Opportunities and considerations for urban planning in face of climate crisis
How terraforming the desert and re-evaluating the efficiency of urban farming could change our perspective on how to approach a Solarpunk-inspired future for our cities
Never mind the negationists. The climate crisis is real and an urgent matter to be addressed by governments and private firms. As most of us are concentrated in cities, urban settings become the main stage for new strategies in planning, transportation, and sustainability.
“The totalitarian greens, sometimes called ecofascists, would like to see most other humans eliminated in genocide and so leave a perfect Earth for them alone. At the other end of the spectrum are those who would like to see universal human welfare and rights, and somehow hope that luck, Gaia or sustainable development will allow this dream to come true. Greens could be defined as those who have sensed the deterioration of the natural world and would like to do something about it. They share common environmentalism but differ greatly in the means for its achievement.”
Currently, many private firms and governments have been working on the implementation of urban farming. This shift came after considering the global demand for the reduction of carbon emissions both in the transportation and industrial production of goods. Beyond community gardens, urban architecture has adapted to evolve into green buildings that keep a symbiotic relationship between concrete and greens, such as is the case of Bosco Verticale in Milan. It follows the concept of “carbon sinks,” which are natural or otherwise reservoirs able to alleviate the effect of carbon emissions by absorbing more CO2 gases than it releases. Adapted futuristic structures such as the Museum of Tomorrow in Brazil, with fin-like solar panels and reflective pools, are one of the greatest examples of this strategy.
Likewise, for more than 50 years, the Asian city-state of Singapore has been transitioning from a highly polluted place to a “garden city.” First, people learned the importance of waste management for public health, and then the creation of a drainage system for the Singapore river enabled the growth of more than 55 thousand trees planted in the 1970s, which now grow tall amongst green buildings, a mandatory construction style since 2008.
In the West, “plantscrapers” have posed the future of vertical farming combined to urban planning, but with the bankruptcy of the ambitious Swedish project Plantagon, there is a general sense of revaluation of this scenario after only smaller initiatives using containers with hydroponics have succeeded in the meantime. Some of the downsides exposed after such failure include the elevated costs of these projects, the excessive need for energy (although the source could be renewable, vertical farms use the sunlight to create an emulation of the sunlight), and the fact that food miles are not the biggest issue in climate change such as is the case for the emissions of methane from cattle and rice fields, nitrous oxide from over-fertilized fields, and the emissions from deforestation.
Still, when we consider that cities such as Dubai and Israel have been erected in the middle of the desert, what we see is the adaptation of nature for the benefit of human urban life. In other words, since the advent of agriculture, humans have been “hacking” nature to be adapted to our needs, except that for the past decades this idea has been pushed to extremes with the ability to plan highly connected technological cities in the middle of the desert and to use techniques of geoengineering.
“There is no necessary reason why they [governments, companies, etc] should liberate us, or maintain our planet’s ecosystems, any more than they should lead to ever-widening income inequality and widespread collapse. The direction we take next won’t be the result of a predictive algorithm or unicorn startup — it will be the result of politics. The binding decisions on all of us that we collectively choose to make.”
Examples such as Eko Atlantic, Forest City, Khorgos, Neom, Masdar, and even Robotic New City pose the desire to terraform desert and thus adapt cities into arid landscapes despite its inhospitality. These could only be kickstarted after the success of the Kubuqi Desert greening project, where one can found the largest single-stage solar farm in Chinas and, since the 1980s, private firms are working on the process of greening the place with a project that won the 2013 Global Dryland Champion Award. After 30 years of dedication, the desert is finally growing drought-resistant trees and herbs and annual precipitation has increased four-fold from less than 100 millimeters to more than 400. According to the leaders of the project, the next step is industrialization.
In the case of geoengineering, one of the most popular use cases comes from China and took place during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, although other countries such as Russia and the United States have already implemented cloud seeding, a much simpler technique in which silver ions are scattered into the atmosphere to make it rain. However, geoengineering is a temporary and very expensive solution with a high demand for maintenance. Specialists do not believe that it alone can make countries meet the Paris Agreement, but it is nevertheless a resource.
Finally, since energy consumption is the main source of greenhouse emission in the world, nuclear power has been achieving a new popularity after physicists and environmentalists such as James Lovelock started to advocate for this method that not only is clean but does not use any natural source. Still, disasters such as Chernobyl and the more recent case of Fukushima have scarred public opinion with the dangers of nuclear power and the massive negative impacts that accidents can cause. In any case, it is nevertheless some path to keep an eye.
LOVELOCK, James. The Revenge of Gaia.