Archive for October 7th, 2008

“Sail on, O ship of state, sail on… our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee…”


Painting by Ron Rizk.

Here’s slightly different way to think of the next city.

Imagine that your city is suddenly an island, or a giant raft. Chicago is adrift in the middle of Lake Michigan, 30 miles off-shore of Illinois or Michigan. Washington has headed down the Potomac, and floats in the middle of Chesapeake Bay (this may cheer many…). All of us urbanites have set to sea, on tiny not-so-green islands. Chicago is about 15 miles across, and 15 miles wide (to equal its current size: about 220 square miles). Washington is quite a bit smaller – less than half the size and area of Chicago.

These islands are dense with people, and there is no one coming to the rescue. The residents must figure out what to do in order to subsist, or even better, to flourish. Now what? (Sorry – no one gets voted off: we’re going to need all the help we can get).

First, food. No semi-trailers (or container ships) of romaine or grapefruit are on the horizon, so while we subsist on what’s left on the shelves of the supermarkets on the island, we better start some serious planting. Rip up all the highways and parking lots to create gardens – we don’t need many cars here on the island, and anyway, we’ll run out of gas shortly, and we’ll need that for other things. Cars, at last, are over.

Energy next. There’s not much coal on most city-islands, so we need to figure out how to harness and distribute whatever energy resources we can find that don’t use up the precious little we have. Tides? Wind? The sun?

And water. Chicago has it good, afloat in fresh water. But Washington? Time to get those desalinizers going, close the water loop, recycle every drop we can, sort by potable, gray and other, and catch the 42″ of rain that falls every year. Oh, and waste transforms to compost for the gardens instead of going down the drain. And no more plastic bottles of water, folks – we have what we have.

Etching by Richard Sheppard.

Anyway, you get the picture. I am no fan of reality TV, especially Survivor. Instead, this is an invitation to think differently about urbanism, and about how we occupy our urban centers. If we thought about the resources we use differently, and had to rely to a majority extent on what was local and regionally characteristic, and renewable, could we make cities that could survive, or even better, could thrive? 

Here’s an example of the kind of different thinking we need. For architects and urbanists, we need to design places and buildings that consume nothing. Try that again – consume nothing. Not in their construction, and not in their operation. Build from the recycled, the recyclable, the renewable. In operation, buildings and cities must become net generators of energy and clean water, not consumers of anything.

Time to move beyond the U. S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system (aimed at inducing higher performance buildings, environmentally speaking). The USGBC Platinum rating, or for that matter even a Zero Carbon building or city, is not good enough. We need buildings, and cities, that are truly sustainable, and we need to imagine a next city that can begin to heal the wounds left by plundering resources and spewing waste. 

We certainly find ourselves in a moment that invites us to alter the course of our lives. A 12,500 Dow, it turns out, wasn’t sustainable either. Whether economic maelstrom or environmental cataclysm, the storms in our lives suggest that the way of the 20th century is done. Time to move on, with sharpened memories of what once worked, and hard earned wisdom gained from a failed experiment, to our tiny local urban islands afloat in the new global ocean.

“There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that’s just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly.”

James Lovelock

Zero carbon housing, before the thaw.

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