Cities at a Turning Point
Scientists warn that many cities around the world may soon face big climate-change challenges: rising seas; shrinking water supplies; killer summer heat waves; rises in water-borne diseases as temperatures go up and sewers are swamped. No one is predicting that, say, London or Miami will simply drop beneath the waves–but these and other cities will probably have to be redesigned if they are to maintain their viability and vitality. A new book, Urban Climate Change Crossroads, explores what it might take to keep these places going. Published by the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab, with chapters by 18 contributors, the book was launched at this month’s Ecopolis conference in Rome.
In the lead chapter, architect Richard Plunz, head of the Urban Design Lab, writes: The gamble for ecological survival has always been reliant on technology and design–and when the technological limits are obvious, the design adaptation has to be made. … The design imperative appeared with Katrina in New Orleans. Now New York faces a moment of truth with hurricanes and sea-level rise. So does Bangkok, which is sinking as the sea rises. So does Quito, which is losing its water supply as the glaciers melt (fifteen years out). … [but] how adaptation occurs goes beyond building seawalls; moving from flood plains; inventing more robust infrastructures.
Plunz argues that cities can thrive only if economics is united with science–especially ecology. He says also that urban architecture needs to rethink its obsession with high fashion and good looks, and return to the basics of engineering structures that are sustainable. Some examples of failed design he mentions: not modern places, but rather the ancient Greek cities of Miletus, Ephesus and Priene. These were along what is now the southwest coast of Turkey, and were originally sited on excellent harbors in the Aegean Sea. But the cities were stranded inland some 2,000 years ago when the harbors silted in due to poor farming practices that washed soil down from the uplands, and unstoppable natural tectonic uplift, which simply raised the land itself higher above sea level. Today, Miletus , Ephesus and Priene are fantastical, isolated ruins, largely surrounded by flat farm fields, and the sea is only glimmer in the distance. With the prospect of the sea’s reapproach, it might be worth reflecting on their long-ago lessons.