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The Utopian City in Star Trek

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I spend too much time thinking about a lot of things, and perhaps the thing that I am best-known to my friends for thinking too much about is the Star Trek franchise. I can't help it; I'm a sucker for utopian thinking and there is no (however flawed) fictional utopia with even a tenth the depth of the Trek canon. So when I think about utopian cities, I find myself asking... "well, how did Trek do it?"

The somewhat unfortunate answer is that, in fact, Trek shows us very little of post-scarcity Earth, and even less of the actual lives of everyday citizens. Only a handful of episodes give us glimpses of what life on 24th century Earth is like at street level — though, based on the trailers for the upcoming Star Trek: Picard series, that may change in the near future. The Next Generation episode "Family" shows us a few glimpses of the French countryside: Jean-Luc Picard's family home is a historic vineyard in (possibly) Bourgogne, can be reached on foot by a dirt road, and is surrounded by a mixture of preserved historic buildings and much larger structures in the 24th century Federation style — mostly apparently utilities, possibly for communications or the weather grid, with what looks like a residential tower in the background. (The Picard trailer shows much the same, but on a day with worse visibility.) Though this is hardly a city, the mixture of historic and contemporary architecture is fairly typical of how 24th century Earth is depicted: A vineyard surrounded by mountains, a château, and several large towering structures

From France, we move to the French Quarter. Deep Space 9 takes us to New Orleans a few times, but rarely onto the streets. Mostly, we visit Captain Ben Sisko's father, who owns a restaurant called "Sisko's Creole Kitchen". We see literally a glimpse through the window at night of what the city itself is like. Ignore the Starfleet security officers — they're not usually there — and let's look at the other details. It's immediately obvious that the entire French Quarter is a historic district and a tourist center. The streetlights are electric, not gas (this image is from the middle of a power outage, so gas lamps would presumably be on), but there are still working horse carts! The streets have sidewalks (apparently concrete!), implying that the road is used by enough vehicle traffic to require grade separation for pedestrian safety. We might imagine, in addition to the horse carts, that cyclists or even wheeled or antigrav vehicles might use the roads. After all, Sisko's Creole Kitchen needs to receive supplies somehow, and as a historic building without a shuttleport, the only options would be a ground vehicle or a transporter. Interestingly, the sidewalks still have curb cuts; since the DS9 episode "Melora" implies that 24th century hoverchairs should be able to handle a 6" curb gracefully, this does suggest that something using wheels is in common use. The existence of the standpipe, meanwhile, is beyond even my ability to explain in-universe. A dark street in New Orleans. A historic building with plants growing on its many balconies is across the street. There's a horse-drawn open cart. Three Starfleet security officers hold phaser rifles.

Most of the time we spend in actual cities on 24th century Earth is in San Francisco, home of Starfleet Headquarters, and site of the Golden Gate Bridge, still the most iconic symbol of San Francisco some 450 years after its construction. (It was rebuilt at least once, after being destroyed in a war, but was probably something of a ship of Theseus at that point, since no amount of paint and galvanization can keep a steel bridge in a marine environment from corroding over half a millennium.) By the 2250s, it was no longer a working bridge, and its deck had been converted to a solar power plant; there was, oddly, no evidence of pedestrian walkways or bicycle lanes. The Marin Headlands had been built up with higher density development, which appeared to be not entirely unlike Le Corbusier's "towers in the park", and the Golden Gate itself was used for recreational sailing. The Golden Gate in 2258, looking north. Its deck appears to have been replaced with a solar power plant.

Most of the time we spent in San Francisco is, however, at Starfleet Academy or Starfleet Headquarters. But there is one rare and very helpful exception: the Voyager episode "Non Sequitur", which is set almost entirely in San Francisco's Mission District. This episode features probably the best views we ever get of a 24th century streetscape. Again, this is a historic neighborhood, and the buildings themselves are clearly built in a historic architectural style. (They even have 20th century-style fire escapes.) Unfortunately, the actual character of the Mission District has been largely extinguished; there's no sign of public art, nor any evidence of the neighborhood's vibrant history as a center of Chicanx/Latinx culture, queer culture, punk rock, and art. We can only assume, sadly, that the neighborhood must have been completely gentrified in the early 21st century, probably during the period when Sanctuary Districts were used to warehouse "undesirables". The final result is more similar to a "lifestyle center"-style outdoor mall, the kind that spells "town" and "shop" with an -e at the end, than to the modern Mission District. A view of the 24th century Mission District. Most buildings are brick, as is the road surface. There is a sidewalk made of marble or stone. Most pedestrians are walking in the street. The center of the street has a row of trees, a few benches, and some strange awnings.

The underground structure there is an express stop on the Trans Francisco Mission District line. (Even though transporters allow near-instant movement on a planetary scale, people mostly don't use it for their daily commutes. We know that Starfleet Academy cadets get a limited number of "transporter credits"; it's unknown if transporter use is also rationed for officers or civilians or if social stigma is sufficient to prevent overuse of the transporter network.) The transit stop is accessed by a single staircase (being blocked by three oblivious assholes in this image, because some things are truly universal), capable of safely handling one line of traffic in each direction. By contrast, the 20th century 16th Street Mission BART station has two exits, each with two staircases and an escalator — enough capacity to handle about 13,000 users every weekday. We can therefore surmise that this exit for this Trans Francisco stop, whatever technology it uses, handles about 2,000 users per day at most. Now, there may be other exits nearby (including, hopefully, an accessible one), and there may be more Trans Francisco stations than BART stations. However, it's still hard to avoid the conclusion that Trans Francisco likely has much lower utilization in its service area than BART. Incidentally, and to emphasize my earlier point about the extent to which the neighborhood's character has changed, the vicinity of the 16th Street Mission station looks like this. A Google Street View image at the corner of 16th St and Mission St.

Note that, though the 24th century street does have separated sidewalks, the majority of pedestrian traffic doesn't use them, and the street is obviously incapable of handling any large or high-speed vehicles. The street is also brick, and therefore probably not designed for heavy loads. Any street utilization by vehicles must be minor at best, and vehicles clearly yield priority to pedestrians. There are no cyclists — in fact, no bicycle is ever depicted in use after the 21st century in all of Trek, even though they're established in dialogue to still be familiar objects in the 24th century. It's possible that half of the street is reserved for bicycle traffic, since we only see pedestrians on one side of the street, but there's no signage or lane markings to alert pedestrians to possible crossing cyclist traffic. The "median" is full of trees and plants in planters, surrounded by strange awnings; they could there be to delineate the bicycle traffic or they could have some horticultural purpose. (They're very much the wrong height to provide shade for people.) There are regularly spaced benches in the median, offering a chance for pedestrians to rest and people-watch. The streetlights, which are 20th century in style but clearly modern, have banners advertising an upcoming Old Town Festival. Another view of the 24th century street, giving a better angle on the strange awnings surrounding the trees.

Let's drop the mask for a moment: the reason this scene looks so absurd is because they took their "New York street" backlot and painted the street red. The awnings are to hide whatever ugly planters they found and make them look more futuristic. (It is, frankly, a total mystery to me why they made the specific claim that they were depicting the Mission District — I've only been to San Francisco a few times but even I know that isn't what the Mission District looks like — rather than some generic SF neighborhood or, better still, actually New York. The plot required a Starfleet installation, but it didn't have to be the Academy.) If each episode of Voyager had a movie's budget, they might have tried to depict a more realistic vision of the future. But, in fact, the decisions they made with the constraints of their budget are illuminating in themselves. Like writing a novel without the letter "e", turning a generic New York street scene into 24th century San Francisco on a shoestring budget means making a lot of difficult choices.

And, looking at the choices they did make with their "Mission District" and "French Quarter" sets, we see a few key points telling us what the set designers believed that a utopian city of the future would and wouldn't include. They believed such a city would preserve centuries-old historic architecture, and would continue to use technologies as old as brick paving. They believed the city would belong to pedestrians, with land vehicles of all kinds yielding street access to people on foot even where sidewalks existed. They believed it would have rapid transit links despite the existence of transporter technology. They believed that the streets would have extensive greenery, places to sit, and... well, let's charitably call the weird awnings an aesthetic feature. They believed that restaurants, cafés, and horse-drawn carts would still exist, even without money or capitalism, because humans like to make beautiful things in service of others, whether that be a concerto or a shrimp gumbo or simply a tour around New Orleans.

The thing is, none of these features requires any technology we don't already have. You don't actually need transporters and shuttles and anti-gravity to make such a city happen, though I admit they'd make it easier to bring in deliveries. Is this a functional city? What would it be like to actually build it and see it in operation? Well, answering that question is one of the key goals of Charm Cities. We look forward to showing you!

(The screencap images used were sourced from TrekCore and Memory Alpha. They are provided to illustrate educational commentary and critique, represent a trivial portion of the Star Trek canon as a whole, and have no impact on the potential market of Star Trek; they are therefore believed to fall unambiguously in the category of fair use under US law.)

About Martin Sherman-Marks:

Martin Sherman-Marks (he/him), the founder of the Charm Cities project, is also a developer, writer, project manager, Concrete Professional™, and ADHD disaster child. He lives in West Baltimore and has very strong feelings about the fate of the Red Line. He's @flying_ghoti on Twitter.

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