Thursday, September 19, 2013
Matt’s Soapbox: The City of the Future Part 2
Walking Around the City of the Future
A few months ago, I postulated some elements of a City of the Future in a rather longwinded post. I talked some about the need for better foot and bike access, energy distribution and conservation, and food production. These are all challenges that I think are worth facing for all of us, for a great many reasons. More and more people across the globe will be living in cities in the coming years and decades. If we’re all going to be living in relatively small areas, we darn well better do it right. But what is right for one city will not be right for another. This idea of a Smart City is not a one size fits all kind of thing. Geography and culture are deeply important factors to consider in the design and construction. A city in or around a desert might be full of open architecture, designed to capitalize on air flow for both power and cooling. It would likely capitalize on wind and solar power, and would be greatly concerned with heat reduction as well as water retention and reclamation. A city deep in the interior of say Canada or Russia, might would more likely be concerned with heat and food production. Geothermal and wind might be the best focuses. Or biofuels created by algae in vats. And of course, a city on a coast line would be far more likely to seek power from the forces of the tide, and be concerned with flooding and water desalination. And that’s not even getting into any exotic city concepts like oceanic floaters or extraterrestrial colonies.
The creation of future cities will be about a lot more than just energy and food. It will be about quality of life. And I hope, it will be about a much wider idea of quality of life than many might consider on the surface. For the sake of ease and familiarity, I am going to focus on an East Coast United States city for much of my musing (though, this being me, there will likely be many asides). So, what do I want to see in my city? You know I want pedestrian and bike access. I want some of Bill Nye’s weather-tight bike paths. A web of these passages stretching across the greater DC Metro area would be a great start (even without the great idea of the showers and laundry service). And things like universal wi-fi are kind of a given. Well run public transportation that gets you to the places you need/want to go whenever you need to be there would be a huge help (the public transit in this region is a giant, tangled mess that doesn’t seem to ever be going to where I need to go, when I need to be there). And I want those green spaces. Right now, the Metro area is pretty good with green, though there’s always room for improvement. One thing we need to adopt is the covered roadway some European countries have started using. Not only do they help reduce local heat pollution, create greenhouse gas capturing green zones, reduce noise pollution, and look nice, but they also give wildlife more natural bridges to go where they need to go as well as rich potential for parks and community gathering places. Along with an increase in green spaces, increased levels of urban and rooftop gardening, and the reduction of pollutants, I would hope to see an increase in bees, among other things, perhaps driving a more healthy side-business of local honey production along with other locally grown produce (and maybe even more free range chickens and such). And yeah, I want to see those tower farms in whatever way can be made to work. Perhaps the actual Vertical Farm is a pipe-dream (I don’t think so) but some variation of that idea can, must, and will work. An essential truth of the future is that we’re going to have to grow a lot of food for a lot of people, and traditional farming will not get the job done. Getting beyond all the drawbacks of traditional farming, from pollution creation to poor land use, it can not grow enough food for the population we will have.
But one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately that I’d like to see in my City of the Future is something that will likely turn a few heads (and maybe some stomachs). I want my clone burgers. Along with hydroponic/aeroponic produce, rooftop vegetables and honey, and all that sort of thing, I want my ‘meat-vat’ grown beef (or whatever). See, I’m a meat lover. And I’m an animal lover. And I don’t see those two as mutually exclusive. I don’t think hunting or meat-eating is immoral (though calling hunting a sport is misguided to say the least). But I do think needless cruelty toward animals speaks poorly of us as a civilization and a species. The idea that animals don’t feel pain would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. And keeping chickens, pigs, cows, and the like penned up in their own filth for their entire life is obviously not the best thing for the animal, nor in the long run is it the best thing for us. I would not advocate the elimination of meat from the human diet, but I would like to see a return to ‘free range’ livestock. That sounds great (like organic farming SOUNDS great), but it’s completely impractical on the scale that’s needed to feed current or projected populations. Enter stem cell grown beef. No, it’s not ready for primetime yet. But it’s coming, and soon. Cultured beef is beef. But it was never a cow. It never lived, suffered, and died. It doesn’t need to eat, walk around, fart, procreate, or any of the other things a cow does. It consumes far less resources and creates far less pollution. And, assuming proper conditions, it’s not going to carry any diseases or other various things that get into our meat supply today. So, what I want to see, as I bike through a park (perhaps right above a highway), is a vendor selling clone beef burgers. Even more, I want to see him competing with the guy next door selling cultured tiger meat, or dolphin, or whatever (what about mammoth?!). Because once we can create that meat artificially, we don’t have to harm the creatures it comes from anymore, and wouldn’t that be nice for everyone. Again, I’m not saying we should make the growing and slaughter of animals illegal, but less necessary. This would also allow those with money to pay more to get naturally grown meat, allowing the farmer to hold less population of animals, allowing the animals a more roomy and healthy environment. Naturally grown meat would become a specialty item largely affordable for middle class and wealthy folks, kind of like how ‘locally grown’ and ‘organic’ stuff is today. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever feel the need to buy ‘natural’ again (assuming they can get the texture and taste right, which seems pretty likely). And, as the population continues to move to cities, and those cities become more and more self-sustaining, decreasing the reliance on mega-farms, there will be more and more land to let nature take its course, more land to raise animals, to let herds grow larger, stronger, and healthier. Wouldn’t it be something to see the rebirth of the old time cowboy as we take our first steps into the stars? And this same beef-based idea should work just as well with fish and other creatures of the sea, creating a specialty industry while reducing the dangers of over-fishing.
I recently visited a farmer’s market, which was a fun excursion and a glimpse into the potential of urban farming. If more and more people live in cities, there is more and more need of food. Traditional farming requires vast stretches of land that by its nature must be far away from cities, requiring costly and polluting processes and several steps of middlemen to get that food from the ground to the table. Urban farms could reduce a great deal of the waste and pollution of that system. Be it the towering vertical farm at the end of the block, or the rooftop gardens of my neighbor, or the bee hives of that guy down the street, I should be able to head over to one of the open green spaces (perhaps covering the nearby Route 60 or the Capital Beltway) and shop for the various things I might need. Sure, I won’t be able to find everything there. I’ll still need to go to the grocery store to pick up some imported foods and various other things. But, I’ll be able to keep a bunch of my money in the local economy, while helping to reduce the waste and pollution created by our current, outmoded supply chain. And heck, if the vertical farms work as well as they might, I could even get some of my exotic fruits and vegetables from just down the street.
What I keep finding as I look more and more into the future of cities, into technology, and into better living is that there is no magic bullet. There is no single fix. But, that’s kind of the best part. There are a million little things that can make life better, a million little things you can do yourself, in your own way to fix the world a little bit at a time. Folks my age or less have been bombarded for most of their life with the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra. And look, that sounds great. But it’s not perfect. Reduce? Absolutely. How much packing material do you need? How much plastic? Why get a bag if you don’t need one? Reuse? Sure. I re-use plastic bowls I get from the Chinese take-out place all the time. I have a whole apartment filled with discarded furniture. I try to reuse what I can. And I’ve gotten away from bottled water, ‘cause that’s just a giant environmental middle finger. But then there’s recycle. You know, recycling some things is a great idea. Things like metal and glass. But a lot of stuff we recycle, we do to make ourselves feel better…but we’re actually causing more trouble, wasting more energy and creating more pollution than if we just threw the stuff out and made more. Though, with new technologies coming along every day, maybe there will be a time when those soda bottles and foam peanuts can be ground up, fed into a furnace, then pumped into feeding vats for some new strain of algae. I don’t know. So, reduce and reuse, for sure. And if you cover the first two, and do the third when it makes rational sense, that’s a big help. But there’s more you can do. Grow plants. Grow them on your window ledge if that’s all you’ve got. Grow them on your roof if you can. Foster green zones. Use the power of the vote to get parks in your area. I saw an article online I can’t track down now, about a group of people trying to turn the no-parking zone in front of New York City fire-hydrants into mini parks. These small patches of green would, in their small way, help clean the air, better absorb water run-off, reduce heat, and beautify the neighborhoods. And by their nature, they would be better at keeping people from parking in front of the hydrants. Any damage sustained by emergency vehicles would simply grow back. How many little projects like that could be done in any city? And a city of the future would be built with such things in mind. We’re learning to work with nature, not against it, so that both might thrive.
It has been said that soon, 80% of us will be living in cities. This is a dramatic change in population distribution, and will no doubt come with its own boons and problems. One thing I’ve found fascinating is the idea that there will a rebirth of city states. I don’t mean politically…or, not especially politically. I mean in terms of resources. New cities will generate their own power, grow their own food, and probably make their own goods. At least when it comes to the basics. I see the population centralizing, while the supply chains decentralize. Why build gigantic, polluting, wasteful farms in rural, central states, when you can build small, efficient, clean running farm towers every few blocks? Why build a giant dam in one state, to power a small town in another state? Why have thousand mile tubes to pump natural gas from one part of the world to another, doing who knows what to the land, when you can generate power from the Sun, the wind, and more in the very buildings you occupy? Cities can and should become self-sufficient, or very close to it. If that happens, the land between cities will likely turn back to its natural state, or at least more natural state. No need for giant farms, no need for massive dams, no need for fracking or drilling for oil. There’s simply no need. So, will these independent cities, with no pressing need to import the essentials of life shut themselves off? I should certainly hope not. My city of the future would be connected. Not just through telecommunication, which I sure hope keeps improving. But through air and rail. High speed rail could link major city hubs. Airports featuring luxury airliners running on more energy efficient fuels might hop into low orbit on short trips around the globe. And at least one space elevator will let me reach orbit and who knows what beyond. And all of this has potential of happening within my lifetime. While not every piece of technology is perfect yet, and not all the kinks have been worked out, mostly all that is lacking is the will. I hope I’m not alone in wanting to build the city of the future, where we can buy ethically cultured, cloned beef burgers with aeroponically grown lettuce and pickles and locally baked bun, walk through a park that rests atop a bustling highway, listen to the buzzing of the bees and the singing of the birds, as the photocells of my jacket charge my phone and you feed your trash into an algae based reclamation unit. A city where I can walk to work, hop a bike to see a friend, and maybe the rail to visit my family for an afternoon, all while surrounded by growing plants and clean air.