It was 1982 when I visited the future.
I had just caught the latest Harrison Ford flick, Blade Runner, with my high school buddies. Overall reviews for the movie amongst my friends were mixed, but the one thing we could agreed upon was that we had been transported to the 2019 version of Los Angeles. We were absolutely sure of it.
For those who have not seen the movie [raised eyebrow], Ford plays an LAPD officer specializing in hunting down and killing artificial humans – “replicants” – who have broken their programming and illegally immigrated to Earth to blend in with humanity. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is dirty and wet, an industrial and apocalyptic wreck of city rendered as dense as New York or Tokyo, but with the appearance of only a marginally functioning economy and environment. In fact, the smog in the movie is so dense, the city is drenched in perpetual rain. Teeming with criminals, the homeless, and policed by corrupt cops milling about around bombed-out buildings, the forecast looked grim.
Yet, in 1982 this vision of LA seemed reasonable, if not guaranteed. New York City was in the midst of the worst year of crime on record, Los Angeles itself was an environmental wreck hidden beneath a perpetual thick brown haze. Thermonuclear war was a real concern as President Regan ramped up the military and rhetoric in an attempt to intimidate the Soviet Union to the bargaining table. By the mid-1980’s, a third of the American population believed nuclear war was inevitable, and a dystopian view of the future hung over our heads.
Fast forward to 2016 and it seems dystopia has reemerged in popularity. Pop culture books/movies/shows like The Hunger Game , The Walking Dead, Divergent, and Maze Runner – all uber-popular fiction – revolve in a post-apocolyptic realm. Even the Star Trek franchise – originally built upon a utopian view of humanity’s future – has been rebooted with existential threats at the core of the franchise.
Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction transformed into a zombie land in Fear The Walking Dead.
Closer to home, Fear the Walking Dead shows a fully functioning Los Angeles descended into zombified hell. I have to admit a pleasure in seeing Sunset Junction in Silver Lake as a backdrop and in the opening scene of the pilot.
So, why are we so hell-bent on a apocolyptic future? The world of 2016 is kind of scary place. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings, continuous war in the Middle East for over a decade, a highly polarized political state, horrible new diseases to worry about, 100 year storms with 1,000 year droughts, all with the looming concern of rising sea levels. With all this happening, no wonder many believe the end is nigh and the eventual outcome will resemble the fiction we so voraciously consume on television, movies, books, and video games.
But we would also be wrong. I believe humans are way more resilient and a tad smarter than we give ourselves credit for.
Those seeking a more optimistic vision of Los Angeles in the future should check out, Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, the film follows a sensitive guy going through a tough divorce who falls in love with his artificially intelligent computer operating system (just go with it). In Spike Jonze’s film, Los Angeles is doing pretty well. Angelenos live in a dense environment, but within sleek and clean hi-rises (that look suspiciously like Shanghai). Phoenix’s character walks and takes trains everywhere – a subway to Santa Monica and a high speed rail to the Sierra Nevadas. He visits parks and interesting public spaces where crime never seems to be a concern. Could this future be a possibility, or just as naive and fanciful as the Walking Dead’s vision of the City of Angels?
Los Angeles as portrayed in the 2013 movie Her was actually a combination of real world locations in LA and Shanghai’s Pudong business district. Stills via via Warner Bros. Pictures
AHBE Landscape Architects is in the middle of looking at a 100 year plan for the firm. At first, I thought this to be a silly exercise. But as we delve deeper and deeper into the plan, I realized that having a ridiculously long range view is an exercise in keeping faith in humanity. We are not planning on stockpiling guns and building bomb shelters. We are thinking about the real problems humanity faces and how our landscape architecture team might be able to solve those problems. We have to begin with the belief we’ll still be here in 100 years, perhaps still muddling through our problems, but surviving.
I find that perspective comforting. If history has taught us anything, our fictional visions of the future are never correct. In the name of drama popular culture skews to extreme situations. Certainly the outcome of a 2 degree Celsius climate change event might seem cataclysmic, but in the end I believe humanity is resilient and will adapt to those changes. In other words, we may have to create a utopian society within a dystopian landscape.