Planning for the Worst

0
New Harmony as imagined by Robert Owen and drawn by an English architect
New Harmony as imagined by Robert Owen and drawn by an English architect

Disaster is an opportunity — with the need to escape comes a potential fresh start. In the 17th century, the utopian dreamers fleeing religious persecution in England were handed a singular chance. Puritans erecting meeting houses in New Haven and Quakers breaking ground in Philadelphia could put into practice a long history of ideas about the composition of a perfect city. Though other thinkers had attempted to enact elements of Biblical geometry and Thomas More’s utopian program before, they mostly worked in the realm of speculative manuscripts and plans. But on the apparently blank canvas of the American landscape, as Michael J. Lewis reveals in City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning, European settlers built communities according to the architectural and moral principles that had until then remained strictly aspirational. They ignited a tradition of refuge in the New World that would appeal to later waves of Christian Separatists, like the German Harmonists, and socialist utopians like Robert Owen. However worldly his concerns, Owen nevertheless perceived a moral crisis in European society, and saw in the Indiana soil a chance to start anew.

Today’s most pressing crises are neither spiritual, nor metaphysical, but environmental. For some, citymaking again would provide an answer to disasters — and disasters could provide an unprecedented opportunity for citymaking. In the introduction to 2100: A Dystopian Utopia, sociologist Saskia Sassen demands we “delegate back to the biosphere”: lean into the vagaries of climate change and put seemingly adverse environmental circumstances to work sustaining human existence. Architect Vanessa Keith answers the call, drawing on existing climate change projections to imagine the habitable world 100 years hence, when desertification and rising sea levels push human society to the margins of the present geography of settlement. Keith proposes a masterplan for 14 global “extraction cities” and “compact megacities” that work with the changing environment, not against it.

The challenges are considerable: in 2100, 40 percent of the world’s current agriculture will be untenable, and a 6.5 feet rise in sea level will force the migration of more than 600 million people. But necessity is the mother of invention, and against the post-apocalyptic backdrop, Keith’s global program proposes an orderly, adaptive urban vision, often through “clip-on” additions to the existing fabric. From Manila to Moscow, surging waves and wind storms are harnessed for energy, old cities are submerged while new structures perch atop elevated plinths, and miners extract Antarctic snowmelt to provide water to the rest of the world. […]