Here's how Ecotopia 2121 is re-imagining life in earth's cities

This isn't one of them, this is a shot from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. Image

Utopia, a book by English statesman, lawyer and clergyman Thomas More (1487-1535), turned 500 years old last year. A fictional rendering of social philosophy, the book describes an exemplary society on an imaginary island in an unknown place faraway across the seas. Coined by More from the Greek ou-topos, meaning no place, or nowhere, the word utopia has become adopted in the English language to mean a place where everything is ideal or perfect.

In celebrating Utopia’s 500th birthday, the Ecotopia 2121 project, of which I am the coordinator, is harnessing Thomas More’s spirit to predict the futures of 100 real cities around the world – if they somehow managed to become super eco-friendly.

Of course, modern utopias need to be eco-friendly to overcome the global environmental crisis. Given that cities may be home to 80 per cent of humanity by the end of the century, they can only be sustainable if environmentalism is one of their core features.

The cities of Ecotopia 2121 are presented in the form of “scenario art”, which involves a review of both global and local environmental challenges as well as their unique histories and cultures. This allows for a diversity of future scenarios rather than one common vision of the “future city”.

What you will see below are a series of artworks, but this is not an art project. We use art as a means of analysis and communication.

With that in mind, here are six ecotopian cities of my own creation that emerged from the project, one from each inhabited continent.

Accra 2121

Accra, the capital of Ghana, is exposed to disastrous floods every year. This has been made worse by climate change, as well as unregulated construction and dumping in and around its waterways.

In our imagined future, locals seek to procure housing above the floodline, by building low-cost tree cabins in the nearby forest.

Accra 2121. Image: Alan Marshall/author provided. 

Ghana has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, but by 2121, the forest has become a home for some of its citizens.

Accra’s new residents would protect the forest ecosystem from those who would destroy it, such as the logging, mining and oil companies.

London 2121

In the summer of 2121, during an economic downturn, 100,000 pensioners take to the streets of London, the British capital, to protest cuts in pensions and education, shutting down the entire city.

They bring along their grandchildren to give them something interesting to do as they mind them. By summer’s end, the protesters despair at the government’s poor response, so they take matters into their own hands, staging a permanent occupation.

London 2121. Image: Alan Marshall/author provided.

The pensioners convert some 20km² of London into a large eco-village, transforming unoccupied offices into homes, sowing garden lots on street corners, and setting up eco-businesses to trade products and services.

In the process, all the children get free education from their experienced elders in these various green arts and crafts.

Los Angeles 2121

The southern Californian city of Los Angeles once had a great network of tramways, but this was systematically bought up and then closed down by a group of conspiring auto-manufacturing companies.

Los Angeles 2121. Image: Alan Marshall/author provided. 

As the world’s oil is depleted by the end of this century, cars will become useless and trams could make a comeback in Los Angeles. The unused freeways could then be redeveloped into vegetated greenways. Such greenways are suited for pedestrians and cyclists, but they could also act as ecological corridors, connecting populations of wild plants and animals around the city that would otherwise be isolated.

Retired cars could then serve as part of the fabric of high-density buildings, creating an architectural style whereby people live and work in smaller structures and within tighter-knit communities. This would mean cities such as Los Angeles would not need to sprawl further into the countryside and wild lands.

Rēkohu 2121

Known in English as the Chatham Islands, Rēkohu is an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, 680km southeast of New Zealand. It’s the ancestral home of the pacifist Moriori people, who came to wear the feathers of the native albatross in their hair to symbolise peace during the 500 years they lived on the archipelago.

In the 19th century, British sealers and Maori warriors from New Zealand discovered the islands. The sealers decimated the colonies of the animals and introduced devastating diseases to which the Moriori had no immunity. Then the Maori staged a violent takeover of the islands, slaughtering or enslaving the remaining Moriori.

Rēkohu 2121. Image: Alan Marshall/author provided. 

The Moriori refused to give up their pacifist ideals to fight against the invaders. While this history suggests pacifism is only going to get you killed or enslaved, the Moriori who survive today believe otherwise. They maintain that their pacifism meant that they lived in a peaceful society for five centuries.

By 2121, their small capital city on the lagoon is home to a peace school that expounds the virtues of pacifism to the rest of the world.

Salto del Guairá 2121

The Guairá Falls along the border of Paraguay and Brazil were once a natural wonder. The cacophonous roar of their seven columns could be heard many kilometres away and, for many years, the falls were a major attraction. They were also the economic lifeblood of the nearby Paraguayan city of Salto del Guairá, which thrived on tourism.

In 1982, however, the Brazilian military government blew away the rocks over which the water fell, to create a reservoir for a dam. Many Paraguayans mourned the passing of their much-loved falls.

Salto del Guairá 2121. Image: Alan Marshall/author provided.

By 2121, though, both the falls and the city have re-emerged in splendid style. The dam has collapsed through neglect and local people have regained control of their land. They set about rehabilitating the falls as best they can, turning their home into a scenic eco-city that attracts tourists once again.

Tokyo 2121

After a nuclear meltdown just out of town, a vast radioactive cloud sweeps over future Tokyo. Everyone must be evacuated. A few hardy “nuclear families” tough it out in “moonbase” homes, which are impervious to radiation.

Everything these families eat and drink must be produced and recycled within these homes. When they step outside, they must don protective clothing or “moonsuits”.

Tokyo 2121. Image: Alan Marshall/author provided.

But because Tokyo is suddenly depopulated, it’s not nearly as noisy and stressful as before. If “hell is other people”, as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre suggested, then Tokyo 2121 is utopia.

Wildlife also rebounds, albeit in a mutated manner.

Why Ecotopia 2121?

These six scenarios are but a small sample of the 100 that were produced within the Ecotopia 2121 project. Some readers will be delighted and others confused by the method of the project and its results.


Part of the point of utopianism is to be provocative. If you like your future riddled with self-driving cars and the magic of nuclear energy, then maybe these scenarios are not for you. And you’re likely to dismiss them as fantasy anyway.

But to study utopias – and formulate alternative scenarios to how we now live on this planet – is not an escape into fantasy. It is an active response to the many technological fantasies cast about with extravagance and excess into our lives right now.

These fantasies bind us to an unsustainable and unlivable future. If Ecotopia 2121 is but a collection of fantasies, at least they would do less harm to the planet we live on.The Conversation

Alan Marshall is a lecturer in environmental social sciences at Mahidol University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.