According to the European Commission, 56% of people currently live in urban areas. By the end of the century, this figure is expected to rise to 85%, at which point the global urban population will exceed 9 billion.
Obviously, this trend presents a huge challenge for urban planners, architects and civil engineers, who will have to figure out how to provide enough infrastructure to support this huge rise in city living while still striving to achieve emissions targets for a sustainable climate.
In Saudi Arabia, The Line is an ambitious project to create a city of nine million people housed in a single building 500m tall, 200m wide, and 170km long. Using solar power and public transport, the designers aim to make the entire structure emission-free.
If this sounds like something from science fiction, that’s because science fiction authors have been writing about similar self-contained communities for decades.
The term arcology was first coined in 1969 by architect Paolo Soleri, who envisioned an enclosed community containing residential, agricultural and commercial zones while minimising the environmental impact of its citizens.
As an almost hermetic system, an arcology can use its resources more efficiently, and cut down its population’s physical footprint. Elevators and electric trains within the building eliminate the need for cars. Waste materials can be efficiently captured and recycled, and the roof of the building can be used for agriculture and wind or solar farms. At the same time, water would be heated centrally and piped hot to whomever needed it; food could be ordered and delivered using automatic delivery systems; and the ability to control the climate for millions of people using one system would save more energy than would be the case if everyone lived in separate dwellings with their own air-conditioning.
As our world changes, it becomes easier to imagine that the rich will become more willing to live in gated communities offering them some insulation from the rest of society. However, this kind of enclosed life may have its drawbacks.
In 1981’s Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle postulated a thousand-foot-tall arcology in the centre of LA, where the inhabitants lived a secure, if constantly monitored, life untroubled by the poverty and unemployment plaguing the surrounding city.
In William Gibson’s classic 1984 novel Neuromancer, individual corporations have constructed their own arcologies, where their employees live and work under the supervision of their employer.
However, stories of people living happy lives in ideal environments can be quite dull, so Niven and Pournelle throw in a plot about terrorism and sabotage by those excluded from life in the building, and Gibson portrays the society in the shadow of the corporations as a dystopia peopled with gangsters and hustlers, all trying to make a buck.
In other imagined futures, things also go badly. J. G. Ballard’s High Rise chronicles the descent into madness and savagery that occurs when the inhabitants of a self-contained building find themselves trapped inside; and in Judge Dredd, the giant arcologies that form the individual ‘blocks’ of Mega City One have become anarchic, violent slums presided over by the fascist judges.
But even without these more apocalyptic scenarios, life in an arcology could become uncomfortable in far subtler ways.
In order to function efficiently, the building would need to monitor your electricity and water usage, the materials you use and recycle, as well as your preferences in food and entertainment, maybe even your health and medical records. The minutiae of your life would be recoded and stored somewhere, so that your doctor would be able to tell how often you access the building’s gym; your health insurer would penalise you for ordering unhealthy foods; and your television would show you adverts based on your past purchases. In short, you would be living in a corporate panopticon where every scrap of data about you would be collected and fed into an algorithm.
This could be useful, for instance if you had a fall and needed to alert the building’s emergency response team, but like social media, such all-pervading surveillance could also be manipulated as a form of social control.
Life within an arcology offers a range of notable benefits, such as lack of commuting, insulation from the climate, centralised amenities, and an emphasis on sustainability through better use of resources. However, the potential downsides include restricted privacy and isolation from the external world, not to mention the challenges of engineering these huge, safe and lasting structures in the first place.
Nobody really knows what our urban future will look like, but the one thing we can be sure of is that it will be crowded!
Gareth L. Powell is an award-winning author known for his thriller-style pacing, mordant wit, and complex, achingly human characters – as well as for the encouragement and advice he offers aspiring writers. You can find him online at https://garethlpowell.substack.com