How Arup Will Re-Save the World

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Last week, the American Institute of Architects came to rainy San Francisco. Their convention is an annual meet-up of American architects to gossip, pass out business cards, get drunk, and do what architects do best: inflate futurist ideas and bounce them at each other like beach balls. It was rendering one-upmanship, and totally entertaining.

The best talk this year was given by Arup’s director of planning, Peter Head. (Follow him on Twitter here.) Arup is the engineering firm behind the planet’s craziest buildings — from the Beijing bird’s nest to the new Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Lately, they’ve been plotting a global takeover, re-imagining our buildings, our cities, our society. Head says they’re prophesying — and helping usher in — the New Ecological Age. He says it’ll look like this: CO2-50% + 1.44 GHA/capita + HDI increase.

We’re not engineers, so thankfully Head flashed some fancy pictures at us to show what the hell he was talking about. He promised he’d put the video up on Arup’s website, but nothing’s up yet — step on it, Peter. In the meantime, we’ll talk you through it. The city of the future looked like this: skyscrapers draped in nets of algae and/or solar panels with gardens on the roofs, helping reduce our carbon output by half (buildings contribute most of the carbon in the air right now) and bringing the land used per person for food down from about 9 acres to one and a half. City-wide Wi-Fi and RFID networks bump up the human development index (how smart we are, basically) by connecting everyone everywhere to, we guess, Wikipedia and ESPN.com. No flying cars or Macintosh tablet PCs or Freaks and Geeks reunion, or any other of our personal dreams for the future, but still, it seemed pretty cool.

We’re knee-deep in lower-east-side swamps in Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta (read it!); we’re knee-deep in compost planting in our garden; we’re knee-deep in puddles walking through Madison Square Park. This is the season when the city’s ancestral nature bubbles up out of its present-day hard concrete shell (or at least out of the clouds onto it). Head’s talk reminded us that as it once was, so it shall — or at least should — be.