How will drones reshape our cities?
by Thomas McMullan
Motopia was never built. British architect Geoffrey Jellicoe’s postwar plans for a grid-like city, structured around nodules of homes and commercial spaces, layered beneath a pervasive network of roads, never came to fruition. It was to be a city designed from the ground up for cars, but one that sought to remove roads from pedestrians. “In this town we are separating the biological elements from the mechanical,” Jellicoe told the Associated Press in 1960.
In Motopia, 30,000 inhabitants would live beneath a rooftop of motorways. To get home, drivers would find their local roundabout, take an exit ramp that coiled down to a parking area, then stroll to their front door. On ground level, there were to be restaurants, shops, schools and churches spread out across the 1,000-acre urban area, all below a raised network of roads.
Turn the page to 2017, and architecture student Saúl Ajuria Fernández has come up with an idea for an Urban Droneport. Imagined in an area of Milan described as a “disused urban vacuum”, the building acts as a central hub for drones in the area. It pictures a near future where drone deliveries have become commonplace, and where a new type of civic infrastructure is needed to manage a multitude of flight paths forking above the heads of city-dwellers.
Motopia was borne out of the New Towns Act of 1946, when powers were handed to government to designate land for new development. While the latter 1940s saw more than a dozen towns created, largely to deal with the shifting populations caused by bombed-out cities, by the 1960s attention had turned to how new urban centres could do more – not simply accommodate people, but change the way they lived around increasingly dominant technologies. In the late 20th century this was the car, but by the mid-21st century this may well be the use of drones to pick up and deliver goods, or even people. If that’s the case, how will our cities change?
(Above: Urban Droneport. Source: Saúl Ajuria Fernández)
Reshaping the air
There is a gamut of technological and legislative hurdles for drone deliverers to leap over before being able to transport T-shirts and pizza around a city. These range from the risks of crashed machines raining down on communities to the uncertainties of property law – not that this is preventing companies such as Amazon and Zipline from pushing ahead with drone-delivery trials.
“You could easily imagine that this becomes a bit of infrastructure in the same way that the road is,” says Nesta’s executive director of policy and research, Stian Westlake. “You might have a city air-space-management system to allow more drones to operate in a particular area.”
Westlake tells me that he could envision the first steps in this direction happening within tightly controlled, privately owned urban environments. “The Olympia and York estate in Canary Wharf, for example, where one developer owns a significant amount of space and retail locations,” he says. “Or places like Dubai, where there are privately owned mega-developments. You can see this sort of world where the ability to manage really densely operating UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] becomes as much a part of what cities do as running public transport.”
(Above: Dubai skyline. Source: Wikimedia commons)
It might well be easier for a private development to toy with the prospect of a contained drone infrastructure buzzing above its block of flats, but what happens when you broaden that scope to a city such as Milan or London? Sprawling urban centres present a complex problem for drone networks, and that complexity may be what forces greater control of our skies. If an autonomous flight-control system is needed to stop drones crashing, you could imagine that such a system would need to be standardised, opening the doors for a single body to control a city’s drone level in its entirety.
Westlake explains that he can see two things driving the regulation of airspace. “On the one hand, it could be because you’d be able to manage drones more efficiently and stop them from crashing out of the sky. It might also be justified politically as it stops people idly floating drones and taking pictures.
“At the moment drones are still [available] for hobbyists,” he notes. “But it may become more regulated, so that controversially invasive uses of drones become much harder to do.”
In this vision of the future, delivery drones are widespread, but personal drones are much harder to come by. If you have a network of 1,000 drones flying above a city district, the last thing an air-traffic controller wants is someone driving their toy UAV into the fray. There’s also the idea of security and privacy, in that a situation with tight regulation would be designed to only allow certified drone operators to fly. No weekend hobbyists, but also no peeping Toms or assassination attempts. That is in theory, of course, because in practice matters are likely to be far less clear-cut.
“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck”
“Every technology has side effects and potential subversions,” says Darran Anderson, cultural critic and author of Imaginary Cities. “Paul Virilio very wisely pointed out that ‘when you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.’ You also invent the lighthouse, flotsam, navies, pirates and so on. Looking at how human beings tend to operate, I’d expect to see drone-spotters and drone-jackers, with drone security and insurance being another issue rippling off from the latter.”
If air space becomes drone space, and if the complexity of that space necessitates control by some monolithic gatekeeper, there will be questions about who operates the channels of that airborne economy. Will we end up with a situation where flying Amazon warehouses (which the company has patented) become lucrative targets for drone pirates? Will crime-fighting drone squads or land-based signal jammers be needed to fend off rogue drones? Or are such disruptions to drone territory totally warranted when we wake up to find that the air above our heads has been privatised without our consent?
Reshaping the ground
While a drone infrastructure would have major repercussions for our skies, it also stands to significantly change the shape of cities on the ground. Westlake tells me that the introduction of a working drone-delivery system – dropping off goods in tight timeframes – could have a huge impact on shopping districts.
“You might see a massive reduction of commercial space, but the commercial space that is there becomes increasingly experiential,” he explains. “So, like Selfridges or Borough Market, shops become as much about an experience than the actual shopping. Alongside drone terminals, you could also see these incredibly glitzy experiential places. The commercial public square in cities might become more important – smaller but potentially more important.”
The transformation from shops-as-marketplaces to shops-as-fairgrounds may work well in areas with the draw to attract large crowds, but what about small businesses in local high streets, in shopping areas away from places like central London? If drones lead to a reduction of commercial space in those areas, what will it be replaced with? More public parks and cultural spaces could be an answer; derelict buildings is perhaps a more likely one.
And what of the Urban Droneports themselves? Fernández’s plan was situated in a “disused urban vacuum”, but areas surrounding places like this, with a presumably high concentration of drones, may end up becoming unattractive to future investment – effectively becoming a no-man’s-land of buzzing drone hives.
“An increasing concern is the dislocation of the citizen from the city”
“I can see droneports making the liminal spaces at the edge of cities even more purgatorial than they already are,” says Anderson. “The territorial question will be crucial. An increasing concern is the dislocation of the citizen from the city, whether that’s through the privatisation of public space or suddenly finding out that the airspace above us is not ours either.”
With all the thought spent on logistical practicalities and the realities of regulation, it’s easy to forget the immediate physical experience of living with drones overhead. As Anderson notes, it may be that it’s not until the emptiness above us ceases to exist that we will realise what we have lost.
“I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and there seemed to perpetually be a police or army helicopter in the sky, keeping surveillance day and night,” he tells me. “When they were finally grounded, there was a palpable and unexpected feeling of relief. We may eventually come to mourn the loss of empty skies, and realise, too late no doubt, that the inefficiencies and inconveniences we experienced before the arrival of the mass use of this technology were actually spaces of peace and privacy.”
As much as the thought of a perpetual layer of drones seems unpalatable, even absurd, it’s important to remember that cities persistently absorb new elements. From telegraph wires to skyscrapers, urban worlds are full of sights that were at one time alien.
“If we went back to the days before cars and exposed people to the level of exhaust fumes that we currently get in most places, they’d probably be horrified,” says Westlake. “But we accept that, because most cities probably wouldn’t run without cars. We forget the days when cities were full of horses – how basically cities stank of horse shit all the time.
“So the sea of drones in the sky may be something that is shocking to us, but in 15 years’ time may be what cities are like.”
“Motopia was never built. But the Westway was.”
A town built with a roof of roads never saw the light of day, but we are unlikely to bat an eyelid at the sight of an elevated junction – even one as nebulous as the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange in LA. Motopia was never built. But the Westway was. Give it a generation and a persistent flock of drones may well become a quotidian sight, although – as Westlake points out – so was horse shit, once upon a time.