Flying over Phoenix, Arizona I looked down at the two options Americans have for property development. There are large scale high rise towers in dense urban clusters. And there are low density peripheral subdivisions out along the highways. The Phoenix metroplex gradually breaks apart as cul-de-sacs give way to irrigated farmland and then the desolate beauty of the uninhabitable wasteland beyond. Elon Musk doesn’t have to build colonies on Mars. We already have Phoenix.
Miami offers the same two options. The high rise towers punctuate the endless tract home developments of Metro Miami-Dade. The ranch homes and garden apartment complexes and strip malls sputter out into the vast Everglade swamps of Florida’s damp interior. At a certain point even the Army Corps of Engineers can’t keep the land dry enough for more master planned communities.
I’ve long grown tired of the endless cultural debate pitting urban density against suburban expansion. It’s an entirely cosmetic argument over superficial preferences. Some people like city living. Some people love suburbia. Some people can only live contentedly in the countryside. If you have money you can live in luxury in any of the three options. If you’re poor you get the least desirable version of each arrangement. High rise towers don’t induce poverty or wealth. They’re merely receptacles. Ranch homes can be magnificent or squalid. A cabin in the woods is either a gracious rural retreat or a miserable hovel for the desperate. At the end of the day the arguments for or against each option is just chest thumping over chocolate vs. vanilla or strawberry.
I prefer to opt out of that debate and ask a different question. Where are the durable places that can ride out difficulties with some degree of grace in hard times? I’ve poked around Dubai a couple of times over the years and had an epiphany. Dubai is like a giant aquarium for people. A few days after the pumps, filters, grow lights, food pellet dispensers, and bubblers stop working everything but the slimy green algae will die. It makes absolutely no difference if you’re on the 142nd floor of a glass tower or the ground floor of a fully detached home with a garden. Modern cities are a single mechanical organism and they’re all spectacularly vulnerable to systemic disruptions.
If you’re living in Toronto or Sydney or San Diego or Nairobi do you know where your water comes from? Your food? The energy that keeps you warm or cool? The fuel that keeps all the machines moving? The aesthetic choices of your home or apartment are irrelevant so long as you’re plugged in to the same attenuated infrastructure: the refineries, ports, rail lines, highways, distribution warehouses, power stations, cables, satellites, pipelines, and all that computer power. These days if you live in any one of these cities you’re very much connected to all the others in a web of critical complex dependencies.
Let’s stop fighting over the window dressing. Let’s put the bickering about efficiencies or personal liberties aside for a moment. It’s time to acknowledge our collective vulnerability. There are things many of us can and should do to wean ourselves off these flimsy umbilical cords. It’s a lot harder to do that in a high rise apartment. But the average luxury villa in a gated community is precisely as helpless when the lights go out or the refrigerated delivery trucks stop running. That’s a good place to start a new conversation based on mutual problem solving rather than collective antagonism.