Friday, 20 July 2012

Cities in Flight

Apparently, "if the entire population of the planet – estimated to have passed 7 billion last year – lived like the residents of Tower Hamlets or Kensington and Chelsea, they would all fit in an area the size of France".

The point being made concerns population density, and the fact that despite over 50% of the world's people now inhabiting towns and cities, urbanisation remains relatively diffuse. Mega-cities are very much the exception. For example, only 8% of the US population live in cities larger than 1 million inhabitants.

The image of a concreted over France got me musing about sci-fi cities and how they differ from real cities. What I'm mainly thinking of is the self-contained unit, or arcology, with high-density and a precisely defined boundary. This is a common trope of sci-fi, from glass-domed Martian biospheres to Judge Dredd's Mega City One. Sometimes the boundary serves to shield the population from a hostile environment; sometimes it is the encompassing wall of a prison. This precision of the city limits has allowed it to slip its planetary moorings to become mobile or even morph into a spaceship (James Blish's Cities in Flight).

What this indicates may be nothing more than a simple prejudice on the part of SF writers against suburbia, the familiar zone between the relative excitements of city and country, where most of them grew up. While some got to grips with urban sprawl after the 1960s, this tended to be used as a backdrop to resource depletion and social breakdown, which was a realistic concern in New York and some other cities in the 70s. This culminated in the 80s in the iconic vision of the San Francisco Bay area in Bladerunner, a version of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Since then attention has wandered past regenerated city centres and suburbia to the edgelands, where the urban frays into a confusion of slip-roads, light industrial parks and scrub land, celebrated in the works of JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller.

The desire to precisely mark territory goes back to prehistory, but it appears to be less about defining the state (a modern concept) and more about defining the transition between the sacred and profane in religious complexes. This evolved into the liberties and sanctuaries of medieval cities, and the beating of parish bounds. Through ghettos, phalansteries and kibbutzim, to modern gated communities, the desire to mark "in" from "out", the community from the other, is obviously a social and political imperative. This reached an apogee of sorts in cities divided, rather than surrounded, by walls, such as Berlin, Belfast and Jerusalem. These cities were nothing if not grounded, pinned down by concrete and metal bindings.

Today, in London, we have the spectacle of the Olympic lanes, which seem both physical and yet strangely virtual. Not only do they shift in and out of existence in places, as the reality of traffic flow defeats the intention, but it appears that no earthly power is responsible for them. If we all lived in a France with the housing density of Tower Hamlets, you can still imagine Le Tour taking place, but we'd never be able to cope with Olympic lanes. Of course, this might provide the ideal opportunity to permanently site the games at a rebuilt Olympia (the one in Greece, not West London), a sort of sporting Center Parcs in the deep countryside. IOC grandees and other junket-wallahs would then have no trouble getting to their plushly upholstered seats, and the rest of us wouldn't have to get out of their way.

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