Climate change is the biggest challenge facing the planet. Addressing that challenge may require completely reimagining how we live on it.
A radical new proposal envisions a climate solution in the form of a city designed to accommodate the Earth’s entire population. This so-called Planet City would have 10 billion people living in 1.4 million neighborhoods climbing 165 stories high in an area covering just 0.02% of the Earth’s surface. The rest of the planet would be set aside as a vast, people-free wilderness.
Like the best science fiction, this 10-billion-person city isn’t so much a plan for the future as a critique of the present. In envisioning how such an audacious city could work, it suggests ways the cities we have now can be much more sustainable.
Planet City is the brainchild of Liam Young, an architect and production designer who creates environments for film and TV. He is also head of the fiction and entertainment graduate program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Through a film that explores the buildings, infrastructures, and cultures of this imagined city, Young has created a vision of how cities can evolve to address the challenges of a changing climate, and the limitations of resources our society has largely squandered.
“Climate change is no longer a technological problem,” Young says. “We’re not sitting around waiting for some new technology to save us. Most of the solutions are hiding in plain sight.”
The design of Planet City is based on these solutions, many of which are either in development or are already mature technologies. One example is pumped storage hydro power, a type of renewable energy battery that uses solar and wind power to move water uphill and then drain it downhill through turbines. Such a system would power Planet City while also forming a system of waterways where algae and fish farms would provide food. Solar panels would line the canyons of buildings, and waste recycling based on NASA’s Mars research would create a closed-loop agriculture system.
Young’s Planet City aims to be more of a thought experiment than a typical solutions-centric utopia, as other architects have proposed. “To try and avoid some of the pitfalls of other speculative or utopian architectural projects, the entirety of Planet City emerges from the application of research and existing technologies,” Young explains.
He recently gave a TED Talk on Planet City and published a book on the concept with contributions by urban experts, including Saskia Sassen, and science fiction writers, including Kim Stanley Robinson. The book blends analysis and fiction to argue that designing a city for the entire world’s population can show us how to better design the world as it currently is.
It’s not just a question of design. Young says the project is also a response to “the complete failure of nation states and existing political systems to do anything meaningful in response to climate change.” He says it will be cultural movements that build the pressure that brings about solutions.
That’s why a major part of Young’s project explores the cultures of this imagined city. Working with costume designer Ane Crabtree, known for her work on Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, Young developed a series of costumes worn by Planet City residents for the various festivals, celebrations, and subcultural gatherings that weave their way through the massive city. Drawing on the harvest festivals that societies around the world celebrate, these costumes relate directly to the systems that enable Planet City to function. There are veil-shrouded beekeepers, horn-hatted shepherds of autonomous produce harvesters, and patchworked weavers embodying the city’s zero-waste ethos.
In contrast to the often dystopian view of future cities in other science fiction, Young says these costumes and cultural practices represent a more optimistic vision for how humans can embrace life-sustaining systems of the future. “If we start to imagine what a harvest festival looks like in rows and rows of automated crops, then I think we start to come to terms with how that kind of infrastructure can be reimagined in a new world,” he says.
Young says Planet City is an attempt to show policymakers, designers, and urban residents what it will look like to live in a world reshaped by the large-scale reactions that are needed in the face of climate change. Rather than sugarcoat it, he says the design of the city is meant to show just how dramatically the world will need to change to fix the problems we’ve created.
“A lot of people who look at the city are used to images of a utopian future being green . . . windmills on rooftops and furry green plants on every building. They’re initially resistant,” he says. “Ultimately I think there’s beauty in the landscape of the city we’ve made, but it’s a beauty that’s confronting.”