On “The City of the Future”

This new job has been treating me well; the new (and thankfully temporary!!!) commute, not so much.  Thus this post will be well-intentioned, but short.

One of the days before I started full time, i.e. one of my last days of freedom, I decided to head to the Museum of Science and Industry for the afternoon.  I hadn’t been there in years, and had good memories of it (most memorable, of course, the Fairy Castle!) so I thought I’d check it out.

All the exhibits gave me this strange sense of … I guess it would be a mix of interest, optimism, pessimism, and some kind of odd feeling of Cold-War-era industrial dread, or something.  Hard to describe.  But was basically a feeling that humans have thus far accomplished great things, but have also taken on great responsibilities, something which doesn’t seem to be in the minds of many – not least many of those who were visiting the museum that day.  I would hope, of course, that I’m not the only one who visits the museum and is provoked to a sort of thoughtful ambivalence, but overhearing one guy calling his (wife, girlfriend, significant other) and saying “Honey, can I get a nuclear submarine?  Those things are SWEET!” didn’t inspire too much confidence.

Anyway, as the Cold-War feeling can’t be sufficiently described, I’ll drop it and move on to one particular exhibit of interest, though not as flashy and kid-friendly as some:  the exhibit on “The City of the Future,” the results of a world-wide contest held among architecture and planning firms to design what the major cities of the world could (or should) look like in 100 years.  Chicago was among them, of course, and most of the finalists’ entries on display were for this city.  All of the firms had focused on some way on dealing with 1) population growth (factoring in the rise of sea level, thus diminishing the size and relative status of coastal cities like New York); 2) increased population density; 3) increased need to use energy, water, and other resources efficiently; and 4) to generally ensure a higher quality of life for all the city’s citizens.  The lake and natural (or artificial) waterways were central to most designs, as well as providing more “green space” for pedestrians, more efficient travel by car or public systems, integration of the lake and other natural resources in the area (including water and solar energy) into the overall infrastructure of the city.

The designs were also visually interesting.  One was very organic, as though someone had heaped moss and linen into the existing street-scape, and put walkways through it.  Another had a building-block look (built with actual blocks, as I recall) that looked rather modular.  A third had giant “tree-trunk” structures built at intervals of several city blocks, meant (if I remember correctly) to be energy and other nodes for the city.  And at least one other looked like a giant computer circuitboard, with transportation and other lines running in networks around the city.  Roads and other lines, of course, already look like this, but I think it was the neon plastic with backlighting that added the electronic flair.

While I didn’t spend too much time considering the individual designs (only minimal information about the plans was given, and I spent most of my time trying to recognize the layout of the city as it is now, and how their designs had been overlaid onto it), the whole undertaking struck me as a very intriguing idea, full of possibility.  The idea that urban planning can indeed look to the long-term future, not simply solving this year’s water-main leak but considering how to adapt to something decades down the road (insofar as that is possible) seems a really good idea, and a really important one, especially if Chicago will indeed become the major city (as the contestants suggested) because of its location, freshwater source, and population growth.  And looking at Chicago now – its transportation layout, its population issues, its cleanliness, its dismal recycling efforts, etc. – it is indeed a place of great possibility, but still of great waste and inefficiency.  Government corruption aside (if possible!), there is so much more the city could do to look ahead to the future.

And not just Chicago – I use it as my local example – but American cities in general, indeed America’s entire infrastructure.  I suppose I should invoke, and in greater length than I will, the example of the Minnesota bridge collapse, as an indicator of the need to maintain and care for the infrastructure on which we rely.  Even if that was just a fluke or isolated incident, it does not diminish the larger point that we have become urban (and unfortunately, suburban) dwellers, dependent on the specialization and complex infrastructures we have created in order to survive.  When these break down (for the most dramatic examples, see:  Berlin 1945 and pretty much all of Europe after WWII) we are, for a time at least, incapable of continuing to function within that system, and they take a long time to rebuild.  Of course getting to work on time cannot and should not be placed above our subsistence needs – food, shelter, clean water, sleep – but we have placed ourselves in so thoroughly artificial a way of life that adaptation to, say, living in cave would be if not impossible, at least extremely painful.

Now I’m not saying that we should all live in caves – again, my stance toward technology is one of ambivalence, but not outright disapproval.  I acknowledge that our entire existence is an artificial one, but I don’t see a satisfying way around that, barring major disaster I suppose.  My point is simply to recognize, once again, the possibility/responsibility position we’ve put ourselves in, and aren’t getting out of anytime soon.  I think cities are wonderful things, but only if they can function and function well – which means providing for their citizens, both basic and higher needs, and operating in such a way that is sustainable and in harmony between the artificial and natural environment and its resources.

So the exhibit got me thinking that a career in urban/city planning would actually, hopefully, be an extremely rewarding job.  Although Sim City teaches the player that citizens are never happy and (essentially) that profiting on a city is a good thing, it nevertheless is a fun little glimpse into how difficult and how important a task it is to organize the operation of the home of so many people.

Anyway, the horrible child stomping around upstairs reminds me (indirectly) that I should go to bed and, in a few short hours, go to work.  Not to mention reminding me how nice it will be to move, and have a place with no upstairs neighbors.  I’ll take more stairs over that stomping any day.

Oh, and a post-script:  of COURSE the highway I drive to and from work every day is called the Eisenhower.  And of COURSE it’s ridiculously slowed down for little or no reason at all times, with horrible drivers everywhere in between.  Of course.  It serves as a pretty convenient concentration for all my frustrations about the American highway system, Chicago’s poor transportation layout, Eisenhower’s decision to commit to said highway system, and about excessive city driving in general.  So I say to all that:  “(shaking fist) Damn you Eisenhower!!!”

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