Created in 1989, The University of Waterloo Planning Alumni of Toronto (UWPAT) has been providing crucial support ever since to the university's cherished School of Planning. Its Planner-In-Residence program has provided a platform for prominent urban thinkers to teach students about the world of urban development. The program would not be possible without UWPAT's fundraising efforts, which also births a number of new scholarships for students. One of the primary ways of raising the funds necessary for these endeavours is through UWPAT's Annual Dinner, which invites students, professors and the brightest planning minds in Ontario for a night of celebration, education and networking. 

Robert J. Sawyer speaks about the future of cities, image by Marcus Mitanis

The dinner's silver anniversary was held at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel Thursday night. As in years past, attendees were treated to a meal followed by an illuminating presentation by a keynote speaker. This year's presenter was Toronto-based futurist and Nebula and Hugo Award-winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, who delved deep into what the world's cities of the future could look like. 

Metropolis in the 1927 film, image courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer's presentation—Cities on the Edge of Forever: A Future-Forward Journey Through Our Next 25 Years—used familiar images of popular culture's changing depictions of future cities. "Toronto is the original Metropolis," he began, recalling Superman co-creator and former Toronto Daily Star delivery boy Joe Shuster. The 1927 film Metropolis, of no relation to Superman ethos, depicts a city where "the automobile was still seen as king." At that time, the Ford Model T was the top selling vehicle, kickstarting the automobile age. With fantastical architecture in abundance, "Metropolis predicted cities that would be overcrowded, polluted, and people as servants of the city instead of the other way around."

Mojave, California pre and post digital enhancements, image courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer mentioned the 1964 Star Trek pilot which depicted the city of Mojave, California in the 23rd Century. "The city is completely built up and the green spaces are completely separated from the city," said Sawyer. "When they went to redo Star Trek special effects in 2006, they also redid the city. It brings us forward almost 50 years in our thinking of what we believe a city should be. The integration instead of separation from nature is the key point."

In stark contrast to Mojave, Blade Runner's image of a 2019 Los Angeles shows a "monolithic entity...a cave of steel" devoid of green spaces. Thankfully, Sawyer notes, this isn't the direction Los Angeles decided to go in or what we want in a city. 

Blade Runner's depiction of Los Angeles, image courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

The idea of a domed urban centre as represented in Logan's Run shows a city integrated with nature with no individual vehicles except police. In Sawyer's book Red Planet Blues, a settlement on Mars is created using 3D printing. 

Shifting gears, Sawyer went on to describe what he thought was the biggest planning blunder that cities are just now starting to recognize. "The biggest mistake of the 20th century was to let the automobile remake our environment. It's astonishing that Ford and a few other private sector companies were able to convince the public sector around the world to build the infrastructure needed for them to be able to sell their private sector vehicles. Horses didn't need even terrain, cars did. Toronto and every other jurisdiction in the developed world spent their tax dollars to make it possible for automobiles to become our principal form of transportation."

Sawyer described that cities cannot function this way much longer, emphasizing the need to evolve. He said a move towards people-powered vehicles, including mass transit and bicycles, would shape our cities. Parking structures and roadways would become obsolete and reimagined as tennis courts and solar collectors. With Uber and self-driving cars sweeping the world, it represents the "beginning of the end of individual ownership of automobiles as the principal way of transportation." 

Robert J. Sawyer speaks to hundreds in attendance, image by Marcus Mitanis

While North America, Europe and Australia are generally moving past the idea of vehicles as status symbols, Japanese garages are often sealed only by a chain-link fence, allowing passersby to gawk at the homeowner's car. "They are where we were a few decades ago," said Sawyer. "The car is no longer our identifying characteristic." 

The address touched on the changing habits of people who live, work and play in the city. "The most important thing that's going to happen is that a great many of us will simply stop commuting altogether," said Sawyer. "The notion that a city has a downtown core filled with law offices, planning offices and other businesses that people come to to do their work, works to an extent, but we're going to have better virtual reality." The idea of coming into a physical office will soon be replaced in favour of telecommuting, which "takes an enormous amount of burden off of the infrastructure of cities."

Sawyer believes that everything will become interconnected in the future. Drones will fly in and replace lights, perform road inspections and fix potholes. Your refrigerator will know when you need more juice. He also said the human response to climate change will impact how cities are developed. Furthermore, he explains how we've become disconnected from nature: "It's a failure of civic planning that we even invented the planetarium. It's a substitute for people actually being able to see stars in the sky." 

Robert J. Sawyer speaks, image by Craig White

Bringing the discussion back to present day, Sawyer evokes the "tragedy of the condos". Stating that a condominium is a city in miniature, he explained how compartmentalized modern residential towers are discouraging human interaction. "My condo has a billiards room, sauna, swimming pool, tennis court and a squash court. I have seen them, I have never used them. They're completely isolated on the ground floor. The mistake in so much urban planning is to segment out compartments." 

Sawyer believes the city of the future needs people to interact with one another. Noting that Canada is one of the most urban countries in the world, and remembering the hype around the Eaton Centre when it opened in Downtown Toronto, he explains that humans won't need cities for retail anymore. The idea that shopping can be done online, with drone deliveries at your doorstep the same day, will drastically alter what cities are used for. "Going somewhere to shop as a reason for a city doesn't make a lot of sense," said Sawyer.

With both working and shopping being done at home in the near future, "what we will have cities for is neighbourhoods," he states. "They remain paramount. They have to be distinct, not fungible. Cities have to be built on unique local neighbourhoods." Arts and culture has always been one of the primary reasons for people to congregate in cities, giving the example of Prince George, which has been reinvigorated by the University of Northern British Columbia. "Nothing ups a city culturally like a university," said Sawyer.

Pointing out that the definitions of 'city' and 'citizen' are intertwined, "the notion that people are cities is the fundamental reality that we have to build towards. As technology obviates the traditional reasons for having cities, they will only endure if they are designed to facilitate human interaction."

Representation of a futuristic city in Star Trek: The Next Generation, image courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

"Cities we have always treated as works in progress," said Sawyer, who recounted the use of Toronto City Hall as a futuristic setting in Star Trek: The Next Generation. "We are a city that has always prided itself on being well-designed, well-developed and being a forward-thinking place. We have a city that is a model for the future."

"What planners have done in the last 25 years have made Toronto world class, made it cutting edge, made it so that The Economist recognized it as the most liveable city in the world." But Sawyer believes we have to be vigilant to make Toronto the best city it can be. Referring to the Waterloo planning students in attendance, Sawyer said Toronto's success "depends on how nimble those 90 students turn out to be and how much they're willing to think outside the box. Toronto keeps waiting for a reason to do something, 'oh we'll do it if we get the Olympics,'" said Sawyer. "Going forward, that can't be the model." 

What do you think of Sawyer's remarks? Is Toronto a model for the future? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment in the field below.