While sipping a French rosé on the rooftop dining deck of a discount department store, I come face-to-face with the future. I’m in Almere, in the Netherlands, about half an hour by train from Amsterdam. It’s a city of 190,000 founded in the 1970’s on land reclaimed from the bottom of the sea. By 2030, it’s projected to nearly double in size, to 350,000. I’m looking out across Almere’s newest city center; cars are relegated to underground roadways, weirdly angled pedestrian corridors separate overtly edgy buildings, and bicyclists own the surface roads. This instant downtown was master-planned in the 1990’s by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and completed a few years ago. The V&D department store’s roof is planted with a meadow, and the rooftops of all the adjacent retail buildings support clusters of cheerful modern town houses complete with more greenery. From where I’m sitting, Almere looks so much like today’s idea of how we’d like our cities to someday be—dense, architecturally engaging, humane, and eco-thoughtful—that is, almost a cartoon.
Granted the phrase “city of the future” still conjures up an image that’s a cross between Dubai and Shanghai’s Pudong, a shimmering composition of the world’s tallest towers—but that vision is on its way out. Prior to my arrival in Almere, I had numerous conversations with the experts, all of whom describe future cities as places that will be complex, subtle, and strangely hard to picture. They describe goals more social than technological; sustainability is suddenly sexier than having a Bilbao-style monument. “The cities that will be most prosperous and predominant in the future will be connected,” predicts New York–based developer Jonathan Rose, renowned for his progressive approach to affordable housing. Like pretty much everyone else, Rose is talking about things such as data, airports, and high-speed rails. Alex Steffen, the freewheeling futurist who founded Worldchanging, a clearinghouse for sustainability strategies, sees the future in cities that are “less auto-dependent,” like Copenhagen, or known for their intensive approach to carbon reduction, such as Freiberg, Germany, center of the ultralow-energy “passive house” movement. Technology designer Adam Greenfield, of Urbanscale, envisions a future that involves layering apps and networks on top of existing urban infrastructure. He points to London’s bike-sharing program, popularly known as Boris Bikes, as a technologically advanced transportation system that dramatically updates a historic city.
All this talk about sustainability and connectivity bodes well for the world’s cities, but it is less clear where to find the future in more concrete form. Some of the world’s most hyped concept cities don’t yet deliver on their promises. Masdar City, under way in Abu Dhabi, has been promoted as an ambitious demonstration of life after petroleum, master-planned by London’s Foster & Partners. It’s currently a construction site, projected to have a population of 50,000 by 2025. The automated pod cars that were supposed to be the city’s Jetsons-esque means of transportation are reportedly a dud, due to be phased out. Farther east, Songdo International Business District, a 15-minute drive from Korea’s Incheon airport, is a high-rise business hub with a mini Central Park at its heart that was intensively wired by Cisco Systems. Songdo IBD might be a terrific place to hold a meeting, but it isn’t much of a draw for the traveler.
Almere, on the other hand, is quietly spectacular.
For one thing, the Dutch are world-class planners, and because the land on which Almere is built was a blank slate, every aspect of the city was a conscious human invention. It’s all planned. “Every detail, every tree, every street,” notes Adri Duivesteijn, the city’s deputy mayor and alderman in charge of sustainable special planning. In the 1970’s, when the original Almere plan was drawn up, urban density was regarded as a problem, so Almere is “polynuclear,” with multiple population centers buffered by copious amounts of greenery. New neighborhoods—like the Koolhaas downtown—continue to be built, each one incorporating the most au courant concept of the future.
As a destination, Almere has a couple of things going for it: it has incredible architecture, not just in the Koolhaas section but in odd residential enclaves. In a cluster of experimental houses from the early 1980’s called De Fantasie, I’m surprised to stumble on a building I’d always loved but have never seen in person, architect Jan Benthem’s 1982 Hardglas house, a simple, prefabricated glass structure that was a good 20 years ahead of its time. Also, this city has bike lanes like Los Angeles has freeways. While Songdo’s planners boast of 14 miles of bike lanes, Almere has 285. And, as I tour the city on two wheels, I keep encountering pieces of the future, like Sun Island, the world’s fourth-largest solar array. A Teletubby-ish red building I pedal past turns out to be a heat-transfer station that, when completed, will efficiently warm 11,000 residences in Almere Poort. Nearby, a newly constructed row of houses, topped by the longest solar array I’ve ever seen, is part of the district’s collection of 500 solar-powered or low-energy passive houses. The Almere I see from my bicycle could easily be the most progressive city on the planet.
After a while, however, I do begin to suspect something is missing. The place is too quiet. For instance, I stay at the Apollo, a hotel on stilts that is arguably Almere’s answer to New York’s Standard. Designed by a terrific English architect, Will Alsop, with sleekly practical modern rooms and a flashy restaurant and bar, Salada Samba, it should, by rights, be a hive of activity, but mostly the Apollo is a convenient stopover for bus tours. A popular café at the base of one of the most structurally adventurous buildings downtown, a twisty, perforated metal thing called Lakeside, turns out to be an outpost of a teddy-bear-themed Dutch chain. The dipping sauce for my fries comes in a plastic dish with bear ears.
I can’t put my finger on the nature of the problem until I drop in at Museum De Paviljoens, an experimental-art institution on the fringes of the city center, housed in a pair of industrial-looking structures, leftovers from the Documenta art fair in Kassel, Germany. This quirky institution would be a point of pride for most small cities. But Macha Roesink, the museum’s hyper-articulate director, says the city fathers are endlessly trying to phase her museum out in favor of the still unbuilt and unprogrammed lakeside museum that Koolhaas had included in his vision. Granted, Roesink is something of a provocateur—she erected a 600-foot-long fence on the property so local graffiti artists would have a place to work—and the art she displays tends to be conceptual. “They call what we do ‘difficult art,’ ” she says with a sigh. But the main issue is that her museum—officially temporary—was not part of the grand scheme.
The way cities, real cities, work is that plans are a template upon which entirely unexpected things occur. Did the commissioners who, in 1811, drew up Manhattan’s grid have the foresight to pencil in the Empire State Building, Lincoln Center, or trucks selling waffles and tacos? No, they did not. Great urban plans, then, are supposed to set up a situation that allows for, and even encourages, the unplanned and the unplannable.
Will Almere become a real city? It may be on its way. The city’s next 20 years and 60,000 households are being storyboarded by the Rotterdam-based architecture firm mvrdv. Over coffee, a young architect from the firm, Klaas Hoffman, tells me about a concept he calls “Almere Free.” This new scheme would add residents to the largely rural, far-eastern edge of the city, specifically those willing to generate their own power and grow their own food. In essence, it would create an urban neighborhood zoned for agriculture and alternative energy. “We would like to see something unorganized and accidental,” Hoffman says. Then he shows me painstaking calculations for the proper quantity of food and energy production per household. When I point out the contradiction, Hoffman offers an explanation that tells you all you need to know about future cities in general and Almere in particular: “It’s free in that—within the rules—anything should be possible.”