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Sustainability a “Common Theme” at City of the Future Competition

Sponsored by The History Channel and its “Engineering an Empire” series, the 2006 “City of the Future” competition arrived last week here in New York. With two additional installments scheduled to begin on November 17th in Chicago and December 8th in Los Angeles, the competition awarded the winners a $10,000 prize and the right to compete against the victors from Chicago and LA for an additional $10,000.

Participants were asked to imagine New York City in 2106. The common thread among the submissions was, of course, sustainability. One of the teams proposed every New Yorker into Manhattan and devoting the remaining five boroughs to green space.

“What is happening in the other boroughs?” Ms. Tsien asked the Urban Research Group, the team that suggested emptying every borough except Manhattan of its inhabitants. “Whatever the city needs to support itself,” replied Moji Baratloo, one of the group’s architects. “It’s a conceptual idea to understand what it would mean to free up land.”

This concept, however, was not the winner. Similarly acknowledging the role the environment will play in the development of the twenty-second century American city,

[t]he top prize went to the team from the Architecture Research Office firm, which, acknowledging global warming and climactic change, explored the idea of harnessing the water that would ultimately flood the streets. Avenues would become “vanes,” watery channels with buildings above them, a team member, Adam Yarinsky, suggested.

The group’s formal proposal invoked modern and ancient architectural precedents. “If the Miesian skyscraper and the Parisian arcade can account for one-half of the vane’s pedigree,” the team said in its presentation materials, “the aqueduct and the Roman baths answer for the other.”

I’m interested in seeing if, and how, participants in Chicago and LA see the environment playing as central a role in shaping the twenty-second century development of those cities. Truly great cities are constantly reinventing themselves. It seems clear that rising sea levels and climate change are on our not-too-distant horizon. The great urban challenge of the twenty-first century might be, as the Architecture Research Office team’s winning proposal suggests, reconfiguring the American city around the local impacts of global climate change. Cities that rise to the challenge will survive and thrive- those that don’t will not.

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