Micro Arcologies?

Some #EarthDay 2024 thoughts.

We have a housing problem. There are lots of causes for this, but the leading one in my judgement is local: “Homeowners often oppose the construction of new housing, on the logic that it will make their own homes less valuable, and wield political power to restrict new construction.” (Investopedia) From my POV, this is another example of generational wealth protectionism, but that’s a subject for another post.

We also have a lifestyle sustainability problem. Our cities sprawl in all sorts of inefficient ways, creating transportation, heating, and cooling demand that requires energy to sustain and “contributes to roughly one third of our total greenhouse gases emitted.” (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) Since the pandemic, suburbs built around urban commutes make less sense than ever, and technology allows for more jobs to be work from home. In general, most humans prefer living in close-knit communities within walking distance of amenities and social centers – New England towns, New York City neighborhoods, gated and retirement communities. The dense, walkable cities that have been around since the middle ages, such as those in Western Europe, are among the most sustainable.

What if the solutions went around the problem?

Paolo Soleri

When I was younger I was fascinated by a strain of thinking that took these conclusions to their logical conclusion. Paolo Soleri has been advocating the idea of Arcology, where human environments are envisioned holistically and constructed deliberately. His concept designs are breathtaking and iconic.

My instinct says that Soleri’s vision foundered – or maybe stalled – because the idea of central planning itself fell out of favor: the Soviet Union had championed the idea for eighty years but had been unable to compete with the dynamism and flexibility of market economies. Housing hundreds of thousands of people in ultradense mega high rises felt unnecessary in an era where cheap land and cheap fuel made barely-controlled urban sprawl more cost-effective appealing.

But maybe that vision has played itself out.

The Line

I’m obviously way behind on this curve. The Line in Saudi Arabia, is “a cognitive city stretching across 170 kilometers, from the epic mountains of NEOM across inspirational desert valleys to the beautiful Red Sea. A mirrored architectural masterpiece towering 500 meters above sea level, but a land-saving 200 meters wide.”
According to the website, The Line will have “No roads, cars or emissions, it will run on 100% renewable energy and 95% of land will be preserved for nature. People’s health and wellbeing will be prioritized over transportation and infrastructure, unlike traditional cities. … THE LINE will eventually accommodate 9 million people and will be built on a footprint of just 34 square kilometers. This will mean a reduced infrastructure footprint, creating never-before-seen efficiencies in city functions. … Residents will also have access to all daily essentials within a five-minute walk, in addition to high-speed rail – with an end-to-end transit of 20 minutes.”

Apparently this is really happening. Fueled by Gulf State sovereign wealth funds and sheer science-fiction awesomeness, The Line has captured the world’s attention (well, certainly mine) and construction is underway. The Line is only one of several large-scale arcology projects being built around the world, and if even a few of them materialize and become even moderately successful, we might see Soleri’s vision revived for the 21st century.

At the very least it will be an amazing tourist destination.

Tiny Homes

At the same time, we’re also seeing a decline of cultural interest in large homes. and rise in the opposite. The appeal of smaller, “tiny” homes adds up: smaller physical living footprints, integrated with nature and community, offer environmental and financial benefits with the appeal of a simpler, more minimalist, more flexible, and even mobile lifestyle. “People like [tiny homes] because they cost less and are easier to clean and maintain … [allowing owners to] live a simpler lifestyle.” (Autonomous). We’ve seen an explosion of modular housing and the addition of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) from companies like Bequall which allow for multiple homes on the same property.

Micro Arcologies?

What if we pulled all this together?

Ideally we’d want to increase density and sustainability but maximize flexibility where we could. We’d want to start with land that was not subject to protective established homeowners, create lifestyles that would allow people of different persuasions to mix, and allow them to customize their surroundings to their own preferences.

Imagine a development outside the of established residential neighborhoods, designed around the idea of dense, walkable assemblage of tiny homes and a central core of common amenities: restaurants, theaters, public spaces, small office buildings. Maybe these micro arcologies are designed for hundreds of thousands – not millions – of people, and the spaces for tiny homes are modular enough that owners could build or import their own. The intent would be to minimize the need to leave the community on a daily basis, and allow the residents to be as self-sufficient and efficient as possible.

The result might be a cross between a trailer park and a cruise ship. Or maybe The Villages for non-retired people. Now imagine strings of these connected with light rail and roads.

Add in some vertical farming and small scale industry and we might have something. As Benjamin Grandy puts it in a Medium article:

“Arcologies may have been seen as a fringe idea thirty years ago, but due to increasing population and global warming, it is now clear that the way our cities are designed needs to be rethought. As of 2000, half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this rate is only increasing as people move out of suburbs in what has been deemed the 5th migration (Fishman, 2005). … The American suburbia dream is going to burst, and along with it people’s dependence on foreign oil and the automobile. The faster we act, the greater our chances of successfully transitioning through peak oil. Arcologies and related high density, ultra connected designs alleviated the need for automobiles by efficiently placing connected buildings and uses together. Vertical farming solves the food shortage problem that we will soon face as the majority of our food is not locally grown.”

Bemjamin Grandy, Medium

What do you think? Is it time to revisit Paolo Soleri and give him a 21st century spin?

Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.