Thrive or Survive

Vanessa Keith’s book 2100 brings to life a post-climate change world balanced perilously between utopia and dystopia.

By Zach Mortice

São Paolo is a small aquaponics farming settlement where residents and visitors gather medicinal compounds from the surrounding jungle. 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, by Vanessa Keith/StudioTEKA (New York: Urban Research, 2017). Courtesy of Terreform.

In the not-so-distant future, what remains of São Paulo is something like an ecoresort medical crop farm for ewoks. People from all over the world travel to its lush, frequently flooded rain forest and set up shop in ovular pods in the treetops connected by open-air skywalks. They farm fish, grow sugarcane, and harvest rare, medicinal compounds from the surrounding jungle. Crews deconstruct the old city, leaving more room for this life-saving flora to reassert itself.

A continent away, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, is also in the process of unbecoming. Residents of its single-family houses are cannibalizing their neighborhoods at the stern urging of statist security forces. (Let’s say something like United Nations troops, perhaps wearing black helmets instead of blue ones.) The nation’s sixth-largest city will be shrunk to a tiny fraction of its former size to make way for more massive solar energy farms that dominate the desert landscape. Former Arizonans are invited to move themselves along with the bricks and mortar of their communities to a burgeoning megacity in Vancouver. Some people don’t want to go, and are meeting in secret to talk about what to do if they’re forced.

Those companion (but tonally opposed) visions of the future begin with the same book, Vanessa Keith’s 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, published by Terreform’s Urban Research, Michael Sorkin’s publishing imprint. It envisions a world where preventing the two-degree Celsius change in global temperatures to forestall a total ecological collapse is a quaint memory. In 2100, global temperatures have risen by four degrees Celsius. Much of North America and Europe is a largely uninhabitable desert. Humanity races toward the poles, purposefully melting glaciers for freshwater and establishing a new stock exchange in Greenland. Many millions of people are displaced by climate change, yet the global population reaches 10 billion. Carbon is sequestered from the air into carbon fiber, and concrete megastructure biomes in Antarctica are filled with pleasure gardens and fresh fruits and vegetables. Is this a resilient techno-utopia or a tomb for the dying days of humanity? It’s presented as neither, exactly, with the direct, matter-of-fact tone of exhibition wall text, and with no political undercurrents inherent in mass relocation induced by climate change. Keith, an architect whose practice is StudioTEKA, puts this contradiction up front. “This work is intended to be both a resounding call to action,” she writes, “and an optimistic proposal for the difficult future we stand to inherit if we do not act.”

Much of Phoenix, Arizona, is given over to solar power farms as the city is largely deconstructed. 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, by Vanessa Keith/StudioTEKA (New York: Urban Research, 2017). Courtesy of Terreform.

Keith’s most ingenious idea is the pairing of city types that organize the book and form closed resource loops in its world. There are extraction cities (often located in a very wide equatorial band with extreme weather) that are cannibalized for materials, mined for energy, and staffed by a skeleton crew of residents. These formerly great cities, like Manila and New York, harvest wind energy from constant tropical storms or take advantage of other extreme weather for energy generation. Each extraction city is paired with a compact megacity: ultradense settlements closer to the poles that welcome climate refugees (and energy generated in the depopulated zones) into hive-like high-rises. Sleepy Siberian outposts become thick with biomorphic megascrapers. In Vancouver, acres of trees and understory march up sloped skyscrapers. In Wellington, “landscrapers” burrow into the earth and also funnel wind energy. Johannesburg’s buildings are covered in facades that allow all manner of vines and animal habitats to dig in, acting as a huge carbon sink. They’re also a vital element of ecological preservation, since half of all animal species have gone extinct.

In Johannesburg, building facades that act as habitats for plants and animals provide refuge in a world where half of all species have already gone extinct. 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, by Vanessa Keith/StudioTEKA (New York: Urban Research, 2017). Courtesy of Terreform.

This key pairing is what allows Keith to stop short of a total Malthusian collapse for humanity. Securing resources and habitable land in such a tight city-to-city connection across international borders also seems implicitly to call for the dissolution of the nation–state as the fundamental organizing unit of government, and for the re-emergence of the city–state.

Keith’s book tears down disciplinary divisions and assumed divisions between the natural and the urban. It reaffirms the omnipresent need in the climate change era for all infrastructure to serve multiple functions. All the technology she mentions either exists or is being researched. For decades now, ecologists and environmental designers have been reminding the world that humans must find ways to live more in concert with nature’s design. But in 2100, we’re forced to pound ourselves out on the climate change anvil of our own design. Keith talked with LAM about what these hammer strokes might look like.

So is this a utopia or a dystopia?

We’re trying to get away from binary thinking of a dystopia or a utopia. It’s really hard to separate. What we’re trying to really do is focus on hybridity. Things can be this and that. We can have a utopia within a dystopia. We took as our site this world at four degrees of warming, which is arguably dystopian.  And it’s far from ideal, but if we keep going, it may very well happen. The utopian part of the book is that, while we have not been able to stop global warming, we’ve been able to prepare for it in a way that is orderly and in a way that hasn’t caused chaos and death on a massive scale.

Troll is Antarctica’s first large city. 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, by Vanessa Keith/StudioTEKA (New York: Urban Research, 2017). Courtesy of Terreform.

Outside of the habitable megastructures that several of these projects use, what you see in these scenarios pretty broadly falls under the definition of landscape architecture or landscape urbanism. What can these design practices do that others can’t in this extreme climate?

I feel that landscape architecture has an enormous role to play, and that we need to have more collaboration and interdisciplinary work across our fields. In Troll [Antarctica], the landscape is inside the building. So, is that interior design or landscape design? Who does that? Is that the architect or the landscaper? We need to think beyond these categories.

We’re going to have to work together internationally, and we’re going to have to work together across the divides in our thinking that act as a blind spot preventing us from seeing solutions. The city is not separate from nature. There’s nature in cities—we just don’t choose to see it that way. What’s really required is a new perspective and work that is truly interdisciplinary. Why is it that the architect makes the building, the interior designer does the inside, and the landscape architect does the outside? Maybe nature [forces us to] rethink these artificial positions we have.

In Beijing, former landfills are mined for precious metals. 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, by Vanessa Keith/StudioTEKA (New York: Urban Research, 2017). Courtesy of Terreform.

The challenge is to create intermediate spaces that are neither fully urban nor fully of the biosphere. If you look at the example of Beijing, I wanted to have a site where we could look at the issue of polluted environments, and how we deal with waste. Eco-System, a recycling plant near Tokyo, produces around 600 pounds of gold per month—as much gold as a small gold mine—from old cell phones and circuit boards. I really feel that in the future we’ll go back to our landfills and mine them like we currently mine for gold. There’s so much value in the things we throw away.

Which of these places would you really want to visit? Which sound terrible to you?

I’d like to visit all of them! I love New York, and I live here now, but if we go to a four-degree world, I don’t know if anyone is going to want to be in a coastal area during hurricane season. Wellington is very interesting. The climate is supposed to be pretty mild there, even with four degrees of warming. I really like the idea that we have this radial city over a gorge with these furry bridges that collect wind energy, and I like the public outdoor space in the stacked rambla. People might also want to tour the energy installations in Manila and New York, and spending time in São Paulo in the rain forest either as a vacationer or a volunteer looks like it would be great. The places you’re going to want to spend the most time are the compact megacities. We envisioned a world of dense urban settlements, smaller-scale outpost settlements, and a lot of wilderness, farming, and renewable energy farms in between. Not a lot of urban sprawl.

“Landscrapers” in Wellington help funnel wind energy. 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, by Vanessa Keith/StudioTEKA (New York: Urban Research, 2017). Courtesy of Terreform.

Are these places to thrive as a species or places simply to survive? Or are both of these ways of living happening at the same time?

I think they’re places to thrive. I don’t want to see a world where we’re focused only on survival. I think that if we have a world where we’re able to harness our smarts and our technology, that we would do it in such a way to have a better quality of life.

So why not shade this more intensely as a pure, joyous utopia or completely dismal hellscape, instead of a more middle-of-the-road approach?

I wouldn’t say that it’s middle-of-the-road. Again, it’s utopia within dystopia. It would be horrifically irresponsible of me to say, “Let’s just go on the way we are.” Right now business as usual is six or seven degrees by 2100. At six degrees [warming], with very warm oceans, hurricanes can circumnavigate the globe multiple times. That is not something that we want. What we want to emphasize is, look at all this great stuff that’s going on. Look at all these wonderful people that are doing this research to solve our problems. Why don’t we start using that now, and maybe we can have something that’s better than we’re imagining?

Compact megacity Moscow is a vertical maze of old and new high-rises. 2100: A Dystopian Utopia—The City After Climate Change, by Vanessa Keith/StudioTEKA (New York: Urban Research, 2017). Courtesy of Terreform.

But why not scare people the other way with UN storm troopers and mass relocation to the Antarctic? There’s the carrot, and the stick.

Within the arc of a few years we’ve gone from thinking that driving a hybrid SUV and recycling was doing enough to [solve] the problem, to [thinking] “it’s so big I can’t do anything.” People get crisis fatigue. Everything’s a crisis. If you can’t do anything, you may as well party while the world burns. I didn’t want to do the storm trooper vision of the future because it makes people feel overwhelmed and that there’s nothing we can do, and that’s not true. I don’t want people to feel disempowered and that they have to wait for a top-down state solution.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. Listen to his Chicago architecture and design podcast A Lot You Got to Holler, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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