Pre-fabricated post-apocalyptic cities

We keep hearing about pre-fabricated cities designed for millions of people popping up all over China. With the hundreds of millions of people arriving into cities from the countryside, this might be a simple solution to an overcrowding problem. Besides the clear impression that China hasn’t learned much from New Urbanism, there’s also the problem of these planned cities failing. China is trying to plan these things en masse, and not letting them grow organically. Perhaps twenty years down the line they will be a useful, though crumbling, investment. Until then, there will be the few residents wandering like post-apocalyptic zombies through a landscape of empty skyscrapers and the shells of extravagant museums.

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Detroit was my student art project

Because the hipsters think Baltimore is now too safe:

But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

I’ve always thought it would be fun to have a Detroit house party – show up in Detroit, buy a house, do whatever the hell you want in a giant party, and head out. But more seriously, this article has a lot to say about how to compress a dying city. Detroit has a lot of possibility, but it will be a long, hard slog.

[Edit: I wrote this about a week ago, but here the New York Times has a very similar article on entrepreneurship in Detroit. When I visited China a year ago, one thing that struck me was the palpable energy on the street. It was exciting – everyone was trying to do something, start up a small business (for pirated DVDs most often) or a little cart of food. I felt a little of that with the food carts in Portland; maybe Detroit is finally beginning to have some of its own energy.]

Amish mofos

When your knowledge of the Amish comes mainly from 80s movies, it’s hard not to be fairly ignorant of what their life is actually like. So this article article about Amish hackers really blew me away. They use a lot more technology than I would have supposed – diesel generators? Tractors? They are considering using cell phones. Apparently, they don’t want to be connected to the electricity grid, so they have modified all their home appliances, such as blenders, to use pneumatic tubes for power. “Amish electricity” they call it.

In fact, this quote really struck me:

Behind all of these variations is the Amish motivation to strengthen their communities. When cars first appeared at the turn of last century the Amish noticed that drivers would leave the community to go shopping or sight-seeing in other towns, instead of shopping local and visiting friends, family or the sick on Sundays. Therefore the ban on unbridled mobility was aimed to make it hard to travel far, and to keep energy focused in the local community. Some parishes did this with more strictness than others.

A similar communal motivation lies behind the Old Order Amish practice of living without electricity. The Amish noticed that when their homes were electrified with wires from a generator in town, they became more tied to the rhythms, policies and concerns of the town. Amish religious belief is founded on the principle that they should remain ‘in the world, not of it” and so they should remain separate in as many ways possible.

amishThe first bit almost sounds like it could have come from a New Urbanist! Maybe those Amish were onto modern urban planning way before us. Of course, this whole “in the world, not of it” makes me think that maybe not so much?

The other cool thing is that solar panels are becoming popular among the Amish. With these they can get electricity without being tied to the grid, which was their main worry. Solar is used primarily for utilitarian chores like pumping water, but it will slowly leak into the household. It sounds as if modern life and Amish life might begin to almost merge.  After all, the Amish aim to be fairly sustainable, self-sufficient, and community oriented which sounds like the dream of a lot of urban planners and environmentalists. Minus the religious bits, of course.