How Imagination Will Save Our Cities

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2017 science-fiction novel New York 2140, the city of the future has become a vertical super-Venice, after being flooded by rising seas caused by global warming melting the Arctic ice caps.1 While the lower stories of many of Manhattan’s skyscrapers have been overtaken by the sea, residents continue to live in those above, accessing them via boathouses and pontoons. A tangle of sky-bridges connect the lofty heights of many of these skyscrapers, the streets beneath now canals traversed by countless boats and gondolas. Ruins litter the intertidal zone, inhabited by the desperate and the poor; while airships agglomerate above the buildings into sky villages. Robinson’s imagined New York of the future hasn’t succumbed to the ravaging effects of climate change; rather, it has adapted to the changes by radically reshaping its built environment.

Despite the fact that climate change is already affecting vulnerable cities like New York—principally featuring an increased incidence and severity of urban flooding—it remains a phenomenon that is dominated by future predictions. Even by the cautious estimates of the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014, cities are in for a rough ride in the next century. By 2100 the rise in global temperatures is almost certain to exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and, alarmingly, already reached that level for a short time in early 2016. Sea levels will rise by anything up to a meter, or more if current predictions prove to be over-optimistic (and  is based on an estimated rise of 15 meters, or 49 1/4 feet, over the next 100 years). Cities are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly coastal or tidal-river-based conurbations—including 22 of the world’s major cities according to the Stern Review of 2006.

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