In The Future of Futures, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, the architect and futurist Cindy Frewen has an essay called ‘The Temporary City’, which opens up the idea that as the global population starts to shrink, so our cities will start to shrink as well. Globally, this may not happen until the 2040s or 2050s, although others see it as happening sooner (Jorgen Randers, in 2052, projects it to the 2030s). But whatever the global picture some countries and some cities will experience depopulation and de-urbanisation sooner, as the case of Detroit shows us.
I liked the essay because it takes a familiar futures idea – the apparent inevitability of urbanisation – and points a bright light at it, challenging our assumptions. And we know from our recent history that de-urbanisation can be ugly; there is a quality in some of the pictures of Detroit’s abandoned public buildings which is reminiscent of the about-to-be abandoned Precinct 13 police station in John Carpenter’s film. Similarly, when New York shrank in the 1970s, the city’s collapsing tax base brought it close to bankruptcy.
London, too, shrank in the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps with more positive results; the empty housing in the city centre areas attracted activists and innovators to the city, I don’t want to stretch the point too far, but it as least arguable that London’s eminence now as a cultural hub is at least partly due to the wave of young people who found their way into the city through that cheap housing (see, for example, Joe Boyd’s account of the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival in White Bicycles.
I’ve written here before (a couple of times) about the accelerating disaster befalling the world’s fish, as a combination of market-driven greed, vastly improved technology, short-termism and weak governance combine to allow a vast amount of over-fishing.
Earlier this month (via an article in the Financial Times) I picked up on the latest annual State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The argument is summarised by the FT in one line: “too many countries have too many boats doing too good a job”. And while this is pretty much what it has said each year since 1994, this year the tone has changed. They’ve moved from palliative concern to something a little more strident, at least by the standards of international organisations.
I was prompted by a post on the Smithsonian blog a few months ago to go back to read The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. The Smithsonian post had evaluated the Limits’ 1972 main case projections against actual consumption to 2000, and found them impressively close. Since the most common outcome of the model is “overshoot and collapse”, in a bit more than a decade’s time, it seemed a good idea to understand it a bit better. Quotes and page numbers are from the 30-Year Update edition, published by Earthscan in London in 2005.