Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Arcosanti - Our future?

Arcosanti - arcologies are Paulo Solare's model for a new style of city - photo Arcosanti
This week we end the first decade of the 21st Century. What does our future hold for safe and vital urban places?

This time of year prognosticators creep out from under crystal balls and offer us variations on Mad Max, Bladerunner, or a United Federation of Planets. Rarely do we get practical, real-life models on what that future might look like in our cities.

Not so for architect Paulo Solari and his urban laboratory called Arcosanti. This week I re-visited this futuristic arcology in the Arizona desert.

Arcologies show up in popular fiction such as William Gibson's Zero Count, and Niven and Pournelle's Oath of Fealty.

It's where the future noir sci-fi film Bladerunner took inspiration for the Tyrell megacorporation HQ (now a popular staple in cyberpunk literature).

Arcosanti is the first-ever model of an arcology. Real-life versions are now planned near Abu Dhabi (Masdar City) and near Shanghai (Dongtan - halted during the recession).

Touring the real arcology is much more modest than the visions

Arcosanti was the first - an urban laboratory for creating lean alternatives to sprawl. Arcologies are future cities that fuse architecture and ecology. While 60 percent of land in today's city is for cars, roads, and auto services, a similar sized archeology eliminates the car entirely within the city. Since arcological land development grows 3-D (upwards as well as outwards) no place is farther than a half mile from the natural environment - rivers, lakes, trails, agricultural fields, forests. That is, no farther for all city dwellers, not just the privileged few.

When I went to criminology grad school I learned nothing about futures like this. There was plenty of abstract theorizing in windowless rooms. But few of the theorizers had the foggiest about crime in such future places. Classes were blind to the crime potential in the future.

I originally traveled to Arcosanti 18 years ago and took a course in arcological design. I learned how it was possible to place living, working and public spaces within easy walking distance. I asked Paulo Solari what he thought about crime and prevention in such a place. He told me the future residents would need to create their own methods - he was the piano maker, not the piano player.

Lunch at Arcosanti

At the time that seemed reasonable. Architects cannot account for every social eventuality. Still, as we know in CPTED, criminologists, planners, and architects were sound asleep in the 1950s when modernism led to public housing like the crime infested Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis and the San Romanoway apartments in Toronto.

Clearly we must tread carefully.

While futuristic thinking may be difficult - and futuristic modeling rare - we owe much to visionaries like Paulo Solari for helping us to think ahead in a bold, new way.

If you want to learn more about arcology as planning for the future, read Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory.

And...Happy New Year.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Anonymous said...

Mankind can design whatever they want but technology and design will not eliminate the human factor. Unfortunately technology and design has far outpaced the development of mankind. Many would say that mankind is much smarter when in fact we just have access to more information and knowledge through our technology. But knowledge without application profit little!!!!

Greg Mills, Canada

GSaville said...

I couldn't agree more, Greg. Technological progress creates what Toffler called Future Shock.

SafeGrowth is premised on the idea that groups of people, working together in the neighborhood in a systematic and thoughtful way, can create their own capacity to deal with many crime problems. Technology and design might play a role, but only at the service of the plans of people in the community.

As you say: it is the human factor that matters most. Great point!