Insights · September 1st, 2012

This is Part 3 of Chapter 2 of our book on the future of cities, being written with  Dennis Walsh. Our plan is to publish a new book blog nearly every day for the next couple of months. We will publish them both here on and on Later we will compile the blogs into an e-book.

We are debating the eventual title. We started with two choices: “Downtown” and “Shine…The Rebirth of American Cities.” Which do you like? We hope you will find the subject of interest and follow this book in serial form. A reader has suggested, “City Transformation?” So far, “Downtown” with a subtitle is leading. What do you think?

by Dennis Walsh and Glen Hiemstra

It was the decade of rock n’ roll. Elvis Presley sang “Heartbreak Hotel” popularizing black music and shocking America. The Ed Sullivan Show brought him millions of fans. Superstar rocker, he was here to stay. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino followed him. Accused of promoting teenage sexual liberation and rebellion, Rebel Without a Cause showed teenagers fighting with switchblades and driving fast  cars off cliffs.

By the end of the 1950’s, television was everywhere. Television was mesmerizing. Watching it was a favorite pastime. Mass culture delivered mass audiences exactly what they wanted; a “vanilla wasteland” of endless soaps, sitcoms, and Westerns. Advertising agencies used psychologists to influence peoples’ subconscious preference for one product over another. People bought in and paid out. But buying cost money, so along came the credit card. “Buying now, and paying later” made it all too easy.

Did that have a negative effect on America? Did it destroy sense of community? Ironically, the “boob tube” brought the country together watching political conventions and sports teams from home while commercials sold them products that kept the economy moving.

This is where it all gets a little strange, even creepy like deja vu. Students from mostly affluent families flocked to universities in record numbers, and began to see society differently. They saw problems developing. They were questioning rampant materialism. Sound familiar? That generation wanted personal revelation and social revolution; valued intuition as well as reason; and preferred Eastern mysticism to Western religion. In the midst of all of this, a radical, new student organization was born: The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Their manifesto, The Port Huron Statement, presented a vision for post Vietnam War America and called for a student movement based on “participatory democracy”, a phenomenon that is still practiced on American campuses to this day. SDS demonstrations against the war drew thousands whose parents – raised during the Great Depression – had sought security and stability through material “stuff” and found it in the suburbs. Universities were in a position of social influence; a harbinger of reform in an apathetic, materialistic society.

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement began in 1964 when Berkeley University students returned to school after a summer of civil rights protests. Students demanded the same structure for their universities as they had for the nation: participatory democracy. The 1960s that followed saw social turmoil creeping in, inspired by the Vietnam War, racial injustice, fear of nuclear annihilation, and materialism. In search of a better world, music, politics, and alternative lifestyles created a counterculture.

So hippies came into play, mostly middle-class white students, wearing jeans, tie-dyed shirts, sandals, beards and long hair. The sex and drug culture was born. Rock music embraced sexual promiscuity and recreational drugs. Bands like The Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles sang songs like “White Rabbit” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” In Detroit, Motown soul music combined love songs with music that promoted civil rights and the fight for equality. Motown was the sound of teenage America. The Supremes; the Temptations and Four Tops; and Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, and Little Stevie Wonder made music of hope.

A black American minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood up for what he knew was right. The country moved toward a more open inclusive society that celebrated diversity instead of conformity. Sit-ins were staged at schools and lunch counters. Any public place would do, pretty much. Publicity and popular opinion did the rest. It was perhaps the first time in American history that a generation of youth made an impact on politics and society. Great story but it didn’t end there. Civil rights might have been driven by a sense of peaceful revolution in the 1960’s, but in time, that unrest exploded into violence.

The Watts Riots of 1965 and then the 1968 Detroit riots that followed the assassination of Dr. King, focused attention on the growing problems of poverty and inequality in cities. Against this cultural backdrop, cities were indeed beginning to fail. City centers emptied of residents, home only to office blocks and gradually failing storefronts. Centers of manufacturing continued to flourish into the early 1970’s, but by then the signs of industrial down sizing had begun to occur. Suburbs grew, freeways expanded, bus and rail lines died, the great hollowing out of cities was reaching completion. Some hippies dropped out and left cities for the countryside, experimenting with a communal lifestyle. Away from urban problems, they built lives around shared political goals and organic farming.

As the counterculture wave continued toward the close of the decade, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair became an affair to remember for tens of thousands of middle-class young. Four days of “peace, love and groovy,” of great music, liberation, and expanding consciousness, along with a dose of sex, drugs and indulgence.

Young people didn’t end racism but they did end legal segregation. They ended the notion that you could send half-a-million soldiers around the world to fight a war that people didn’t support. They ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. They made the environment an issue that could not be avoided. For the first time, young people felt empowered by their numbers, proving once and for all that people who care enough to do right can change history.

[Glen Hiemstra is the Founder of, and curator of Dennis Walsh is a sustainability futurist from Canada best known for his work as the first publisher of green@work. Contact us through]

Millennial City
Nikolas Badminton – Chief Futurist

Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

Contact Nikolas