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UrbanLab Wins City of the Future





Here's the scoop on the three finalists in The History Channel's City of the Future competition, and why I think the entry from Chicago's Urbanlab may well be the best.

 -by Lynn Becker








Update: February 8, 2007. The History Channel announced this morning that the Chicago firm Urbanlab has won the $10,000 first prize in the The City of the Future Competition for their vision of Chicago in 2106. The firm had already won $10,000 for winning the Chicago leg of competition, and now wins an additional $10,000 for beating out entries from similar competitions in New York and Los Angeles. The winner was selected by the public via the City of the Future website.

The award was announced by architect Daniel Libeskind, who served as "national competition juror." "UrbanLab is thrilled to have been named the National Winner of the City of the Future competition," said the firm's Martin Felsen, "especially considering the high caliber of ideas and proposals generated by the competition participants. Wed like to thank The History Channel for providing such an important forum, at a pivotal time, for an open discussion of future design directions of our cities.

This Saturday, February 3rd, is the last day to vote in the History Channel's The City of the Future Competition, which asked participants to imagine the city of 2106, a century hence. If you follow the link, you can see info on all three finalists, and well as the City of the Future competition on the History Channelpath to casting your own vote for who should get the $10,000 first prize. The more I look at this, the more I think the entry of Chicago's Urbanlab is truly the best of the bunch. And while I may be accused of local boosterism (Go Bears!), I'm thinking that after you examine all three, you'll come to the same conclusion.

But first, the competition:

New York in Vane, or Venice on the Hudson
ARO entry to City of the Future Competition
The winning entry in the New York competition, held at Grand Central Station, with a jury that included Paul Goldberger, David Rockwell and Billie Tsien, anticipates a Manhattan where the melting of the polar ice gaps due to global warming have raised water levels up to three feet, inundating low lying areas of the island. New York's ARO, Architecture Research Office respond to this turn of events with a concept for "vanes." "What skyscrapers were to New York City in the twentieth century, vanes are in the twenty-second," multi-use constructions rising up out of the flooded streets. "Vanes feather upwards and outwards through the streets of the Inundation Zones, creating homes, offices and shopping arcades but also parks and gardens. Their thinness promotes daylight and affords natural ventilation. Pier-like in form, vanes grant the city a dynamic relationship both with the riverfront and the luminous evaporation towers nearby."

Reinventing Los Angeles by liberating the Concrete River
Eric Owen Moss entry to City of the Future Competition
Eric Owen Moss Architects was the winner of the Los Angeles leg of the competition, whose jury included Thom Mayne, with their proposal to reinvigorate L.A.'s east end by "multiplying the purposes of its infrastructure. We intend to build over, under, around, and through the freeways, rivers, power grids, and tracks, to use the existing rights of way as the foundations for a series of new, infrastructure-scaled conceptions of building form, habitation, and public and private purpose that will redefine Los Angeles by strategically re-associating the sociologies, the uses, and the sense of the civic whole the civil engineers have long precluded." The centerpiece could said to be the concept of taking the Los Angeles River, essentially an open concrete culvert, and filling it with water to make it a real waterway offering recreational and even agricultural programs.

And now on to what I view as the winner:

The Chicago Way: Growing Water in Chicago In many ways, the UrbanLab proposal, awarded by a jury that included Joseph Rosa, Ned Cramer, GSA head Urbanlab entry to City of the Future competitionarchitect Leslie Shepherd and Chicago's Commission of Planning, Lori Healy, is both the most radical and the most grounded. As is often the case with Chicago's best architects, it is based on extensive research, in this case into how water is routinely wasted in prodigious quantities, a luxury that almost certainly will prove far too expensive in an increasingly parched future. It extends from a set of basic suppositions:

  • The United Nations estimates that two out of every three people in the world will be facing water shortages by 2025.
  • From this, UrbanLab speculates that by 2106, water will be the new oil.
  • 20% of world's fresh water supply is in the Great Lakes, and it accounts of 95% of all fresh water in the United States.
  • Each day, Chicago draws a billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan. One per cent of it is returned.

One big part of today's problem was yesteryear's great solution. As the population of Urbanlab entry to City of the Future competitionChicago boomed in the late 1800's, the Chicago River became the city's common sewer, the dumping ground for industrial and other waste that then flowed out into Lake Michigan. The result was periodic cholera and typhoid epidemics that claimed thousands of lives and sickened countless others.

Initially the strategy was to move the water intake cribs farther out in the lake, past the pollution, but even this proved inadequate, and in 1900 the 28-mile-long Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed. An engineering marvel, it reversed the direction of the Chicago river, sending its waters away from the lake, and into the Des Plaines River where, along the city's treated sewage, it was all sent down the Mississippi to discharge into the Gulf of Mexico. All told, according to a brilliant 2006 story on the fight for water by Mike Miner of my home paper, The Reader, Chicago by law can divert from Lake Michigan over 2 billion gallons of water a day.

And that's just the primary diversion. When Chicago area basements repeatedly suffered flooding during heavy rains, the result was another engineering marvel, popularly called Deep Tunnel, a $3 billion, 109 mile long network of tunnels to capture storm runoff, with an eventual capacity of over 15 billion gallons, all of it Mexico bound, to be mingled with salt water and made useless.

UrbanLab's Growing Water sets the goal of recycling 100% of the water Chicago uses. They would "re-reverse" the Chicago river and treat storm and waste naturally. This begins by reinventing and expanding Chicago's "green necklace" of boulevards created by architects like Frederick Olmsted and William Lebaron Jenney, into a series of "Eco-Boulevards" that will incorporate things like wetlands, prairies, and open green space to treat water, with micro-organisms, fish and prairie vegetation doing the work of cleansing. The boulevards would incorporate wind turbines, solar arrays and geothermal wells, and create new live/work communities around transit hubs.
Urbanlab entry to City of the Future competition

So why do I think the UrbanLab proposal the best. Start with level of research. Add in the strength of the ideas (most of them - the proposal for running commuter trains through the now unused deep tunnels leaves one pondering whether constructing escalators long enough to descend up to 300 feet would bankrupt the project's prospects). Another big plus is that the proposal looks at the entire Chicago region, while the projects from New York and Los Angeles cover only a small portion of their respective cities. (Although, to be fair, in a PRI radio program that included all three finalists plus critic Michael Sorkin, ARO's Adam Yarinsky mentioned that he was constrained the competition brief to a specific part of New York.) The other entries seemed to be most interested as architecture as structure. UrbanLab's seems to be more about architecture as process, and to me, strong analysis is half the battle to better buildings.

So there you have it. Check out the links and cast your ballot. Voting is open until 11:59:59 P.M. on Saturday, February 3rd.


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© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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