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Whose Vision of a Future City Will Prevail?

February 20, 2008

By Henry Ng

Whoever is elected president in the year 2108 might be taking up residence in a White House surrounded by fields of heirloom tomatoes—at least, that’s how Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners (BBB) envisions the future appearance of Washington, D.C., in a scheme that calls for farmland to replace pavement along Pennsylvania Avenue and other thoroughfares.

“Buen” cultural building in 3XN’s waterfront redevelopment in Mandal
Image courtesy Beyer Blinder Belle
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BBB’s fanciful scheme is one of three futuristic urban visions generated through the second annual ideas competition City of the Future: A Design and Engineering Challenge. In a series of three contests this winter, sponsor The History Channel asked teams of architects in D.C., San Francisco, and Atlanta to envision their cities as they might appear a century from now. The winning firms were BBB, IwamotoScott Architecture, and EDAW, respectively. They are now vying against each other in an online competition to choose an overall winner.

The competition is a companion to the television series Cities of the Underworld, which profiles the underbellies of the world’s great metropolises, so teams were asked to examine their city’s substructures. They also considered aging infrastructures, natural topography, and historic buildings. “The proposals look into the future, but they generally mirror issues that are currently significant,” observes competition advisor Casey Jones.

Environmental crisis was the chief concern among the winning proposals, which grappled with issues including resource production and consumption, drought, and rising sea levels. In D.C., BBB predicts that flooding of the Potomac River will permanently inundate the National Mall. Communal farming will happen on greenways that replace the city’s historic avenues, planned by Pierre L’Enfant. Sinuous “ecotowers” will rise on 28 of 69 Civil War era military forts that ring the city, where they would harvest wind, solar energy, and rainwater, and produce food in hydroponic farms.

Does the positioning of these towers signify a post-apocalyptic world, in which the nation has declared war on eco-disaster? BBB partner Hany Hassan says that the scheme was “an optimistic approach,” but that the team “wanted to ground itself in certain realities.” Regarding the forts, he adds, “these structures once defended the city, but can now bring in new life.”

For San Francisco, IwamotoScott imagines an extensive underground “Hydro-net” that simultaneously circulates people, vehicles, water, and energy throughout the city. Connected to this network are resource collection systems whose forms resemble seaweed and chanterelle mushrooms. They include hydrogen-producing algae farms, fog catchers that harvest air moisture, and water extractors that pump fresh water from a currently unused aquifer beneath the city. The Hydro-net is so named after its ability to store hydrogen in walls made of carbon nanotubes. These infinitesimally small, carbon-based, tubular structures are an emerging technology that researchers hope can one day perform revolutionary tasks, like build microscopic computers, or efficiently store hydrogen. Many environmentalists consider the use of hydrogen over carbon-based fossil fuel a necessity in slowing climate change.

In a similar vein, EDAW sought to reintroduce water from Atlanta’s antiquated sewer system above ground to create natural waterways flowing through the city. Natural processes would treat the water rather than machines. Surrounding forests would also creep into the city, relaxing the urban grid and creating hybrid environments at the boundaries between city and nature. These changes would significantly reduce storm water runoff, lessening the effect of droughts like the one resulting from an 18.5-inch rainfall deficit last year. Team leader Eric Bishop believes these efforts would define a new age that he calls “the Restorative Era,” during which restored natural systems lift the burden from man-made infrastructure.

The three local winners each went home with a $10,000 prize. Public voting, via The History Channel’s Web site, began last week and will remain open until April 28; the winner of this final competition stage will receive another $5,000.

While this is strictly an ideas competition, elements from the schemes are likely to inspire real-world projects. Jones notes that Chicago is now constructing a few experimental “eco-boulevards,” a key feature in last year’s proposal by UrbanLab, winners of the Chicago competition. The firm proposed inserting green avenues throughout Chicago that would treat the city’s wastewater and storm water with microorganisms, fish, and plants. The water could then be harvested for use or returned to the Great Lakes Basin. Jones hopes that this year’s competition, like the previous one, will “create a spark for all cities to think proactively.”

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