Unmoored Cities: what speculative futures exist for cities in the face of climate change?

As countless studies have demonstrated, cities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Indeed, many of the world’s cities are at risk of becoming ‘unmoored’, whether literally sunk beneath rising sea waters or tidal rivers or forced to relocate entirely. Such possible urban futures challenge our imaginations to think through the physical, social and cultural consequences of climate change. Paul Dobraszczyk reports from our recent symposium that aimed to challenge and expand the narrow range of possibilities that currently characterise approaches to the subject.

From the series ‘Tellurian Relics: Surrealist Thames-side Piers’ by architect Shaun Murray. View of the pier from Clove Hitch Quay in a northwesterly direction at Battersea Reach, on the River Thames in London (2017)

On 25 May, UCL Urban Laboratory hosted the day-long symposium Unmoored Cities at the Bartlett School of Architecture, and there could not have been a more appropriate venue for an event that presented a veritable cornucopia of speculative proposals for cities of the future — cities that will have to confront the as-yet unknown effects of climate change, whether that’s a rise in sea levels, more frequent and severe storms, or increasingly extreme heat. There’s no shortage of studies on cities and climate change but most are grounded in instrumental thinking — the idea that the future can be predicted and that cities can either mitigate what’s coming or adapt themselves to it. In contrast, Unmoored Cities unfolded from the assumption that the future cannot ever be known — it can only be imagined; and that the creative imagination therefore has a vital role to play in thinking about the future of cities.

Audio from the Unmoored Cities symposium available via Soundcloud

Professor CJ Lim started the day with a discussion of his own extraordinary speculative proposals for cities of the future: imagine London overtaken by the sea but with small central enclaves protected by immensely high walls; or an enormous fleet of ships — future arks that disassemble into self-sufficient floating habitats. Drawing on the example of the polders in the Netherlands, Professor Lim argued for an embracing of future flooding so that we’re able to adapt to it. The three speakers that followed took the idea of flooded cities in very different directions. Writer Maggie Gee used her apocalyptic novel The Flood (2004) to think through how architecture might engage more empathetically with people in dealing with the future effects of climate change, while Rachel Armstrong presented a radically different approach to making buildings, one which develops ‘living’ materials that are grown rather than fabricated. Finally, Viktoria Walldin presented the plan of her architecture practice to move the city of Kiruna in northern Sweden away from the adjacent iron-ore mine that threatens to engulf it. Although this project is not directly connected with climate change, it powerfully demonstrated how moving entire cities may not be as outlandish as it sounds, and that the pragmatics of such a venture would require a thoroughly participatory approach to design that embraces the needs and desires of all citizens.

(L-R) Viktoria Walldin, Rachel Armstrong and Maggie Gee on the ‘Sunken’ panel (Image: Jacob Fairless Nicholson)

Studies of climate change and cities generally focus on the need for urban environments to either mitigate or adapt to future flooding; but what of the air that cities both inhabit and create, an air that is becoming increasingly turbulent? The second panel ‘Airborne Cities’ thought through this question in a number of ways. First, Thandi Loewenson used her imagined cities of Mailo and Melencolia — where structures lift off from the ground — to interact with the very real plight of those forced to scavenge the landfill sites on the edge of Lusaka, Zambia. Next, art curator Rob La Frenais returned us to the realm of the everyday, presenting a range of transport devices that he’s developed in collaboration with artists that provide radical alternatives to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. This led neatly into Sasha Engelmann’s exploration of her work with artist Tomás Saraceno in creating aerial forms of transport and habitation that are entirely powered by the energy of the sun. As with the first panel, all three speakers emphasised that radical change can only come about through participation and that a bottom-up approach to design should form the bedrock of the urbanism of the future.

(L-R) Jonathan Hill chairs the ‘Airborne’ panel with Sasha Englemann, Rob La Frenais and Thandi Loewenson (Image: Jacob Fairless Nicholson)

The final panel ‘Floating Cities’ returned to London as a point of focus, a city that will, like many others located on tidal rivers, have to deal with a much higher incidence and severity of flooding in the future. Shaun Murray presented his own forensic investigation — the Tellurian Relics project (2017) — of the processes that are at work in shaping two abandoned piers located on the River Thames. Showing a series of extraordinary drawings that he’s created which map ecologies of erosion, flows of fluid and friction of materials, he argued for an immersive architecture that designs the relationship between things and not the things themselves. In a related way, Matthew Butcher demonstrated how his design projects — the Filter House (2012), Silt House (2015), Flood House (2016), and Bang Bang House (2017) — would allow their inhabitants to experience the dynamism of the tidal Thames itself by allowing the ever-changing flows of water to be present within the buildings themselves. As was evident in these projects, to live in a future flooded Thames Estuary, we’ll need to develop a completely new relationship with water, one that accepts its hostility. Finally, Robin Wilson took us back to a time when the River Thames was filled with commercial ships of all kinds, through a utopian analysis of James Whistler’s painting Wapping, completed in 1864. Although painted at a time when London’s river was severely polluted with effluent of all kinds, the painting shows an intimate relationship between people and the river, where desires of all kinds can be expressed. With this reading of an unmoored city, we were reminded of how history always informs any future imagining of cities and how utopian desires of the past might be recovered today.

The diversity of the day’s papers was summed up beautifully by Jennifer Gabrys who saw in the bewildering variety of projects presented an unmooring not just of cities, but of politics, the social and the architectural too. In all of the papers, the act of imagining was not about providing solutions to problems but rather of working with them — an acceptance that doesn’t paralyse but rather invigorates and excites. In all the papers, adaptation to climate change was not seen as a form of resignation or defeat, but rather a dynamic way of making new kinds of cities and new ways of being in the world that are more just, equitable and responsive to whatever comes.

Paul Dobraszczyk is an independent researcher and writer, and a teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. He is currently completing a book ‘Future Cities, Architecture and the Imagination’ (Reaktion), due for release in early 2019, and is the creator of The Stones of Manchester website, a visual record of the built environment in Greater Manchester.

Unmoored Cities was organised by Paul Dobraszczyk, in collaboration with UCL Urban Laboratory, and with financial support from the Architecture Projects Fund of The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.

You can listen to the audio on Soundcloud, view images of the event on Flickr, and read the programme (pdf) on the UCL Urban Laboratory website.

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