Saturday, December 15, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: The City of the Future by Dan O'Brien

The City of the Future
Dan O'Brien

Originally Published in the June 2012 of Empirical

As the world continues to suffer in the throes of energy and financial crises, a movement has emerged in eastern Asia. Auto giant GM has lent a hand to creating futuristic cities that seem more like a setting in an Asimov novel than in real life.

Before we run to the city of the future, let’s take a moment and examine Tianjin before the inception of an eco-city that might revolutionize how we perceive sustainability. Developed on land that was equal parts saltpan, deserted beach, and an unseemly wastewater pond, the city seemed more the part of a dystopian city lost in the mist than the staging point for a revolutionary idea.

This, however, changed when the idea came across the transom – to use a very old publishing term – and enlivened a nation. With the expectation of the fully realized city by the 2020s, the eco-city will comfortably house 350,000 citizens in a dynamic environment meant to leave the smallest possible environmental impact and enrich the lives of the people who live there. It is an attempt at an ecologically sound city; the surrounding environment will be maintained and feed into the platform of sustainability that the Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco-city is aspiring for. While local rainfall will not be able to buttress the water supply, much of the water for the city will be drawn from novel sources like desalinated water.

It boasts a light rail system that will be easily accessible and entirely sustainable. GM has offered to help the endeavor by creating the ENV, which looks and functions like a Segway PT — but with room for two. The onboard GPS systems will allow for object detection and distance technology that will mediate car lengths, and essentially allow you to sit back and have the EN-V take you where you want to go. The notion of a legion of bumper cars equipped like Night Rider – minus David Hasselhoff, of course – conjures an image of a futuristic city where everyone wears white vinyl jumpsuits. We can put away the tin foil hats, because this is an endeavor that we will see the fruition of in a decade or less.

The pursuit of a harmonious community is at the heart of this effort, as well as an attempt to satisfy the demands of a rapidly growing country – China – to create an environment where works can have a high quality of life. Much of the media commentary has focused on a concerted attempt to provide affordable housing for the lower income populations of the community.

This is Tianjin today, with older Chinese architecture dwarfed by modern skyscrapers.
PHOTO: Shubert Ciencia

The notion of a melting pot of socioeconomic classes is meant as a strong selling point for a social society predicated on a single community consciousness. What makes this futuristic city any different than a green city like Portland?

Where other cities that are trying to create a sustainable future, the reality of this eco-city is that it is starting out sustainable, without the need to rededicate and repurpose existing resources to become more green. The infrastructure is rife with community transportation and less dependency on outside resources to maintain continuity for the city’s inhabitants. Each year starts with the promise of changes for the future. Are we to believe that these changes will come about organically, or should we be cognizant of the kind of participation we can have in a movement toward a more sustainable future?

The promise of such a utopian concept as a city where vehicles drive themselves safely and the community itself is sustainable still seems like such a dream. What it will take to bring about the necessary paradigm shift in the world’s social consciousness that would make an eco-city a normal practice is something we need to ask ourselves as free-thinkers. This insistence on tribal thought is central to such a movement. We can see the pieces coming to together: the series of interconnected parts that are necessary to create a global phenomenon. The idea of sustainable, self-contained cities has to become vogue.

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