Dwell magazine and Inhabitat have teamed up to sponsor a “Reburbia” competition in which designers re-envision suburbia in ways that make environmentalists seem as scary and dingbatty as possible.
The finalists include a lot of inspiring ideas, but my favorite by far is the proposal to have menacing 3,000-foot-tall robots stomp into suburban villages, rip the homes out of the ground, and install them in bleak, Matrix-like hives.
“By radically retrofitting suburbs, the old methodology of horizontal sprawl is supplanted with a scheme of vertical-core sprawl freeing the suburbanite from the demands of automotive travel.” Unless, of course, the suburbanite feels like traveling from his prison tower to one of the neighboring prison towers. The project is green because the robots will drill into the earth to tap geothermal power, which is a great idea for suburban villages that happen to be sited on top of active volcanoes.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Vehiforce: “Generate Energy With Your Parked Car!” This isn’t some pie-eyed scheme to tap into the battery pack on futuristic electric vehicles. No, this is a straightforward idea to put plain old gravity to work by capturing the energy embodied in the weight of your parked car.
I know what you may be thinking: there is no useful energy embodied in the weight of a parked car. And you’re right, but so what! Perpetual motion machines may violate the laws of nature, but they don’t violate the rules of the Reburbia design competition. As one far-sighted commenter says, “I wonder what credentials those ‘physics professors’ possess?” Indeed.
Most of the rest of the entries are variations on the twin themes of slapping lots of windmills all over suburbia and slapping lots of cornfields all over suburbia. (I really like the vision of suburbia as a wine bar/greenhouse in which chefs, pugs, young professionals, and old men with shopping carts meet to admire fresh produce.)
I gather that the purpose of such exercises is to stretch the imagination a bit, not to put forth strictly practical proposals. The problem here is that entries in the Reburbia competition aren’t imaginative. They’re either totally loopy (turn your parked car into a power plant), totally trivial (put median strips to better use), or totally reductive (replace the local Wal-Mart with a biofuel factory).
Fact is, solutions to climate change are mostly boring and don’t require much imagination. That’s a good thing. For example, making more extensive use of our existing natural gas-fired power plants would do a lot to lower carbon emissions. Waste heat capture is proven technology that could greatly reduce fossil fuel use. Both of these really boring solutions to climate change can be deployed at low cost and massive scale in the near term.
Ending deforestation could solve 20% or more of our emissions problem. Forests aren’t exactly boring, but neither are they a hotbed of radical innovation. Maybe we should send the giant robot towers into the Amazon.
Cement manufacture is a huge source of emissions, one that hasn’t been adequately addressed despite lots of exciting research. And by “exciting,” I mean excruciatingly dull to anyone who’s not a material scientist.
Energy efficiency! Building codes! Who wants to talk appliance standards? Anyone? Hello?
The steady progress in electric vehicles and renewable energy sources is pretty interesting, at least if your tastes run that way. Ironically, though, these cleaner versions of existing technologies may help to perpetuate suburbia, not eradicate it. After all, if your car runs on electricity, and your electricity comes from the sun, and your McMansion is built to the Passive House standard, then your suburban lifestyle is suddenly looking a lot more benign.
Fixing our energy problems is not particularly a design challenge. Rather, it’s a deep and long-term problem, one that requires a steady and fundamental transformation of our infrastructure. This is to the good, because we already have many or even most of the tools we need to effect such a change.