Beyond Sprawl: Rethinking Humanity's Habitats; Six Futurists Examine the Challenges Facing Tomorrow's Human Habitat Planners

Article excerpt

How will technology affect where we live in the future? How will where we live affect our technology? A simple look around us may give us a clue. The teeming cities of the United States, Europe, and Asia provide living testament to humanity's gift for transforming our environment. The technological innovations of the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny led millions away from life on quiet country farms to new lives in thriving cities.

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Unfortunately, in the United States, Europe, and even parts of Asia, our great cities are showing signs of age. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that the cost of bringing U.S. infrastructure up to acceptable levels will equal $1.6 trillion over the next five years. Events like Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks in New York and London (and elsewhere) remind us that our cities are vulnerable to disasters new, old, and as yet unimagined, in addition to the problems of crime and pollution that have always plagued urban centers.

The automobile revolution allowed individuals to seek a life outside of the busy metropolis, in the suburbs. The dream of a little house and a manicured lawn remains an appealing one to this day, perennially promising a stress-free life that is close to work but also close to nature. The reality of today's suburbs is somewhat contrary to that idyllic vision. Millions of people commuting to work via dangerous freeway systems is neither a particularly stress-free nor an especially natural way to live. The environmental aspects of unrestrained suburban sprawl in terms of smog, green-house-gas emissions, and even noise pollution are monumental. The economic benefits, in terms of real GDP growth and high real-estate prices, are increasingly being offset by rising external costs: Americans waste more than 2 billion gallons of gas idling in traffic jams each year. The social effects of sprawl are no more desirable. Suburbanites have long complained of feeling socially uninvolved and isolated. A sense of real community is inherently lacking in most of today's bedroom suburbs. Is there no other way?

We may be on the verge of an answer. Our special urban planning section begins with a piece by Robert McIntyre (page 36) on reestablishing rural villages. As part of THE FUTURIST's continued efforts to inspire, encourage, and lead a dialogue on the future and all its possibilities, we have asked a number of cultural critics, urban planners, and futurists about the major trends shaping the human habitats of tomorrow. Their responses, in the essays that follow, are critical, dissonant, and imaginative. We are especially grateful to our contributors and are extremely proud to present their findings to you. As you read these pieces by thinkers such as William J. Mitchell (page 39), Douglas Rushkoff (page 40), Mitchell Gordon (page 42), and Joel Garreau (page 43), we hope you will cast a glance to the side of each page where excerpts from L. Gene Zellmer's book A Town Primarily for People form a continuous narrative. Allow yourself to tour Zellmer's prototype as it constructs itself before your eyes.

We present these ideas solely for the purposes of furthering a debate on how we might use science--and common sense--to create new and superior habitats for future generations. The greatest accomplishment of our technological resourcefulness may be its capacity to liberate us from obsolete technologies and dysfunctional ways of thinking. Once we make up our minds to live differently, we may well discover a new way of life that promotes better interaction, that is truly stress free, and that is, authentically, closer to nature.

--Patrick Tucker, assistant editor

New Villages for a New Era

New technology rekindles public interest in an old idea.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted a remarkable demographic trend: In the 1990s, more Americans moved to rural areas than moved out. …