Thursday, April 4, 2013
Matt’s Soapbox- The City of the Future
When Brad and I started this blog, I had always intended to feature more science items in my posts. Brad is dorky about comics (so am I, but not as much), action figures, music (which he should discuss more), Westerns, and fan art. While I’m more dorky about science fiction, history, scientific and technologic advancement. I’ve posted a few book reviews (which admittedly have strayed into soapbox preaching), but I haven’t done much in the way posting about science. This is an attempt to amend that in a small, if long winded, way.
Cities may not be the ultimate expression of humanity, but they’ve got to be in the top 5. Civilization may have had its origins in hunting groups, jewelry making, domestication of animals, and the first attempts to cultivate crops, but it didn’t get moving until the first cities were built. Why? I’m sure there are a million reasons, but I think the most obvious is the old proverb that ‘two heads are better than one.’ One amazing, creative genius living in seclusion is likely to make little difference in the grand scheme of things. A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand living in close proximity, sharing ideas in a feedback loop of creativity can, have, and will change the very course of Human history, the Earth, and the stars. The city is like a canvas upon which history is painted.
To give a bit of background, I was born in a small city (perhaps a large town) called Bangor in the New England state Maine. I grew up in the late 70s through the 80s, where the hope and excitement of the 50s and 60s was on its last, staggering legs. My neighborhood had a few distinct features that set the tone of my childhood. Most of the people were older; the broken, grown-over bones of long-gone industry were literally a few feet from the edge of my back yard, a drug infested slum was just around the corner (in both directions), and there was a shabby, rundown playground from a generation before that had become the haunt of homeless, junkies, and the closest thing Bangor could manage to gangs. Maine had been (and with the exception of a few hope building then dashing bumps, has continued to be) on a downward spiral of entropic decline since the early part of the (20th) century. Each year, something died its last death, something closed, some industry moved on or was made irrelevant. Once upon a time, it had been a bustling state with several strong industries and somewhat diverse population. Bricks, lumber, ice, potatoes, granite, paper. Maine had it. But who builds with brick? Why would you buy lumber that costs so much more than the stuff from Canada? And who even uses that much lumber anymore? Who needs ice in an age of electricity? Who uses paper in a world of computers? It all went away, and though there were always a few scattered voices of reason, begging people to adapt and change with the times, those voices were candles in a hurricane, lost in the vast onslaught of status quo loving, ‘not in my back yard’ singing voices. All that was left were the tourists, who we hated for their alienness and rude intrusion while we swindled them like Tombstone whores for every cent we could pinch (seriously though, Canadian tourists were assholes; you’ve got to give me that). Bangor was not the idyllic postcard image of a New England town. It’s former glory was long tarnished, old mansions turned into slum apartments, roads broken, parks in disrepair, sidewalks grown over, train yards silent, bridges rusted. It was strip malls, and parking lots, and empty storefronts. Kids with nothing to do spent their time causing trouble, using drugs, and having babies. But I would hear all the time, ‘it’s so much worse out there; big cities are full of danger; we know how to live.’ And for a long time, I believed it. My few visits to Boston did nothing to change my feelings. Boston is everything I dreaded about The Big City. It’s crowded, stifling, and dirty. So dirty. “If this is the city, if the city is what I see in movies, if it’s the stories I hear from old people, then I don’t want any part of it.” It’s no wonder I was so into science fiction as a kid. When you come from a poor family, from a town full of broken dreams, and everything beyond is shrouded in paranoid fear, you want to look to a hope filled future. In my late 20s, I realized something had to change. I was hearing all these stories from friends who had left and gone to greener pastures. My job (or jobs; at one point I had four but still couldn’t pull in enough money to eat) was going nowhere and showing no signs of ever going anywhere (actually, other than a theater and Toys R Us, everywhere I ever worked is now closed). Not being into drinking and drugging, my social life was limited to a handful of gamer friends. And when it came to women, I was getting tired of trailer-trash gals who were looking to get knocked-up so they could get another welfare check, who spent their free time listening to country music and complaining about how Mexicans were stealing their jobs (there are like three Mexicans in the entire state of Maine and no jobs, so I’m not sure what kind of job thievery was going on), while asking me questions like ‘wha’tchu readin’ for?’ (And yes, that is a bit of an exaggeration. That description fits only 90% of the women I met. Working in a book store and a game store, I did meet women who could read on occasion.).
I came to the Washington DC region because I had the opportunity. It wasn’t my plan. I was thinking, “I’ve got to get out of here and I’ve got to get out of here, now!” not “I need to go to DC?” One of my brothers had moved to the area years earlier and was able to help me get a foothold. Otherwise, I was thinking about Arizona, a Pacific island (seriously), or some other small, out of the way, reclusive place. I didn’t want to move to a city. I’d seen cities on the big screen, on television, in stories. I’d been to Boston. Heck, hadn’t DC been ‘murder capital’ of the US a few years back? But when I got here, something else changed in me. No longer did I simply need to get out of Maine, but I fairly quickly saw that there were aspects of living in a city I’d never imagined. Being me, one of the first things I noticed was the women. Everywhere around me was a rainbow of beautiful women. For whatever reason, from whatever part of the world, they were all here, in a 20 or 30 mile radius. I also realized I didn’t see fat people. Not many, anyway. An old boss once told me that when he got lost at an airport, he was able to find the Maine terminal because he saw a line of fat people. Poor people tend to be fat. Between depression over their life sucking and their access to cheap crappy food, they tend to be fat. Add to that a pedestrian/cyclist hostile public works department (try riding a bike across Bangor sometime; it sucks), crappy weather patterns, and limited access to…well everything, Maine has a LOT of fat people. And I’m not talking jolly or overweight in a comic way. I’m talking sweaty, drooping, need a scooter to move around, makes you physically ill to look at, ‘I clean myself with a rag on a stick’ kind of way. A Jerry Springer special kind of way. Losing 30 pounds in the first month I was living in the DC area (because I was actually able to bike to and from work every day, and had miles and miles of easily accessed bike paths for pleasure) drove home how different things were. Back in Maine, my friend Rob and I would load our bikes in the back of his truck and drive 30 or 40 minutes to a college campus to find biking environments half as inviting as what I found strewn about everywhere I looked here (frustratingly, where I live right now is on the edge of an old, unplanned city and isn’t very bike friendly…still better than Bangor, but not great, however it’s getting better, not worse). And then there were the people I met. Everyone was from somewhere else; everyone had come to this area for a chance at something better. And everyone was so nice. After just a bit over a month, I had two invites to Thanksgiving from people I’d hardly met, but they knew I was new to the area. I had people willing to help me move. I had people offering me whatever they had to give. I still do. When I was having roommate trouble, a friend’s parents, who I hardly knew offered me a place in their home. And I still get invites to dinner/lunch on every holiday, from multiple people. This isn’t because of my winning personality, but because these people are constantly willing to go out of their way for others. And I had new friends. I figured it would be a long time before I made new friends, but I had friends in the first month. I had a roommate who would go on to be my co-Dork on this blog within six weeks of setting foot in the greater DC area. This was the beginning of a tectonic shift in my way of viewing cities, the people in them, their place in our world, and their place in our future. It was more than just being able to see obscure movies on the big screen, or having musical acts I actually gave a rat’s ass about play gigs within a half hour’s drive, or being near a kickass comic convention. It was more than walking down the street and seeing the most beautiful Korean woman I’d ever seen, followed by the most amazingly gorgeous Latina, followed by a knock-out Scandinavian, followed by a smoking hot African. All that helped. But there was more to it.
Counter to popular opinion, I would say that cities are the best place to live, and that in the future, this will become more and more true. They’re not only the best place for us as individuals, providing access to amazing technologies, culture, and experience. But they’re good for the environment and they’re good for the advancement of Humanity. Now, this isn’t universally true right now. And what I propose is to learn from the very real and very ugly mistakes of the past, but not be blinded by them. L.A. and Boston are examples of cities that don’t accomplish what I’m talking about. I’ve never been to L.A. so my understanding of it is limited and based on secondhand information. But, with everything spread out and that network of long winding roads, it is exactly not the kind of city I envision. This is simply a loose, half-formed proposal for some elements of a city of the future. The DC area, which I think has a lot of things right, still has major problems, not the least of which is absolutely awful traffic flow, and frustratingly ineffective public transit (it’s getting better, but it has a LONG way to go). As with all technological advancements, there is the risk of abuse. But if we didn’t open ourselves up to risk, we’d still be in the trees; or worse, the ocean.
First, why build and live in a city? I covered a bit of this above. Having more, diverse people in a small area creates opportunity for connections and cultural experiences that are considerably more rare outside of cities. Within five minutes’ walk of my apartment I have two grocery stores, Thai, Chinese, Peruvian, Ethiopian, Japanese, and Italian restaurants (plus three burger joints, a pizza joint, two sub shops, a wine shop, a liquor store, a pharmacy, a movie theater, a hobby store, a music store, a high-end gym, and dozens of other shops and services. I don’t have to drive to any of them, which means I don’t spend gas on any of them. I also have a bus stop at the end of the road I live on, which connects with a Metro line. I can get from here to the heart of DC in maybe 45 minutes without ever getting in a car. Now, the public transit in the greater DC area leaves a LOT to be desired, but I’m looking toward the city of the future, not the city of today (and it doesn’t shut down at 6PM, like the busses in Bangor, which is still better than all the towns that don’t have a bus at all). The area I live in isn’t actually very well set up. It’s not all that pedestrian or cyclist friendly. But Reston, where I lived with co-Dork Brad for a year and a half, had arteries for foot and bike traffic everywhere. I could get almost anywhere I’d ever need or want to go within 30 minutes on the back of my bike. And I’d be safe the whole time. No riding in the roads with side-mirrors whizzing past me inches away at 45 miles an hour. Yet, I don’t live in the city itself. When I’m in the city, the availability of everything is even more profound. I’ve walked across large sections of Washington D.C., passing hundreds and hundreds of interesting shops, bars, hotels, and museums, seeing thousands of people, and enjoying pleasant sunny days, without ever having to get in a car. This is one of the things a city can do. With a proper public transit system and safe walking areas, there is little need for personal motor vehicles. In fact, they become something of a hassle. If the Metro ran 24 hours, like in New York, I don’t think I’d ever drive into DC. In my city of the future, a 24 hour a day subway/bus system would keep all segments of the city connected in a timely and convenient way. Much, if not all of the city would be off limits to personal vehicles. Busses, bikes, perhaps some form of cab, and official vehicles. That’s it. Perhaps parking complexes would exist near the city’s edge for travel outside its limits. Or, if there were something like a highway cutting under (yes, under) the city, parking areas might be built along it. But within the city, you walk, you bike, or you take public transit. This is good for you, for the city, and its good for the environment. You’ll be healthier, pay less to get around, and there will be a substantially smaller draw on natural resources, while also limiting pollutants created by vehicles. The city of the future will be built with pedestrians and cyclists in mind. This could change a great deal, giving rise to more elevated walking areas (like the Inner Harbor in Baltimore), covered passages, designated bike paths, etc. It would also mean building closer, less spread out cities. Again, Los Angeles and its urban sprawl is exactly what I want to get away from. Or, again, Bangor, where it takes an hour to walk from where I lived to where I worked, there is only one sidewalk between the city proper and the Mall area (where most of the jobs are), the buses stop at 6PM (most businesses close at 9), and most shops are nowhere near where anyone lives. If you want to go grocery shopping, pick up a new jacket, and maybe go to the bank, you might be driving around town for two or more hours, because everything is so spread out. If you combined close construction, pedestrian focused layout, and excellent public transportation with high speed rail to connect cities, you could eliminate a great deal of the need for personal transport. I know that some people love their cars, and love driving. And there will certainly still be a need for roads outside of the cities. But a lot of us could, and should be able to live without ever needing a personal vehicle (and if/when we did need one, we could rent). If I’m in Gotham, and I need to get to Metropolis, walking, bussing, or taking a metro to my local train station, hopping a high speed train, and arriving in Metropolis in half the time it would take me to drive, while using substantially less energy to get there, would be ideal.
What about food? The much lamented American Farm is dead. It’s dead. The sooner everyone accepts that and moves on, the better we’ll all be. That way of life is over. It’s never coming back. Nor should it. It’s over because it didn’t work. It worked well enough for a while, but was always doomed. Just as the brick and lumber industries in Maine were destined to die, so was traditional farming. It’s not efficient enough, it costs too much, it’s too unpredictable and it’s a massive source of pollution and environmental destruction. You have some people saying, ‘let’s go back to traditional, organic farming.’ No. Let’s not. Let’s go forward to more sustaining, less damaging forms of farming like hydroponics and aeroponics., and yes, perhaps genetic engineered crops. And, instead of vast tracks of land in distant parts of the country, lets grow the food where the people who are going to consume it live. As proposed in Dickson Despommier’s book The Vertical Farm, we need to build our food growing needs into the very infrastructure of the city of the future. No need for massive, fuel consuming refrigerator trucks to carry heavily treated plants from the Midwest to the East Coast, inevitably losing a large percentage to spoilage and damage. Grow that food in a building at the end of the block, sell it, eat it, and send the waste back to be burned for energy without ever leaving the neighborhood. Fresh grown food all year round. No need for pesticides. No need for preservatives. No need for large scale transportation. No need to destroy massive ecosystems for a couple years of growing before the land is leached of its nutrients. In controlled settings, we could be eating healthier, more consistent foods without need of a lot of the bad stuff we do to it. Sure, not everything would work. Cows, for example. But a lot would. And with so much transportation and shipping cut out, the costs on many foods could be substantially less, while stuff like beef might become a more expensive, specialty food. Reduced demand for massive farmland would allow environments to repair themselves, increasing much needed biodiversity and helping restore some of the smaller sources of food that require a level of wilderness, like honey. It might also make so called ‘free range’ food more economically and environmentally feasible in some areas, again as a specialty food. Decentralized food production could be safer, healthier, better for the environment, more reliable, and potentially more economically sound. And with advances being made in the technologies, it might even taste better. People’s fetishistic attachment to ‘the land’ simply isn’t feasible in a world populated by billions. There are too many of us to feed using traditional farming, especially using ‘organic’ methods. So, unless you and 4 or 5 billion of your friends want to volunteer to die right now, so that everyone else can eat, you need to shut the hell up about, and let the adults talk.
Where do we get our juice? Cities could go a heck of a long way toward making themselves energy independent. Major advancements in solar (and this with a long time hostile treatment of research by a political system largely bought and paid for by oil interests), have opened the way for solar collectors with the potential to approach and possibly exceed fossil fuels energy levels, according to Michael Belfiore’s book about DARPA, The Department of Mad Scientists. Numerous other technologies have made similar strides. Wind is much more efficient and safe than it ever was, there are less ecologically damaging options for hydro. Biofuels and even waste incineration have their place. The city of the future will not be held hostage by reliance on only one means of power. It’s not solar or bust, wind or bust, natural gas or bust. Diversify and decentralize. This makes good economic sense, it’s less susceptible to terrorist attacks or natural disasters, and it’s less damaging to the world as a whole. If buildings generate their own electricity, even if just for lights, or just for air circulation, it would reduce the demand on the overall power grid by massive amounts. And that’s within the reach of current, on the market solar and wind technology. The stuff coming along in the next few years should be able to do much, much more.
What will the city of the future look like? More and more, scientists are looking to nature for inspiration in technological advancements. Be it the feet of geckoes or the structure of the leaf, they’re finding that evolution has forged some pretty impressive and useful designs through eons of trial and error. My suggestion would be to embrace this. Find design that echoes and blends with nature. Bring plants and life into the city, and create places that don’t segregate us from the natural world. When I first moved to the DC area, I was amazed while riding my bike. There were multiple times where I felt like I was riding in the country, nowhere near my fellow human beings. The smell of the trees, the singing of the birds, the quiet. How strange it was when I glimpsed a four lane road not ten feet to my left through a break in the trees. How odd it was when I looked across a field and saw a bustling neighborhood, or turned a wooded corner, into a busy town center. Something as simple as trees, and ‘green corridors’ can do that here. Imagine what could be done if it were planned out, built into the very design of the city. Not occasional patches of green, but a surrounding synthesis of nature and architecture. Clean air, soft breezes, colorful flowers, and the smell of soil, and a million of your fellow humans just on the other side of that tree. Since moving here, I’ve felt more like I live in the country than I ever did back in Maine, yet there are more people in just Fairfax County than in that entire state. I see deer, birds of every type, and trees everywhere. On hot summer days, I can feel the cooling breeze of wooded glades wash over the W&OD Trail. And again, this in a place where most of these benefits were retro-fitted. I propose making them part of the design from the beginning. Buildings should be designed to harness wind and sun, walkways and paths should lace the city above ground. Assuming cleaner running (not to mention far fewer) vehicles, roads could be built below ground level, along with train/subway lines. Without assuming automated vehicles, lights could be powered by wind or solar without too much difficulty. Above ground might feature covered walks, preferably with solar collectors, as well as open air. There wouldn’t necessarily be need for parks, which are sort of islands of nature in the middle of concrete and steel seas. Much of the above ground environment would already be green and bustling with life. But for the sake of birds, bees, and such, green corridors could also be designed. These might form a sort of grid pattern across the entirety of the city, allowing someone, if they were so inclined to walk from one side to the other without ever crossing a street or entering a building.
What about all that crime? Crime is actually on the decline nation wide. Those gang-run open war city streets of every ‘near future’ film from the 80s never happened, and show no sign of happening (Detroit aside). And what causes crime? Well, I’m no expert, but poverty is obviously a factor (not the only one, but a big one). A new style of city won’t stop crime. Unless or until human nature changes, we will always have crime. Just like we will always have poverty. All the utopian idealism in the world ain’t gonna change human nature. At least, not any time soon. No doubt there will be crime in my city of the future. I don’t have a fix for that. But I have heard many reports of research done in poor neighborhoods where simply by improving the appearance of the buildings and parks, they’ve helped to reduce the local crime. This city should do that. And with easy access public transportation, and less demand on energy, one would hope employment wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Still, that is not a given, and is an area someone more versed in social behaviors might have something to add. But I would hope the open, fresh air, and green everywhere, would help those who live in the city build stronger community ties, which could only help reduce overall criminal activity. And again, living in a small area that has as much population as the entire state I came from, I feel safe like I never did on the streets of Bangor. The crime rate here is far lower. Yet, there’s still poverty. But the area is cleaner, nicer, and less depressing. There is a lot to do, and its within reach of younger people. And that really seems to help.
The social environment created by cities is another amazing feature one could write volumes on (and some have). Even in my limited way, I’ve had contact with people from all over the world, eaten new and exciting foods, and seen movies that would never have played at the local multiplex in Bangor. I’ve seen my favorite living musical artist, P.J. Harvey, in concert. I saw Henry Rollins and Nine Inch Nails. I’ve watched silent films with live musical accompaniment. I’ve been to comic conventions and horror conventions. I saw Casablanca, Metropolis, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, and Evil Dead on the big screen. I’ve seen exotic animals. I’ve seen famous pieces of art up close. And with the exception of one brief excursion to Philadelphia, I haven’t been much more than an hour away from DC in almost six years. In my city of the future, this would be even more true. Connected by a web of public transportation and footpaths, a massive variety of social and cultural experiences would be just a brief bus or train trip away.
The question becomes, how does one make the city of the future? I don’t have an answer. Off the cuff ideas would be to OCP Detroit, or find part of an existing city like DC, Seattle, or even New Orleans to build a new core, with the possibility of expansion built in. In my heart, I think the first such city should be built somewhere in the center of the country, to serve as a hub that will reach out with high speed rail to existent and newly formed cities. I’m not an architect, geologist, or ecologist. Nor am I an economist. There may be any number of factors that I’ve never thought of in the selection of a location or specific design. But thinking about the city of the future is the first step in making it a reality. And maybe some functional elements of it could be used to improve already existing cities. Here’s hoping the soon to be open expansion of the Metro will put public transit back on the radar of people in the DC area. And let’s hope spiraling gas prices and continuous war will get people looking to other means of running the world than black gold. If we take away the need for Middle Eastern oil, and in fact, the need for oil in general, we take away a big part of the reason our kids are getting chewed up in those deserts. Applying simple sayings in our daily life isn’t a bad idea. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. When did you first hear that? Why do we work so hard to forget it? It was sound when we were toddlers and remains so throughout life.
If we are, as some scientists say, on our way into a mass extinction event (that may have started 10,000 years ago), well designed and crafted cities may just be a means to ride it out. Of course, there will need to be other measures taken, including the absolutely necessary step of off-world colonization. The technologies needed to create self-sustaining cities will be essential in the creation of self-sustaining colonies (and self-sustaining space stations). And understanding how biological life has shifted the environment in various ways through Earth’s storied history may be the key to crafting new environments (over long periods of time) on new worlds. By building our cities to embrace and be embraced by the natural world, we can help not only ourselves continue through turbulent ecological times, but help other species ride the inevitable waves that are coming. In her upcoming book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, Annalee Newitz explains that extinction events have happened before and they’ll no doubt happen again. But we are uniquely positioned to do something about it, like no species has ever been in the past. If we are the cause of our current ecological problems or not is somewhat irrelevant. We should find out, if only to better understand the causes and figure out solutions. But the blame game does no one any good. Hand wringing and self-hatred is completely unproductive, and a luxury only high school students can afford. The rest of us, we need to accept facts, learn from our past, and prepare for the future. Part of that involves planning how we will feed ourselves, live together, survive, and thrive in the near and distant future. Traditional farming doesn’t work. Traditional city designs don’t work. Hiding our heads in the sand and pretending there isn’t a problem doesn’t work. Pointing fingers at everyone doesn’t work. Facing facts, learning to adapt, and working together to create a better world just might do the trick.