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The Spacefaring Web 2.1: Goldilocks Cities
John Carter McKnight
January 9, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

A recent Sunday drive turned into research on space settlement design, as we visited three very different outposts of humanity in an extreme environment, the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix, Arizona. Each project can be seen as a model for a trend in the space movement: corporate complex, declining guruís edifice, growth-limited ecotown. Like Goldilocksí porridge, two fall somewhat short of their potential while the third was just right. Each, while confounding my prejudices, has much to teach about our future offplanet homes. One tentative conclusion is that the technical obstacles of closed-cycle living are nothing for us next to the psychological and cultural challenges of building a rich and rewarding life in a circumscribed environment.

After writing on planned communities (common interest developments, or CIDs), I decided to visit the CID voted best in America by a trade association, the community of Anthem. My experience of first-generation CIDs on Long Island and in Southern California left me with a deep distaste for what I saw as their architectural monotony, bedroom-community sterility and obnoxious rulemongering. Anthem is something different: a town, almost. The parks and sidewalks were full of people on a Sunday afternoon. The sales office boasts home customization software and broadband connections, trumpeting its connectivity almost as much as its two elementary schools. It was almost as if the designers had specifically addressed a generation of critics of CID living or designed for a generation with tastes very different from the Industrial Age corporate families of the early CIDs.

Joel Kotkin (The New Geography, p. 39) calls these second-generation planned communities nerdistans, a more lifestyle-driven second wave of development often characterized by conscious planning to accommodate the amenity needs of knowledge industries and their workers. This is in fact what the design of an L5 Island One colony would require. Anthem comes close, and its successes and shortcomings both have implications for space settlement design.

Anthemís site in the desert well north of the Phoenix megalopolis genuinely is an extreme environment, with routine 115 degree summer days and negligible rainfall or local water supply. The political implications of settlement here were noted by Balkan Ghosts author Robert D. Kaplan (An Empire Wilderness, p. 175):

"Had the United States been settled from west to east rather than the other way around, the big government agencies necessitated by scarce water would have preceded the freeman tradition that took root on the well-watered slopes of the Appalachians in eighteenth century, and a mild form of what Karl Marx called ĎOriental despotismí highly centralized and authoritarian regimes like those that built the great water and earthworks in India, China and Mexico might have arisen here. "

Yet much development in the region tends to blithely recreate the living patterns of milder regions as evidenced by the coffee-table books on Arizona golf courses. Many developments maintain the suburban lawn fetish, the sprinklered greens jarring in an arid pastel landscape. To Anthemís credit, while having the inescapable golf course, it relies heavily on native flora and recycled water for irrigation. Although the xeriscape is an alien landscape for most Americans, Anthem demonstrates that it can be sold to relocating Californians and Midwesterners. Similarly, an Island One need not recreate an Atlantic habitat to be attractive, or the Hawaiian climate OíNeill describes (The High Frontier, p. 7). It would be useful to calculate the mass- and cost-savings of designing a desert rather than forest habitat: I suspect that the savings in refinement, transport and recycling of water alone would be non-trivial, not to mention the savings in machinery maintenance in an arid environment.

Yet Anthem falls short of being a true nerdistan in two respects. While graced with a water park and indoor rock-climbing wall, it falls short of being what the New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe (The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream, p.11) describes as pedestrian pockets: neighborhoods of housing parks and schools placed within walking distance of shops, civic services, jobs and transport. Anthem lacks the vital draw of an district like Santa Monicaís Promenade or Boulderís Pearl Street Mall: itís a good forty miles to the nearest bookstore, Chinese restaurant or boutique, despite the nearby outlet mall. While designed as a young familyís community, a downtown of shops and apartments catering to first-job professionals would add an economic base and a vitality attractive to families as well, as the cities above have learned. CID housing tends to be segregationist: by age, race, lifestyle. Economic and cultural dynamism is driven by integration, by the creative ferment from juxtaposing diverse elements. One wonders whether space-based industrial towns will be as whitebread as Southern California aerospace-industry CIDs or as diverse as the global workforce of Silicon Valley. At any rate, the value, both cultural and economic, of heterogeneity is great enough to merit hardwiring it into settlement design.

Anthemís interior designs similarly fail to take into account changes in demographics and desires of Kotkinís knowledge workers. The layouts would be immediately familiar to June Cleaver, with their master bedrooms, two small childís rooms, separate dining rooms and the like. Little or no provision is made for a proper home office, or for the postnuclear nature of the modern family. Unthinking assumptions of continuity are the plague of any design. A trip to Home Base and a little flouting of the CC&Rs could enable fixes at Anthem when the hardware store is days or months away, the consequences of shortsighted design are much greater.

As I was prepared to sneer at Anthem, similarly was I expecting to love the nearby urban laboratory of Arcosanti. The complex is the brainchild of architect Paolo Soleri, whose writings show astonishing good sense, keen insight and unusual ideological flexibility. Arcosanti was created as a technological and cultural testbed for alternatives to suburban sprawl, explicitly with space settlement implications. I was expecting some cross between JPL and the Barcelona Guggenheim; what I found called to mind a Mad Max future in which two generations of hippies had commandeered a 70s-era science museum, down to the chipped poured concrete walls. Or a half-abandoned Mars base populated by the degenerate descendants of lost colonists.

Soleri has grasped a fundamental, overlooked truth of space settlements: their culture as well as their physical environment will be shaped by a necessary frugality of goods, resources and space. Arcosanti was an effort to model these conditions in an environment conducive to the development of such social frugality. It attempted to break from, rather than build out of, mainstream culture. As with many a utopia, it did not attract sufficient support to thrive. Yet as Soleri himself indicates, experiments teach even when they fail there is much to learn from Arcosanti and Soleri, and I will be returning to them in future columns.

Some conclusions about the place, however, seem inescapable. Itís not hard to see the dark future of space advocacy in a place like this. It marks the yawning gap between dynamic visions and dynamism, between a founderís driving will and a thriving community. In moving from books and speeches to concrete, Soleriís vision became inflexible and marginalized. With all that Soleri has to say, there is no evident dialog between Arcosanti and the world of urban designers such as Anthemís Del Webb. Purity of doctrine rather than constructive engagement seems to rule the place; not coincidentally, after a generation, Arcosantís brochure requests donations for the access road, still unpaved even with good intentions. A failed movement is one that cannot sustain a mid-career leadership cadre, relying on a core of old-guard true believers and a rapid turnover among young idealists. Arcosanti is a cautionary tale for anyone, including those in the space movement, seeking to change the world from the outside, choosing the ideal over the possible. Many of the space advocacy groups have tendencies towards all these failings: Arcosanti is a reminder of the communityís fate should it fail to become more flexible, relevant and inclusive.

Our third stop that Sunday from the first moment past the parking lot was Goldilocksí last bowl: this was just right, magnificently so. We capped off the day just before sunset at Montezumaís Castle (a folk misnomer, having nothing to do with Montezuma but being a settlement of the Sinagua people from the 12th through 15th Centuries), an abandoned native city. Being a science fiction geek, my first thought was of Kim Stanley Robinsonís Acheron Labs: a pueblo built into a sheer cliffside, overlooking a small valley cut by a stream. For over 300 years a small city flourished here, based on agriculture enabled by the stream and the natural defenses of the four-story complex of cliffside apartments. Population was limited by the streamís yield and the confines of the valley floor, the surrounding desert then as now uninhabitable without imperial-scale waterworks. The location is breathtakingly beautiful, the colors of the adobe matched in the framing grove of sycamore trees, the city a textbook of small-scale balance between population, resource inputs, technology and regional trade.

One might envision a Martian Montezumaís Castle, thriving culturally despite its material restraints. How to do that, though, is a key question. Mainstream culture in the Southwest today largely ignores the complex of issues surrounding cities as dependent on technology (air conditioning and massive water importation) for survival as any L5 settlement. Soleriís countering response was a culture of monasticism sterile, by definition. Somewhere between libertarian techno-optimism and Luddite survivalism two of the dominant ideologies here in the noonday sun lie the tools of resource-efficient design, intensive rather than expansive dynamism, and, hopefully, technological or cultural counters to the iron logic of hydraulic despotism in our present and future extreme environments.

The challenge before us is to prototype those technological and cultural forms here: on an Anthem scale, not an Arcosanti one, in this generation, so that they may be deployable as space settlement begins. Arcosanti shows the danger in attempting to effect great change with miniscule resources. But, the evolution of the Information Age nerdistan, currently out-competing the Industrial-Age levittown, indicates that, for once, historical forces may be on the side of the space movement. Pioneering new systems of resource-efficient, rich, satisfying urban living, developing a way of life Iíve called the Network Ethic or kaseido, holds a very different promise from most space-advocacy projects. Rather than offering pie in the sky by and by (the decades-old viewgraphs promising space settlements just ten years from right now!), we could be building better homes and cities in harsh environments today, along with attractive and satisfying cultural systems appropriate for them. Doing so would enable improved iterations offplanet when the time finally comes. A more responsible, and more satisfying, space development project can scarcely be imagined Mars on Earth, indeed.


The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

To subscribe or unsubscribe, contact the author at kaseido@earthlink.net

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