Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Living City - The Case for Urban Motility

The ability to move is a characteristic of most living things. Single-celled organisms could move using their whip-like appendages. Terrestrial animals move by walking or crawling. Other organisms move by flying, swimming, or burrowing. Movement allows these creatures to gather food more efficiently, to find shelter timely, or escape predators quickly. Thus, one could conlude that movement is necessary for the propagation of species and of life.

In a dynamic world, the ability to move and relocate is a very beneficial skill. This is not irrelevant to cities where multitudes of buildings, vehicles and citizens dwell. In the future where we face a vastly increasing scarcity of resources but ever expanding land area (see Dubai development) a walking and adapting city would prove to be crucial. Hence we ask, for a living city, how do we make it mobile?

Lego Crawler City

Mobile Cities in fiction...

In a city as big as Manila for example, frequent large-scale relocation is a very difficult if not impossible undertaking. Many science fiction stories have proposed elaborate means of moving a city. One search in Wikipedia will give the following results for moving cities from books and video games (1):

The four novels in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines Quartet (Hungry City Chronicles) include large mobile Traction Cities that travel across the world, devouring each other to gain fuel and other resources. 
A massive city travelling along equatorial rails around the planet Mercury is the setting for a minor part of Blue Mars, the last book in the Mars Trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson. The city is pushed along by the slight yet powerful expansion of the rails as the close-by sun shines on them (with the city always just staying within the planetary night), moving the city once around the planet every 88 Earth days. The same city appears in Robinson's early novel The Memory of Whiteness.
There is a similar arrangement in Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, where Nomad City avoids Athega's light by continually moving over the surface of Nkllon. 
In Alastair Reynolds's Absolution Gap, vast cities circle the moon of Hela to keep the planet Haldora in view, in case "the Miracle" – the momentary disappearance of Haldora – occurs again. The mobile cities are called Cathedrals and are devoted to worship of the Miracle, which they believe is God's message to humanity. 
In Christopher Priest's novel Inverted World a city on a "hyberbolic" planet is continually moved on rails to keep it at a particular location—which itself moves—where conditions are "normal". 
Greg Bear's novel The Strength of Stones is set in the declining years of a planet of motorized cities that ejected their inhabitants. 
Storm Constantine's novel Calenture takes place in a world of mobile cities that fly, walk or move on wheels, guided and powered by "pilot stones". 
The computer game Starcraft features an interstellar empire of humans that use collections of mobile buildings to assemble ad-hoc cities in space and on land.

...and in real life.

In the same Wikipedia page, we will find that there has been proposals for moving cities in real life.
The Walking City was an idea proposed by British architect Ron Herron in 1964. In an article in avant-garde architecture journal Archigram, Ron Herron proposed building massive mobile robotic structures, with their own intelligence, that could freely roam the world, moving to wherever their resources or manufacturing abilities were needed. Various walking cities could interconnect with each other to form larger 'walking metropolises' when needed, and then disperse when their concentrated power was no longer necessary. Individual buildings or structures could also be mobile, moving wherever their owner wanted or needs dictated.

Following a link in the same page, we learn of the moving fort Gulyay-gorod used in Russia (2).
Gulyay-gorod, also guliai-gorod, gulay-gorod, literally: "wandering town"), was a mobile fortification used by the Russian army between the 15th and the 17th centuries.
A gulyay-gorod was made from large wall-sized prefabricated shields with holes for guns installed on wheels or sleds, a development of the wagon fort concept. The usage of installable shields instead of permanently armoured wagons was cheaper and allowed more possible configurations to be assembled. The gulyay-gorod was designed as a fortification in steppes, whose flat, void landscape provided no natural shelter. An early Western description of the gulyay-gorod was made by Giles Fletcher, the Elder, ambassador to Russia, in his Of the Russe Common Wealth.

One can consider other real life examples like a town that follows a railroad. One could also argue that aircraft carriers or large cruise liners is some form of a floating city. The main argument against these though is that there is no form of autonomous government and social institutions that comprise these moving "cities". There may be captains on a ship but a real city needs to have a city hall, school, hospitals, cemeteries, prisons etc.

Urban Mobility - true form

A common characteristic from the above moving cities is the vehicle for transport. The city does not really move by itself, it is just built above a moving transport vehicle such as a ship, or a railroad etc. 

It may seem too science fictional to mention but real motility would mean that the city should be able to move-- its buildings, its roads, its lands.

I found this advertisement for Volkswagen Tiguan created by the DDB Milano, Italy Advertising Agency where a city dynamically moves its pavements and buildings to accomodate the citizens (3). One could see the roads realigning to adapt to pedestrians crossing. The buildings opening up a road for the car to pass through.

This may be impossible to achieve at present since it would require a large amount of moving gears, belts, chains and such. It woud also require a very smart central processing unit to calculate the changes needed to accomodate and adapt to the citizens' activities.

But such concept can be simplified to support just the movement the city from one place to another-- relocation. This feat can be done using the idea of urban sprawl and blight.

Sprawl versus Blight

Sprawl is defined as the "the spreading out of a city and its suburbs over more and more rural land at the periphery of an urban area. This involves the conversion of open space (rural land) into built-up, developed land over time" (4).  Comparing this with a living cell, (of a tree for example) a sprawl is that part of the tree where new cells are created as the tree grows i.e. the budding parts.

In some urban studies,  sprawl is sometimes construed to have negative effects on a city as it has many negative effects on the environment or on the vitality of the city itself.

Blight on the other hand refers to the deterioration and decay of buildings and older areas of large cities, due to neglect, crime, or lack of economic support. If sprawl signifies growth, blight signifies decay and rot.

What about it?

Imagine a typical city. Let's make this city very consistent and homogenous. Let's put a constant sprawl rate on its north border. By itself we would have an ever expanding city to its northern lands , expanding to some extent until the city is not able to support itself anymore and it just disintegrates.

Now make it so that blight will be on the southern edge with rate of decay that match the rate of sprawl. We would then have a city that maintains it's status quo because of the opposing forces of blight and sprawl. Which in effect would move the city into the direction of the sprawl leaving a trail of derelict buildings on its path of blight.

We thus have created a moving city devouring everything in its predatory sprawl and excreting rotten buildings in its blight. We can then structure this city based on this fact. Build the residences, entermainment centers, leisure parks in the sprawl area. Put the government buildings at the center. Put the cemeteries, prisons, garbage dumps on the blight zone. Decaying objects are left behind, while new ones are created up front.

The mayor acts as the pilot; determines the direction of movement. All hands on deck. Full speed ahead!



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