John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
How might climate change and new technology cause upheavals in our sensorial landscape?
In the future, cities will be larger, denser, and possibly striding on huge mechanical legs. But they could also be awash in a bath of unexpected scents like tropical flowers and artificial grape, popping with cuisines made spicier by climate change, and so overwhelmed with artificial light they glare like a “strip mall in outer space.”
Those are possible realities dreamed up by Emily Schlickman and Anya Domlesky, associates at the international landscape architecture and urban design firm SWA. The duo, who helm SWA’s new innovation lab XL in the Bay Area, became interested in forecasting the shifting sensorial experiences of urban enclaves after learning that California’s iconic daily fog has cloaked the city for fewer hours since 1901. “Fog is such an iconic part of the Bay Area, and the idea it could dramatically decrease in the future could really impact how we experience and sense the city,” says Schlickman.
Schlickman and Domlesky have investigated how what we hear, eat, feel, see, and smell could change under global warming, zoning quirks, and ever-advancing technology. Their hunt has taken them from New York to Houston to Shanghai, and is now culminating in a fascinating exhibit called “Urban Sensorium,” opening August 30 at San Francisco’s SPUR. The show will include artifacts from their travels, such as dried Chinese peppers and a chunk of noise-dampening highway. At its heart are five maps showing how certain neighborhoods might offer vastly different sense-experiences in the next 10 to 20 years.
“One of the elements that appeals the most to me is that the exhibition succinctly and efficiently analyzes how a singular element may change the future of a city—how quiet pavement could shape Los Angeles and the implications that might have, for example—but that those analyses also leave the door open for potentially different results,” says Noah Christman, the public programming manager at SPUR who's producing the show. “I like to think that the exhibition is essentially gazing into a crystal ball that’s showing us one of many possible futures.”
Here are three maps the urban sense-o-nauts have produced. Others include one about San Francisco’s warming weather possibly spreading drought but increasing tourism, and another postulating how the spread of LED street lighting could make New York a safer but more sleep-deprived environment.
Houston could be fragrant
Houston is heating up rapidly, with average summer temperatures expected to swell from 91 degrees to 97 degrees by the end of the century. Because a warmer climate means the air holds more water, the city is also experiencing frequent run-ins with rain bombs: instances of extreme rain have risen 167 percent in the last seven decades.
That makes a perfect environment for tropical plants to thrive. Domlesky and Schlickman followed their noses around Houston searching for pleasant, often-invasive species locals might expect to smell more of soon. They detected the delicately lemon-tinged note of honeysuckle, the “green-and-dry scent profile” of the Persian silk tree, and kudzu blossoms with odors nearly “identical to artificial grape flavoring.”
While local gardeners often try to keep these aggressively competitive plants out of their yards, some of them might find welcoming nurseries in the city’s bevy of neglected properties. Schlickman and Domlesky explain: “Houston has no formal zoning code.... As a result, the city is a random mosaic of residences, warehouses, and industrial areas, with vacant lots dispersed throughout. In the future, many of these abandoned parcels could become overgrown with spontaneous and opportunistic vegetation, providing the city with a sweet-smelling perfume.” Look at the bolder-white parts of the above map, made by analyzing Harris County Vacant Parcel Data, to see where secret gardens of aromatic plants could take root.
Los Angeles could be quiet
L.A.’s raucous road system could soon become muted, partly due to the installation of more highway sound barriers and the city’s plan to embrace quieter autonomous vehicles. But Domlesky and Schlickman are interested in another possibility that’s pleasant on the ears—pavement that turns the clamor of speeding tires into a duller roar.
Noise-dampening pavement has shown success in the Netherlands, according to a Danish Road Directorate/Caltrans assessment deeming it the “first-choice measure because it attacks the problem at the source (tire-road noise) and it is often the most cost-effective measure of noise abatement.” Caltrans studied implementing this technology more than a decade ago, though to date nothing major has been rolled out in L.A.
Check out the whiter portions of the above map, made with Soundscore data, to see where noise-killing pavement could tone down L.A.’s loudest areas. “Existing property values near highways could increase,” write Domlesky and Schlickman. “The quieter highways and reduced noise could also mean better health outcomes for those already living nearby. Studies show noise can cause additional stress, disruption of sleep, and heart disease.”
Shanghai could be spicy
Shanghai is dotted with tons of farms and market gardens that provide produce for local cuisine, which Schlickman and Domlesky describe as being traditionally “soft-textured, mild, sweet tasting, and fresh with mellow fragrance.” But Shanghai is also facing a scourge of hotter weather, which affects the plants: peach trees now bloom about two weeks earlier than in the 1990s, for instance. This abnormal warmth also threatens mustard greens and bok choy, and opens the door to more heat-tolerant crops like peppers that could drive cooks to experiment with spicier, Sichuan-leaning food.
To see where the city’s prospective Pepper Belt might form, the mapmakers consulted Shanghai’s plans for bolstering an agricultural “green ring,” loosely indicated above in bright white, around the city center by 2020. The ring is meant to improve the city’s reliance on home-grown agriculture, as well as boost air quality, and could become a prolific generator of tongue-scorching peppers.
Urban Sensorium is on view at SPUR from August 30, 2017 to March 1, 2018.