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May 31, 2008

Not the Usual Doom and Gloom

In Future Cities: Sustainable Solutions, Radical Designs, the speakers presented innovative solutions to some of the most vexing problems facing humanity today: climate change, income inequality, dwindling resources and growing urban populations. Though Al Gore's face did appear on one of the power point slides, this session spent most of its airspace delving into the realm of the downright hopeful.

Structural engineer Peter Head kicked off the session with perhaps the most ambitious project the building of an "eco-city" from the ground up in Dongtang, China. Unlike some of the other ideas discussed by the panelists this one apparently is going to happen soon, mainly because the Chinese government wants it to.

Dickson Despommier, professor of public health and microbiology in environmental health sciences at Columbia University, showed some cool 3-D graphics of massive urban indoor food-growing structures. These multi-story farming facilities could allow for year-round supplies of fresh, organic, and locally grown food. Such an endeavor could benefit the environment by returning existing farmland to nature and restoring the natural functions and services of the ecosystem. I couldn't help but wonder if his inspiration came from those biosphere things you could build in SimCity.

Majora Carter was the most dynamic and passionate speaker of the group, presenting her innovative ideas for "greening the ghetto" and promoting environmental justice in inner-city neighborhoods. For more on Carter's efforts, check out greenforall.org.

Blaine Brownell showcased building materials that could actually re-mediate pollution, and Mitchell Joachim discussed ways to save the doomed automobile as a future form of urban transportation.

Perhaps like most of the audience I walked out of Future Cities with two main takeaways: (1) there will be cities in the future and (2) there will be a future. Perhaps it was not within the scope of the discussion, but the event generally avoided consideration of the more difficult societal and financial barriers to these amazing new technologies. But it can't hurt to dream once in a while ...

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