By Steve Austin
Late at night, I had this vision of typical American cities in the year 2100 – see what you think:
In the year 2100:
1. The population of most cities is about the same as it was in the early 2000s; stable economies produce a stable population. The great oil shock of the 20teens led to the “last depression” – economic and social complexity was ramped waaaaay back, leaving many people with no choice but to return to their small town roots. The upshot of that reverse migration was that most rural American places gained population, and they returned to economic and social health. Many medium and large cities lost a lot of people, which wasn’t a bad thing, as it helped to facilitate “smart decline.” Those cities that were on the front lines of the “race to renewables” (kinda like the space program for energy), gained lots of new people.
2. Most medium and large cities are now a collection of villages. Centralized decision making doesn’t work when so many vital issues are hyper localized. Generally, larger city governments deal primarily with collective water supply, energy harvesting and distribution, and public safety. Those cities that were more socially, economically, and racially integrated than others were able to avoid most of the turbulence that others experienced during the great transition.
3. The Commissioner of Water is perhaps the most important position in most places. In most cities there is no longer the energy to pull water up hundreds of feet and push it scores if not hundreds of miles from rivers and reservoirs, making local water use and conservation vitally important. Water is harvested in every community. Every building has a cistern or rain barrels.
4. The Commissioner of Energy is perhaps the second most important person in the city. Nearly all available electricity is generated by renewables and all energy is produced locally. The Commissioner of Energy is responsible for managing the smart grid and the installation and maintenance of large generating facilities. None of this city’s energy comes from carbon. Energy depletion combined with the historic global agreement to eliminate carbon was responsible. Fortunately, a new generation of carbon miners – “energy creators” – was trained to harvest the wind and the sun. Many mining areas got their mojo back after the last mines and wells closed.
5. Most land-grant universities have gone back to their Agricultural and Mechanical roots, but with a much smaller enrollment.
6. Every rooftop in the city has solar panels. The remnants of the tall buildings in downtown and elsewhere are now used to support windmills. These tall buildings are no longer used as habitable structures due to their huge energy demands as well as the fact that they have been scavenged for useable building materials. See next point:
7. Most buildings built between 1950 and 2010 have been dismantled. Their lack of adaptability to the solar economy the prime reason. These buildings were built with no regard for maximization of sunlight or to utilize prevailing winds for ventilation. By not being in tune with nature, these buildings required an enormous amount of energy for heating and cooling, energy that just doesn’t exist anymore. In many cities, hospitals were the worst culprits. The good news is that everyone leads healthier lifestyles with all the physical activity involved in daily life, and the fact that food is local, fresh, and unprocessed. Alternative healing has been used for decades.
These modern buildings were taken apart for their component materials and used to create a new generation of small scale, low rise (no more than 3 stories) buildings that work with nature to provide light, ventilation, shade, and buffering. Local schools are established in small buildings within residential areas. The mega schools of the early 21st century required too much energy, both within the buildings and in the transportation system.
8. Shopping malls and strip centers are now farms for the most part, either for growing food or for growing power. Ironically, the places dedicated to consumption of crap in the early 21st century are now the largest energy producers in most cities. Land never lost its intrinsic value to produce vital necessities.
9. Commerce happens everywhere – in homes, on residential streets, and in informal markets that sprung up near housing concentrations. In these markets, under tents, one can find food, clothing, necessities and frivolities and tasty local food. Every day is market day, which is a prime form of entertainment.
10. Every suburban home has a set of solar panels, either on the roof or on the ground. There are no more lawns – grass is way too energy intensive and food and energy production space too valuable. Large batteries for storing energy reside in the garages where cars once went. Each home is now lived in by many members of extended families and nearly every piece of land has multiple small dwelling units on it.
11. Energy is the main job provider – installing, repairing, battery maintenance, teaching, weatherproofing – each provides a good job that can never be outsourced.
12. Another significant change to most cityscapes: less trees – a lot less trees. Trees block solar panels and shade vegetable gardens. Most of the trees on private lots are gone – turns out our great urban forests were luxury items. Trees do still line streets to provide shade for walkers and bikers. So many city parks were barren in the early 21st century because of budget shortfalls – but now parks are packed with trees to help offset the loss in private areas.
13. Much of the suburban housing that was built from 1990 to 2010 was dismantled for the value of the materials within. The owners of these houses were bought out by the scrap dealers, who then sold the land back to commercial farmers – all in all a very weird transition: farm to suburb to scrap yard and back to farm. Too bad so much topsoil was removed from those developments.
14. Biofuels run farm implements and ubiquitous three wheeled utility cycles. Small engine repair is one of the most important jobs in the city.
15. Bike manufacturing and repair is another key industry. Many shops make wooden frame bikes using local woods, a sublime blend of high-tech magic, and fine craftsmanship.
16. Streets are all much narrower now. The cost of repairing them simply got too high. Now, most streets are down to one lane, which is shared by bikes and motor scooters. Walkways have been carved out adjacent to the travel lanes.
17. Hyrbid buses run on biofuels and electricity. All major city electric bus lanes are flanked by the bike and scooter lanes and walkways. Along these routes are found the environmentally sensitive low rise, but still dense, building areas – a form of transit oriented development.
18. All private open space in the areas surrounding cities are put to productive uses – food, biofuels, fiber, medicine, timber.
19. A generation of artisans uses local materials to create some of the sought after clothes, shoes, and furniture in every bio-region. At the same time, the re-use economy, stuffed with 50 years of over consumption in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, continues even now to provide useful items.
20. All streams in most cities have been restored to daylight after years of being underground in storm pipes. The changed climate brought intense storms that overwhelmed the ability of the aging infrastructure to handle it. Now, stomwater flows the way nature intended.
21. My son, who was born in 2002, witnessed much of this exciting century. To us, the early years seemed like a painful transformation; to him it just seemed like the ways things were meant to be. His son, who was born in 2030, thrived in the new economy. His daughter, my great-granddaughter, was born in 2058, and she runs a solar repair business. Her son, my great-great grandson, was born in 2088. He’s almost a teenager and growing up in a fantastic, independent, resilient city. He loves the fact that he can ride his bike out to the countryside safely, that he can sell his produce at the local market, and that he can count on spending his whole life here, surrounded by his family and friends.
What’s your vision of the future?