What if we let the oceans into our cities?
by /  Jan 3, 2020

“The way we build our houses, roads, and cities reflects the great necessity of an era. Want to keep yourself safe from medieval marauders in a violent feudal society? Build tight quarters inside a big wall. Want three cars per household and liberty for drivers above all else? Build massive skyways, giant parking lots, and sprawling suburbs. But what will cities look like in the coming era, when billions of people are projected to move into major metropolises — most of which are clustered along the coasts — at the same time that waters are rising? “Instead of moving to higher ground as is usually assumed, what if we were to stay?” mused Jonathon Keats, an artist known for his playful thought experiments. For his latest, the Primordial Cities Initiative at STATE Studio in Berlin, Keats got inspiration from the distant past, when single-celled life-forms were just beginning to establish themselves on Earth. The climate was harsh and unpredictable back then, but cities (of a sort) found a way to exist. They are called stromatolites — communities of single-celled organisms that live immersed in the tides of Earth’s ancient seas.

Stromatolites growing in Shark Bay, Australia

These once-ubiquitous communities now only survive in a few spots in Western Australia and the Bahamas. Stromatolites aren’t much to look at — they are basically towers of muddy goop. But if you look at them under a microscope, there’s a lot going on at each level of the tower. On top, there are bacteria that can turn sunlight into food. Below them are layers teeming with different species of single-celled critters, performing different functions at each level. The waste from the uppermost layers filters down, becoming food for the creatures beneath them — classic trickle-down economics (except that it actually works).

“Cyanobacteria came onto the scene about 3500 million years ago, well before the existence of any other complex life form. They are the oldest type of photosynthetic organism in the world — so old, in fact, that they predate plants by a couple billion years, and provided the earth with most of the oxygen in the atmosphere necessary for supporting subsequent life forms.”

Get enough of these organisms together, and their ooze starts binding mud in place, eventually forming towers amid the waves. Designers have a long history of “biomimicry,” or copying nature’s innovations. The nose of a bullet train is modeled on the beak of a diving kingfisher, to better cut through the air, and an office building in Zimbabwe is modeled on a termite mound to cool itself without A/C. Perhaps the architects of the future could use stromatolites as inspiration. After all, Keats figured, water cools things down when it’s too hot. “Temperatures and sea levels are rising,” said Keats. “The oceans are coming. The stromatolites, if they could talk, might say, ‘Bring it on.’”

Working at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Stuttgart, Germany, he started building models of flooded cities. He used computer models of neighborhoods in cities like Shanghai and New York to test the effects of flooding in 2100 and 2300, and as he’d suspected, the water moderated temperatures. Next, he built physical models: little buildings in a tray of water, bathed in the heat of an “artificial sun” — a setup that Keats described as “basically a big flatbed truck with probably 90 of the biggest, hottest light bulbs ever replicating the solar spectrum.” By absorbing water and then releasing it to evaporation, the model buildings were able to cool themselves. And Keats didn’t stop there.

He wanted to figure out how cities could work like stromatolites in every way: feeding themselves with the sun and building up over centuries. Could apartment towers somehow grow taller while sacrificing their lower levels to the seas? Keats imagined that the rooftops would grow trees that could be cut down to build additional stories. Sediment carried by the tides could also be turned into building materials. As seas rose, residents would move up and sacrifice the lower stories to the water. The buildings he designed, while “not exactly shovel ready,” he said, “are serious, backed by real engineering.” Of course, an engineer in a tidal city like this would have plenty of other problems to figure out. How would people move around? How do you deal with sewage? Keats admits that his “solution” is not ideal: “This is a terrible idea! But I think there’s something interesting in a solution that is a bad idea, but maybe the best idea we have.”

“Much of the Netherlands is below sea level”

Always vulnerable to floods, Netherlands new approach to water management
by Adam Wernick / July 16, 2017

“Much of the Netherlands is below sea level and major floods have occurred every generation or so for hundreds of years. In a warming world with increased rainfall and sea level rise, the threat from floods is increasing worldwide, and the Dutch are leading the way in water management engineering.  Only 50 percent of the Netherlands is more than a few feet above sea level, so over the centuries the Dutch have become expert at water management. But even they were caught short by crippling floods in the 1990s and they quickly implemented vast flood prevention projects.

As the country adapts to the reality of a warming planet, they are passing on their knowledge and expertise to other vulnerable nations. “At the moment, we are in a transition. We had a strong belief that we could predict and control nature, and we’re moving now into a period where we acknowledge that we cannot control nature,” says Chris Zevenbergen, a professor of flood resilience of urban systems at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. “We have to deal with uncertainties in terms of climate change and socioeconomic development.” Ten years ago, the Netherlands developed the concept of “room for the rivers,” which Zevenbergen calls a “paradigm shift.”

“The room for the rivers concept is a turning point in our approach,” he explains. “The old paradigm is confining rivers and building and strengthening the dikes along the rivers, but we decided to explore a new approach, in which we give more space to the water. We allow the river to expand when large volumes of water are entering our country. It’s not fighting against water; it is living with water.” Large parts of the Netherlands consist of what are called polders — low-lying areas of land that have been reclaimed from the sea and are protected by dikes. These polders contain some of the country’s biggest cities. The country is considering ways to dampen the development process in those low-lying areas and develop better early warning systems so the public and local officials are fully prepared in the event of a real flood. “We call it protection, prevention and preparedness,” Zevenbergen says.

Cities now use parks and public spaces as emergency reservoirs for floodwaters created by severe rainfall. For storm surges from the ocean, they are changing their approach from a purely defensive system to one that prepares for the failure of these systems — what Zevenbergen calls “multilevel protection. The first level is our flood protection systems, the primary dike systems. The second level is, for instance, spatial planning,” he explains. The Netherlands have built their flood protection systems to the point that the chance of failure in any given year is one in 10,000, which Zevenbergen says is the most stringent system on the planet. Although this probability may sound low, “the consequences are huge,” he points out. “Two-thirds of our economy is in those low-lying areas.” As always, funding massive projects presents challenges, even when the stakes are so high. Recently, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) held a conference which directly addressed how to engage the finance sector and the water sector.

The World Bank estimates that investing a dollar in flood protection saves $7 to $10 in flood damage, but, “for some reason,” Zevenbergen says, “there is an investment gap. … The money cannot find the projects, and the projects cannot find the money.” As Zevenbergen travels the world, consulting with cities about how to address threats from flooding, he sees two major challenges. First, how to protect existing highly-populated cities. For example, in China, while newly built-up areas all face flooding problems, they can expand in “water-sensitive ways,” whereas transforming flood resilience in established urban areas could take at least a generation.

The second challenge lies in the small and medium-sized cities of Africa and Asia. “Those cities are rapidly growing, but don’t have the capacity to [develop] in a sustainable way that takes into account the threats from the rivers, storm surges and rainfall.” Zevenbergen’s best advice for cities facing the threat of flood from rain or storm surge is this: “Don’t wait until the next flood disaster is coming to have a really serious look at your current situation and protection system. In the Netherlands, we are not responding to flood disaster, we are anticipating a flood disaster,” Zevenbergen says. “That means we have time to see what is the best strategy for our country. That is a process where we are involving all the different stakeholders. It’s a very time-consuming process, but I think we are there now. We are about to implement our new strategy, but it took 10 years to accomplish that.”

by Joshua Rothma / April 27, 2017

“It’s spring in New York City. At Twenty-sixth and Park, the waves shine in the sunlight, and the breeze is briny with seaweed. Morning commuters are boarding a crosstown vaporetto. Out on the canal, finance guys in speedboats weave between the bigger ships. Workers in an inflatable raft are repairing the Flatiron dock; a superintendent, in diving gear, is checking his buildings for leaks. The super-rich live uptown, in a forest of skyscrapers near the Cloisters. The poor live downtown, in Chelsea, which is half-submerged.

This is the vision of the city in New York 2140, a science-fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, out last month. It’s surprisingly utopian. New York may be underwater, but it’s better than ever. Sure, it was a rough hundred years for the planet: the seas rose ten feet in the two-thousand-fifties, then forty feet more around 2100, and billions of people died. Each episode of flooding was “a complete psychodrama decade, a meltdown in history, a breakdown in society, a refugee nightmare, an eco-catastrophe, the planet gone collectively nuts.” Now, though, New York is the SuperVenice. Downtown, in the “intertidal” zone (it’s submerged at high tide, but otherwise walkable), the rent is—understandably—low.

Artists squat in half-drowned buildings and drink in speakeasy bathhouses; the office towers of midtown have been turned into apartments with their own docks, dining halls, and rooftop farms. You can commute by boat or by walking through one of the city’s “skybridges” (basically, big plastic tubes reinforced with graphene). As one of the book’s narrators explains, “Yes, people returned to the drowned parts of New York. Actually many of them had been living in such shitholes before the floods that being immersed in the drink mattered little. Not a few experienced an uptick in both material circumstances and quality of life.” New York 2140 is told from eight different perspectives. One of its narrators, Franklin Garr, works at a hedge fund called WaterPrice; he’s the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, which allows investors to price drowned assets.

No one knows exactly what half-submerged buildings are worth—the seas could rise again—but Garr’s I.P.P.I. makes it possible to buy derivatives based on underwater mortgages; as a result, a new housing bubble is underway. (“Now as always you could get AAA ratings, not for subprime mortgages, obviously bad, but for submarine mortgages, clearly much better!” he explains.) Garr meets girls at waterfront bars, takes them out on his boat, grills steaks on a little hibachi, and drinks rosé while trying to figure out which neighborhoods will “regentrify” next. The revitalized New York, to him, is “fashionably hip, artistic, sexy, a new urban legend.” Another narrator—a nameless urban historian—tells the story of New York from a bohemian point of view. America’s boring losers all moved to Denver, he says, and so the cool kids took over the coasts. “Squatters. The dispossessed. The water rats. Denizens of the deep, citizens of the shallows.”

The abandoned city becomes an experimental zone—a place where social innovation (“submarine technoculture,” “art-not-work,” “amphibiguity”) flourishes alongside “free open universities, free trade schools, and free art schools. Not uncommonly all of these experiences were being pursued in the very same building. Lower Manhattan became a veritable hotbed of theory and practice, like it always used to say it was, but this time for real. . . . Possibly New York had never yet been this interesting.” Many of the pleasures of New York 2140 are architectural. Robinson points out that the Met Life Tower, where all the characters live, was modeled on the Campanile, in Venice, giving Madison Square the look of Piazza San Marco. He’s figured out which neighborhoods will be submerged (the East Village, Hudson Yards) and which will be aboveground (the new developments are happening in Yonkers). Reading New York 2140, I learned that, if the sea level rises fifty feet, it might be possible to surf from Herald Square to Central Park: as the tide rushes up both Broadway and Sixth, it will flow together to create a wave.

Robinson vividly imagines everyday life in such a place. During summer, future New Yorkers look down through the water to aquaculture pens, where fish churn; during winter, the canals freeze—temperatures in the future are more extreme—and people can go ice-skating, as long as they avoid the holes in the ice where harbor seals and muskrats come up for air. (“It was as though the streets had come back,” one woman thinks.) You know spring has arrived because of “a huge cracking noise”—the ice in the East River breaking up.

Robinson, who is sometimes described as our greatest living utopian writer, has spent most of his life in California. He was born in 1952; he holds a Ph.D. in English literature, and his adviser in graduate school, where he wrote a thesis on Philip K. Dick, was the Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson. Many of Robinson’s novels imagine, in detail, the practical habits of environmentally responsible and economically just societies. In “Aurora,” which came out in 2015, interstellar explorers realize that living on other planets is impractical, and return to Earth. In “2312,” humanity has spread throughout the solar system with the help of a new kind of economy—a “mondragon,” or vast, coöperative corporation, centrally planned by quantum computers. (The term comes from the Mondragon Corporation, a real and vast Spanish company that is owned by its seventy-five thousand employees, who manage it and manufacture appliances, auto parts, and other goods.)

Like Robinson’s other novels, New York 2140 is packed with political and economic details—it reads, in places, like the Metro section of the Times. Middle-class homeowners have banded together to form a “Householders Union.” Apartment buildings are environmentally self-sufficient, with solar panels, gardens, and even livestock floors. The Lower Manhattan Mutual-Aid Society, known as “lame-ass,” coördinates the sharing of resources during storms and other emergencies. The rich are ensconced in their skyscrapers, but everyone else lives in some form of commune. Many people have been displaced by climate change and “radicalized by their experiences”; they blame global warming on financiers, and on a market system that consistently underestimates the environmental costs of economic growth. The book is, among other things, a sustained critique of capitalism. After the oceans rise, the system’s central flaw is obvious and undeniable: the market “is always wrong,” one man says. “The prices are always too low, and so the world is fucked.”

The catastrophe in New York 2140 is unprecedented, but the book’s world-weary New Yorkers still feel as if they’ve seen it all before. They’re keenly aware that their city has always been a destination for refugees fleeing disaster. The story of New York, after all, is that a bunch of people whom no one wanted created the coolest city in the world; eventually, their cultural capital was turned into real capital, sometimes by them, but often by outside investors. “Wait and see what those crazy people did with it, and if it was good, buy it,” one man says, describing the attitude of global finance to post-climate-change New York. “As always, right? You brave bold hip and utterly co-opted avant-gardists, you know it already, whether you’re reading this in 2144 or 2312 or 3333 or 6666.” The joke is that, even as history repeats itself, things seems to get worse each time; New Yorkers may excel at making love among the ruins, but enough with the ruins already. After the underwater-housing bubble bursts and a Sandy-like superstorm plunges the city into chaos, the plot turns on the question of whether the government will finally nationalize the banks. Despite everything they’ve been through, their utopian imaginations remain undimmed. In the end—in ways best left undescribed—the New Yorkers of the future stand up to the system and change it.

Parts of New York 2140 are familiar. In one scene, workers put on diving gear to check on a sandbar they’re building near Ocean Parkway: in their headlamps, they see the submerged remains of Brooklyn, including “an armchair, resting on the bottom as if a living room had stood right there.” It’s the kind of uncanny, elegiac image we’ve seen in a thousand dystopias. What distinguishes Robinson’s novel is its vitality, its sense that life goes on. Today’s New Yorkers get a charge out of living amid the city’s history of struggle. Similarly, New Yorkers in 2140 love “motoring across the shallows of the Bronx,” dodging “roof reefs.” Watching waves break against the submerged apartments of Coney Island, they feel alive. They’re just like us, in other words. If they can fight climate change, why can’t we?”

To Save the City, We Had to Drown It
by Jake Swearingen  /  March 27, 2017

“In New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the towering giants of the science-fiction genre, envisions our city after it has been vastly changed by global warming. The oceans are about 50 feet higher than before; Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx are shallow, toxic seas; and what life remains is mainly in the skyscrapers, which are firmly sunk in the bedrock. The natural rise of Manhattan’s landscape means the Cloisters are the new Wall Street, and lower Manhattan is the “intertidal zone,” where the water washes up to 46th Street every 12 hours and washes back down. Sounds grim, right? But the book is, at heart, more an adventure novel than anything else, with a cast of characters — all living in a modified version of the MetLife building — making their way through a few years in a New York City that sounds a lot like New York today. There’s traffic, bad smells, and trying to figure out the shortest route to anywhere. They just happen to do it all by canal boat, diving suit, and sky bridge. We talked to Kim Stanley Robinson about his new book, why neoliberal capitalism was the only real villain in the book, and what it was like walking around modern-day New York City.”

JS: So, you look at the cover of this book. It’s set in New York in the year 2140. It’s a drowned city where the sea has risen 50 feet and every part of the city below 46th Street is underwater.
KSR: Approximately. Depends whether it’s high tide or low tide, right?
JS: Right. The tides come in to 46th Street, the tide goes back out to the bay of New York. I was expecting this very dystopian, grim novel. But it’s remarkably cheerful! It’s like one of Dickens’s happier novels, or Les Misérables where it’s this exploration of a city from the sewer system up, through all these different characters.
KSR: I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation. But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts. So I wanted to convey that as part of the vibe of this novel.

JS: It was also odd because, according to the book, my office would be underwater, my home would be underwater, and yet it’s a New York that I’d still like to live in. It almost seemed like a more humane city, a city that still calls to people, even if it’s a lot wetter.
KSR: I think if you don’t have some kind of radical-slash-social-slash-financial change in the near future, then you get a New York in the real world that becomes a rich person’s simulacrum, especially Manhattan. So, I was invoking a somewhat nostalgic, more romantic New York of the imagination that’s more human scale, more neighborhood-focused, more localized, and more kind of hand-crafted, you might call it. And that involves social relations — going back to the neighborhood sense of solidarity where your neighbors are a kind of extended family and you help them out. It was part of my notion of the comedy of coping that 40 years later a flood might not be such a bad thing for New York — even if during the flood itself it would be a tragedy.

JS: As I was reading it, I got the feeling this was a book you could have written in present-day New York. The canals and the airships and the intertidal zone in lower Manhattan wouldn’t make as much sense, but so much of it is actually about the money and the power and the community of New York.
KSR: Yeah, there were two goals going on that forced me to choose the date 2140, and those two goals cut against each other. I needed to put it far enough out in the future that I could claim a little bit of physical probability to the height of the sea-level rise of 50 feet, which is quite extreme. A lot of models have it at 15 feet, though some do say 50 feet. So I did have to go out like a 120 years from now. Cutting against that future scenario, I wanted to talk about the financial situation we’re in, this moment of late capitalism where we can’t afford the changes we need to make in order to survive because it isn’t cost effective. These economic measures need to be revised so that we pay ourselves to do the work to survive as a civilization facing climate change. I wanted a finance novel that was heavily based on what lessons we learned — or did not learn — from the crash of 2008 and 2009. All science-fiction novels are about the future and about the present at the same time.

JS: There’s a bit where, for the average person, our needs are all illiquid — you know, I need food, I need health, I need home. These are assets that are illiquid. While the needs of finance are liquidity: You need to be able to move money very quickly, and the faster you can move money, the easier it is to make money.
It’s a contradiction of goals.
KSR: Finance can predate on ordinary rent payers because in a battle between liquidity and illiquidity, the way the rules are written now, liquidity always wins. The banks and investments firms that are parasitical on us are actually vulnerable to the promise of us paying our loans as promised, but what if we didn’t? They’ve all over-leveraged themselves; given out in loans or borrowed out to 50 times as much as their own assets at hand. Promises are being treated as money, but when there’s a crash, only money works as money. A lot of paper turns to vapor. Firms crash. The economy crashes. Finance crashes. And the banks run to government, to the federal reserve, to bail them out for their bad gambling, their losing. And then we the people are paying them off.

JS: The title is New York 2140, but you could’ve called it The Drowned City or The Sunken Metropolis or all these sort of grim titles but really, the book is almost picaresque. It’s all of these fun characters having these sort of small adventures. You have these two sort of street urchins who — not to spoil the book too much — but they find treasure. You have a character who is essentially a high-frequency trader. In a lot of other books he would be the villain. He would be the guy that the other characters work against or figure out some way to take down. And instead you made him not the hero of the book, but he’s a tremendously sympathetic character.
KSR: I did that on purpose. People who succeed by using the currently shifting rules of capitalism are not villainous, nor have they broken the law or cheated. They don’t even really have to push against the boundaries of the law as it exists right now. You can indeed become enormously wealthy and still be a good person just playing the game. That point needed to be raised because, as Orson Welles once pointed out, everybody has their reasons. Very few people are thinking as a sociopath might think, that nothing matters to me. And yet we still get a bad result by way of the rules in capitalism being bad for environmental sustainability and bad for equality and adequacy for the people that don’t win at the game. So I wanted the financier — I must admit, in the first draft he was more of a jerk, but he began to step on the toes of the citizens. So with the changing of frighteningly few sentences I made him more of a geek. Not that different than my scientist characters who are funny because they try to evaluate social life as if we’re nothing but a theoretical problem in physics or sociobiology. I like my finance guy.

JS: To truly spoil the end of the book, it ends on a tremendously optimistic note. The global finance system has for years and years created these bad outcomes because bad incentives allowed for sea levels to rise, to drown coastal cities around the globe. At the end of the book that system is, for the moment, destroyed, or at least back on its heels thanks to a political and economic revolution. And I was curious, did you feel like you needed this sort of disaster to put the global finance system in a position where it could actually be taken down?
KSR: That’s a really good question, because the novel does seem to suggest that, and I don’t think that it is a proper conclusion to make in the world at large — despite what that one book seems to say. I don’t say it should be cause and effect. It’s just that it made for an interesting way to present it as a novel for me. I think in the world at large it’s best if we do that — takeover of the banks and nationalization of finance — sooner rather than later. Things are relatively stable environmentally, so that’s the kind of action that hopefully we would do right now. It’s just as easy to have a fiscal strike right now as it would be in 2140, and maybe in some cases easier because you’ve have less of a police-state, refugee-response-type situation. But it’s a beautiful question to ask because it leads into, you know, what else could you do? Can you legislate fundamental change? Essentially we need fundamental change, so we have to hope the answer is yes. Because the alternatives to legislation are all terrible. Legislation is by far the best method for big social change. Get the right congress in and the right World Trade Organization technocrats in and you change.

I guess the other thing I want to suggest in terms of these changes — what Thomas Piketty suggested as one solution in his Capital in the 21st Century — was we have a progressive taxation. Well that’s an old idea, but what made his idea shocking and scandalous for places like The Wall Street Journal or The Economist, was to suggest that you don’t just tax incomes progressively, you tax assets progressively. If you were to progressively tax capital assets and you combine that with a bit of a nationalization of finance, you get a very, very different world where government — which you then want to redefine as of the people, by the people, and for the people — government would be wealthy. And that would mean you could get universal health care as just ordinary. Social security, free college education, public education through college. And all the good things that sit there as possibilities if you could afford to do it. And that includes landscape restoration and environmental stabilization, which is very labor-intensive and very expensive but also very necessary.

JS: Jeff, one of your quants who wants to crash global capitalism, actually uses Piketty as a verb. He says, “Oh, I tried to Piketty the system.” His idea is that he would just break everything to the point where everybody can get out with ten million in assets and that’s it.
KSR: What I wanted to say with that part of the plot is you can’t hack the system, you have to legislate the system. Because hacks are reversible and they are too secret and they’re kind of like a desire for a technical, silver-bullet solution like you might get out of Silicon Valley people but in fact these are laws, global laws. So what you really need is legislation to change them and Piketty-ing the tax code. But also what Jeff was saying, which I think is clever in terms of its human wisdom, is that there’s going to be resistance from the one percent saying, I’ve got wealth and I’m not giving it up. It would be bad for me and my kids. That’s arguable. But if you said to everybody, “No, you’ll always be left with $10 million,” then those people have a cost-benefit analysis to make. Is it worth risking their lives and their political careers and all of their moral energy in fighting for more money than they really need as human beings? Or do they take the $10 million and say, “Yeah, we’d like to share the wealth.”

increase in extreme heavy participation events, from Kunkel et al. 2013

JS: What was it like creating the world for you and how much research did it take?
KSR: That was a lot of fun. Sea-level rise is coming so it’s worth thinking about because we’ve already initiated it. I took a graph of a map of Manhattan and of the greater New York region and U.S. Geological survey’s print then looked at the streets and the contour levels and I simply marked the 50-foot intervals to see what kind of an island was left, what kind of a bay. And then I walked around town with a tourist-map version of that that I had altered so that I could have a smaller version of that. I wandered around and I looked at the terrain and I looked at the streets running from like Fifth and Sixth avenues between the Empire State Building and say 20th — there’s a 10-foot drop there that would [in a 50-foot sea-level rise] be the tidal zone that is actually several blocks of the wetland at low tide, but underwater at high tide.

Even though it would be the shallows with waves breaking. But meanwhile there’d be all these fantastically expensive and very well-built buildings, although they’d be real bad on the first three floors. So you have the old MetLife [where most of the characters live]. It’s a tower, like 45 stories tall. Only about two to three stories would be underwater with this 50-foot sea-level rise. The reason I chose that building is because that building was modeled on the Campanile in San Marco Square in Venice, so it’s a joke. The architect, Napoleon LeBrun, used the Campanile as his model and the old MetLife tower is about ten times bigger than the Campanile in San Marco, but they are visually identical. I was amazed when I found out Manhattan had a Venetian building there already. So that’s why I chose that building.

“UrbanFootprint displays 100-year flood zone in Miami, Florida.”

JS: You’re a California guy, right? So you came out to New York and you kind of did these walking tours where you just imagined our poor city destroyed and underwater. What’s that feeling like? What were the emotions that you felt walking around?
KSR: It was a lot of fun. I took a boat tour that leaves from the Hudson River up in the 70s. I took one of the boat tours that goes all the way around Manhattan. I walked a whole lot. I went to Hell Gate where the HMS Hussar really did go down in 1780. It’s very fun to think that what would be about $2 billion of gold somewhere under the South Bronx. It’s really there but we can’t find it. And I went to the Cloisters, I went to Coney Island, and I went to peculiar places compared to where tourists go because I wanted to see the sea level risings, see the New York Bay as a bay. And I would say that although it was very fun and I was laughing my head off most of the time, it was also very beautiful. I sort of fell in love with New York, not just as a city but as a physical space. And there’s a reason that it’s one of the greatest cities on Earth, maybe arguably the greatest city on Earth. It has to do with its physical landscape. The whole thing is fantastically, interestingly beautiful and the infrastructure that’s been put into it is also like an Andy Goldsworthy landscape installation. How many generations — at this point, 200 years, certainly 150 years, of very intense construction work has been done and nobody ever planned it to be beautiful, but it ended up being beautiful. And also when you come from somewhere else, you don’t have to live with the hassle. I came in from California, and I would come here and it would just be like a … It would be like taking LSD and wandering around going, “I can’t believe they built this place.” I still feel that.”

by Oliver G. Alvar / January 25, 2019

Chinampas were artificial agricultural islands built on freshwater lakes throughout Mesoamerica, particularly in the region of Xochimilco, in the Valley of Mexico. These “floating” islands are, in fact, stationary. They consist of a small rectangular area, about 10 to 20 meters wide (20 to 35 feet) and 100 to 200 meters long. Many layers of vegetation, dirt, and mud are piled up to create these small rectangles, and then, these islands are placed alongside each other, with a small space between them—creating a complex series of canals (creating also the illusion that the islands are floating). The lake’s moisture irrigates the soil through the canals and organic waste fertilizes it. The result is a fruitful, intensive, sustainable, and highly productive form of agriculture that can readily support large populations.

Also known as “floating gardens,” chinampas helped establish the Aztecs as a major powerhouse in Mesoamerica during the period between the 14th and 16th centuries—although chinampas themselves date back to around the 12th century—by allowing for a sufficient food output to sustain the empire. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, was built on a natural island in the Lake Texcoco, in the heart of the Valley of Mexico. For that reason, food production and distribution was problematic, and chinampas were essential in solving that problem. Though the Aztecs didn’t technically the floating gardens, they did figure out how to apply them for large scale cultivation.

modern chinampas

The best part about chinampas? Insofar as they are sustainable, they represent no harm to the environment at all. In fact, chinampas help stimulate diverse and healthy ecosystems, as insects, birds, and fish make these islands their homes—turning an otherwise desolate swamp into a thriving environment. So, if they’re so great, why didn’t many more cultures rely on them—or use them still? Well, coming up with the idea for chinampas is actually not as easy as it sounds. They require very specific innovations and a rather creative mindset to pull off in the first place (although, once established, replicating them isn’t hard). A drainage system has to be in place in order to avoid flooding and spillage. A ditch must also be created so that accumulated mud could be placed on top of the islands, thus preventing blocking.

EzGro floating garden frame

Today, many scientists and farmers are looking back at the chinampa and adopting many of its innovative agricultural principles—most of which have been neglected since the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The Baltimore waterfront as well as the Gowanus Canal in New York are but two examples of cities that have been inspired by the Aztecs outside of Mexico, as more and more ecological companies are looking to adopt similar methods. Hopefully, this will become a common practice throughout the world and help deal with some of the environmental crisis Earth is currently going through.”

Chinampas of Tenochtitlan

“Mexico City, a thriving metropolis of 20 million, is built on and around the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.  Founded in 1325, this city was at its greatest a sophisticated and technologically-advanced city of 200,000 inhabitants nestled in the valley of Mexico and surrounded by a series of connected lakes. The market district, Tlatelolco, was estimated by Spanish explorer Bernal Diaz del Castillo to be twice the size of Seville and bustling with over 60,000 shoppers and traders.

Chinampa at Xochimilo

The produce and goods for this market and several others in the city came mostly from the intricate and efficiently irrigated gardens created by the Aztecs in the shallow lakes surrounding the city. These gardens, called chinampas , were artificial island plots of 30 x 2.5-3 meters.  These “floating gardens”  produced 3 crops a year and grew at least a half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the 200,000 residents of Tenochtitlan.

Farmers collecting mud from the bottom of a canal for fertilizer (Site)

Irrigated by the surrounding lake water, the chinampas were fertilized by digging up the nutrient-rich mud from the bottom of the canals and also by using human waste from the city itself.  In this way, Tenochtitlan was able to better fertilize its crops while treating its wastewater― creating a healthier living environment for all. (5)  Crops were easily transported to market along the many canals and lakes surrounding the chinampas.

When the spaniards arrived it did not take them long to dismantle the complex system and put in place traditional monocropping.  Today, some chinampas survive in the Xochimilo area close to Mexico City (5). They are cared for in the traditional way and create both food and an opportunity for a healthy tourist industry (6). Mexico city is currently trying to create a waste-water treatment system incorporating the use of chinampas similar to the ones used by the Aztecs so long ago (7). Similar aqua-terra systems were found in traditional agriculture around the world such as Java, China, India, and many others (Urban Ag book, UN).”




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