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.