Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Urban Apocalypse!

Coming back around to the ethics of metropolitan growth, I have just submitted the abstract of a new paper for an urban affairs conference next year. It draws together some earlier threads from this blog and incorporates some further threads from the work I've been doing lately in curriculum development.

(More on that curriculum work another time.)

Here is the abstract:

or, What We Can Learn from Imagining the End of the City

It is not difficult to find stories about the end of the city. Weisman’s thought experiment, “The City Without Us,” is especially provocative, as is Kunstler’s tragic outlook for the next few hundred years; preppers produce guides for surviving the collapse of civilization, and any number of summer blockbusters have featured scenes of empty streets and crumbling buildings. But is there any real use in telling so many stories about the end of the city, aside from the illicit thrill of theoretical rubber-necking or any tactical advantage to be had from fear-mongering?

I suggest that thinking about an urban apocalypse can have value as a heuristic device, fostering a kind of systems imagination as a necessary supplement to moral imagination.

In order to inform responsible choice and action in shaping urban forms and living within them, there is a need to see the city clearly, in all its complexity. This need is as pressing for ordinary residents of the city as they engage in their daily lives and in processes of public deliberation as it is for experts in urban policy and planning.

As a matter of lived experience, urban space is a field of opportunities and constraints relative to particular human projects. Those opportunities and constraints are shaped by the intertwining of natural, social and technological systems across various scales, systems that are readily ignored or forgotten.

Imagining failures of such systems and the implications of those failures for vital human projects can inform of more adequate mental models of the systems that support human projects in urban places; this may then inform more responsive perception of the city, and more responsible judgments as to what it means for a city to be sustainable, and under what conditions it would be worth sustaining.