John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Three takes on imagining a carbon-free world.
Here’s a cow in a public park with a tube surgically implanted in its stomach, collecting methane that powers a milking machine that dispensing fresh-from-the-teat moo juice into your to-go cup. The future’s looking good, right?
A city full of machine-enhanced dairy cattle was just one idea floated at Post-Fossil City, a competition imagining what the planet will look like once humanity ditches carbon fuels. Run by two researchers at Utrecht University’s Urban Futures Studio, the event recently concluded with an exhibition at the Utrecht Centraal railway station exploring speculative technology from angles like food, sound, smell, mobility, and performance art.
“We launched this contest because we felt there is a crisis of the imagination with regard to the city of the future,” says Peter Pelzer, who conceived the project with his colleague Maarten Hajer. “The debate tends to be tech-dominated—like the ubiquitous self-driving car—or about what the city should not be: carbon-free, climate-neutral, et cetera. By inviting artists, makers, designers, and urban thinkers to join the contest, we hoped to unlock new ideas that help us navigate toward a better city.”
A jury sifted through 250 submissions to determine the winner, a kind of ark passed from city to city, with each one adding “local knowledge” and “sustainable concepts” to it. No wonder it won—it was probably the most achievable thing in the Post-Fossil lineup. The finalist and honorable-mention categories are loaded with stuff that will have you scratching your head.
Without further ado, here are three wonderfully improbable concepts for post-oil living.
Cows as Milk Vending Machines
Cities are great, but, boy, it’s hard to get milk hot off the udder. “Cow & Co.” would change that by stocking green spaces with cows augmented with esoteric equipment. Sensors on their bodies map their locations on an app, so milk-lovers can easily find the nearest cow. The white stuff is harvested from the cows by wheeled robots that resemble the bastard offspring of bagpipes and spinning shoe-cleaners.
What powers these robots, you might ask? Well, that would be balloons filled with methane collected from a pipe running into the bovines’ gut cavities. (It’s not too weird a thought—consider that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign keeps a famous “cow with a hole in its stomach that you can stick your hand in” for educational purposes.) And yes, technically methane is a carbon-based fuel. But at least burning it up turns it into water vapor and carbon dioxide, two less-potent types of greenhouse gas.
After filling up their bottles, patrons pay with their phones and receive a notification along the lines of, “You just purchased 1 L of milk from Bertha 85.” As useful as this sounds, a recent Kickstarter campaign saw “Cow & Co.” raise only €3 of its €10,000 goal. Still, its creators, Anastasia Eggers and Ottonie von Roeder, believe the heifer-as-vending-machine concept has value.
“Cow & Co. is not a joke, but is definitely speculative,” they email. “We tell this story in such an absurd way to trigger a discussion and raise questions about animal welfare, food consumption, the impact on our environment, and the human-animal relationship.” As to that last point, it should be mentioned the cows would have “well-being sensors” to collect veterinary information and also allow them to “rate” their interactions with humans, perhaps by monitoring the animals’ heart rates or other physical stimuli.
A Wind-Harvesting Mothership
This one is slightly more practical: a huge drone-based wind turbine that would tap into the strong winds 20,000 to 50,000 feet in the air, where gusts can top out above 200 mph. The “Jet-Stream Catcher,” a concept by Yujie Wang, Bryn Martin, Linru Wang, and Tian Wei Li, would ride this roaring river of wind to harvest all its planet-friendly power.
The heart of the system is a “Genecopter”—part quadcopter, part generator—that would transfer energy via a fleet of smaller battery-storage drones to ground hubs. There, drivers could plug in their electric vehicles, and any leftover electricity would be shunted to urban light-rail systems.
“From our perspectives, the ‘Jet-Stream Catcher’ is definitely feasible, yet the mechanical design and the operation of the whole system need to be more complete,” the creators email. “For instance, the mechanical stability of the flying or hovering ability of the ‘Jet-Stream Catcher’ in the jet-stream zone and the infrastructural system on the ground need to be further developed. It is thus more of a conceptual idea at this stage.”
Sleek and Sexy Solar Canopies
Solar panels typically live on roofs or in parking lots and are kind of unimpressive in their plain-black blahness. “Photovoltaic Pergolas,” a project by Tom van Heeswijk, Sabrina Lindemann, Wiebke Klemm, and Sven Stremke, would enhance their range and appearance by making them into delicate canopies for bridges, highways, athletic fields, and public-transit systems.
Wouldn’t this ambitious plan blot out the sun and moon across the city, a la Mr. Burns? The creators stress this would not be the case for a couple of reasons. One, the panels would be fabricated from a lightweight, flexible material that looks like dragonfly wings and allows some sun penetration. The partially shaded canopies would be situated in spaced-out clusters on streets and public plazas, so people could still find areas of full sunlight. And certain panels would include "organic light-emitting diodes" that, at night, would paint the streets with glowing, psychedelic colors.
The creators believe this new architecture would not only provide more juice for homes and electric cars, but turn solar panels into something “visually pleasant and thus successful in urban design.” Of all three of the concepts mentioned here, this one might be the most easily realized. The makers have already built models for their solarized cities, and according to one news report have “cautious plans” to erect a pilot demonstration in The Hague.