Megacity, Many Questions

Our old friend Charlie Hailey, who happens to be young and brilliant, told me I should read the wonderfully-named Lars Lerup—urban theorist, Dean at Rice University, and Swedish-American of the Year, 2004.


July 16, 2008

Our old friend Charlie Hailey, who happens to be young and brilliant, told me I should read the wonderfully-named Lars Lerup—urban theorist, Dean at Rice University, and Swedish-American of the Year, 2004.

Lerup’s After the City deals with the “conflict, fascination and repulsion” of his encounter with what Manfredo Tafuri calls “the merciless commercialization of the human environment.” Lerup says his resistance to the American suburban metropolis “slowly, then radically transformed into pragmatism and new hope,” and that this shift was “cathartic and deeply liberating.” His prose reminds me a little of the Gehry sculpture around Chicago’s Pritzker bandshell. It’s odd and highly determined, and when you see it at a distance shining in the sun you think, What the hell is that?

But I’m always up for a little liberation, especially in this matter of what Lerup and his colleagues on the shelf call, variously, the megacity, the megalopolis, the ecumenopolis, and the entopia. They’re not interchangeable terms but all remind me of Crazy Larry’s vision of a totally paved earth, covered with shivering, cannibalistic mole people.

Megacities are, of course, already here. According to Wikipedia, Greater Tokyo has more people in it than Canada, though it’s all in how you define the limits of the city in question—suburbs, exurbs, accompanying metropolitan corridors. Our own Northeast Megaregion, which runs from southern Maine to northern Virginia, has nearly the population of France. If you’re as sensitive and delicate as I am, you can feel the earth tremble when all those people flush during commercial breaks.

A couple of years ago Larry and I made a road trip down to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers meet. That city has long been a ghost town, but it was the surrounding countryside, most of the bottom quarter of the state, that shocked me. We drove state highways, along tops of levees, through small towns and past deserted orchards and fallow farms, and saw no people. It was eerie.

Half the human race is set to live in cities by the end of this year, and 70 percent by 2050. “By 2015, there will be 33 mega-cities, 27 of them in the developing world,” says an article in E Magazine. I begin to imagine a future where the countryside is only for agriculture, factories, power plants, and waste dumps, since everybody will live in wasp-nest cities. I wouldn’t mind that so much if it kept the planet in better shape overall. I’ll even take a train in occasionally to see you. We’ll catch a show and have dinner and then I’ll go back to my yurt.

Let’s face it: Barring some apocalyptic event, there’s no going back to everyone living in villages and chopping wood for a living. I’m fairly loath to say this, but it does seem that technology, which has made such a mess of our world, may be our only way forward. Centralized megacities or highly efficient ecumenopolises (linked communities) might be the answer, or at least preferable to our long, gauzy, unplanned, population corridors so reliant on personal automobiles for their very existence. As C.A. Doxiadis writes in Building Entopia:

…certain characteristics, such as the dimensions of the City of the Future, are inevitable…. We cannot avoid them any more than the farmers could avoid the formation of the village once they decided to cultivate the soil and to abandon hunting. If we want to build and not only talk, we must be realists.

And near the end of the book: “If instead of being frightened and starting screaming, we start action …then we will have the ideal Ecumenopolis of a quality much higher than any city of the past.” We put people on the “unproductive areas of our globe,” cultivate the plains for agriculture “in a very rational, very organized way,” and save the “best types of landscapes, the best types of forests, the most beautiful river and lake shores, the tops of the mountains and other areas” for Nature herself.

In such a way, Ecumenopolis will be married to the global garden…and those frightened by a plan like Figure 236 [an ecumenopolis of connected cities covering most of the earth except Canada, for some reason] will understand that most of the areas…(over 94.10% of the earth will be wildlife and cultivation) will be controlled by Nature as we can see in most of the plans of Chapters 6-14.

Yes, I’d like to believe in chapters 6-14, if only because they promise to share the planet with animals higher on the food chain than shrub mammals and small birds. Many, like Doxiadis and Lars Lerup, are thrilled at the possibilities and challenges in this future:

For Purdue people like Larry Nies, an associate professor of civil engineering, the megacity phenomenon represents a huge opportunity to deliver resources to people in a very efficient manner. An environmental engineer with an interest in sustainability, Nies also envisions a project that ranges over all the areas within civil engineering. “It provides us with something we can rally around and do together,” he says. “From human to social infrastructures, civil engineering is right in the middle.”

Still, how often does some new technology promise to save us from our older technologies, only to create new problems? Corn ethanol was said to be our savior, and people in Central Illinois were thrilled at what we could rally around and do together. Then foreign corporations distilling the stuff started sucking up our Midwestern aquifer and dumping wastewater in the rivers.

Let’s say centralized urbanization is the way forward, if only because few challenge it and most don't think about it at all. What questions might we raise in the total calculus of the phenomenon? Is, say, Chicago, called “the greenest city on the planet,” still on the whole an environmental disaster or a model for sustainability? Please leave me your thoughts or drop me a line at OChurm@aol.com. And if you know somebody in urban planning, theory, engineering, or environmentalism with strong opinions on this stuff, send them my way. I'd like to do an interview, maybe, or write more on this....


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