Monday, March 1, 2010

New York City, 3650

I've been thinking about New York City quite a bit more lately than I usually do. Partly because one of those nifty ideas that's been wandering somewhere in my brain's infrastructure popped out into the front office last week.

The basic idea isn't anything new: it's a setting for what could be a sequence of 'club tales.' Sort of like the 'Mr. Mulliner' short stories by P. G. Wodehouse (which are not speculative fiction at all); or A. C. Clarke's "Tales from the White Hart" (which is).

The best location for this place, I decided, would be on Earth, in a major city, and about 16 centuries from now. Almost any period after the advent of the short circuit would do: but that's roughly when my 'Blue Buzzard' stories are, so I'd only have to do background research once for both sets.

So, what would a "city of the future" look like? Probably not quite like this:
"This painting by Frank R. Paul's of a city of the future and is pretty typical of such predictions. The city is a massive pile of steel, plastic and glass put together in a way that not only has no past, but actively rejects it. It is a place of heroic technology with skyscrapers the size of whole districts, roof-top aerodromes, wide pedestrian boulevards, and metal roadways strangely devoid of traffic. There are even urban space launch pads where giant rockets are winched upright before blasting off to the heavens. Noise regulations, Shmoise regulations...."

"...If there is one thing that united the artist-prophets, it was a fascination with gigantism. Since the most impressive engineering feats of the early 20th century were bigger and better dams, bridges, canals, and whatnot, it seemed only reasonable that the cities of future ages would look as though they needed a round of thyroid treatments...."
("Future City," "Skyscraper World," Tales of Future Past)
David S. Zondy, creator of Tales of Future Past, has a point: those illustrations from the 20s and 30s of cities of the future showed huge buildings. And, quite often, elevated roadways.

Now that megamalls are news only when something newsworthy happens in them, maybe it isn't quite so cool to imagine megastructures.

Cool or not, New York City in my 37th century is going to have to have some fair-sized buildings. Or I'll have to radically change what I've got planned for Earth in my stories.

Starting with a population somewhat northwards of 100 times what we have now.

Flint Knives to International Harvester: Change Happens

We couldn't feed that many people today. But I've done a little research: and that's not a crazy-high figure. Of course, it would mean bringing agricultural technology up to 1975 state-of-the-art around the world. Just as important, we couldn't have too many countries where the primary function of most people was keeping dear leader supplied with fresh lobster. But I'm getting off-topic.

A Hundred Times as Many People? However Will Earth Survive?

My 37th century Earth won't look just what we've got today: but I'm not talking about the 'dying planet' stuff mentioned in "Avatar" (2009).

What I think many doomsters forget is that human beings are biological entities. We consume organic material, water and oxygen. But it doesn't stay inside us. On a time scale of seconds to hours, most of what went in comes out again. We can't consume what we excrete, at that point, but quite a few organisms can: and eventually we, or someone like us, will get the same molecules again. It's a system that's been working for hundreds of millions of years: and I think is likely to keep recycling, whether trilobites, dinosaurs, or we are pushing part of the process along.

Will it be different, with more than a hundred times as many people around as there are now? Of course. It's different now, compared to the 'good old days' when there were only a few million of us. (See " 'The Dream' - a Short-Short Story," for a look at today's world as a hideously-overcrowded future)

Back to New York City, ca. 3650

As it stands today, New York City can't handle another 99 people for everybody who lives and works there now. But quite a bit can be changed in 1,650 years.

I did a little checking, and found that many (most, where I looked) buildings around New York City's Central Park were about 15 stories tall, with some around 20. Near the south end of the island, they're taller, of course. But that 15-story range gave me something to start with.

You can't just add more floors to a building and leave it at that. Aside from structural considerations, people in the upper floors will want to get down to ground level now and again. We manage that in today's skyscrapers with elevators. Which takes up floor space - books have been written on the subject: the bottom line is that there are limits with the technology we have now. 'Sky lobbies' are a partial solution.

We might wind up with something like those old aerial roadways, after all.

With a blithe wave of the hand, I took New York City's skyline, and multiplied in by a hundred. Vertical transport? I'll figure that out later.

Those buildings around Central Park would be 15 x 10 x 100 = 15,000 feet tall. That's almost three miles. The park is less than a mile across. The place would be a trench: "scarier than it is now," as my oldest daughter put it.

Just How High Will We Build?

I did a quick check, and found out that five kilometers is almost the limit for how far up you'll find cities - Wenzhuan is 16,730 feet, or 5,019 meters, above sea level.

People can live there, obviously - but I'm not sure how much higher we'd go before the air was uncomfortably thin.

So my Central Park is surrounded by buildings around 15,000 feet tall? No problem: Air's breathable at that altitude, and I'm still not worrying about vertical transport.

Central Park's being at the bottom of a three-mile-deep trench is an aesthetic issue - which I'll ignore for now.

Incremental Growth?

There was a story where New York City was destroyed and rebuilt as a cube, two miles on a side. ("City Cube," Tomorrow's Skyline, Tales of Future Past)

That could probably be done. Napoleon III's government leveled good-sized parts of Paris, laying out the groundwork of what we've got today. ("Streets of Paris," James Chastain (1999, 2004)) There's pretty good reason to believe that the streets of Paris today are so wide and straight because the civic leaders wanted the citizenry exposed to light, air and cannon fire.

The mid-1800s were a colorful period. And another topic.

Apart from phenomena like Napoleon III and urban renewal, though, cities tend to grow one piece at a time. That's why today's New York City has brownstones, modernist architecture, and a jumble of other styles being used side-by-side.

I rather like the effect, myself.

Right now, I'm playing with the idea that 1,650 years from now New York City will have grown more-or-less gradually. No two-mile-high cubes.

A quick sketch of the south end of Manhattan with a height limit of about 15,000 feet didn't look too crazy. I don't know whether to look at making that end of the island taller - or spreading out the 'downtown' area.

To keep the buildings from looking like improbably elongated mega-pencils, I've assumed that Manhattan will continue to be high-value property: valuable enough for organizations to buy several blocks and build a single structure over them.

We've got something like that happening in Chicago. But that's yet another topic, and it's getting late.

Vaguely-related posts:


  1. 'And cannon fire' lol

    Oh, and a typo: "will want to get to get down"

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader.

  2. Brigid,

    Thanks! (I rather liked that phrase, myself.)

    I'm fixing the typo - also thanks.


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