, nor some cyberpunk construction method that creates buildings in improbable shapes. It’s just good urban design — something we could have right now if we wanted. Except that “if we wanted” actually means “if a huge set of institutional and cultural barriers to dense, walkable development and high-quality architecture didn’t exist”, which of course they do.

So how do we, as a society, make ourselves want dense, walkable, well-planned cities and high-quality urban architecture? I think we need to draw more pictures.

When people imagine density, they tend to imagine either something famous (Manhattan) or the closest thing to them (a four-or-five-story wooden apartment complex). That’s not great, though, because those are examples of what our current, broken institutions allowed us to build, rather than what we might build if we had better institutions. For example, those boxy apartment buildings are built that way in order to maximize the number of people they can fit onto a plot of land, since it’s so rare that they can get a building approved (and because of height restrictions and/or excess construction costs). Here’s a visual explanation by Alfred Twu:

None of these are going to look amazing (the only apartment buildings that look truly nice on their own are small walkups), but I think Europe’s is the best out of these three. For high-density neighborhoods, of course, use a mix of styles:

When it comes to housing, one powerful tool is the design competition. Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles’ Chief Design Officer, came up with a brilliant idea to hold a design competition to draw pictures of denser housing. The result was Low-Rise L.A., whose winners you can see here. Here’s a Twitter thread and Slate piece:

This works pretty well for housing, because it’s easy to capture the feel of a housing idea in a single piece of artwork, or a few pieces. For cities as a whole, it’s much more difficult. America needs to build its cities around trains a lot more than it does, and around cars a lot less, but the only train-centric place we really have is NYC. And Manhattan is a fine place, but there are lots of train-centric cities in the world far less hectic and imposing.

You can gaze at pictures of those places all day (and in fact you should), but everyone knows they were built under a very different set of institutional constraints and cultural preferences. A denser San Francisco or Houston or Miami just wouldn’t look like Amsterdam or Tokyo or Paris. Instead, we need more artists to draw pictures of what the future of those cities could look like, if they densified and added more transit.

That’s a big undertaking. One example I know of, interestingly, comes from a kids’ movie — the fictional city of San Fransokyo, created for the Disney movie Big Hero 6. It’s basically just a denser San Francisco with a few pseudo-Japanese stylings, but it looks great:

Now, that may not look exactly like the future city you want to create. But only by drawing a bunch of these futures can we convince the people of our cities that density and transit and mixed-use development won’t turn their cities into Manhattan clones or dystopian superblocks or whatever else their fevered imaginations run to whenever they hear someone say the word “density”.

To create the future we must first dream the future. Private foundations that are interested in pro-density politics should give a bunch of money to people like Christopher Hawthorne, who should then scour the country for a hundred different Imperial Boy type artists to draw pictures of the futures of American cities.

(They won’t be quite as good as Imperial Boy himself, of course…but then again, who is?)

Update: Alfred Twu has an amazing blog post in which he envisions a kind of dense development where tall buildings are set back behind shorter ones.


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