BBC Future

How we imagined a New York of the future

  • Full speed ahead
    Modern Mechanix magazine's image of a futuristic monorail in a city of looming towers is part of a rich history of fantastical New York visions. (Transcendental Graphics/Getty)
  • Tall tale
    Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew this picture of a future New York in 1881, when the tallest building in town was the 281-foot (86m)-high Trinity Church. (Thomas Nast/Harpers Weekly)
  • Biplanes and high trains
    In 1925, this future vision of the Big Apple imagined trains zooming far above the streets – though its predictions of plane design were less ambitious… (Corbis)
  • Airship heaven
    This 1916 graphic imagined Troy, New York in 2016; wide streets with gleaming trolleybuses and airships floating amid massive skyscrapers. (Rensselaer County Historical Society)
  • Mono metropolis
    Looking very much like a still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, this model imagined a New York of wide highways flanked by enormous skyscrapers. (Skyscraper Museum/Marcin Wichary)
  • Pipe dreams
    No dawdling mailmen in this vision of a future city; instead, packets and parcels are sent via a series of tubes in a pneumatic postal service. (Three Lions/Getty Images)
  • Pre-millenial ascension
    In 1900, this is what New York World imagined the Manhattan skyline would look like in 99 years time; complete with rows of skyscrapers and a fleet of zeppelins. (New York World)
  • In the element
    French film director Luc Besson tipped his hat to many of these retro future ideas in his 1997 sci-fi epic The Fifth Element. (Sony Pictures)
  • Flights of fancy
    In 1960, the much-loved magazine Popular Mechanics predicted giant helicopter airliners ferrying visitors to the streets of the city. (Out of Time Designs)
Over the years, many have dreamed about what a future New York might look like. BBC Future presents the best retro visions of the Big Apple.

New York City has often embodied the cutting edge of urban design; the limited space on Manhattan forced builders to think big. Those first skyscrapers ushered in a new kind of city, and where New York led, others followed.

For decades, artists, architects and writers have tried to imagine what this great city would look like in the future. Some imagined towers that soared into the clouds; others predicted railways that rushed many storeys above the city streets, sharing the skyspace with roaming airships. Monorails zoomed along snaking rails, and giant helicopter airliners disgorged passengers on Manhattan boulevards. Even the humble postman was replaced in one vision – the mail flying to homes in pneumatic tubes.

Many of these fantastical visions failed to make it into real life, but that makes them no less fascinating - they reflect their era’s hopes and ambitions. BBC Future took a look through the archives at a brave new Big Apple.

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