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The Right to the City: Urbanism, Planning and Cities in Science Fiction and Fantasy

As an urban planner, I read about far flung cities to better understand the possibilities of close by ones. As a lifelong fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I’ve become fascinated with the way that fictional cities expand upon central themes in urbanism—diversity, mobility—or major crises such as homelessness and climate change. Sci-fi and fantasy overturn assumptions of “how things are” and make the strange accessible but not necessarily appealing. Thinking through science fiction and fantasy (novels and short stories only) in which the city is a pivot upon which the story turns, I found a reminder that real-world urban residents need: cities are odder than we can comprehend and full of strangers who also belong as much as we do. I also found a hopeful lesson in politics – a city changes if forced to by external conditions but also if its people demand differently.

Cities are fertile settings.[1] Whether fantastical or real, cities are accretions of power of all varieties. Human hands built Angkor Wat and Cusco[2] but the divinities in Robert Jackson Bennett’s The City of Stairs manifested structures directly from their worshippers’ belief. The labyrinthine city of Tai-Tastigon in P.C. Hodgell’s God Stalk is my favorite “god-ridden” city. While the tensions inherent to city life are also central to other genres such as noir, for sheer sensory delight, science fiction is the best at cities.[3]

The future has always been urban of course.[4] The societal transformations envisioned by cyberpunk writers required the intense clustering of cultures and technologies that are commonplace in urban life. And cities made over by social media and hacker hubris have already been remade and reinterpreted by other, earlier innovators – immigrant girls living in early 20th century crowded tenements who changed labor laws[5] or teenagers in the 1970s who made art in, on and about streets deemed dangerous.

Today’s aerial trams of Medellin or the night markets of Taipei would fit right into a Fifth Element remake. Science fictional cities can lean towards utopian (see Wakanda’s Birnin Zana) but more often tend toward dystopian Blade Runner-style megalopoles populated by polyglot masses eating protein bars. Cities concentrate wealth and intensify inequality; stories set in cities amplify this truth with scheming councilors, Dickensian urchins, and other stock character tropes.[6] In high fantasy, the prototypical city is a medieval walled citadel, the frontispiece map dividing the merchants, the thieves, the temples, the nobility into separate quarters. This kind of city setting normalizes social divisions but what about stories that challenge the boundaries?

Some writers use cityness, everchanging urban life, as the heart of the plot. What is a city? Who is it for? Unsurprisingly (at least for American writers), New York City is popular as the ur-urban location. Kate Milford’s The Broken Lands sets two teenagers against the hellish antagonist’s scheme to claim a 19th century New York City for destructive evil: “There are several ways to take a town. The best one is to take the pillars, the ones that make a place more than just a cluster of folk by a road. The pillars of a city are the people who hold the place together, and carry it through history.”

In some fantasy novels, a city is besieged by armies and protected by wizards, queens and knights. In other novels, figures such as Beggar King protect the abandoned from cruelty within the city’s bounds. Here the city, New York, is protected by societal outcasts and the overlooked. But something about each individual embodies a quality of urban collective life—sanctuary, lore, roads, making—like an orphaned boy whose dad perished while building the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s the living and the dead together who make a city.

In other tales, the city itself is alive and sentient, though it may find human companionship and flesh-and-blood protectors. In N.K. Jemisin’s short story “The City Born Great,” the mentor to the newest urban guardian tries to explain how a city “quickens” and becomes alive. “Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast.” The diversity of city life is its life-blood, not in a tourism slogan kind of way, but in its uncomfortable contradictions. The mentor continues, “White-girl yoga… Indian man yoga. Stockbroker racquetball and schoolboy handball, ballet and merengue, union halls and SoHo galleries. You will embody a city of millions. You need not be them, but know that they are part of you.”

As an urban planner deeply perturbed by my profession’s tendency to ignore the untidy differences of diverse city residents in favor of an idealized, middle-class “public,” I adore these writers’ insistence that there are many cities encompassed in any given city. If there is a multiverse of infinitely possible worlds branching out from every moment, there are also “multiple publics” in every city (to take one of my favorite academic phrases).[7] We are not only diverse in the whos we are, but also in the wheres we inhabit.

Fantasy writers can make the unseen visible. Protagonists discover the limits of their city knowledge as they enter these previously unknown spaces governed by other rules and powers. There is no Yelp or Foursquare to give instant entry into local knowledge. This echoes Jeff VanderMeer’s world-building advice in Wonderbook to consider the “different operational realities” of characters. Writers can descend into literal underworlds to splash through sewers and buried rivers (Rivers of London), or ascend societies that live aloft on roofs (Ankit in Blackfish City). China Mieville superimposed two cities with fraying boundaries in his The City and the City universe; inhabitants of one city had to learn how to unsee the other city in order to function in their own, but an interstitial space always connected the two realms.

In fantasy, the diversity of cities may mean that instead of existing as a single entity, its fragments might achieve existence as discrete beings. A city might have multiple genii loci—spirits of places or things that gain power through use and time, spirits that you could bring an offering to or appeal to for information. Unlike animist spirits of nature, they cannot be eternal since time immemorial. This might be the conflict in need of resolution. How might a spirit of place persist when its place is bulldozed? Does it die like a dryad whose tree falls to the ax? What happens when the guardian of a historic place refuses to be severed? Mega-metropolis Singapore is populated with place guardians in JY Yang’s short story “Old Domes,” but even more than other places, Singapore is “supple and stretchy, where maps a year old were outdated.” The narrator argues with the stubborn spirit of the Supreme Court building who resists its redevelopment, complains about the fleeting spirit of the Formula One racetrack.

Cities change. Power shifts as long-time inhabitants face the waning of their influence or new arrivals to a city make their mark. For The Madness of Angels: The Resurrection of Matthew Swift, Kate Griffin starts with the premise that a genius loci could arise from a network rather than a specific, discrete place. More akin to artificial intelligence entities but born from disorder rather than programming logic, the manifestations of telecommunication networks chatter in plural cacophony. Instead of the ugly xenophobia of contemporary cities (see Brexit, or “build the wall” anti-immigration rhetoric), the more venerable powers in this fictional London understand that the city must change and the old normal cannot prevail.

Near-future science fiction grapples with impending change—climate change, post-carbon economies, demographic transformation—in fascinating ways.[8] Cities are agglomerations of material and immaterial resources, with infrastructures such as highways and water systems built within frameworks that quickly are becoming obsolete. Science fiction writers find delight in the nuts and bolts of cities. In Blackfish City, for example, Sam Miller invents a seasteading municipality in which the methane generated from city waste is processed into light.

Climate change science fiction extrapolates city life into a future when what we take for granted (tap water, dry land) is unreliable or even absent. Power is tied to water in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife as the legal decisions of 20th century water contracts determine whether or not a community lives or dies.[9] My urban planning nerd nerves tingle the most when municipal infrastructure—the physical, political, financial processes—are the plot.[10] Even the novels that trade in fictional stereotypes reference modern-day urban questions. Where do we live? How segregated are the rich and the poor, the native-born and the newly arrived? Is infrastructure built for mass transit or private vehicles?

In the 2009 edited collection Metatropolis, the short stories consider not just what if the rules were different, but how people might go about changing the rules of city life. Tobias Buckell’s piece Stochasti-city puts housing justice at its fulcrum. The climax is the “single most coordinated sudden attack of urban renewal ever witnessed… Two thousand souls dedicated to turning this building into a sustainable structure.” But because the past is never past, the squatters who will take over the empty building are basing their project on a much older understanding of the commons, in which a peasant family could keep a home they built in one day.

Sci-fi and fantasy imagine other ways of being and other beings as possible. Whether a trained urban planner, or a regular resident, we need the humble curiosity of being in a world we are always learning anew, instead of the certainty that a “world-class” city must conform to set specifications. 21st century activists have adopted 20th century theorist Henri Lefebvre’s call for “the right to the city,” the collective creation and reshaping of cities according to our needs. I love that fiction writers have explored how we, even in all our splintered fractious glory, might negotiate a more just city.

[1] Contemporary urban fantasies rely on real world counterparts to supply  a ready-made setting, with an off-hand mention of a museum celebrity (Sue the T. Rex skeleton in Chicago or a beloved park (the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco to cement location.



[4] William Gibson and Philip K. Dick to name the two more obvious ones.



[7] Watson, Sophie. City publics: The (dis) enchantments of urban encounters. Routledge, 2013.
Amin, Ash. “Collective culture and urban public space.” City 12.1 (2008): 5-24.

[8] Epic fantasies can turn on historical changes in the control of natural resources or technological innovations—the dwarven mines, tje nomad’s horseback archery

[9] The 1974 classic film Chinatown hinges on the (historically accurate) struggle to control the fresh water supplies of Los Angeles.

[10] As a kid, I obsessively reread The Pushcart War, a children’s book about traffic jams, municipal politics and the power of the underdog. I yearned to buy a pickle from a street vendor and wished I could grow up to become a Pushcart Queen (even though my suburban town prohibited sidewalk vending). The book probably factored into my decision to become an urban planner.


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