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I find it fascinating how the writings and sketches of visionaries like Le Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Clarence Perry, to name a few, have influenced the development of cities around the world. I think that is the reason I was drawn to planning and engineering: I love how visions and ideas become tangible.

In late February, I had the opportunity to watch Chad Freidrich’s documentary “The Experimental City.” The film is about the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC): a planned domed futuristic city for 250,000 residents to be placed in the isolated woods of Swatara, Minnesota. Envisioned by Athelstan Spilhaus, a scientist and futurist comic strip writer, the purpose of this experimental project was to tackle the problems affecting urban centers in the 1960s (and today): pollution, segregation, sprawl, and aging infrastructure. The city was supposed to pilot the latest technologies in communications, transit, pollution control, and energy supply, learn from the mistakes, and ultimately, provide solutions to create more livable cities for the 21st Century.

“Our New Age” Comic (1966) by Athelstan Spilhaus. Climate change was identified as a future problem by  Athelstan Spilhaus' "Our New Age" comic. Source: Archdaily

“Our New Age” Comic (1966) by Athelstan Spilhaus. Climate change was identified as a future problem by Athelstan Spilhaus’ “Our New Age” comic.
Source: Archdaily

Things did not quite go as planned despite the support from public and private stakeholders (spoiler alert!). To Spilhaus and his backers’ surprise, the community of Swatara and many environmental groups, like the Izaak Walton League, rallied against the project. MXC was seen as a source of pollution; not a way to tackle it. As such, Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency did not grant a permit and the project ran out of funding. MXC became a thing of the past.

However, after watching the movie, I wonder: should MXC be revived? Personally, I do not like the idea of having a domed, segregated city placed in a pristine environment. I do believe that these unspoiled areas should be conserved for the public’s enjoyment. However, I like the idea of establishing pilot cities in previously impacted areas, such as brownfield sites, to evaluate the effects of new technologies at a faster rate.  This will not be an easy task. It will require strong public-private partnership and community support as well as regulatory oversight.

We are faced with many challenges, such as the effects of climate change and aging infrastructure, which require the development of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles. Pilot cities may promote the proper advancement of technologies and its consequences at a faster pace. There is always a risk in experimentation. However, trial-and-error is how humankind has advanced over the years.

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges

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