Urbanization is caused, at least in part, by scarcity. Certain resources are limited, and thus more efficiently used in a communal setting. Through urbanization, more people have access to these resources than would if settlements were less densely populated. This is true of everything from intangibles like creativity to more solid things like water and electricity, which are more cheaply and easily distributed to dense urban areas than rural places. Cities are often trumpeted these days as "the solution" to the challenge posed by global climate change because of this very phenomenon; as energy sources become more scarce, the efficiency of densely populated cities becomes the most viable way for developed nations to maintain a high standard of living while simultaneously reducing energy usage.
A recent article by Thomas Friedman gave me pause because of its implications for the scarcity of energy. Two weeks ago, Friedman wrote about a laboratory in the Bay Area that is optimistic about its ability to make cold fusion power a reality within the next decade. This claim has, of course, been made before, and as Friedman quips, such revolutionary technologies tend to be "20 years away and always will be." The successful commercialization of cold fusion would, at least in theory, solve the problem of the scarcity of energy once and for all; assuming that it were actually only ten years away, what would this mean for cities? How would patterns of urbanization change if energy were not an issue?
On the one hand, an endless supply of cheap, safe, clean energy would make currently-cost-prohibitive technologies like mag-lev trains and supertall skystrapers (we're talking about the kind of buildings that would make the Emirates blush) much more feasible. Mag-lev trains, in particular, would present an interesting challenge to cities by opening up an even more vast range of the exurban hinterlands to development. With the density-related benefits of energy rendered moot, how would urbanists need to re-think their arguments in favor of high-density urban cores?
On the other hand, it could be argued that the end of energy scarcity would make developed world-conditions in currently-developing countries much, much easier to achieve. This would be a massive economic boon to lower-income and impoverished people around the world, freeing up people previously locked into cycles with few or no opportunities for advancement, greatly accelerating the growth of the Creative Class across the globe. Innovation-intensive fields tend to encourage clustering, as Richard Florida has argued so thoroughly in his books, meaning that a massive shift like the advent of cold fusion power might actually be a boon to urbanism.
Whether or not cold fusion is possible within the foreseeable future, the idea that it is challenges some of the most basic tenets of urbanist thought. What might we learn about how contemporary cities work if we were to give such a seismic technological shift some serious thought? What value does the scarcity of energy -- or any resource -- have for cities?
(Photos from Where@FFFFOUND!. The originals can be viewed by clicking the photos.)