Shibam, Yemen, photo by Jialiang Gao: an ancient pattern of dense, high-rise desert urbanism.
What should the next city look like, and how should we inhabit the future? I have been puzzling over these questions for quite a long time. For architects and urbanists, this is one of the few projects we can work on that might keep us from total irrelevance (see earlier posts here, about emperors and their wardrobes) in these increasingly perilous times. And as I have continued to think about the character and form of the next city, I have begun to come to some general conclusions. Let me explain.
First, imagine a city without cars.
No, really. Imagine a city without cars. How do you get your food, get to work, visit Grandma? Some other way – maybe buses, maybe the metro or subway, maybe streetcars, maybe something else, but not cars. So one thing is for sure, neighborhoods, and the local life of urban places, suddenly become really, really important. You will need to have access to important resources and places within a mile or so of your residence – about a 20 minute walk for most people. The market, where you can get great locally grown foods (no more 3,000 mile Caesar salads, as James Kunstler tells us). Your office, if you still need one. Schools. Church. The library (we’re old fashioned in our house, and still need to read books by hand). The Doc. Cafes and restaurants.
Cars are now obsolete – notwithstanding dangerously destructive – so what follows from that circumstance is a dense city, with a multiple of uses close together, in neighborhood clusters walkably distanced from one another.
If you keep pulling on the thread of mobility, it leads you to a need for major shifts in trucking, rail, and aviation infrastructure, and suggests a tsunami of economic changes in how we make things, grow things, use them, distribute them, how we move around, and where we live and play.
And ultimately back to the local life of urban places. A local life seems a certain central fact of existence in the next city.
But mobility is only one of at least four forces that will fundamentally change the shape of the next city. These four forces include: mobility as noted here, and energy, food, and water. Each in turn requires fundamental, critical and urgent rethinking. And each, in turn, will fundamentally alter the cities we inhabit. Remember, 80% of the U.S. population now lives in cities: that represents a lot of lives that face enormous changes.
I digress. It seems to me that the place to start thinking about what the next city should look like and how it should work is to begin with historic, and pre-automobile, patterns of urbanism. One might call this vernacular urbanism – that is, an urbanism that has arisen from and is an expression of a particular local culture and ethos. In the U.S., I would say that we could look at most cities before 1910 for suitable patterns of urbanism. Most American cities, even those with grand plans like our city of Washington, nonetheless derive much of their character from local circumstances – available materials, the nature of the climate, the slant of the sun, the availability of water. It’s not by accident that Washington is often called the red brick city.
Here’s another example. In my home town, Chicago, the development of the city’s blocks and streets was heavily influenced by the presence of streetcars. Thus, on streetcar lines, usually a half mile apart, we find concentrations of larger mixed use commercial buildings with retail (shops) at the first floor, and offices and apartments above. Logical, yes? Get on or off the streetcar, do your shopping, go to the dentist, and then walk into the residential neighborhoods between transit.
Streetcars and the Chicago block. Enjoy the streetcars – ignore the cars.
Every city can reimagine its future by first connecting with the inherent vernacular urbanism of its past. In Beijing, a pattern of urbanism that is nearly extinct there, and about which I have written over the last months, the hutong, is a particularly extraordinary template or pattern for continuing to make a dense, livable city. The hutong certainly make more sense than what’s being built there now – a kind of worst-case urbanism of recombinant Las Vegas-Strip-on-Steroids.
Shibam, pictured up top, is another suitable template: a dense city of mud towers, closely spaced to shade the passageways and building interiors, accommodating the harsh desert climate. And the list could go on, for cities across the globe. Venice, Lisbon, Barcelona, Marrakech, Savannah. Look carefully at how each city first responded to issues of energy, mobility, food and water, and start there.
Maybe two last examples, from a place where urbanism is totally out of control, might underscore how best to begin to make the next city. In Dubai, there are two recent proposals for extending that exploding city. One is by architect Norman Foster: his project is called Masdar. It is to be the first zero-carbon neighborhood/city ever constructed, and as the images indicate, it is low, very dense, has no cars, has a wind farm and solar arrays for power, and has courtyard forms and interior spaces that look like the souk and other vernacular Middle Eastern forms of urbanism.
Norman Foster’s Masdar in Dubai.
An interior at Foster’s Masdar.
The next is a proposal by architect Rem Koolhaas. It is a gridded, floating Manhattanesque island of towers, surrounded by other towers around a bay. No at all like Yemen’s proto-skyscraper city of Shibam, but instead New York in the desert, in Dubai. Seems a little like The Venetian on the Strip, but perhaps an even more bizarre approach, since we are supposed to take this seriously. Koolhaas says that the project is his attempt to “find optimism in the inevitable.” Are we seeing leadership here, or irrelevance? [Naked emperor].
In the late 1970s, Koolhaas wrote a book entitled “Delirious New York.” The book was a hymn of praise to that city, and its “culture of congestion.” So why not reprise those themes, here in the desert in Dubai, 30 years later? Koolhaas in Dubai seems enormously cynical, manipulative, and destructive. Enough.
Koolhaas’ Ile Flotante, in Dubai.
I look at the Koolhaas Dubai proposal and am reminded of a favorite quote from Ike: ”You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”
I think it must be back to basics – looking at and seeing and sensing what has created sustainable urbanity in geographies across the globe – Calvino’s lines in the citys’ hands - and using these urbanisms as a place to begin crafting the next city. Let’s get started.