The Urban Future of Star Trek

Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed Spock on Star Trek died four days ago at the age of 83. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while and now seems about right.

Science fiction and cities have had a tenuous relationship since the genre’s earliest days. In Britain it was associated with socialist utopianism, as in the work of HG Wells and in the United States artists and writers were largely uninterested in urban issues, cities were for magazine covers or background settings — for writers interested in space battles, psychic powers, frontier colonies and all those other staples, cities were just there.

A future city as imagined by pulp artists.

Often they just extrapolated a trend — illustrations from before the automobile show train tracks and horse-drawn cabs on roads between skyscrapers; not too long after the invention of the airplane, they start showing up as personal or transit vehicles (and of course, the Empire State Building was famously built with a mooring mast for airships). And of course skyscrapers just get bigger and taller and more common. Later they got massive highways with computers controlling traffic.

The future of New York, as imagined decades ago.

The things they all had in common were speed, gigantism and the lack of a past. Almost none of the cities depicted in those days had any sense of history. Unless it was keeping the Empire State Building around for scale.

Art Deco gone mad

Mind you, the urban future imagined by serious architects at the time wasn’t any better. That was the era of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for destroying Paris and Richard Neutra’s “Rush City Transformed”.

Rush City Transformed, from New World Economics

New York’s art deco future is more appealing than its International Style present.

But of all things, Star Trek, which has so frequently been criticized for pushing its mid-century liberal secular humanist attitude and not pushing the envelope of science fiction — AI is rare and frequently evil, genetic engineering is actually banned, nanotechnology doesn’t really do anything and aside from the liberal secular humanism there’s no great difference between the 24th century and 1950’s America.

But thanks to a teensy budget, the writers couldn’t have shuttlecraft taking people to and from the ship and nor could they afford to have special ground vehicles made. As a result, the cities they visit throughout the series — and continuing through later ones and into the films — are all eminently walkable. Stratos, Deneva, Eminar VII all showed places built for people, not machines.

Later series were even better. San Francisco, the capital of the United Federation of Planets, is a New Urbanist’s dream in the Star Trek: Voyager episode in which it appeared, with a replacement BART called Trans Francisco.

A San Francisco street in TV’s Star Trek.

New Orleans, in the episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine it appears in is depicted similarly. The titular station’s layout isn’t as urban, but Bajor and the Klingon Homeworld are. Qo’noS even has an Old City that’s densely built up.

I don’t know what influence Nimoy had on any of this, but I think it is appropriate for a man from Boston’s lost West End that the franchise he helped make had such a realistic and optimistic view of urbanism.

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2 thoughts on “The Urban Future of Star Trek

    • I think you could, in a sense. The Enterprise from the Original Series was more a military machine, akin to a submarine or small carrier. The Enterprise from The Next Generation was much more a small city with civilians and even children living on board. Some schematics (the Ed Whitefire ones) for the ship even include in the main saucer section 2 or 3 town-square like areas (with 2 or 3 stories of area used), and even a mall/promenade. And on Deep Space Nine, that was definitely a walkable city, again with a specifically named promenade area with Quark’s bar, Garrak’s tailor shop, plus lots of other shops.

      Despite having access to teleportation devices everywhere, people still walk to get around.

      There are numerous examples in Trek like this. Civilian transport tends to be public as opposed to vast highways of personal automobiles (even self-driving ones).

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