Thursday, March 16, 2017

Imagining Future Cities

165 days until the first class.

One of the things that I enjoy doing is imagining possible futures for humanity.

Before I start, I would like to comment that many readers may not like this vision of the future. And, admittedly, I consider it a possibility, not because I consider it ideal, but because I consider it likely. Yet, I do think that such likes and dislikes are cultural and malleable - what we dislike future generations may learn to value. Our likes and dislikes determine our own preferences for our own lives - it is a mistake to think that they identify something of intrinsic value.

As I have written about before, I think that this future involves the colonization of space. I have written about how the material in the asteroid belt, if converted into space cities, can create the equivalent surface area (not land area, but surface area) of 30,000 earths. Of course, this would not be 30,000 space cities the size of earth, but a cloud of millions of space cities orbiting the sun - most of them in the region of the asteroid belt out to the orbit of Jupiter. Jupiter's moons can be harvested to create several million more.

But . . . we actually do not need to go into space to do this. In some of my imaginings, I imagine something similar being done on Earth.

Think about taking 25 square kilometers of desert - largely unused land. Consider adding a second level onto this - a second floor. It can be rather high up; say - 30 meters up (100 feet) with pale blue lighting. And a third floor. And a fourth.

The top floor has a glass roof. It could be used for a recreational park, or for farming, or for a little of both. After all, any of the lower floors could also be used for farming. Compartmentalized, climate control, and free from pests (thus no need for pesticides), it would allow for perfect growing conditions year round. The productivity of 25 square miles of cropland built within the city would be substantially higher than a comparable amount of farmland open to the atmosphere and subject to the natural variations in weather.

Long distance travel - both vertically and horizontally - could be carried out using a type of subway. Seriously, if we can have a town that takes up 25 square miles horizontally, then we can also have a town that can be 25 kilometers high, as long as we provide vertical forms of travel that are approximately as efficient as horizontal forms of travel. That would be over 800 "floors" tall at 30 meters per floor - for a total surface area of nearly 21,000 square kilometers - about the size of New Jersey (which has a population of about 9 million).

This would be a community that fully recycles its water and waste. That's not to say that it would be entirely self-contained. It will still engage in trade - and its participants would engage in travel. There will be a need for imports from other communities and an interest in exporting goods and services.

Ultimately, the one thing that this community would need from the outside is energy - and the best source of energy would be the sun. With respect to space cities, one imagines large solar power stations providing these cities with power from direct, uninterrupted, unfiltered sunlight. Plans exist for solar power satellites beaming their power down to earth.

One of these disadvantages of building such a self-contained city on earth rather than in space is the existence of gravity. The structures on the lower levels would have to hold a great deal of weight. This would be a significant engineering problem. On the other hand, the space city will have to deal with creating artificial gravity and with keeping out cosmic radiation and small asteroids.

In space, the relevant engineering problem could be solved by the use of counter-rotating city sections built inside of an enclosed stone shield about 1 meter thick that would stop cosmic rays and small asteroids. On earth, this would require engineering the structure to support these weights.

Admittedly, gravity also provides advantages - sufficient advantages to justify creating artificial gravity in an orbiting city.

There will be wealthy districts and poor districts, of course - and some parts of the community will be parts that one would be reluctant to visit.

I do wonder about the effects of homelessness. Since the whole city is enclosed and climate control, I wonder if there will be people who are voluntarily homeless in the sense that they have a bed somewhere and little more than that. They would not need to worry about freezing in winter or having rain pour down on them as they struggle through a night. The reason for a home is to have a place to store one's possessions - and some may well decide that they do not have that much to store, or can store what they have in a locker.

I am not actually predicting or advocating that such a thing be built. Instead, I would argue for a transition to something much like this. The next step comes from noticing that, when we have two large sky scrapers next to each other, we can - for much less money than was spent in the construction of either building, create a third building between them that unites the floors on each. Instead of four sky scrapers on each of four city blocks, we get a sky scraper that covers four city blocks. Eventually, we cover eight, twenty, and a hundred.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from this, it is to question the assumption that the future needs to be much like the present. It is a mistake to think that we are confined to conventional cities, conventional farming techniques, and conventional methods of transportation. There are a lot of options available to us. Constraining our imaginings of the future to simply different-looking models of what we say today will almost certainly be inaccurate.

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