Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ecopolis and the American Dream

Victory City

There are a lot of ideas being tossed about these days on the subject of how we might design the sustainable cities of the future. I’m finding these ideas not only in the professional literature, but also in the discourse of popular culture(1) and politics. Some urban visionaries have generated fantastical ideas, recalling the impractically idealistic proposals of previous generations but now fashioned in the service of saving humankind from itself. Typically, these futuristic designs mandate hyperdense development, employing revolutionary technologies to address the impacts of climate change, maximize efficiencies, and minimize the generation of greenhouse gases. The projects are presented as if powerful institutions with unlimited resources would somehow realize and control them, and citizens would willingly adapt to the loss of freedoms inherent in life within these utopian megastructures.

Therein lies the challenge. Resources are limited, and Americans in particular value their autonomy and property rights. As if taken from a post-apocalyptic movie, these enormous projects call to mind a dystopian future, one in which a comfortable life would be available to only a privileged few, cosseted from a world in which climate-induced famine and suffering are rampant. Realistically, a different solution is required, in which the necessary changes in human settlement at a global scale are achieved at far less cost, to the benefit of as many people as possible.

Hyperdensity vs. Complexity
Today’s sprawling, ever-growing metropolises consume resources like food, water, and energy as if they were limitless, while spewing pollution and waste. The reflexive responses by some architects and urbanists are proposals for hyperdense megastructures – highly integrated and compact forms that would be the antithesis of urban sprawl. These proposals are fascinating because of their sheer hubris: the Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid, planned for construction over Tokyo Bay, would be 12 times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza, and house 750,000 people. It would be so huge that existing construction materials are incapable of supporting such a colossal mass; futuristic carbon nanofiber technology is viewed as necessary to the creation of a plausible structural frame. Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad project is equally audacious: an “auto-sufficient amphibious city” that he has proposed as a tenable solution to rising sea levels and the flooding of low-lying cities and countries. Lilypad would be, in Callebaut’s words, an “Ecopolis for Climatic Refugees,” capable of floating about the planet to where ocean resources are most plentiful and escaping the foulest weather.

Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid

Two Lilypads floating in Monaco's harbor

It’s easy to trace the pedigree of both the Mega-City Pyramid and Lilypad projects to Paolo Soleri’s earlier “arcology” (architecture + ecology) concepts, which similarly proposed the miniaturization of the city to radically conserve land, energy, and resources. To a lesser extent, I also see the 1960s megastructure designs of the Japanese Metabolists and the British Archigram as inspirations, although the latter eschewed social and environmental concerns in favor of ironic, rhetorical, and purely hypothetical expression. There’s also a healthy dose of science fiction speculation in all of the hyperdense projects. The common thread is a faith in human ingenuity and technology to address the huge challenges facing humankind.(5)

Soleri's Hexahedron Arcology

The problem with the majority of the hyperdense city proposals is that they are curiously antiseptic – products of straight-line, reductionist thinking. Their apotheosis may be found in the musings of Orville Simpson II, a Midwestern utopian socialist, would-be urban planner, and designer of Victory City. Not only is Victory City his solution to the environmental degradation caused by traditional cities, it is also his cure for the many ills of conventional urban life. Unfortunately, Simpson’s world view is childlike and narrowly focused, the success of Victory City being predicated upon the implementation of draconian social controls, such as dictating when, what, where, and how people are fed.

Feeding 16,333 people at a time in the Victory City cafeteria

Urban geographer Ian Douglas observed that “the urban eco-system is the most elaborate geographical control-system or integrated resource-management system in human experience.” How we interact with the environment and each other cannot be reduced to narrowly focused engineering solutions; we’re all part of systems that interact in ways that are incomprehensibly complex. A city is not merely the sum of its parts, especially when so many of those parts are capable of exercising free will.

The American Dream
Many Americans equate selfhood with freedom and property ownership, and find it difficult to reconcile rights owed to the individual with duties owed to the collective. In this regard, the hyperdense blueprints for the cities of the future are fundamentally un-American and impractical. I can’t imagine the dramatic paradigm shift that would be necessary in this country, where generations have championed the ideal of the single nuclear-family detached house, set in its private surrounding yard, as a reward for pursuing one’s goals. Such a shift will not happen anytime soon. Nevertheless, unfettered growth cannot figure in the American Dream of the future. American cities and culture will become more locally and regionally focused, as conservation of resources becomes paramount.

The American Dream persists because of the belief that anyone who works hard can succeed and is entitled to the fruits of his or her labors. This has served the country well, but with a more interconnected and complex world than ever before, the American Dream will evolve. Americans do embrace trying new things, and succeeding or failing because of savvy, their level of dedication, and good or bad fortune. These traits will be the key to the development of a more sophisticated network of incremental solutions to the complex problem of transforming U.S. cities into more ecologically sound systems.

Urban Fractals
Paul Downton is an Australian architect and eco-city advocate who believes that adapting to global warming, as well as reducing social inequity and furthering sustainability, are fundamentally local. While he acknowledges that we will need global-scale changes in political structures, economic institutions, and the very foundations of society, he also argues that it is at the local level – in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods – where lasting models of the kind of world we wish to see will arise.

Downton believes that urban fractals(2) – small components of a larger ideal eco-city – are necessary to demonstrate the essential characteristics of a sustainable culture and environment. Each urban fractal would be an example of a cultural pattern that is sufficiently different from the norm to change the deeper pattern of the city. The overarching goal is to design and develop new urban systems with the intent of establishing the framework for an ecological culture. Thus, a typical urban fractal might take the form of a sustainable human ecological development at the scale of a single building or neighborhood. It would be a discrete unit or element of cultural ideas and practices that would serve as an imitable agent for change, like a self-replicating meme. For example, a particular building project might be so optimized that little in the way of resources outside of the development are necessary to sustain it. It could then serve as a model for similar, neighboring projects. Cumulatively, the urban fractals that contain the essential characteristics of the desired ecological culture would achieve the extent and depth of change necessary to shift complete cities toward ecological health and viability.

Fractal geometry: The Mandelbrot Set

The clear advantage of urban fractals is that they can be of a scale that is consistent with how the majority of real estate improvements are presently undertaken. This is a vision of the future that is grounded in reality and “bottom-up” processes, as opposed to the “top-down” utopias and the absolute social upheaval they would augur(3). The urban fractals model describes a path toward major change in a way that can be accepted as normal because it would happen at a relatively slow pace, in unnoticed increments. It does not preclude the right to private property ownership that so many Americans cherish, nor would it discourage individual initiative and creativity. It is a model that would be resilient and adaptive, radically interconnected and inventive, so much so that we may not fully predict its final emergent form. Ultimately, the result would be Ecopolis(4), a city locally adapted to an era of rapid climate change.

I’m guessing that the American Dream will endure as our cities confront the social, economic, and technological challenges posed by global climate change. The freedom to own and develop property will be balanced with a sense of civic responsibility to work together to create healthful, sustainable communities. Americans possess too much determination, ingenuity, and enterprise for me to believe otherwise.

(1) This post was prompted by my viewing the TV series ECOPOLIS, recently broadcast on the Science Channel, a case-in-point when it comes to my belief that the popular media have recognized the general public’s interest in sustainable design.

(2) Fractals are defined as displaying related characteristics at every magnification, are considered to be infinitely complex, and have connective structure at different scales.

(3) There will be plenty of social upheaval attributable to drastic climate change regardless of which path cities follow toward urban sustainability. In fact, independent scientist and futurist James Lovelock believes that the whole notion of sustainable development is wrongheaded and that sustainable retreat (in which patterns of resource used to meet human needs are achieved at dramatically lower levels and where migration of large portions of the human population occurs) is instead necessary.

(4) It’s interesting how the name Ecopolis, which has become synonymous with a sustainable city or eco-city, has been adopted by so many who are involved in the field of urban sustainability. For example, the name of Paul Downton’s architectural firm in Adelaide is Ecopolis.

(5) Another supersized, hyperdense proposal is the Ultima Tower by architect Eugene Tsui.

1 comment:

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