Cities. And earth. And living rooms in Seoul.

"It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped."

 

This series of photos accompanies the article I mention here, on urban living and the future of the planet. They are photographs of families in Seoul, South Korea, in their identical 150-square-foot living room spaces in the Evergreen Tower highrise. Of Seoul's 24 million people, more than half live in highrises. Many consider them safer and a better investment for families than single-family dwellings. They are also vastly more energy efficient. Photos by Yeondoo Jung for National Geographic

 Last weekend I watched Contagion, a recent Hollywood rendition of what would happen to the planet and its people if there was a massive, contagious disease that wreaked devastation and death, spreading so quickly and aggressively that its MO was "figuring us out faster than we can figure it out." Characters race against time in the film, doctors at the CDC (including Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard), and other health institutes around the world, traveling and researching to find out what caused this outbreak and how to solve it, immunize against it.

And what do we learn about humanity? We are not nearly as orderly and respective to each other during crisis as the model Japanese refugees were during last year's triple-crisis earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. In fact, we panic, we flee, we become violent and kill each other to find food, to secure our own families. The scenes that play out as the epidemic spreads (and as fear spreads even more quickly) are terrifying and thought-provoking. What if this actually happened? Would many of us fall not by the hand of the disease that threatens, but by the hands of our own neighbors, in the spirit of the outrageous moment in which we find ourselves?

It's not Oscar-worthy, per se, but I found the theoretical situation enthralling--precisely because it was also horrifying. I would not want to live through this kind of awful moment for humanity. Us at our very worst.

It also made me think about the structure of our world, and a recent article in National Geographic about the future of our planet, and how cities can save us. I agree wholeheartedly, that, rather than the festering dirty urban spaces they have often been perceived as (and actualized as) in history, cities offer us a sustainable option for the survival of seven billion people (and an estimated nine billion by 2050), as people living in cities tread lightly on the earth: "Their roads, sewers, and power lines are shorter. Their apartments take less energy to heat and cool. Most important: they drive less." Denser populations in cities have the added effect of lessening our use of remaining green space, forests, and natural areas and reservations. Humans and the earth alike need these green spaces an essential survival components--for our human psyche, and for the earth, literal survival.

As cities become more and more the agent of our sustainable survival, they should not all expand as Atlanta did. Sprawl and the massive expansion of suburbs have not helped or lowered our dependency on large amounts of energy. James Howard Kunstler, a critic of suburbia, called Atlanta "a pulsating slime mold," a quotation that did manage to be included in the Nat Geo article, luckily for us Atlantans. But Atlanta is a perfect example of terrible teamwork among metropolitan counties, who could not agree on a transit system that stretched throughout the area, and so we are heavily, begrudgingly, seemingly irreversibly dependent on our clogged highways.

Theorists have had ideas and arguments for and against how we should design our cities for hundreds of years. Greenbelts surrounding cities were one proposed plan for stopping city growth, when it was perceived that urban centers that were too big would eat up all remaining space outside their centers. But as this set definitive borders to what would be considered the city, "greenbelts had the effect of pushing people farther out, sometimes absurdly far," says Peter Hall in the article, a planner and historian at University College London.

Brisilia, the planned capital of Brazil, was designed for 500,000 people; two million more now live beyond the lake and park that were supposed to block the city's expansion. When you  try to stop urban growth, it seems, you just amplify sprawl.

...Other government policies, such as subsidies for highways and home ownership, have [also] coaxed the suburbs outward.

The argument then, and the solution as well, is that you don't try to stop city growth. You try to stop the suburban sprawl, and have your citizens living closer to where they work and play. What has been happening with more and more use and dependency on oil to fuel our cars and big, suburban houses in the United States is happening on an ever-greater level as China and India develop, and their citizens want the same ideas of the affluent, consumer life. As this trend quickens its pace, a solution becomes more important than ever. History has not always favored the teeming urban center. It has been seen as corrupting of the mind, dirty, disease-ridden, and a slew of other things. Which are valid claims, especially, rightfully, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But there's a valid twenty-first century reevaluation and outlook:

Developing cities will inevitably expand, says [Shlomo Angel, an urban planning professor at New York University and Princeton]. Somewhere between the anarchy that prevails in many today and the utopianism that has often characterized urban planning lies a modest kind of planning that could make a big difference. It requires looking ahead decades, Angel says, and reserving land, before the city grows over it, for parks and a dense grid of public transit corridors. It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped. 

So we need to begin thinking about our cities as our saviors, and thinking about it seriously, even if, as I began this cheery post, we also risk the same things that have always been risky about cities: we're all really close together, sharing buses, subways, hallways, all manner of public spaces. An event like the one in Contagion isn't impossible, and cities are not the best places to stay if that did occur, as I was brutally reminded during the film. But Hollywood has not convinced me that the argument for cities isn't worth our investment of time, thought, money, and lifestyle.

I hope you enjoy peeking into these Seoul living rooms as much as I did. It was one of my favorite series of photographs to ever appear in the magazine. There's something so universal about our living spaces. 

"Let us begin by discussing the weather"

So spoke the southern historian U. B. Phillips at the start of his book Life and Labor in the Old South, which was published in 1929, and in which he argued the environment as having a very existent role in cultural development. Several generations of historians later, and the field of environmental history has expanded considerably in scope and range of topics and sources involved. Not to mention, we are slightly more aware as a society (and planet) of our responsibility to the earth and the of the frivolity of some of our past business with it.

In a very significant way, much of the discipline of history focuses on the human story: human relationships, triumphs, failures, innovations, war, spirit, and, occasionally, growth. It becomes quite easy to forget the very scene on which this all takes place; but as it likes to remind us from time to time, nature trumps human power when it wants to. Man wields great machines to change the shape of it, but he cannot invent enough devices to fully manipulate the land as he wants.

This week we focused on environmental history in my Georgia history class, and we read Mart A. Stewart's "What Nature Suffers to Groe:" Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920, and it struck a chord with almost every person in my class. Besides the author's obvious mastery of prose, he told the story of the Georgia coastal plane where nature itself becomes a character in the narrative. I can honestly say no one had ever presented history to me this way before, with such a significant role being played by something that is always there, yet essentially absent--unless it is in relation to its interaction with man. We certainly learn about landscape, and we can identify geological traits of specific areas of the globe, and we hopefully learn a fair bit of geography so as to give the world spatial organization; but through Stewart's eye, the land itself is center stage, in a shockingly exciting way.

The most striking and significant fact to take away from Stewart’s work on low country history is that there were three main characters in the drama of the low country: the natural landscape, which had been there thousands of years prior and forced its inhabitants to cooperate and adapt, African American slaves, who worked the land to the point that they developed an immensely intimate connection to it, and the white men, who tried in earnest to manipulate and coerce these other players, both of which were in fact much too powerful to ever completely defer to the European plan.

The importance of place in understanding history cannot be diminished; landscape--that is, latitude, weather, soil, water, tide, flora and fauna--is inextricably entangled with every cultural era and social episode in our past. Yet it rarely plays as large a role in the history of a region, beyond a brief geography lesson as a primer. I risk sounding hyperbolic in my description, but it was a profound thought, for many of us in my class, and one that we discussed in earnest earlier tonight. Let us not separate the very material that creates our world from the existence it has allowed us to assemble. Let us begin with the weather, indeed.