Wakanda is a marvel. The fictional country of the Marvel Universe is the most advanced civilization in the world, years beyond the rest of the world in technological learning.
But it’s a little-noticed part of Wakanda that may predict what our real-life cities of the future should look like, according to author Vishaan Chakrabarti, who I talked to for my new podcast “Downside Up.”
“One of the things I love about Wakanda, if you notice, if you watch ‘Black Panther’ carefully, there’s the city, the city’s got all this mass transit and all this housing parks and all this stuff,” explained Chakrabarti, who wrote a book called “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America.” “And the moment you leave the city, you’re in farmland. And there’s this connection between rural life and urban life.”
He added: “I just think that is a really interesting paradigm to think about people, either living in super dense circumstances or really living in true rural hinterland and doing the things that we need everyone to do in farmland, which is grow our food and all of that stuff. And it would mean you would use a lot less land on this planet at the end of the day.”
That vision of our cities does not comport with what our cities currently look like. Not close. And that’s in large part due to the fact that most of our modern cities were built around cars, not people. (You’ll notice there aren’t cars in Wakanda.)
And that is a development that occurred after World War II. Our dense urban centers began to empty out as people chased the dream of a yard and a white picket fence in the newly created suburbs. People need a way to get from their city jobs to their new houses in the suburbs. And the growth of factories to meet war demand meant that cars could be mass-produced both quickly and cheaply.
Car culture was born. The idea was simple: Our cars were essential components of who we were – and are. Cars were an extension of your personality. Everyone – it seemed – had one. They became a status symbol. And our cities began to be built to accommodate them rather than to accommodate us.
We were all in such a hurry to live the suburban dream that we didn’t think what – and who – was being left behind by the rise of car culture. “Cities then are designed to serve a very small minority of people who happen to have access to resources and power,” Dr. Destiny Thomas, an urban planner, told me.
Now, though, could be a moment when the way we have thought and constructed our cities could well be changing, said Joann Muller, who covers the future of cities and transportation for Axios.
“I think we’re in this really interesting time right now, with sort of a once in a century transformation and it has to do with electric, autonomous connected vehicles,” she said. “And with that moment where all the technology is changing, that should be the time where we rethink what cities should look like as well. I don’t know that that’s happening as much as it should be, but it’s an opportunity. And you think about, there’s a lot of micro mobility devices now. And I don’t know that a scooter’s brand new or a bicycle’s certainly not brand new, but we’re thinking about them in different ways as transportation around cities. And sometimes it’s actually a lot faster to go on a bike than it is in a car.”
Chakrabarti notes that there are a number of cities in Europe that are already doing the work of putting people at the center of cities. “Copenhagen and so forth, tons of bike lanes, there’s a whole culture of biking, the Dutch countries, again, enormous infrastructure around walking, biking and mass transit,” he said.
Whether major American cities ever transform from where we are today – heavily suburbanized and car-dependent – remains to be seen. But all we have to do is look to Wakanda for an idea of how our cities of the future could work.