Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Supply Side Cities
"I'll take any M-Fers money, if they givin' it away. Sheeeeeeeeeit." ~Senator Clay Davis

If you build it, no, they will not come.

We've seen these before. The extravagant dreams born out of the dwindling twilight of yet another period of irrational exuberance: pretend urbanism in Las Vegas, or Dallas, or Dallas, megatowers in Dubai, new cities in China, and even green utopias. All of which are in various stages of rigor mortis (not to mention in waterless deserts - red flag!), some even have had the misfortune to not yet even taste life, the idea aborted mid-gestation. Some of which are even so well satirized (and believable due to the overwhelming absurdity of the majority of recent mega-projects) that even ask for the name of the architect. The latest news is the indefinite postponement of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi:
The original city plans were a dream for sustainable design nerds, which perhaps should have been the first warning. Walled and carless, it was to have relied on the region's biggest solar farm for power. In answer to the perennial Middle Eastern water problem, Masdar City was designed to house a desalination plant 80 percent more efficient than existing plants, quenching the thirst of 50,000 residents. The most futuristic tidbit -- and a tell-tale sign of an unobtainable urban utopia -- involved an underground network of sensor-driven "podcars."
This project was planned and designed by Norman Foster and Partners and likely had a high end sustainable engineering firm in tow like Buro Happold or Arup. Both of which are very good, but ultimately remain as engineers to are often too busy figuring out whether they can to ever stop and think about whether they should. Of course, that isn't their job.

I wonder how many architects/planners turned down the millions Abu Dhabi was throwing around for what is little more than a conceptual art piece? Zero?

All of the fantasies (some of which were/are very worthwhile pursuits) were applied to a place rather than solutions to real problems as they arrive. Each should be incremental and demand oriented as the population slowly grows - and the test of time is allowed to be applied as populations adapt and adapt to the place. All of which makes the former target for completion of 2016 unbelievably laughable.

The resultant study was really only a fantasy land for concepts that should be intellectually absorbed, tested, and reapplied to existing cities. So in that sense, all of the work on Masdar City was actually a success. Unfortunately, in many minds its ultimate success or failure will still be associated with a certain piece of earth. However, that sandy desert will still and possibly forever lack the necessary raison d'etre.

It is the job of developers to take a piece of property from its current stasis, decipher, realize, and achieve a higher potential and take a cut of the difference as profit. However, we are slowly realizing that one piece of property never exists in isolation and that there exists a mutual interdependence between one piece of property and each building with all things that it maintains a connection to, the more the better. Because of this the ability to turn value out of something from scratch is incredibly limited. Sprawl for example, has largely been a ruse to profit from a falsely constructed and marketed higher value.

One of these connections that is largely not thought about resides in the fourth dimension, backwards in time. Rooted in an accrued history, urbanity (aka value) is built upon a foundation of adaptation and evolution and the millions of decisions made daily by its users. While one might counter that history has to start somewhere, I would say, "yes, that is true. But, we also learn to walk with baby steps before we can run." Urbanity is best built incrementally, allowing users to once again adapt and adapt to it. Thus, the test of time; a test of usefulness and purposing.

The problem for Masdar and the like is that the cost/benefit for these things no longer pencils (into a profit). A certain measure of the startup costs would have to be eaten (by somebody), just to get things up and running. Most important would be the infrastructure to connect this city into nearby and global economies into a mutually supportive/competitive meshwork of the global economy is both cost and time prohibitive. not enough people could possibly locate there to maintain it...

So to make this land more "productive" than the desert on which it currently sits aka to instill purpose, Abu Dhabi was going to build desalinization plant, sustainable research center, world's largest solar plant among other things in hopes of people eventually trickling in for jobs. While this generally would be the right strategy (of course, assuming pop-up cities from scratch were even possible) but the question must then be asked, why here? Why not within or adjacent to an actual city? They could use water, energy, and education/research as well no?

My guess is that like much of what was underlying Dubai, this was another attempt to create fantasy land for the well-to-do rather than a meaningful (and real) place devoid of all the supportive messiness that exists in real cities and real places.

I think this is the ultimate (and at least temporary) undoing of all of the afforementioned projects: an intentional disconnection from places as they exist and from the realities they exist within.

In the end, they will remain nothing more than fantasies with their dreamt of value never able to be fully realized because to exclude the very people who drive the value and create the demand means to exclude vibrancy and interest.

However, I do think that all of the above can be saved, with time, purpose and weaving new interconnectivity with all of the realities each of the projects above tried to pretend didn't exist. All cities old enough to be marked by extensive periods of expansion and contraction are marked with the grafting of additional new forms. Some intentionally discriminate from the surroundings, much like the new developments referred to above. The ones that last and become the most memorable are where the walls, literal and virtual are broken down and the web is repaired.

What do you think, Clay?