by Gregory Saville
The writing on the shop walls and the floating billboards was Anglo-Chinese. On the street, cityspeak combined English, Chinese and Spanish, a vernacular that served the homeless, the marginally employed and the unfortunate. Pollution and environmental collapse led to constant clouds and pelting rain. The affluent traveled to off-world colonies on Mars and elsewhere, leaving the rest of us behind. Bio-engineered, human-like robots called Replicants used their artificial intelligence and rebelled.
That was the horrific world described in Philip K. Dick’s book that became the 1982 sci-fi classic, Bladerunner. I blogged on Bladerunner architecture last year. When I watched Bladerunner in the 1980s it seemed like an impossible future. And it was set for such a long way ahead – 2019!
That's next year! With only a month left, how close is that future?
UNFOLDING AS WE SPEAK
It doesn’t take much imagination to see a Bladerunner vision unfolding. True, we are nowhere near that specific dystopia. We still don’t have flying cars (but we have self-driving ones!). Yet, one wonders...
This week I watched NASA’s exciting landing on the planet Mars. Space X CEO Elon Musk says he’ll get people to Mars within six years. How long before off-world colonies evolve?
This year I watched the fruits of some incredible advances in artificial intelligence and bio-engineering, including the world tour of the remarkable Sophie, the first thinking and speaking robot to attain citizenship. Sophie tells us not to worry; real robots are not like Bladerunner.
Then there is the decades-long Chinese economic miracle and the environmental mess we watch with increasing regularity in hurricanes, wildfires, species extinction and climate chaos.
Philip K. Dick, it seems, was on track. How might we derail that particular future? The usual formula is to rethink geo-politics and create a new macroeconomics. Nevertheless, the maxim ‘think global, act local’ has special relevance here. Take, for example, Philadelphia!
ONE NEIGHBORHOOD’S STORY
Over the past few years we brought SafeGrowth to Philadelphia. We now have some great advocates working for the neighborhood association, HACE. This year they began implementing their latest 10-year 2025 Neighborhood Plan.
For years HACE and friends have been diligently working to transform the blight, drugs and crime into a greener, socially connected, economically vibrant neighborhood. Now their new, SafeGrowth-infused 2025 plan is underway and they’ve been making strides.
They installed new, clean walking trails where garbage was once strewn.
They instituted Philadelphia’s first SafeGrowth Livability Academy, a collaborative on-going workshop with 30 neighbors and police during which they developed problem-solving strategies for their neighborhood.
The HACE plan envisions greener areas, community gardens, better resourced neighborhood hubs, safe intergenerational and affordable housing. HACE has already built over 200 units of affordable housing and leveraged over $100 million in redevelopment and improvements. A host of community-building strategies are already underway.
For example, they, and their partners, shut down a drug infested, homeless camp along a railway underpass. That naturally displaced addicts to street level, resulting in a public outcry (after decades of inaction). Ultimately, that led to a more coordinated city response to treat drug users, expand homeless beds and increase shelters.
There is a long way to go and resources and shelter beds are still scarce (one estimate suggest Philadelphia has 50,000 opioid addicts, many of whom end up here). But at least action is finally underway.
That is the hard community-building work that cuts crime, improves livability, and gets neighbors engaged in shaping their own future.
Too many mayors get caught up in a fear-based echo chamber that makes them vulnerable to peddlers of security technology and promises of a bright, high-tech future.
Too many city leaders act as obsequious errand-boys for the technologists, embracing the faint promise of hostile architecture, public CCTV, automated security robots, predictive algorithms seeking crime, and audio software to track gang gunfire. (Wouldn't it be better to prevent the gunfire in the first place?)
They do this with the ill-informed hope that technology will prevail. But in doing this, they snatch defeat from the hands of successful action-based community projects right in front of them. They invite a Bladerunner future.
May they fail.
by Gregory Saville
Last week the sci-fi film Bladerunner 2049 opened worldwide to rave reviews. In artistic circles, this is known as exceptional neo-noir filmmaking, or more accurately 80s style cyberpunk. Bladerunner 2049 follows the original Bladerunner film from 1982, now considered a masterpiece. It is based on a book by award-winning sci-fi writer, the late Philip K. Dick.
Dick’s themes included dystopian futures, authoritarian corporations, and government conspiracies. Bladerunner occurs on a future Earth poisoned from environmental collapse where cops (Bladerunners) are assigned as bounty hunters to search and eliminate a minority group of human-like androids called Replicants. Written 50 years ago, Dick’s tale foreshadows the environmental crisis, immigrant-purging, social turbulence, and police violence on our streets today. In short, he nailed it!
ART REFLECTS LIFE
For evidence, take a look at the street architecture of the future Los Angeles in Bladerunner and compare that with what is emerging in our biggest cities. Art, clearly, reflects life!
Very seldom are artistic and cultural movements restricted to galleries and magazines. Even the most outrageous art and music seep out into politics, daily life and, most importantly, ways of thinking. That is because artistic and cultural movements do not arise on their own; they are a reaction to - or against - current affairs. That is why they are a barometer of things to come.
Consider how 1960s counter-culture morphed into environmentalism, civil rights, and equality for women, concepts in common parlance today. Or consider the artistic movement called modernism in the early 20th Century that evolved into the International Congress of Modern Architecture and the global planning disaster we now call urban sprawl.
Bladerunner is art that tells a story: Philip K. Dick’s cyberpunk story of urban dystopia! For real-life examples look carefully at the cores of our most modern cities to see the worship of architectural cyberpunk.
If this analogy holds, then what about last week’s horrific mass murder in Las Vegas, the on-going trouble with police shootings, political turbulence, and environmental disasters of late? Are they signals that the Bladerunner story is unfolding as predicted? Never has there been a more appropriate time for a better model of neighborhood safety and urban growth.
This week we end the first decade of the 21st Century. What does our future hold for safe and vital urban places?
This time of year prognosticators creep out from under crystal balls and offer us variations on Mad Max, Bladerunner, or a United Federation of Planets. Rarely do we get practical, real-life models on what that future might look like in our cities.
Not so for architect Paulo Solari and his urban laboratory called Arcosanti. This week I re-visited this futuristic arcology in the Arizona desert.
Arcologies show up in popular fiction such as William Gibson's Zero Count, and Niven and Pournelle's Oath of Fealty.
It's where the future noir sci-fi film Bladerunner took inspiration for the Tyrell megacorporation HQ (now a popular staple in cyberpunk literature).
Arcosanti is the first-ever model of an arcology. Real-life versions are now planned near Abu Dhabi (Masdar City) and near Shanghai (Dongtan - halted during the recession).
Arcosanti was the first - an urban laboratory for creating lean alternatives to sprawl. Arcologies are future cities that fuse architecture and ecology. While 60 percent of land in today's city is for cars, roads, and auto services, a similar sized archeology eliminates the car entirely within the city. Since arcological land development grows 3-D (upwards as well as outwards) no place is farther than a half mile from the natural environment - rivers, lakes, trails, agricultural fields, forests. That is, no farther for all city dwellers, not just the privileged few.
When I went to criminology grad school I learned nothing about futures like this. There was plenty of abstract theorizing in windowless rooms. But few of the theorizers had the foggiest about crime in such future places. Classes were blind to the crime potential in the future.
I originally traveled to Arcosanti 18 years ago and took a course in arcological design. I learned how it was possible to place living, working and public spaces within easy walking distance. I asked Paulo Solari what he thought about crime and prevention in such a place. He told me the future residents would need to create their own methods - he was the piano maker, not the piano player.
At the time that seemed reasonable. Architects cannot account for every social eventuality. Still, as we know in CPTED, criminologists, planners, and architects were sound asleep in the 1950s when modernism led to public housing like the crime infested Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis and the San Romanoway apartments in Toronto.
Clearly we must tread carefully.
While futuristic thinking may be difficult - and futuristic modeling rare - we owe much to visionaries like Paulo Solari for helping us to think ahead in a bold, new way.
If you want to learn more about arcology as planning for the future, read Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory.
And...Happy New Year.