The ideal city has been the impossible dream for as long as there has been civilisation – a word that itself derives from civitas, the city. From Plato to Thomas More, Leonardo da Vinci to Le Corbusier, every genius has imagined the ideal city but none has got anywhere close to achieving it. The city is our most complex invention. Architects, urbanists, sociologists and historians have all tried to distil it into elements – what makes a city work, what makes a city beautiful – but it has proved impossible. The city remains stubbornly resistant to perfection.

For the first time in the planet’s history more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050 it is forecast that they will support 75 per cent of the global population. Cities are the future but it still seems to grate on professionals, developers and politicians that they remain so imperfect, so polluted, so congested, so dysfunctional and that the clean glass and steel of new high-rise buildings reflects the filthy brick and seedy shacks and stalls that nuzzle up to their edges. And it is that desire to mould a new city that continues to provide the impetus for an astonishing array of efforts around the globe to start from scratch.

The last big push to redefine the city came after the second world war. Britain had Milton Keynes and Harlow, the Netherlands had Almere, Brazil had Brasilia, the US had Las Vegas and each had its own agenda. In England the emphasis was on decent housing, provision for the car (which still looked like the only conceivable future), green space and a US-style grid layout. In Holland it was about the creation of a generous dormitory town for people squeezed and priced out of Amsterdam. In Brasilia it was the symbolic break from the colonial capital and the construction of a new national image. In Vegas it was the Strip, the genesis of an entirely new type of town based around a single theme, gambling.

Milton Keynes and Almere are both now being extensively rethought. Brasilia is centred on brilliant modernist architecture but has severe problems beyond the formal centre of grandiose and overbearing public spaces. Their problem was that they were too boring. Ideal, it turns out, just isn’t that interesting. Vegas, though, through a conspicuous lack of civics, good intentions and planning, got it right. And every new town being planned from scratch today seems to have learnt the lesson. You’ve got to have a theme.

The theme has become the central motif of contemporary town planning. To attract people to live in a new town there has to be a big idea, a brand, something that makes that city different, better, from everywhere else. At the end of the 20th century the theme was the good old days. There was Poundbury in southern England, the Prince of Wales’s own model village, and there was Seaside in the US. You might remember Seaside from its starring role in The Truman Show, where it effortlessly appeared as an oversized reality television set. It was originally a serious effort to recreate smalltown USA, good neighbourliness, walkable space, homely homes. Celebration in Florida is a more chilling version of a similar vision of apple-pie Pleasantville, as imagineered and owned by the Disney Corporation, adjacent to Disney World. These were all reactions to the modernist vision of high-rise living and roaring freeways, expressions of a resurrection of pre-modernist planning that came, without irony, to be known as new urbanism.

But these settlements are not the future. They remain monocultural and limiting and in spite of good intentions they have failed to attract the social and economic mix needed to create a thriving sustainable community.

“New cities come in different stripes but they all face the same problem: overplanning,” says Richard Sennett, a critic that has, more than any other, been a passionate and realistic voice on the state of contemporary urban development. “A big city is complex and has, by its nature, to be rigidly pre-planned but this takes so long that by the time it is built things have moved on and the plan has become obsolete. Another problem that comes with scale is uniformity. Any long-established London street has been made by many hands, developers, architects, builders, craftsmen. In new developments there is a fear of cost overruns and an exploitation of economies of scale that leads to a lack of diversity. The London street has ‘citiness’. It is incoherent. Incoherent is good.”

I ask him about the themed US new/old towns. “Those towns and new urbanism started off producing kitsch but as they matured there has been a recognition that it is complexity which gives cities life. In Poundbury the issue is not aesthetic but economic. It doesn’t work on its own, it is a dormitory for Dorchester and a rich man’s folly. In Seaside the developers didn’t master the economy or class diversity. These are not instant cities they are instant suburbs.’

In these new developments the lack of an economy, of the complex networks of contacts and diverse businesses, ultimately makes them unsustainable or, even if they survive, stops them growing into proper cities. If the over-regulated, suburban tweeness of new urbanism has fallen short of expectations there is another contender. The new theme is the eco-city. Cities might support 50 per cent of the population but they consume more than 75 per cent of the world’s energy and, in an effort to show how this can be addressed, the next big wave of utopian city building is a response to the global warming crisis.

The most ambitious, and perhaps unusual, of this new wave has been designed by the world’s highest profile architecture office, Foster & Partners. Sited in Abu Dhabi, the city will, like the country, depend on fuel for its existence but there the similarity to the other burgeoning desert cities ends. It is being designed as the world’s first zero-carbon city. Foster & Partners senior partner Gerard Evendent says: “What we’re doing is designing a city in context. It’s based on a traditional model in a modern context. There are narrow streets to offer shade from the sun, four-storey buildings with no lifts and a high thermal mass [making them more energy efficient] and all the roofs are covered in photovoltaic panels. It is essentially a walled city, traffic stops at the gates and inside there’s a light rail system and rapid transport with everyone within 200 metres of public transport access.”

What makes the city so unlike its predecessors (and its outrageously energy-hungry neighbours) is its built-in industry. At the heart of the town is a university faculty concerned exclusively with the study and research of renewable energy. It is a sustainable city in every sense of the word.

Although its designers’ ambition to make it entirely carbon neutral is unique, it is not the only new eco-city. The Chinese, the world’s environmental bogeymen, astonishingly beat them to it. Dongtan, at the mouth of the Yangtse River, is being developed by British multi-disciplinary practice Arup with the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation. It is planned to house half a million people by 2050 (it is about three-quarters the size of Manhattan) but it also sits next to an extremely sensitive wetland, home to migrating birds, which it aims to preserve. Peter Head, director of sustainability at Arup, says: “All the transport will be hydrogen- or battery-driven, so it’ll be very quiet. Hopefully, you’ll be able to hear the birds singing. Then there’s a lot of green space and biodiversity. People will be encouraged to walk and cycle through the city’s shady, pleasant spaces. We’ve found there’s been a lot of interest on blogs and on the internet. I think people are looking for something, for someone to give some leadership and direction on cities.”

China estimates it will need to build 40 new cities to accommodate the internal immigration of 300m people from the countryside in barely more than a decade.

Dongtan is an undoubted vision of paradise after the ghastly free-market explosion of other settlements, such as Guangzhou (which are not entirely new but might as well be as they sweep everything old in their path away) but it is hard for anywhere marginally civilised not to be paradise after that. The question is, can new cities become, in time, as successful as the current capitals of culture and commerce?

If we revisit the first wave of modernist cities, the mistakes, as well as the things that were right, are very clear. Roger Hawkins of architects Hawkins\Brown is working on a revitalisation of the town centre through the building of a deceptively simple new structure to house a blend of civic and arts facilities.

“Corby is town planning gone wrong,” he says of one of the UK’s 1950s new towns. “Harlow, another town which displayed the aspirations of the postwar period, is successful because of its placement on the motorways. Corby, with 40,000 people, is the largest town in Europe not to have a railway station yet the utopian vision of pedestrianised precincts quickly deteriorated into the classic windswept plazas.” Perhaps, in spite of its appearance in every single architects’ drawing, every new town and suburb, the plaza was never a very English type. The most popular and successful places in the UK are almost always streets – Princes Street in Edinburgh, Oxford Street and the tight, bitty, gritty grids of Soho and Shoreditch in London. Which Londoner spends any time in Covent Garden or Trafalgar Square?

Ultimately, as Sennett explains, the problem is time. “Networks,” he says, “are what make cities work, why people want to be in them and these take a long time to develop. A city that ‘ripens’ slowly accommodates the best networks and that is why people like long-established places better.”

In the US, perhaps in China, certainly in Dubai, new towns do seem to have a future despite their faults. They are all cultures that privilege the new over the old. In the UK and in much of Europe there is still a sentimental attachment to the old that is proving hard to break. Yet new cities will have to be built. In the UK Gordon Brown is intending to make the construction of 100,000 eco-homes in newly built towns one of the shots in his opening salvo as prime minister.

But new towns are hard to plan, hard to build and notoriously hard to predict. Yet we have to start somewhere. Rem Koolhaas, contemporary architecture’s most potent polemicist (who has for years been attempting to rejuvenate Almere) is positive about this uncertainty. “We were making sand castles,” he says. “Now we are swimming in the sea which swept them away…The certainty of failure has to be our laughing gas/oxygen; modernisation our most potent drug…In a landscape of increasing impermanence, urbanism is no longer, or has to be the most solemn of our decisions; urbanism can lighten up…What if we simply declare there is no crisis – redefine our relationship with the city not as its makers but as its mere subjects, as its supporters? More than ever, the city is all we have.”

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