Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Longstanding Dreams of the Future City

THE WAYS IN WHICH we imagine the future city reveal our biases more than our insight.  And the way in which we imagine the city of the future strongly influences our current actions.
The positive visual image of the city of the future is that of a luminous city, crystalline, comprised of pristine metal- and glass-skinned towers and interconnecting walkways and a sky bustling with air traffic.  There are few if any trees or green space.  There is no decay and no nostalgia.  Because it is too perfect and too uniform in its design, this luminous image is sometimes negative and suspect.  This is likely because it doesn’t seem to allow for something “wild” in us that we value.  In Ideal Cities, Ruth Eaton writes that the “ideal city” is “marked by the belief that it can ignore natural contextual conditions, often in the name of conformity to universal laws…”.[i]

There is also a predominant negative image of the city of the future, as either a literally darker city or a psychologically darker one as a result of either the repression human expression (e.g., the film Metropolis, 1927[ii]) or an anarchical, apocalyptic collapse into a tooth-and-claw wildness.  The dark city may project upwards in an attempt to escape the limits of the Earth, with most human life suppressed beneath its towers, even layered in castes.  The dark city is often portrayed as complex process of transportation to nowhere except in service of the machine-like city itself.  This reflects our sense of the city as synonymous with congestion and mechanics.  The facades of the buildings are drab, and light is incandescent.  And as with the luminous city, there are no trees.  Overall, the dark city is an attitude container where the architecture is a machine and is the city, and people either function uniformly and monotonously as machine components or live rebelliously and oppressed and preyed upon.  The city of the future is envisioned as either a utopia or dystopia that can only be a fantasy.  Typically, the city is envisioned on a grand scale and complete, intentionally designed rather than participatory and/or random, and as an exclusive cultural product with nonhuman events are largely absent.
In post-industrial life, the luminous city is envisioned as an impossible utopian dream while the dark city is envisioned as a dreaded possibility because parts of it seem to exist and point toward an apocalyptic end.  The darkness is due to both the loss of environmental quality by having depleted natural resources as well as a sense of authoritarian control that emerges and envisions human spontaneity as a life-threatening artifice of remnant nature.  Darkness is also negatively related to “romancing the machine” that favors uniformity as it did in the Italian Futurist Movement in the 1920’s, where affection for the machine transformed into a political philosophy that was Fascist and anarchist and against all tradition as anti-machine.  Darkness also projects a sense of urban space as chaotic and isolating.

The luminous city is positive because it is mechanistic and purposely devoid of “archaic” nature that is unceasing in its efforts to devolve human life, while the dark city is oppressive and is either struggling to keep nature from debasing human life or has destroyed nature, and is reduced to a basic survival mode that remains crude but still machine-like, and that can only deteriorate further toward extinction of human life and perhaps all life.  Both envision diversity and small-scale “messiness” of the actions of individual life as limiting and even destructive, when this “no-design” might be envisioned instead as the functional adaptability of the city.  When dilemmas occur, there is little sense of adapting to nature as advancing human development.  Portrayed at its best, a return to nature is imagined require an abandonment of the city for small settlements, a rejection of technology, and rigid adherence to unchanging rituals to proscribe advancement through technology.

In the last two centuries, the initial transformation to industrialization generated a realistic concern for the appearance of the “dark city” by creating public health concerns due to poor sanitation, overcrowding and pollution.  But in the face of widespread health concerns, the Industrial Revolution also began to enhance public health and longevity in the form of applied sciences.  Specific to the city-form, applied science became the solution, in the form of urban engineering as, for example, described by Eugene Henard for Paris in 1910[iii].

While pollution continues to be an aspect (due now more to congestion and consumption of resources), the “darkness” of the modern city is now described more by characteristics such as higher rates of violence, serving corporate interests that exploit material and human resources, a sense of alienation, and favoring privilege and acquisition that overuse global resources and create a sense of anomie or of an artificial “half-life.”  The dazzling metal and glass city centers have tended to become associated with corporations that have been sensed to be self-serving and that interpenetrate the city but are disinterested in the city.

The imagined future of the city—the dream of the city—has never been to be a dream of the Earth.  When human life becomes ecological in the environmental dream of the future, the city is more likely to be envisioned as a disappearing destructive machine.  The dominant dream of the city has been to rise above environmental demands or “the limiting Earth,” even to the point of eventually literally escaping the Earth.  In modern public perception, an “eco-city” is an oxymoron.  The term, “organic” is nearly synonymous with the term “anti-urban,” and anything approaching the organic in the built environment of the city is typically described as problematic, even though it may be participatory and valued were it to occur in rural and primal societies. 
The present day city that will become the future city is typically not described as a “landscape” or as a “habitat” or “ecosystem.”  The city-form is popularly thought of as a built environment that can be modified to resolve dilemmas.  The key design locus is “infrastructure.”  The city is defined as a “house of culture,” rather than as biotic or ecological.  The city is not typically described as an aggregate of living beings, both human and nonhuman.  Thus, the environmental directives for the future involve focusing on the built environment by enhancing the efficiency to reduce waste as well as by enhancing the built human scale of the city—dwellings, workplaces and transport—to make the city “livable.” 
The exploitation of vast stored material resources reinforced a sense of the fundamental nature of the city as a material invention that was capable of rising human life above nature and eventually the Earth itself.  And yet, throughout its development the city has never attained its aspiration to be separable from nature.  The city has always seemed to be restricted by the “organic” deterioration of its infrastructure and by it’s too rapid population growth that prevented its escape from nature.  Now with the peopling of the Earth that depleted the stored capital of the Earth and that is increasingly urbanized, the dream of separation is all but gone.  And degrading environmental feedback in cities, global impact on all unsettled landscapes, and scientific measures that lose cities deep in nature appear to turn the city into a sinking ship rather than into an ark of escape.

Inside of a souring dream of human life above nature, there is an effusive new sense of post-industrial life inside nature as the optimal way forward.  This same environmental feedback and scientific measures also appear to turn the city into an ecological process that is a step forward in human development and the development of the Earth.  The first glimpses of inherent adaptive features that are emerging in our measures of global urbanization suggest that our view of separation may be real yet narrow and facile.  Somewhat uncomfortably but full of promise, all of our terms now open to continuums that seem less bounded.  Even something quite set such as “human scale” is fundamentally wide open.  Now, urban “human scale” melds many scales that range from intimate through public space as well as including uninhabited space both within and beyond the city.  Post-industrial human scale can even be “trans-city,” involving living in more than one city, as well as global, to feel optimally “human.”

While we are beginning to experience the contemporary city differently, our dream for the future city has aspired to marry infinite dynamics of ecology with the finite dynamics of the machine.  Emphasis is placed on the “mechanics” of greening the architecture and decongesting transportation.  Correct but incomplete, the inefficiency of our buildings has become the focus.  Yes, our buildings use 12 percent of our water, produce 30 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions, are the source of 65 percent of our landfill waste and consume 70 percent of our electricity.  And yes, we demolish rather than deconstruct to recycle materials, and we have deemphasized utilizing renewable materials.[iv]  Thus, our buildings and our autos and our infrastructure of electrical grids, water delivery, waste, highways and streets seem to be the focal point for sustainability.  But urban sustainability needs to examine the underlying heart of its dream.  For example, sustainability does not mean the same thing in an urban area as it means in an eco-vill where the technology serves an underlying organic theme. 

An inflowing and out-flowing urban “metabolism” is still primarily an engineering dilemma of  “intake and exhaust.”  We become our words, and while “sustainability” feels brand-new, our responses are reactive and limiting.  The city is not envisioned as living ecosystem or habitat.  We design to sustain a “finite” urban infrastructure that we define as nearly the antithesis of an ecosystem such as forest or marsh or prairie that we define as open and infinite and unpredictable.  We focus on the the built environment in the face of consistent observations that the fundamental dynamic of the city that ultimately directs it is open and unpredictable.
Our longstanding dream of separation is being sorely tarnished by our most rational scientific measures that lose us in nature, and by our migration toward cities and the changing requirements of long-term residency, and by degrading environmental feedback.  This is beginning to drive a new association with the ecological, wherein the city is sensed to be something natural and organic.  Global urbanization is doing something that is beyond our intentional design.  As we begin to “inhabit” the city and the city begins to become a “habitat,” we begin to observe habitats, even built environments, as events that are generated by a living community rather than tenants dwelling in a machine.

The predominant force that is opening a new vision of cities as natural is a direct experience of intense environmental feedback to which inhabitants must “adapt” like nonhuman species do to sustain as a species.  Having appeared to be chaotic and seemingly having little to do with adaptation, our migration to the cities is beginning to suggest functional or adaptive dynamics rather than be chaotic and dysfunctional.  Our sense of the term “sustainability” begins to require an effort that is more than material technology, more than the modification of machine parts to insulate human life from environmental demands.  And the term “landscape” is beginning to be more inclusive and overlaying systems rather than a patchwork, describing both the built and unbuilt terrain as different but subject to similar conditions rather than as mutually exclusive.  From the fairly recent recognition of landscapes such as mountains and deserts as complex and dynamic rather than wastelands to a still vague sense of the city-form as more than a wasteland, there is a new sense of all landscapes being “eloquent” and capable of being optimal.

In the emerging dream of the future city, there is the possibility of the city as an oasis of life, both human and nonhuman.  We have no future models for this possibility, even as an impossible utopian vision.  Our predominant environmental models of the future would dissolve the city, and envision the future city as a plague of sorts on human progress or as a necessary evil, or as an escape vehicle to an ultimate destiny beyond Earth at best.

It is clear that while the contemporary city may be fundamentally adaptive, the city-form and the process of urbanization in its current form is likely more dysfunctional than functional.  As residents, it is evident that our strategy must change dramatically to improve and optimize our life.  And yet, it also begins to seem possible that global urbanization is occurring as a functional adaptation that offers an “ark of health” to the peopled Earth rather than as a completely destructive process.  Just as destructive industrialization improved life expectancy and general human health, the city offers a crucial, important pathway as a contemporary habitat for the billions of human beings that other forms of habitation would not absorb efficiently in the foreseeable near future.

In the global transition to urban residency and our emerging sense of inseparability, there is this emerging sense that global urbanization may be a process of integrating human life into the larger Earth ecosystem.  And begins to make reasonable the heretofore impossible—the idea the city might become an oasis for life.  As Theodore Roethke muses in Straw for the Fire, we “move among mysteries,” and so we need “more people who specialize in the impossible.”[v]

It can seem “obvious” that the global urbanization will utilize an ecological footprint or demand on Earth resources that is beyond the capacity of the Earth to provide.  But functional global changes have begun to occur almost in opposition to intentional efforts, perhaps amplified by rapid changes in global communication.  In a just a few decades, the term “ecology” has become public and popular.  Stewart Brand writes, “We know the image of the earth in space set in motion the ecology movement.  It was a year later, in 1970, whereas before that there was not really an ecology movement.”[vi]  Now, our most rational view of any landscape is a view of the universe at various magnitudes.  And this vastly expanded view of time and space is provoking a transformation in how we view human nature. 

Historically, as cities became mercantile centers and diversified control of resources from rulers to broader classes, they provoked a renaissance in our view of human nature.  For example, the economic autonomy afforded by mercantilism in the Italian Renaissance replaced a sense of fatalism with a sense of free will and self-determination.  Now, intense environmental feedback opens awareness of participation in a larger ecological context.  Rather than negate self-determination, an ecological perspective continues to encourage self-determination as an expression of wild alertness to the changing conditions of existence.  It expands human identity to include the larger landscape as an aspect of self.  Landscapes that once seemed apart from us and only neutral stage sets needing to be used to be activated are now understood to be inseparable, and not only active but shaping us, and so are an aspect of our identity. 

We have spoke of landscapes as possessions, and we have cultivated a sense of ownership and control that has fostered exploitation.  And now in a peopled Earth, we begin to directly experience the danger of this self-centered view as ultimately self-damaging.  “Ecology” begins to part the veil to reveal that each of us is on loan and possessed by landscape rather than possessing it.  We are finding that we are not authentically distanced by ownership. 

In an ecological dream of the city, we do not have to invent a way back to nature.  This is one of our remarkable new discoveries.  On all fronts, our measures state that we have never stepped outside nature.  The “urban wasteland” has never ceased being ecological.  And our view of cities is transforming, just as we deserts and mountain ranges from wastelands to dynamic and complex ecosystems.  Wilderness is transforming from isolated remnants to the biosphere and cosmos.  And James Lovelock suggests that the rural agricultural landscape that we have envisioned as far more ecological than the city due to “stewardship” can be described as a more destructive process than the city has been to date.[vii]  Still, seemingly denuding the Earth as Lovelock suggests, our destructive industrial agriculture also function naturally as an expression of species favoring a grassland ecosystem to favor the grasses and to practically sustain a peopled Earth through an anticipated transformation that will gradually reduce the global human population.

To enhance our design efforts, it might be helpful to begin to open the range of our thinking about the city of the future, regardless of whether it might become ecological or not.   As designers know well, the built environment—and finally, any environment—is an “attitude container” that is an accretion of either intentional or unintentional, subconscious design.  Places look the way that they do for a reason, sometimes for the wrong reasons.  Barriers between staff and clientele in fast food restaurants may expedite exchange that is desired, while schools might be hard surfaced for cleaning rather than be designed to optimize learning.  And so we can challenge ourselves to step beyond the obvious popular attitudes being conveyed.  

We can explore the city as something that might be functional rather than dysfunctional.  The oldest city might be imagined as young in the Earth and just beginning.  Each city might be imagined as being global and not just local, without having to become one global city or Doxiadis’ “ecumenopolis.”  We might imagine the city as alive or as wild.  The city might be imagined as synthesis and oasis.  A city might be imagined as a process rather than as a structure—as an adventure or as a chance, or as energy.  A city might be imagined as a gathering and not primarily a built environment.  The city might also be imagined as a threshold where human life crosses over from one condition to another, as a trigger-point for a renaissance in human development.

[i] Ruth Eaton, Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)Built Environment. London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2007, p. 10.
[ii] Metropolis. 1927 [Fritz Lang, Director, Berlin, Germany: Universum Film (UFA)]
[iii] Eugene Henard, “The cities of the future.” In Royal Institute of British Architects Town Planning Conference London 10-15 October 1910, Transactions, (London: The Royal Institute of British Architects, 1911): 345-367 [].
[iv] Adam Hammes, “Build smarter to save energy, reduce waste, promote health,” Des Moines Register, May 27, 2008.
[v] Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke 1943-63. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974 [1968), p. 183 and 185 respectively.
[vi]  Stewart Brand, “The clock of the long now, A talk with Stewart Brand,” [].
[vii] James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 144-145.

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