The process of urbanization plays a pivotal role in disrupting the ecological balance of our planet, and as the speed of global urbanization has drastically accelerated during the past century, the extent of the environmental re-ordering fueled by human activities has reached the planetary scale, ushering in a new geological epoch of the Anthropocene. The ecological impact of urbanization reaches beyond the immediate physical footprints of the cities; the urban and the rural, and the artificial and the natural share a common fate in an intricately symbiotic entanglement. Any process of transformation in one consequently affects the other through multiple feedback loops, forging a tight link between the future of cities and the fate of the planet. When the uncontrolled natural system makes occasional disruptions in the form of floods, fires, or viruses, they’re quickly suppressed, sanitized, and cleaned up. Calling for a more defiant earth, we call on ourselves and our cities to be more resilient in the face of these disasters. An image of a resilient and defiant city is a reassuring symbol for the stability of the current system, and further legitimizes the human dominance over the entire ecological spectrum.
Why are we asking our cities to be resilient—to bounce back from new existential threats over and over again? If by resilience we mean high tolerance for pain and the ability to adapt to new forms of aggression, a resilient city is by definition resistant to any fundamental change. Implicit in our call for resilience is a strong desire to maintain the utopic bubble of isolated existence immune to all forms of intrusion—pollution, viruses, and refugees. But a different paradigm is gaining strength, calling for a radical departure from the technology-driven paradigm, in favor of a new cosmology that embraces indeterminacy, nonlinearity and uncertainty. A new cosmology suggests a possibility of a more balanced and more symmetrical relations between human and non-human assemblages, in which humans willingly concede control to nonhuman fields long subjected to unilateral extraction and submission, to form a more benign, balanced, and horizontal constellation. It is an open and indeterminate system, in which disparate systems are neither completely split off as autonomous entities, nor seamlessly fused into a composite artifice.
As humans must self-isolate to stop the spread of viral diseases out of respect for each individual’s right to survival, cities can form resilient assemblages with nature in a more organic and indeterminate way to allow the natural life forms to self-isolate whenever it becomes necessary. This new form of bio-urbanization will drastically reduce the human agency in determining the fate of our planet. An antidote to the asymmetrical dominance of humans over nonhumans is not reaching for the other extreme of excessive interconnection, but an ecology of separation based on mutual respect and relational resilience. In lieu of hyper-connectivity, an ecology of isolation has a built-in buffer for maintaining a proper distance, fostering resilient assemblages across ecological, social and metabolic spheres.
First, the new ecological sphere will require a different form of urbanization characterized by nonlinearity and complexity. Most cities are designed to make nature invisible, with all surfaces draped in sterilized veneer of artificial materials. An absence of wilderness within the urban environment creates an illusion of total control over the metabolic processes of life, and a false sense of bio-security. But in the future of resilient assemblages, the city and nature will form a seamless and elastic continuum. When humans recognize that we are equally vulnerable members within the planetary ecosystem, and that our survival and prosperity cannot justify asymmetrical sacrifices or extinction of other species, our cities will become more sustainable, and more resilient, ushering in a new era of shared happiness.
Secondly, our future cities will foster a new network of relationships between humans and non-human systems, realigning the ontological relations between humans and machines, both physical and digital. Whereas the future of our cities will embrace the wilderness in its metabolic sphere, the underlying philosophical foundation will be built upon the posthuman understanding of our universe both in its physical and virtual spheres. Reaching beyond the understanding of the posthuman condition as a symmetrical entanglement between human and nonhuman animals, we will soon form equal partnerships with the world of objects and non-life forms, or in other words, redefine the meaning of life altogether. The cities of our future will require an intricate support system based on complex nonhuman systems, forming a new constellation of human-machine continuum. The image of Bruce McCandless’s first untethered spacewalk is emblematic of this new condition in which the human body is entirely hidden and supported by the machine, and his survival, or very existence is entirely fused with that of his machine. In the cities of the future, the complex algorithms within the supercomputers will guide various decision-making processes for all aspects of our urban governance, from infrastructure to welfare. Self-driving cars and other forms of smart mobility will rapidly synchronize human movements. At times humans will serve the machines, as is the case already with the young engineers who sleep inside the Bitcoin mining facility to reboot the computers when they crash.
Lastly, this new attitude of mutual respect will lead to new social relations with greater equity and social resilience. But these visions are no more than informed predictions, or opinions of a few visionaries. Nothing is inevitable, and the trajectory of our urbanization must be re-examined and re-aligned by all of us who must come together to share our experiences, opinions, and dreams. The fate of our cities depends on our ability to come together, and living together has often led to unavoidable risks, diseases, and disasters. The cities of the future will have to come up with new ways of bringing people together while allowing for an ecology of separation, forming a more resilient ties among the individuals without forcing them into involuntary contacts. A more sustainable social network will require a renewed commitment to inclusivity and participation.
The cities are at a crossroads. More than ever, cities are becoming a contested battle field where many complex issues intersect, and it is time to come together, before it’s too late, to re-align the trajectory of the urban transformation toward a future of sustainability, resilience, and shared happiness. The future is unknowable, and to imagine the unknown, we rely on myths and fictions. All dreams, opinions, and views are equally valid. But the future will not simply arrive through the passage of time, but must be shaped by those who first visualize it and actively persuade others to follow their collective vision.