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.

 
 
 
 

The Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, and politicians have even proposed extending it over hundreds of kilometres to provide inter-city service. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.

Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do with already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. Under the specific conditions set with which to integrate the REM into Montreal's overal mass transit scheme, other types of transit have either been replaced by the REM or will have their routes and schedules modified to better serve it. The REM removes operational redundancy between different systems in an effort to be more efficient, but this will likely have the effect of forcing many Montreal transit users to use a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't suit anyone's needs

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.