Floating Cities

Floating Cities Aren’t the Answer to Climate Change

UN-Habitat is looking at high-tech urban islands as a potential survival fix for communities at risk from rising seas. This isn’t what resilience looks like.

CityLab, April 10, 2019

Last week, at a roundtable at the United Nations headquarters in New York, a Tahitian entrepreneur named Marc Collins unveiled a new model for a “sustainable floating city” designed in collaboration with the architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and other partners. Called Oceanix City (after Collins’s company Oceanix), it would house up to 10,000 people and aim to be as self-sufficient as possible. Oceanix calls it a response to sea-level rise and climate displacement.

From above, the speculative city looks a bit like a flower, with shiny petals of solar-roofed, man-made islands ringing a central port area. The 4.5-acre islands would not actually float free, but would be anchored to the sea floor by biorock, a material that’s used to build artificial coral reefs. For drinking water, the putative residents of Oceanix City would extract humidity from the air and desalinate seawater; their food would be harvested from small floating farms and under water via aquaculture. Oceanix City would be both hurricane-resistant and zero-waste.

Architectural renderings of the city show Jetsons-esque watercraft zipping past domed greenhouses and stylish modern buildings. The sky is azure; the water is calm. It could be a very high-end all-inclusive Caribbean resort.

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Radical Suburbs

The Secret History of the Suburbs

We all know the stereotypes: Suburbia is dull, conformist, and about “keeping up with the Joneses.” But what about the suburbs of utopians and renegades?

CityLab, April 9, 2019

Back in the early 1960s, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “Little Boxes,” inspired by a drive past rows of lookalike pastel-hued houses in a new suburban housing tract in the Bay Area. (Her friend Pete Seeger had a hit with the song in 1963.) Reynolds saw the cookie-cutter houses as both symbols and shapers of the conformist mindset of the people who lived in them—doctors and lawyers who aspired to nothing more than playing golf and raising children who would one day inhabit “ticky-tacky” boxes of their own.

Then, only a few years after Reynolds wrote the song, Filipinos and other immigrants from Asia began arriving in Daly City. The “ticky-tacky” architecture that Reynolds scorned proved amenable to them remodeling and expanding homes for extended families, and Daly City became the “Pinoy capital” of the U.S., with the highest concentration of immigrants from the Philippines in America.

Clichés and misconceptions still define suburbia in the popular imagination, and it drives me crazy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. I’m a suburbanite, but my life doesn’t revolve around manicured lawns, status anxiety, or a craving for homogeneity. My suburban experience is riding the bus as people chat around me in Spanish and French Creole. It’s having neighbors who hail from Tibet, Brazil, and Kenya as well as Cincinnati. It’s my son attending a school that reflects the diversity—and stubborn inequality—of America today.

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Tending Urban Forests

America’s Management of Urban Forests Has Room for Improvement

A new survey finds that urban forests could benefit from better data on climate change and pests and a focus on social equity.

CityLab, March 25, 2019

Forested areas in cities may seem best left untouched, but it’s a common misconception that they can take care of themselves, according to Sarah Charlop-Powers, executive director of New York City’s Natural Areas Conservancy.

“We need to undo the conception that natural areas are inherently self-sustaining,” she said. “We need to start thinking of [them] as one more type of urban parkland, and we’d never say: ‘We built that playground; we don’t need to check and make sure the equipment is in good working order.’”

That’s one conclusion to be drawn from a survey of managers of urban forests that Charlop’s group conducted with the Trust for Public Land and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. It’s the first national survey of people who oversee America’s “urban forested natural areas”—that is, native habitats and woods in cities, which account for 84 percent of urban parkland nationwide, according to the Trust for Public Land.

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The Look of Mormon

Understanding the New Mormon Temple in Rome

Despite its olive trees and piazza, the new temple will look familiar to American eyes.

CityLab, March 21, 2019

There are more than 900 churches in Rome, many of them jaw-droppingly beautiful inside, like the Sistine Chapel and Santa Maria in Trastevere. The Eternal City’s newest religious structure doesn’t boast any medieval mosaics or Renaissance frescoes. But it’s sumptuous by 21st-century standards, with high, curved walls of white granite, two tall spires, inlaid marble floors, and a grand staircase surmounted by a huge crystal chandelier.

The dedication last week of the new Mormon temple in Rome marked the arrival of Mormonism—a comparatively young denomination that still meets with bias and suspicion—in the global center of Catholicism. It is the 162nd operating Mormon temple in the world, thanks to a relentless building campaign over the past few decades by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church) to serve its growing ranks, which now number above 16 million.

Back in 2006, Mormon leaders petitioned for official religious status in Italy, and even hired a Washington lobbyist to advance their cause. Official status was granted in 2010, and construction on the 40,000-square-foot temple began that year.

Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, said the opening of the temple has “enormous cultural significance” for Mormons. The church dispatched all 15 of its highest-ranking leaders to Rome for the dedication—which was unprecedented—and LDS President Russell Nelson had an audience with Pope Francis on March 9, the first-ever such meeting.

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The Original Green New Deal

How the Green New Deal Could Retrofit Suburbs

The original New Deal included a bold attempt to rethink suburbia. We can still learn from it.

CityLab, Feb. 11, 2019

Last week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a resolution that gives the heady vision of the “Green New Deal” some broad policy outlines—although the specifics are still up for grabs. Their resolution calls for a national, 10-year mobilization that would repair and upgrade infrastructure and switch the country over to 100-percent clean energy, among other goals.

As its name makes clear, in scope and ambition, the Green New Deal has strong parallels to the original New Deal, with its massive public-works projects like the Hoover Dam and jobs programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. But, amid calls for the Green New Deal to address wasteful land use, a smaller, more obscure initiative of the old New Deal is also worth revisiting: the greenbelt-towns program, undertaken by the short-lived federal Resettlement Administration (RA).

With that program, the U.S. government threw its weight behind a progressive approach to urban planning and offered an alternative to helter-skelter suburban sprawl. The government could do so again, and work to fix suburbia’s lack of sustainable, affordable housing, and car dependency. A 21st-century agenda would learn from the New Deal’s failings, prioritizing racial and social equity and working with existing communities rather than imposing a top-down plan. 

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