When Curiosity, NASA’s one-ton, nuclear-powered robot landed safely on Mars earlier this month, after a 352 million-mile journey from Cape Canaveral, a cheer went up at Mission Control that was echoed around the world. Suddenly, after decades of idle talk about human colonies in outer space, there seemed a real chance of escaping our overcrowded, over-polluted planet.
“There are people living now who will walk on Mars,” declared Lord Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal. “Moreover, a century or two from now, small groups of intrepid adventurers may be living there quite independently from Earth.” And so they may. But while stargazers draw up plans for a new home across the galaxy, there are hundreds of people — entrepreneurs, engineers, architects and scientists — who are already working on incredible alternatives to conventional towns and cities here on Earth.
One of the most radical ideas is to build vast numbers of “superskyscrapers”. Far taller than conventional skyscrapers, these buildings will gradually come to dominate cities, from London to Moscow, and house millions of people who currently live in the countryside or the suburbs.
Some superskyscrapers already exist; Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, a 2,723ft “vertical odyssey”, features 900 apartments and 144 “Armani Residences” on 163 floors. But plans are already underway to build towers that will dwarf this, including the 7,900ft Dubai City Tower, and the X-Seed 4000, in Tokyo, which will stretch a staggering 2.5 miles into the air, and house a million people. Other architects are turning the skyscraper on its head. Take the pioneering design for Earthscraper, a 65-storey, 984ft inverted pyramid under Mexico City, with a hole in the middle to let in daylight; or Above Below, a 900ft structure destined for a disused copper mine in the Arizona desert.
Eric Howeler, the author of Skyscraper: Vertical Now, cites Hong Kong, where most people live in 50-storey buildings, in the city centre, as a blueprint for the future.
“It’s a great model,” he says. “It has the lowest per capita consumption of gasoline [and] the highest per capita use of public transport. People will have to shed this idea that they deserve their own car and their own lawn.”
And it’s not just people who’ll be re-housed. Architects are working on incredible “vertical farms”; 30-storey towers where crops normally grown in fields would instead be grown in “greenhouses” stacked on top of each other. These could theoretically produce the same amount of food as a 2,400-acre field every year. Last year, Dickson Despommier, the American microbiologist who devised the concept, visited Manchester to endorse Alpha Farm, a prototype vertical farm planned for an unused office block in Wythenshaw.
High upfront costs have stalled the Alpha Farm project, but there’s a bigger problem faced by anyone planning a super-tall structure: the wind.
“Buildings move, although we don’t like to talk about it,” says Dr. John Roberts, the principal engineer of the London Eye. For every height rise, there is an exponential increase in a skyscraper’s tendency to sway, and, even with 100-ton dampers as stabilizers, the swaying eventually becomes intolerable. Which, in Roberts’ opinion, makes some of the tallest projects nothing more than pies in the sky.
It rises from the ocean, looking like the lair of a James Bond villain. Two hundred miles from land, the awestruck mariner sees a steel and glass structure held high above the waves by giant pillars.
Drawing closer, he can see houses, offices, hotels and parkland behind the curved glass and he realizes, with astonishment, that people are living here. This is a “seastead”; a settlement on the sea, and, its supporters believe, the ideal home for people who want to alleviate overcrowding on land and build a better society from scratch, away from the jurisdiction of nation-states.
The idea’s founding father is Patri Friedman, 36, the grandson of the Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman. A former software engineer for Google, Friedman abandoned his job in 2008 to create the Seasteading Institute, based — perhaps inevitably — in San Francisco, with the express objective of raising funds to research and, eventually, build a network of seasteads around the globe and to “experiment with diverse social, political, and legal systems.”
The idea sounds fanciful, but it has garnered support from some very serious people, the most prominent of whom is Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal, who has donated $1.25 million to Friedman’s institute.
In turn, the institute has sponsored highly acclaimed marine engineers to overcome the considerable technical challenges of its ideas, and lawyers to investigate the possibility of setting up a genuinely self-governing mini-state out at sea.
The institute is aiming to start with a floating holiday resort. Weighing 20,000 tons, with 90,000 square feet of open recreational space, the so-called “Clubstead” will contain a luxury hotel and casino, and would be fitted with thrusters powered by four diesel engines, so it can move location.
Friedman hopes to launch Clubstead by the end of the decade. However, he admits there are considerable obstacles to overcome. Any structure so far out at sea would have to withstand huge waves. Even oil platforms, which are built to resist rugged waters, bob up and down and make people seasick.
What’s more, a seastead for 200 people would cost around $220 million to build, so residents would have to be rich, but not care about luxuries like personal space and unrationed water.
“The ocean is expensive to build on, so we must economize on space,” says Friedman. “Early seastead adopters will care more about a new society than [having] as much water as they want.”
Closer to realization are other water-based settlements. Hydro Properties, in Surrey, is developing plans for Britain’s first floating housing estate. Built on a concrete-and-air pontoon, the complex comprises 16 town houses and 48 apartments, costing between pounds 550,000 and pounds 750,000, and connected to land by short gang planks. If successful, it could pave the way for many more homes on flood plains and inland waterways.
It could also solve huge housing problems and save thousands of lives in countries like the Netherlands and Bangladesh, where people live under the constant threat of floods.
Koen Olthius, a Dutch architect who specializes in floating cities, has designed a platform made from plastic bottles that will support urban homes in Bangladesh. He is also working on a city for 120,000 people in southern China.
Artificial oasis: The Eco-City
Rising from the desert, just 10 miles from the skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi, is a development that borders on the revolutionary. Masdar City promises to be the world’s most technologically advanced eco-city: 40,000 citizens living in the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste metropolis.
On top of city HQ, 15,590 solar panels will form one of the largest roof-mounted solar fields. The city is still under construction but the Masdar Institute’s 150 students and staff are already installed. Phase two of construction has just been announced. But the future won’t come cheap. The development will cost about pounds 11 billion. Even with Abu Dhabi government funding, Masdar has proved vulnerable to the financial crisis. When conceived in 2006, its completion date was 2015. Deadlines now hover around 2021.
And there have been disappointments. The excited early visitors found that, for now, their driverless magnetic electro pods could only shuttle between two stops just half a mile apart. And some reports have suggested that the zero-carbon ambition has been replaced by more modest ambitions of “low carbon”.
Respectable engineers like Paul Westbury, the lead engineer for London’s Olympic Stadium, now question whether Masdar really is a model for the world’s masses. “It sounds lovely,” he says. “If you can afford to live there.”
Then there is the 45 metre-tall wind tower dominating the plaza of the Masdar Institute. It works perfectly to draw down cooling breezes. But running down the tower’s spine is low-energy LED lighting, revealing how much energy the city is consuming. Blue means Masdar is within its goal of using 50 per cent less energy than a similar-sized conurbation. Red tells citizens they are guilty of high energy use. Even Martyn Potter, the institute’s director of facilities, has called it his 147-foot “guilt trip”.
He also confesses that not every student loves the digital “smart grid” that monitors and limits everyone’s energy use. Showers stop after a few minutes. Attempts to turn up the air conditioning are thwarted. “Yes, they complain,” Potter has said, “but I have told them that’s how it is.”
China’s Tianjin Eco-City is trying something different. The first residents, who moved in last March, will not be forced to be fanatically green, a city spokesman said. Instead, its pioneers will be used to see what designs could work in a real city, with real people. Would they, for example, cope with self-emptying rubbish bins sucking litter into an environmentally sensitive underground network? “We are not sure,” admitted a spokesman. “It requires people not to put the wrong sort of rubbish in.”
Britain, too, is finding the biggest eco-city challenge may be what people are prepared to accept. In 2007, the Labour government announced its Eco-Towns Prospectus, calling for “local areas to come forward with ideas [for] a new generation of eco-towns”. In July 2009, approval was given for the first to enter the planning process. The only problem was that locals came forward with ideas for opposing them.
In Bicester, at least, they seem to be making progress, with recent talk that their eco-town will pioneer low-cost, low-energy LED lights. This reminded Dan Llett, the founder of the think-tank Greenbang, of a conundrum. “It’s called the Jevons Paradox. For every energy-efficient technology you introduce, people will end up using more energy, because it is more abundant and cheaper.”
When it comes to shaping the future, it seems, science may prove capable of solving technical problems, but controlling human nature may prove more difficult.