Will we live in buildings made out of waste, heavily surveilled smart cities, or maybe floating communities designed to cope with rising sea levels?
Amid the much-mythologised graffiti that appeared around Sorbonne University during the French civil unrest in May 1968, one line still stands out as intriguing and ambiguous:
“The future will only contain what we put into it now.”
What appears at first utopian has more than a hint of the ominous. While augmented reality creates a city individualised for every occupant, and developments in modular architecture and nanotechnology might result in rooms that change form and function at a whim, the problem lies in the unforeseen. The smart city will also be the surveillance city.
For the moment, we remain largely wedded to superficial visual futures. The likelihood is that the prevailing chrome and chlorophyll vision of architects and urbanists will become as much an enticing, but outdated, fashion as the Raygun Gothic of The Jetsons or the cyberpunk of Blade Runner. Rather than a sudden leap into dazzling space age-style cityscapes, innovations will unfold in real-time – and so too will catastrophes. The very enormity of what cities face seems beyond the realms of believability and encourages postponement and denial.
“Survivability” should be added to urban buzzwords like connectivity and sustainability. Three-quarters of all major metropolises lie on the coastline. In China alone, 20 million people per year move to cities, with the flood-prone Pearl River Delta now the world’s largest urbanised area, according to the World Bank.
A recent report by Christian Aid places more than a billion people in coastal cities vulnerable to severe flooding and extreme weather due to climate change by 2070, with Kolkata, Mumbai and Dhaka topping the list. Many more people face the knock-on effects of severe flooding such as fresh water shortages, refugee crises and political instability.
The question remains whether large-scale adaptation will be possible in the face of short electoral cycles, the abiding influence of commercial interests, and a sense of inertia beneficial to the status quo. Since Kenzō Tange’s Tokyo Bay Plan (1960), one tendency has been towards proposing intriguing but as yet ephemeral “floating” cities. For real cities facing sea-level rise, Seth McDowell from Mcdowellespinosa architects identifies three strategies: “Defence, retreat and adaptation.”
“Cities and populations with generous resources and engineering capacity will likely simply take the defence strategy and build mega engineering structures to keep the water away – similar to the Delta Works in the Netherlands. For those with less cultural and economic investments in the water’s edge, we will likely see retreat as a strategy. However, I see retreat as both a horizontal and vertical operation. So, retreating does not just mean packing up and moving inland, but could also mean elevating above the water.”
Venice is the commonly quoted model for this process, but a more recent example (though considerably less aesthetically appealing) is the platform oil city of Neft Daşhlari in Azerbaijan. “Water becomes a new datum – not so much a habitable space, but rather a fluctuating ground,” McDowell explains. “Cities would be designed or reconfigured to accept rising water levels and adapt … to allow for a co-existence between water and civic activities. You can see this strategy in projects like De Urbanisten’s Water Square Benthemplein in Rotterdam, where a public square doubles as a water storage basin.”
Architecture group Terreform One adopts a similarly counter-intuitive but practical approach in its Governors Hook project, where “instead of keeping the water out, the design allows the water in”. The relationship between the urban and rural must be reconsidered, co-founder Mitchell Joachim suggests, to prevent cities adopting a siege mentality and fighting a losing battle with the elements.
“We need to find these much larger soft buffer zones that are accepting of these two worlds of nature and city. Before Hurricane Sandy, we were using these ghost fleets, old military vessels as artificial reefs that would be embedded into the edges of our city and allow sediment and life-forms to build up on top of them over time and create these middle zones between land and sea.” The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy made these plans seem particularly pertinent, if not prophetic.
Dealing with waste
The population explosion and advances of the industrial age have produced unprecedented levels of waste into landfill, the sea and the sky. Countering measures, such as developing nanotechnology that would see buildings alleviate pollution at a molecular level, are still in their infancy.
In the meantime, waste is as much a testament to civilisation as our urban skylines. Mcdowellespinosa proposes a shift in thinking: “Waste is just a material state,” McDowell says. “Since it tends to be unwanted, it is cheap.
“The main issue to overcome in viewing waste as raw material is the energy required to transform the material from a state of refuse to a state of sophistication. There is also the perceptual challenge – how can waste be transformed to acceptable visual and performance standards? We’ve explored this idea in projects such as City of Blubber, which imagines converting Hong Kong’s food waste into a productive bioplastic material.”
What we might see as absurd is already happening through necessity in settings like Manshiyat Naser in Egypt, where a “Garbage City” functions on the refuse of Cairo. Mitchell Joachim agrees that our current approach is a problem. “There is no such thing as waste. Waste is supposed to go away but there is no ‘away’. We look at fully ‘upcyclable’ cities where projects, products, concepts that we make are always intended to be cycled upwards again and again.”
This is reflected in Terreform One’s Rapid Re(f)use project – a “future city [that] makes no distinction between waste and supply”.
Engaged in projects from the shifting pods of Peristaltic City to the transformed-Arctic Ecotarium of Future North, Joachim suggests a radical change in our economic and political systems to match our technological ingenuity. “They say we’re in the age of the Anthropocene but really it’s more accurate to say we’re in the Capitalocene. Everyone has to grow and show proof of growth. And we know that is impossible. Nothing grows to infinity. There will always be stresses whether on the market or the environment that will cause it to feedback.
“At Terreform One, we’re anticipating, not an endless growth system, but a state where waste doesn’t exist – a steady state or closed, stable economy that cycles back and recognises the limits of the earth’s metabolism and what we can take out. This would be done with footprint calculations and life-cycle analyses on anything we produce.”
Rather than view the city architecturally, Joachim encourages us to see it also as a series of interconnected metabolic systems, akin to a biological organism. “In a culture of biology, you just don’t design something for a single purpose. A cherry tree is servicing thousands of other forms of life. It produces thousands of cherries that get absorbed into the soil and feed all different types of flora and fauna. It’s connected into a web of life.”
Terreform One’s ideas and designs might seem wildly visionary on first glance but looking closer, they go beyond speculative concepts into proposing functioning models.
“What we do is create very detailed fictive scenarios that don’t promise the future will end up this way, but rather we think about what the inherent issues are and bring these to the foreground and talk in a logical way how cities might respond.”
The obstacle in adapting cities is the same obstacle in tackling fossil fuel emissions; what Joachim identifies as “predatory drag”. “If you’re an oil company, you’re going to say ‘Yes, solar panels are great, we’ll invest in that. We think in 2050, we’ll all be using solar panels.’ Until then, every single day they are in business, there are such enormous profits for them that the point is to delay.”
Given how embedded these interests are in political circles, change from within needs an unlikely synthesis of the community-orientated philosophy of Jane Jacobs and the force, connections and leverage of Robert Moses. It will likely take a disastrous jolt (“an environmental Pearl Harbour”) to alter the calculus of negligence economics, provide a rousing symbol and focus the issue, by which stage it might be too late.
One day, cities may be forced to follow their inhabitants in becoming mobile. Ron Herron’s Walking City for Archigram may still suggest the outer reaches of science fiction, but the idea of moving a city has already happened: the Swedish town of Kiruna was relocated two miles away.
And with developments in the assembling of buildings through drones, nanotechnology-enhanced materials and industrial 3D printing, dissembling and deploying them elsewhere could be much easier than at present.
Perhaps the likeliest outcome is that cities will simply continue as they are, or be deserted. The costs of change may result in inundated areas simply being abandoned (in the model of Detroit or New Orleans) while more privileged areas will be protected. Sacrifice zones and ruins may form in coastal cities as the authorities and the rich move up or out.
Containing a critique of the present, as every prophesy does, Clouds Architecture Office’s Aqualta envisages a partially submerged metropolis where life nevertheless carries on. “The city would in effect lift its skirt allowing water to flow beneath its feet,” explains partner Ostap Rudakevych.
“Thinking through the ramifications – flooded subway tunnels, submerged roads and sidewalks, street level retail underwater – allows for new conditions to emerge, such as transport by boat or dirigible, suspended walkways, oyster beds, and a generally slower and quieter lifestyle. Perhaps fossil fuels would be gone by then, yielding a quieter city without the sounds of engines or motors.
“Rather than devising ever more complex technologies in an escalating battle against nature, we adapt and invite the water in.”
Beyond the initial surprise, there are sound ideas and a scathing perceptiveness underlying the project: “Aqualta was guided by the observation that people are resistant to change, especially if it means sacrificing comfort or convenience. Needed lifestyle adjustments have been gradual or non-existent. Aqualta was intended as a kind of slow-burn wake-up call, a seductive portrayal of where we’re headed, like it or not.”
To go beyond the superficial aspects of future cities requires seeing past the architectural shell and the marketing to the systems, relationships and people within – the citizens rather than the citadels.
“A city is more than a place in space,” Patrick Geddes pointed out, “it is a drama in time.” Change will be continuous, because “designing a city is like painting a watercolour in a stream”, says Joachim.
In order to be preserved, the city must become adaptable. So too must its designers and its inhabitants – but they must do so together. We are endlessly, fancifully predicting the future partly in order to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re already creating it, for good and ill.
This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.