Futurology comes to the cityscape
Slumming it
If you're like most of the readers of this blog, you live either in a city or a suburb of one. The American experience, broadly, has been defined by the creation of and emigration to cities, and from there into sprawling conurbations taking up vast swaths of whole states.

Can this go on? Perhaps. In desirable locations, like the sun belt, it probably can with a modest definition of "indefinitely," fuelled by the climate and comparatively cheap land (so long as the water holds out). On the other hand, cities like Pittsburgh, Gary, and Detroit point the way towards asking what happens when cities start to collapse. Industrial boom is, virtually inevitably, followed by industrial bust; the constriction of employment in these cities has led to a constriction of population, followed closely by a constriction of services.

What to do about this? One answer is to bulldoze huge tracts of land and transform them into semi-rural farm areas. Industrial development being what it is most of these cities have poisoned their topsoil with heavy metals, but either the soil can be reclaimed or the land can be used to grow food crops that don't leach toxins from the ground — or crops good for biofuel, whose impurities can be filtered out at the refining stage.

Although much of Detroit is a barren wasteland, there are still some people living in the remnants — it's quieter there, now, for one, and it's cheap — and eminent domain would have to be used for what is unlikely to be a cheap project. All the same, despite monetary and political costs, ideas like this will start to gain traction — in the long run, it's less expensive to cut parts of your city off, because you don't have to maintain or provide services to them anymore.

Even without such radical developments, a lot has been written about potential redevelopment of cityscapes. Greening cities offers both environmental and economical positive effects; at the very least, rooftop greenery, I'm told, helps to curb global warming. Planned cities offer us the ability to use what we've learned since the industrial revolution (and the growing awareness of finite energy resources) to create cities that don't rely on wasteful automobiles to cart people around, efficiently organise commercial development, promote a sense of community by keeping people close — and close to where they shop and work.

But the best model, we're told, is accidental. Prospect Magazine says that "slums can save the planet", which is an interesting concept. People who live in slums — who take use of every available bit of space and generally exist in a world where they can walk or bike to their places of employment (if they have them) — consume fewer of our planet's resources. It's more efficient. It's better for the future.

It also sucks a lot for the people living there, and no amount of whitewashing the statistics (or dreamy-eyed pontificating) is going to make it any more of an appealing option. On the other hand, reasonable people — looking at a world population that may well cross ten billion souls — might reasonably ask: what's the alternative?

A post-scarcity world is some distance in our future, and the problems of the present are going to collapse on us long before then. There are too many of us, living too inefficiently. We burn too much oil; we transport things (including ourselves) too far and too wastefully. Where do we go from here? What do you think the city of 2050 will look like? 2100? Is it going to be a place you want to live?

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