Sustainability and the Unimaginable City

A recent post at WorldChanging offered up for discussion a fantastic Bruce Sterling quote about sustainability: "The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier."

That's a pretty profound statement. To think that the world around us, the things that we consider familiar and take for granted, will be to our great grandchildren what the Roman Aqueducts -- or even British colonial forts -- are to us: relics. Of course, much of our built environment (especially the unsustainable portions) are considerably less visually appealing than crumbling arches and turrets. It's fun to imagine that, somewhere outside Cincinnati in 2108, there will be a tour bus that rolls past long-abandoned McDonald's huts and IHOP psuedo-ski lodges, describing to wide-eyed tourists how these strange buildings used to be used as restaurants back when people were willing to drive twenty minutes for food that had been flown across an ocean. But the likelihood of that scenario is slim.

Most likely, metropolitan regions will adapt to changing conditions, with cities and suburbs both densifying and growing and connecting in new ways. But what will become of the buildings and structures that are left in the sustainability craze's proverbial dust? As people become more educated on and concerned with sustainable buildings and neighborhoods, it seems logical to assume that demolitions will become less frequent than they are now as architects and planners seek to preserve structures with bones worth saving, and to reclaim materials when demolition is required. Politicians will mandate it; high tear-down rates will spell doom at the voting booths.

Even moreso than buildings, large chunks of our infrastructure could very well become obsolete, and will need to be repurposed. A post today at Loud Paper described a recent live design and model-building competition with a very novel premise: the two teams of architects were asked to design futuristic outpost buildings in the Alaskan wilderness, and their primary material was repurposed oil pipeline. Take that general concept to the city; what pieces of our current urban infrastructure -- even, or especially, the invisible pieces -- might we be trying to reuse as a construction materials once the large-scale shift to renewable energy sources has taken place?

And now, another Sterling gem to throw into the mix: "To me, 'sustainability' means a situation in which your descendants are able to confront their own problems, rather than the ones you exported to them. If people a hundred years from now are soberly engaged with phenomena we have no nouns and verbs for, I think that's a victory condition."

Whoa. Kind of re-frames the whole "repurposing" thing, hey?

It is easy (and, I think, quite common) to assume the perpetuation of current conditions. Humans like to think about the future, but we are stuck living only in the present. This means that our experience of the present has a very, very heavy influence on how we envision things ten, fifty, or a thousand years down the line. We live in fairly hectic period, so it can sometimes be difficult to imagine a world where the problems are completely different from those we face today, much less that we don't even have words to describe! My question is (inevitably, if you've ever read this blog before), how will this affect cities?

It's a silly question, really. After all, the very idea being discussed here is that the problems to be faced by a post-sustainability humanity aren't even conceivable to us now, so how the heck do we go about coming up with what those problems might entail? Of course, the answer is: we don't. We can't know what these problems or their solutions will be, but we can use the scenario to appreciate the massive opportunities presented by the challenges of creating a sustainable global society. All we need is a framing device.

Enter: the Air Tree. Madrid's recent announcement that they will be building three of these miraculous little structures (which were originally the result of a design competition in 2004) marks a very important moment in architecture and urban planning that is easy to overlook: the birth of an entirely new building type. The Air Tree is a temporary structure that marks what will hopefully be a permanent change in how cities will be built in the future, since its existence signals the arrival of the building with the sole purpose of acting as a unit of production for Quality of Life. These three futuristic pavilions will create for madrileños gathering places that use natural processes to filter and cool the air. The space beneath the Air Tree is not just social; it's cleansing and renewing.

Many common features of contemporary urban areas -- not in the least the Air Tree -- would have been unimaginable to people living a century ago. Stop and think about that for a second. Now try to imagine the unimaginable city of the future. Pretty thrilling, isn't it?

The Ruins of the Unsustainable (WorldChanging)

Architecture Gone Wild (Loud Paper)

What we get if we win... (WorldChanging)

The 'Air Tree' (Architecture.MNP) (Photo credit)


Kevin said...

This is a very cool post. Thanks for the inspiration

Jason King said...

Great post and thoughts on the amazing 'Air Project'. I think of the speed at which we are evolving and both shudder and wonder and where it will lead in my lifetime.

Also, I much appreciate the recent link to my site, as well as the being one of the inspirations for getting it going. Keep up the great urban thinking.