It is December 10th, 2032.
You open your eyes. Your first breath takes in the comforting fragrance of freshly-baked baguettes.
That reminds you. You’re in your local hospital. You reach up to tap the right side of your face, where the curb met your eyebrow in the hectic cycling-dominated promenades of midtown. Your face is still numb and you return your attention to your nose. The smell makes you suddenly nostalgic for 2020 when everyone around you was baking bread, staying home, endless Zoom. COVID times. It feels like a dream.
While hospitals in Singapore have intentionally piped the smell of freshly baked goods in their HVACs for decades, just as they’ve always followed other proven design interventions like access to sunlight and a view of nature, New York City was never Singapore. It was the gritty and divided city of rich and poor that never prided itself on equalizing access to the really good stuff, the important stuff in life. But it was your dream before you could even remember to live there. To be a New Yorker, not much else mattered.
The smell of bread would never be the same for you again. “Keep your mind on the breath. The feeling of air entering and leaving your nostrils. Let the simple sensation of your breath fill your entire awareness.” You are still sleepy and you half consciously recite the instructions from your old meditation teacher. Every morning before getting out of bed, you would meditate for a few minutes. Coziness and meditation, that was your life. The end of 2020 and the beginning of everything changing around you. Plastic bubbles that carried $17 grain bowls never reappeared. Either did the subway ads that advertised a better way to buy sheets, shave, meet a lover, or get an advanced degree. Layers of complication and distraction that you thought were the very essence of urban existence vanished over months and years and you very slowly found new languages and pursuits of contentment. You remember weeping a lot. You remember being very honest. Having hours-long conversations with your design partner about how much simpler you could make your lives. How little you could work and how much more time that left you for exploring the world’s cycling and pedestrian mecca.
Uber. Your kids think it’s so funny that there was actually a thing called Uber and you could call a car to come pick you up whenever you were and take you wherever you wanted to go. They have no idea why you ever had cars in the first place. Biking and walking are so much more gratifying and delicious. You are proud to be a citizen in the League of 20-minute cities. Paris, Copenhagen, Delhi, New York, Istanbul, Los Angeles. America took a different turn. You feel for them. But you never visit. You fought in the digital separatist movement and you feel honored to have served your city and your neighborhood, even if it meant giving up the rights to travel to most of the continent. Everything is close by. You don’t think you’ve said the word “commute” in the last 5 years. You know where everything is and where everything comes from.
You never knew how dirty it all was. Literally and ethically. You didn’t know your whole days were spent consuming the make-believe businesses of egoistic entrepreneurs bloated by speculative capital that they could never make good on by solving imaginary problems. Once the city healthcare system fell into place, there was no need to commit to a 70-hour-a-week job with beer and cold brew on tap and other silly amenities. How weird it is to remember all the surfaces and close spaces you shared. All the work you pretended to do. The infinite growth you thought was possible. You made investor decks like you made your bed each morning. Now you’re lying in a sun-drenched health pod, enjoying the smell of freshly baked bed, awaiting Sally: a community health worker that you’ve known for years to check in on you. She’s the same person you called when your daughter had her first fever, when your neighbor fainted in the hall, and every fall when you schedule your quarterly vaccine visits for the school year.
You’re not afraid of the bill. You’re actually not afraid of anything. You are living in a city designed by health and safety. You don’t make much money. If you’re honest, you haven’t designed anything groundbreaking, but you know that design is more about culture and care. And you’re part of a place that communicates, shares, and keeps people educated and safe. When you feel restless or bored, you cycle too fast. You got ahead of the pack. But your knees are not what they used to be. And a momentary daydream caught you unaware of the curb. You’ll be more careful next time.
You pick up your phone to record a voice memo. You suddenly have an idea for the next project you’ll take on with your collaborator. It’s for the city. Something you’ve dreamed of for a long time, but never really quite knew how to start.
= = =
Set a timer for five minutes and tell your own future.