Now that the source code of reality has been hacked by digitization, humans are erecting megacities where concrete merges with green space, and 3D printers build houses in a blink of the eye. Such unprecedented achievements in technological innovations are not solely capable of tackling issues in social, political, and economical spheres but may change the dynamics of the use and exploitation of natural resources. Anthropo-scapes, in this sense, are where operating systems of the world are learning how to rewrite manifold codes to build cities not solely based on profit.
“The city was divided into two sections, a section of many strata where machines functioned smoothly, save for a deep humming beat that echoed through the whole city like a vast unending song of power.
Seven or even seventy million years don’t mean much to old Mother Earth. She may even succeed in wearing down those marvelous machine cities…
When the builders made those cities, they forgot one thing. They didn’t realize that things shouldn’t go on forever.”
— John W. Campbell in Twilight.
Third Industrial Revolution: If Everything is Data, then Everything is Programmable
With the rise of the third industrial revolution — predicated on the digitization of data, the spread of home computers and personal digital devices, and the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web — even matter became information, and thus, programmable. In the 1980s, scientists’ kick started the development of a first version of what we would nowadays know as 3D printers and the industry of additive manufacture. Later with the decoding of the human genome, the idea that everything was data and therefore possible to be manipulated was finally concretized.
“The city is a computer, the streetscape is the interface, you are the cursor, and your smartphone is the input device. This is the user-based, bottom-up version of the city-as-computer idea, but there’s also a top-down version, which is systems-based. It looks at urban systems such as transit, garbage, and water and wonders whether the city could be more efficient and better organized if these systems were ‘smart.’”
— Paul McFedries, programmer and tech writer
Such events led the 21st century to be a time ruled by a philosophy that Yuval Noah Harari named as “Dataism,” a precept that “declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.” In this sense, humanity as a species could be interpreted, in his words, as “a single processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips.”
“Mere data makes a man. A and C and T and G. The alphabet of you. All from four symbols. I am only two: 1 and 0.” — Joi, Blade Runner 2049
Dataism is therefore the ultimate assimilation of 20th-century cybernetic metaphors throughout all fields of life or reality. Movies such as “Matrix” (1999) and “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) summarized this logical future imagined by Harari, one in which humans will give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions of their lives, and not just recommendations on Amazon.
Materials are becoming “smart”. Windows can now transform sunlight into electricity, building structures become capable of autonomously repairing themselves, and, in the United States entire houses are being printed in 48 hours. Such a scenario forces a major shift in the way we understand architecture, urban engineering, and construction as a whole, especially when considering the intersection between additive manufacture and the application of complex systems modeling for urban planning. With the ability to print houses with curved walls, research has shown that not only 3D printed houses are efficiently built but also more durable.
Construction is not only working alongside data analysis for planning and predicting possible scenarios, it also relies increasingly on robotization and the benefits of metamaterials: artificial composites engineered to display properties that surpass or complement those found in nature. Metamaterials behave according to their structure instead of their composition and, as research evolves in this interdisciplinary field, more scientists suggest that metamaterials should be understood not as materials but “organic machines” due to their programmable specifics.
The programmatic features unleashed by 20th-century technological solutions have made 21st-century data more flexible, making it operable in urban structures — not only digitally, but in tangible matters, too. Current developments are limited to small objects such as door latches created using metamaterials, but it wouldn’t be farfetched to consider that, as the internet showed the world that data can reach manifold places in unprecedented ways, it would, someday, be inserted into physical matters, transcending the limitations of a computer screen.
Gentrification vs. Urban Planning
Urban planning is one of the most essential parts of the development of a city. Together with data, it can analyze precisely the needs of particular areas and provide solutions to overcome chronic issues such as violence and inaccessibility. Yet, this shift also comes at a cost.
The process of gentrification has been operating globally for decades, and it has been a major driver in the transformation of urban settings. David Harvey analyzed this shift in 1989 and stated that urbanization is “both a product and condition of ongoing social processes of transformation.” One consequence has been that, since the 1970s, urban governance has diverged from a “managerial” approach to an “entrepreneurial” form. The latest characteristic can be described as the “notion of a public-private partnership in which a traditional local boosterism is integrated with the use of local government powers to try and attract external sources of funding, new direct investments, or new employment sources.”
Citizens commonly see public spaces as the ground they share with the rest of the population. In precarious and impoverished zones, public areas gain substantial importance, especially because some other places of the city may be inaccessible to residents. Even if the value of public spaces placed by local communities can be enormous, sometimes transcending economic prices in terms of social engagement and identity, for enterprise and real estates, these areas that were once seen as damaged and needy of resources, can shift to become a product to be consumed by the wealthy. This movement of changing the value of public places is commonly known as gentrification.
“The improvement of the living conditions of a degraded neighborhood is not normally intended for its inhabitants. The joy of living in a place is not revalued for those who live there, but for those who have to live there. Gentrification is, in part, a consequence of the conception of the city as a business. A neighborhood development has to be a more social, democratic, and sustainable process made for and by people.”
— Tere García Alcaraz, architect
One consequence of the adoption of urban entrepreneurialism is that the city’s spatial division reflects its consumption behavior, which is precisely the scenario we now know from the concept of gentrification. Gentrification can occur even as a side effect of projects such as the 11th Street Bridge Park in
Washington D. C., which was planned in a partnership with community organizations, but still, could likely provoke gentrification and displacement of people. Similarly, in Rio de Janeiro, during the 2016 Olympics and the previous 2014 World Cup, more than two hundred thousand families were forced to relocate to distant places in the city, a decision that proved to be flawed since these very constructions are currently underused or simply abandoned.
“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
— David Harvey
The mainstream concept of “smart cities” proposes a future of connected urban landscapes characterized by integrated technological solutions powered by Big Data for transportation, pollution, waste management, security, and access to water and electricity. Considering this, it is no surprise to see corporations such as Google and Toyota becoming players in smart cities’ projects. Meanwhile, commercial initiatives heavily based on real estates, such as WeWork and Airbnb, have been struggling with the impacts of COVID-19. After these same companies have contributed to a process of gentrification in different countries, they are now finding that the pandemic is testing their resiliency. Both corporations, it is worth noting, were incubated in Silicon Valley, a particularly important regional case for understanding the impacts of gentrification.
The San Francisco Bay Area has, in the 21st century, become an ever more attractive location for startups and tech workers. This influx has ultimately led San Francisco to become the most expensive city to live in the United States, and to the state of California to have some of the highest rates of homelessness in 2019. In the same year, the award-winning movie “Parasite,” a reflection on the topic of income and housing inequalities in South Korea was released; documenting that gentrification is a global phenomenon.
Fertility Decline and Longevity Extension
Globally, population natality rates are declining. As a result, 2030 has been deemed an important date for researchers looking into the economic and social burdens coming with the aging of populations and a decline in fertility. While Japanese villages such as Nanmoku are endangered to disappear as children grow scarcer and the town grows older, some countries such as Ghana, despite its current small percentage of senior citizens, are already preparing themselves for the aging of populations and how to tackle the wellbeing of future seniors. Although retirement and social security funds are some of the main upcoming concerns of governments, in Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, several initiatives have found community bonding to be a means to keep senior citizens included and healthy.
“An age-friendly community recognizes that seniors have a wide range of skills and abilities, respects their decisions and lifestyle choices, and supports seniors who are vulnerable.”
— Bryan May, Standing Committee of Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in Canada.
One of the main problems faced by elderly citizens is social isolation, which by itself could worsen already existing chronic conditions or lead people to develop other issues such as depression, anxiety, and dementia. While architects are working on adapting houses to the needs of this group of the population, engineers and urban planners are adopting new strategies to make the city more accessible and thus inviting to senior citizens and people with disabilities. This is the case of the initiative Smart Cities for All.
Created in a partnership between G3ict and World Enabled, the project focuses on issues of accessibility and inclusion for minorities in smart cities. With the contribution of over 400 specialists from academia, government, and industry, Smart Cities for All has developed a specific toolkit to help urban planners in the process of designing smarter, but also more inclusive and accessible cities of the future.
The same goes for authors Julia Park and Jeremy Porteus, who wrote the book “Age-friendly Housing” to address architectural principles when designing houses for senior citizens and aging populations. More than suggesting the planning of new homes, the authors stress the importance of adapting existing structures, so they are optimized not only to offer care but also independence and wellbeing. Such strategies help seniors to avoid isolation and idleness, thus making villages and care homes that do not separate seniors from the outside world, but rather include them. One example in this sense is the Danish district of Ørestad, in Copenhagen. Residential buildings blend with commercial establishments that not only were adapted for the needs of the senior residents but also to greet outsiders with appealing design including 1940–60 furniture that emulates the past.
Making transportation free and accessible also plays an important role in the inclusion of senior citizens and people with disabilities. Projects such as Take a Seat, from Nottingham, England, ask stores to offer chairs and benches for free, allowing people to rest during their walks and thus making going out more inviting. Additionally, for the past years, several cities around the world have worked on the improvement and refurbishment of sidewalks, which now include tactile paving for visually impaired dwellers and are designed free of fall hazards. According to the AARP Livability Fact Sheet, people who live in neighborhoods with sidewalks are 47 percent more likely to be active at least 39 minutes a day, whereas crumbling sidewalks can create dangers and hazards for the elderly.
Globalization and the Multiplication of Non-places: Urban Homogeneity
According to scientists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt, 85 percent of the character of a city can be determined by its size, whereas the rest of its distinctiveness is often simply aesthetic or inspired by geographic elements such as rivers or mountains. In their article published in the journal “Nature,” both authors call this homogeneity in cities with more than 40,000 inhabitants; “social networks,” meaning that the clustering of human beings and their social interactions and hierarchies in cities are largely uniform regardless of culture or nationality. The shape of the city is predetermined. The way urban planners design blocks and roads, where they lay sewerage pipes and electrical wires, where the retail and commercial centers are placed, where schools, hospitals, and gas stations are built. As both scientists come from backgrounds such as physics and biology, their theory works as an analogy between cities and animals. No matter the size of a mammal, about 85 percent of its physiology and life history is similar to other mammals, and the same goes for cities.
Their research points out that, in case a city doubles in its size, it will need only 85 percent more infrastructure to adapt to this new configuration: “The bigger the animal, the less work, the less energy is needed per cell. The bigger the city, the less energy needed, and resources in general overall are needed to support the individual — infrastructure, the number of [gas] stations, the length of electrical lines.” Similarly, the Soviet Union tried to tackle the housing problem in urban areas by building communal apartments that became known as “khrushchyoba.” With a standard design and a focus on quantity over quality, these residential complexes didn’t prosper for many reasons, including the fact that they were placed in underdeveloped neighborhoods, which lacked a good system of public transportation — a major problem for the working class living there.
Opposed to the cheap “khrushchyoba,” the urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti says the standardized buildings of current cities are actually more expensive and this fact ultimately leads to “an affordability crisis in cities all over the world.” His solution in Mongolia was to build new housing, workplaces, shops, and cultural buildings painted in colors reflecting the country’s landscape and using local construction materials. In Mexico City, Chile and India, similar projects have already been implemented by other architects too, so aesthetic additions could stand out from the 85 percent standardization diagnosed by West and Bettencourt.
Still, supermodernity has brought its own style in architecture as analyzed by Marc Augé, the anthropologist who created the neologism “non-place,” which designates places of transience where people remain anonymous and lack significance or attachment. According to Augé, places such as motorways, hotel rooms, airports, outlet stores, and shopping malls could be considered non-places.
“A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shantytowns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral, offers anthropologists (and others) a new object.”
— Marc Augé, Non-Places — An Introduction to Supermodernity
As cities began to grow vertically as skyscrapers owned by transnational corporations in the early 20th century, film noir also brought to art a strong characterization of cities amplified by globalization. In J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel “High-Rise,” the reader encounters a dystopian society in which economic classes are represented in a spatial hierarchy — the richer, the higher. The same assumption is kept alive in science fiction, especially in Cyberpunk with the idea of an elite living in the sky or in space while the commoner is condemned to a post-apocalyptic Earth.
Pop culture has portrayed megacities both as a background and as characters of their own. In “Her,” Shanghai becomes an unknown city of clean open spaces and glossy skyscrapers. In the game “Mirror’s Edge,” the fictitious Glass City was designed not only to avoid distracting the player but also as a representation of how megacities in late capitalism have become by themselves non-places.
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