The Real-Life Possibilities of Black Panther's Wakanda, According to Urbanists and City Planners
By Marc Malkin
28 February 2018
Photo courtesy of Architectural Digest
The 2018 superhero film Black Panther, based on the Marvel Comics character, has garnered $241.1 million during its four-day opening weekend — the second highest record of all time. Black Panther is also the biggest debut by an African American director.
Along with its obvious successes, the movie has also struck a chord with urbanists and city planners. The design and infrastructure of the fictional East African nation, Wakanda, has experts considering the real-life application of the nation.
“Probably no movie has been more discussed in the context of utopian or dystopian city-making than 1982's Blade Runner,” urbanist and Vancouver’s former chief planner Brent Toderian tells Architectural Digest. “It’s still being discussed decades later. Blade Runner wasn’t a positive vision of Los Angeles, but it was an interesting vision. It was a cautionary tale, but also a fun conversation starter. I think Black Panther's Wakanda can be that new conversation.”
Charisma Acey, Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning, has commended Marvel for their interpretation of the Wakanda cityscape. Unlike most superhero movies, where cities are filled with futuristic glass-and-steel towers reaching into and above the clouds, Wakanda’s architecture comes in all shapes, sizes, and materials.
“They didn’t make everything gleaming and shiny,” says Acey, whose fieldwork includes Africa and South America. “It does offer an alternative for what future cities could be like in Africa.”
The architecture of the national incorporates traditional African design elements, such as thatch roofs and hanging gardens on some of the tallest structures.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Wakanda and the eco-cities that are emerging across Africa,” Acey said. “There has been an influx of capital since 2000 into the continent, creating satellite cities and central cities. It’s happening in West Africa, East Africa, and even in southern Africa.”
“There’s density in Wakanda, but it doesn't seem oppressive. I immediately saw urbanism at all scales. I saw tall towers, I saw mid-rise towers, and I saw human-scale urbanism. It looks like regional architecture as opposed to this anywhere-ness that we seem to have in our global architecture these days. I saw architectural expression that was not only organic, but of its place and of its culture,” said Toderian.
In the capital city of Wakanda, pedestrians walk along streets free of cars, except the occasional small shuttle. This vision is not unlike the Woonerf Concept, an approach to public space design started in the Netherlands in the 1970s. “It’s this idea that streets in the cities should be primarily devoted to pedestrians,” says Yonah Freemark, a PhD student in city planning at MIT who runs the transit website The Transport Politic.
Wakanda, Freemark added, “inspires us to think differently about what we want our public spaces to look like. I think it’s quite possible to have streets in the United States look like this in the future. Maybe not the maglev trains that are in Black Panther, but you certainly can see streets becoming focused on people rather than cars, streets where people are just able to walk in the middle of them without the fear of being run over.”