Tag Archives: urban futures

Cities for the Future

The other day, as I was flying from Tallinn to London over the Baltic sea, with Scientific American’s excelling special issue on Better, Greener, Smarter Cities sitting on my lap, I couldn’t stop* weaving together some wild cards that came under my urban radar over the last few weeks.

For one, I attended the International Federation for Housing and Planning 55th World Congress to be in a panel that summarized some reflections from the potentially ongoing Another Urban Future think tank.

While I was at it, I felt overused buzzwords like sustainability were still fully around, performing as ideological clutches – as political, marketing tools – for planner corporations and institutional decision-makers. But the fact that we’ve more or less globally committed to implement sustainable processes, lower carbon-emission and greener cities in the near future is bringing new notions to the agenda, with retrofitting positively being my favorite.

As William Gibson has just put it in terms of fictional technique, retrofitting is all about reverse-engineering exiting cities – including what we call slums, favelas or shadow towns – so as to reduce the consumption of vanishing resources. What in other times we would call survival. And what we now strangely label as business opportunities.

To the distaste of some sections of our pragmatic, Western-oriented audience, the panel proposed as an alternative that we should stress and face up to notions such as contextual complexity, intense livability and community-oriented bottom up approaches, being that these are merely considered as conceptual apparatuses to help cities grow better. Because, as one knows, many of them will grow independently of any planning…

Those ideas were also convened with the precise intention of defying dodgy political habits and unadventurous  top-down behaviours. The discussion was a means of presenting problems, more than ready-made answers. And, in my case, it served to again call to mind the oddly forgotten, and yet overwhelming global dilemmas posed by emergent megalopolises, right as we speak.

On my way in to Estonia’s capital, I had seen the last of four documentaries included in the very interesting Cities on Speed series, and was driven to acknowledge that the current growth of megacities defies both traditional  and modern planning strategies. And thus we have to look at things very differently if indeed we – all of us – want to prevent scenarios like those of Cairo slowly but surely choking on its own garbage.

Garbage City, Cairo, via Inhabitat.

Following on the perception that telecommunications have already outcomed long-established needs for conventional infrastructure, maybe developing compact metropolises have to step directly onto robotized garbage collection, drilling new tunnels or retrofitting abandoned subterranean sewage systems so as to implement trash conveyer belts or computorised junk vacuum systems that can directly receive, select and process human debris into energy production.

Likewise, any other notion of traditional, heavy infrastructure probably has to be re-imagined so as to be substituted for cheaper, self-maintaining urban systems that recur to smart combinations of hi- and lo-tech, while fundamentally catering for the participation and involvment of local communities.

In face of such challenges, while our panel’s invitation to think out of the box might have been somewhat philosophical in tone, it slightly worried me that thinking – and namely anticipating the broader consequences of current decision-making – wasn’t on the memos of those who are indeed in charge of responding to the problems of contemporary cities.

Sit Down and Enjoy the Flow

While finishing classes for the academic year of 2010-11 and already preparing to join the Realdania/IFHP/DAC  “Another Urban Future” think-tank in Copenhagen – to again visit the Danish capital for the first time in 20 years – I couldn’t but think of just sitting down and enjoying the flow of information that one has to suspend if one wants to carry with business as usual.

In this case, going back to the dark side of your email inbox is quite enough to delight in immediate possibilities for reflection. With our focusing on communication tools such as Facebook or Twitter, we constantly overlook how the much humbler email has changed our lifes – and our possibilities of (net)working internationally at considerable low cost…

This is not only about the instanteinity of communication across the globe, or the innumerous newsletters updates one consumes at daily rate and absurd speed. This is also about how painful – and deadening on a one person-structure – it would be to print, fold, envelope, lick, stamp, and take 20, 30, 40 letters a day to the nearest post office. Unconceivable and yet only 30 years distant.

Indeed, if I would have to consider what was the electronic tool that has brought us to our current state of affairs after the invention of personal computers, I would have to state that this was the email.

And this small digression is only to start telling you about two or three things on my inbox that tickled my curiosity enormously over the last weeks – before I archive them into an almost inevitable oblivion.

The first are news on an intriguing project sent in by Beyond #01 contributor Antonio Scarponi, the bright mind behind Conceptual Devices.

I think my enthusiasm for Malthus, A Meal a Day was triggered because it reaches into that dominion of design fiction that, parallel to architecture fiction, very effectively feeds our imagination of the future ever since Anthony Dune and Fiona Raby started to devise weird scenarios to explain their startling objects.

But I also got carried away because of its connection to a text that impressed me earlier on. In the unexpected context – or not so much – of an architecture magazine, “L’Agriculture en Ville” by Etienne Chobaux simply explores the current possibilities of hidroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics and shows us how the future of food may be about to change oh so drastically.

This sort of future visions is the thing that ultimately prevents me from being a depressed pessimist on account of the information I access every day: they reveal the incredible but proven potential of the human mind to permanently (re)create, (re)think, (re)improve and transform its technologies and inventions.

Socially, or in terms of the current history of our democracy, we seem to be placidly looking at the decline of another roman empire from the very comfort of our living rooms. We seem indecided to muse on revolt or to just remain indifferent vis-a-vis the spectacle of luscious greed merrily overcoming any possible rationale of well-distributed progress.

The possibility of sanity then probably arises from the lone fact that we secretly know – or want to believe – that some people out there are still diligently blinding themselves to the reality around them and just moving on with their own doings – and with their own micro-narratives of possible progress.  We somehow expect those people to be our guarantee for ‘another future.’

And while I’m pretty sure Antonio Scarponi does his best day-to-day efforts to prevent himself from considering that Silvio Berlsconi’s really exists, all of this pretty well relates to another blog feed that just landed on my personal email from DPR Barcelona.

DPR’s quote of Zizek provides an excellent opener for a peculiar reflection on how again, and as we are one,* architecture can be political, even if also assumedly withdrawing from the violent assaults of current reality.

Curiously, Ethel Baraona and César Reyes’ contribution to a larger blogiscussion reflects upon the project of a Greek architect, Aristide Antonas, featured above. And, as their text eventually suggests, this is not an unrelated happenstance.

Coincidently, my forthcoming claim that architects must go back to the streets – an op-ed for Domus that states that… they are already doing it – also inevitably echoes the violence that, while munching dinner with our small children, we sense rising daily in the very same cities that more than two thousand years ago saw the unconscious, mythological birth of Western democracy.