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Houston 2121: The City As An Ecosystem

The Ecotopia 2121 project sets out to explore the futures of 100 cities worldwide, as inspired by the concept of 'Utopia'.

Utopia is a centuries old concept, of course. The English statesman Thomas More coined the term in the early 16th Century to refer to a fantastic idyllic island in a book he also titled 'Utopia'.

To design a utopian land often means to be at once imaginative and optimistic but also critical and subversive. Thomas More set up this enduring pattern when he drew his optimistic account of an idealistic Christian Utopia within which was embedded a subtle and subversive critique of King Henry VIII’s reign in England.

Subsequent to Thomas More’s 1516 book, whenever utopian writers have set out to design or discover a socially-ideal place, they’ve also set out to attack certain aspects of their own present day society -- cloaking their visions in both hope and satire. I dare say this may be the same impulse that flows through much of the utopian scenarios of The Ecotopia 2121 Project, including the one presented here below which seeks to imagine Houston in the year 2121.

The City As An Ecosystem

The City As An Ecosystem?

Houston 2121 is the world capital of industrial ecology. Here, all the industrial elements of the city are arranged into an intricate union so that the waste that comes from one factory is used as a resource for another factory. In fact, in Houston 2121, this is done so well, that there are very few wastes and each by-product, be it solid, liquid or gaseous, is recycled by other factories over and over again using minimal energy and producing zero carbon emissions. This is the perfect industrial ecosystem. Even the waste heat can be used to power the offices of the industrial bosses.

However, there’s nothing natural about it; no gardens, no parklands, no greenery. And every person within Houston seems to be a cog within vast machine landscape. Here, the ecosystem is artificial; water, oxygen, carbon, silicon, methane, ethane, are all cycled and recycled with elegant energy efficiency and little waste but there’s nothing alive down there save for a few human technicians. For industrialists, the idea of industrial ecology is attractive since it pretends that our vast industrial civilization can be converted to an ecofriendly state if we just find technical solutions to the problem of recycling materials and energy. However, the ecosystem concept is a machine metaphor applied to natural settings; a vision of nature more loved by engineers than ecologists. So if you start off with the idea that you want to turn the city into an ecosystem, you’ll end up getting not a living community but a machine community.

Two other problems also cast doubt on Houston 2121 as 'ecotopian' for anybody except an industrialist. Namely, some very rare resources have to be transported from far away to keep the process going, and secondly some products cannot be produced without producing a waste which is so toxic, that it can never be used by another industrial process. Petro-chemical products, a mainstay of the Houston economy, may very well belong to this category.

For the complete story of Houston 2121,

see the project book.

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