Re-imagining Cities

Pushing up through the Earth, out through the dirt of the lower strata towards the bright stratosphere, cities are emerging out of the Earth’s surface like a voracious vine.

Clambering towards the sun, buildings are overrunning any and all older surfaces, including asphalt, fields or even ocean. Whether flat roofed factories spreading into the distance, sinewy skyscrapers stretching past competitors with victorious finger-like towers, or ballasted enclaves claiming territory from the sea, city formations and their exploratory arms are proliferating: arising up, out of and across the planet in all directions.

Far from static, these formations are in continual movement. Any one building represents and necessitates the sucking towards it of materials and energies from across the globe, leaving in its wake dark widening pits of what Neil Brenner of Harvard School of Design and colleagues call ‘distributed’ urbanization’: the far-from-urban landscapes, water bodies and ‘wild’ places that are both increasingly squeezed by the invisible hand of the hungry city and left fouled by its grasp.

As people pulse in and out of buildings, they unknowingly pump these exchanges of material and energy. The dirty trails these flows leave across the planet contribute from the mine to city to atmosphere and ocean to the unintentional, as well as intentional, “terra-forming” of the Earth. Hampered by our inability to see or even imagine these long-distant, long-term flows and impacts, we city-builders and city-dwellers are pushing the planet, and ourselves, further towards another unimaginable: the Anthropocene.

But what if we were to somehow reverse these cycles? What if we could imagine a way in which rather than contributing to the destruction of distant locales, city living could contribute to their protection or enhancement, and thus the reversal or forestalling of the Anthropocene? Here is where virtual reality and the collective harnessing of imagination through events such as hackathons may be vital.

But as we take on this task, we also have to remember that the current situation is already deeply shaped by imagination. While cities are more profoundly and broadly shaped by physical forces than we have yet acknowledged, they are also the products of shared visions, symbols and dreams, including the ideal of cities as centers for creativity and technological advances such as virtual reality.

In particular, both cities and virtual reality are icons of an imagined transcendence of nature: an escape from the need to consider little less bow to nature’s forces and material realities, leading to our disregard for their wide physical reach.

Using virtual reality to re-imagine cities in a way that takes into account the profound, existential costs of this delusion – including the cascading planet-wide impacts of city building and living – requires us to let go of any sense that we simply need to intensify our “special human capacity” to transcend material nature through the power of our minds.

We have to let go of any techno-utopic belief that we are pushing forward the next frontier of modern progress, and instead really challenge ourselves to reimagine cities and technology as not inherently advancements in our human story, but as simply chapters that may need to be reframed.

Lauren is a senior lecturer in sustainability at the School of Global Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University and co-leader of the Centre for Urban Research’s research program on Climate Change and Resilience. Lauren is speaking at Melbourne’s virtual reality hackathon on Friday 12 August.

Originally published on Media Lab Future Earth.