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Environmental Visionaries: The Urban Remodeler

Future of the Environment
It would be easy to dismiss Mitchell Joachim’s fantastical vision for ecological supercities, with their flocks of jetpacks and mass-transit blimps that look like flying monster jellyfish, as science fiction—if he wasn’t actually building them

Mitchell Joachim's Eco-City Nick Kaloterakis

Architect Mitchell Joachim points out, frequently and without prompting, that his futuristic proposals are always based on existing technologies. No wonder he feels the need to say it. Consider some of his ideas: jetpacks tethered together in swarms, houses grown from living trees, low-altitude blimps prowling New York City with chairs hanging below them for pedestrians to hop on and off (24/7 ski lifts on Broadway!), and WALL-E-like machines that erect buildings and bridges from recycled waste.

For Joachim, a 39-year-old professor of architecture at New York University, with graduate degrees from MIT, Harvard and Columbia, these concepts aren’t Hollywood fluff but designs that could come to life today. Take his concept for waste-building machines, which he calls Rapid Re(f)use. Instead of the cubes of cardboard, plastic or steel that current recycling balers produce, Joachim’s robots would grind and compress waste into I-beams, cruciform columns or even furniture components. The structures would be pressed or melted into shape or wrapped with metal bands, which is what recycling plants do now. All that would change is the shape—like switching the mold on a Play-Doh press, but on an industrial scale. “We could do it yesterday,” Joachim insists.

His vision falls under the banner of Terreform ONE, a nonprofit design collective that Joachim co-founded to explore sustainable, fully integrated urban planning. If the same people who design the roads also design the cars, he says, and the same people who create the suburbs also plan for ways to feed and transport residents, our cities will become healthier, friendlier and more sustainable.

The group imagines how future cities might best serve their citizens on a large scale and then experiments with the small-scale materials and designs that it would take to make it happen. To this end, Terreform ONE hosts TerreFarm, an annual summer gathering of architects and scientists who develop new urban farming techniques. For several weeks this summer, TerreFarm will convert a Brooklyn rooftop into a testbed for modular growing methods, designs for maximizing available sunlight, and ultra-lightweight soil mixes essential for rooftop gardens. They will also build full wall sections of Joachim’s Fab Tree Hab, his proposal to create “living” homes by grafting trees together around scaffolds and growing them on-site.

Joachim’s other plans tend to focus on mobility, since transportation both shapes and is shaped by urban design. In his vision, individual cars would be replaced by car-share systems that function like luggage carts at an airport. Pay, step into a smart car that communicates with the city grid, drive to your destination, and leave the car there. The cars would have soft, springy exteriors, inflatable protective bladders and transparent foil, which would enable them to bump together as they traveled in flocks. “The idea of sharp metal boxes is just done,” Joachim says. “We design cars with the principle that no one would ever die in a car accident again.”

Joachim’s blimps would move like trolley cars. Their routes would be set by funicular cables, and they would float slowly enough that pedestrians would be able to hop on and off hanging chairs dangling above the ground. Unlike a trolley car, though, the blimps would also be able to cross rivers, gorges and other geographic features without bridges.

His jetpack designs are not the retro-futuristic rocket belts of the 1960s but more like the lightweight ducted-fan jetpacks scheduled to go on sale later this year from Martin Aircraft Company. For efficient commuting, Joachim’s jetpacks—soft and flexible like his cars—would be towed in flocks by a plane or blimp. “Bump and glide,” as Joachim describes it. From there, individuals could break off, power up, and fly safely to their homes or offices—like subways in the sky. “It’s hard to find people who don’t want to be moving around in jetpacks in 20 years,” he says. “As an architect, then, I’m responsible for thinking about what the implication of the jetpack is on the future city.”

Joachim’s willingness to forgo lucrative commercial projects in favor of running a nonprofit dedicated to the reimagining of a future he won’t even be around for is, say his colleagues, exactly what makes him so vital. Traditionally, “cities are built incrementally by real-estate interests,” says Richard Sommer, the dean of architecture at the University of Toronto. “What’s important about Mitchell’s work is that he [takes] a visionary approach.”

The vision part involves looking 150 years down the road and planning for how cities will have to operate within the environment if civilization is to endure. Even if the technologies exist today, Joachim says, no one can change the city tomorrow. “Once we heard about cellphones, it was about seven years before we started dropping the landline,” he says. “It took about 15 years before you could buy a hybrid car on every lot. It takes around 40 years to produce a large shift in the way buildings are constructed. Entire cities? It’s 100, 150 years.”

In the meantime, Joachim is busy producing the stuff that will get us there, whether it’s growing living walls, planting organic lettuce on urban rooftops, or making sure that when your grandkids are ready for their first jetpacks, their cities will be too.

More Environmental Visionaries:

12 Comments

the key point here is that the cities that we currently live in (the older ones at least) are mostly unsalvageable as the cost of reconfiguring is far more than just rebuilding. new cities based on the newest technologies will be far more efficient than any building retrofitted.

Jacque Fresco has stated that we have the technology for this 30 years ago.
please thevenusproject.com

in fact, most of these photos look similar to Jacque Fresco's concepts...i wonder if these corporate pigs know of the Venus Project and are trying to make a profit out of it. Either way, this won't work in a monetary system and corporate pigs know nothing of technology but to abuse it and make a buck out of it.

These are nonprofit urban designers and architects--- the only way to go without the constraint of private development needs.
Beautiful work!!!

The one advantage of ground vehicles is that they can be parked to be loaded with products and people. Try loading a elderly person, or a person in a wheel chair, on a moving sky lift. Clearly this guy thinks that only healthy adults live on the planet and that robots will do our shopping for us. Cities that ban land vehicles will find suffer a mass exit of businesses and home owners. Law suits by family members whose child or grandparents were badly injured or dragged to their deaths by these sky lifts will quickly bankrupt such companies. Vehicles capable to driving without tracks and cables have replaced cable cars for a reason. Vehicles can go just about any where and stop just about any where for loading and unloading are a critical part of the future. Any city design or business design that does not take that into account, like the dying pre 21th century cities and factories that do not have enought parking, will end up being torn down to make more parking space.

@ellenbetty.

Excellent observation. Most people don’t understand that many of the "tech marvels" that we could be using right now are not applied simply because they are not really better alternatives, just like flying cars, a standard car brakes, you stop and check it out... video calls have been possible since the very day tv where invented, but just nobody wanted it (maybe the iphone 4 will change that?). Nuclear energy is amazing... Amazing as in I don’t know how the heck people still use it, since is a non removable energy source, just like oil, and is many many many... many x e^10 times worst in short and long terms, oh and is an economic sink. Green is good, because most good green techs are actually cheaper on the long run, that’s why some mayor companies are slowly shifting toward them, but there are things like corn based fuel that just can’t work, simply because there is a net energy loss and therefore cannot be sustained. Failure to communicate this to stupid politicians and the general public is what has us in the current situation, not this crap about anthropogenic global warming, mind you, but I will not elaborate more here.

Hi folks,
I think this design artist has been smoking something special. The idea that you can attach an airship to a cable to guide it will not work on a windy day. Real airships are much more interesting than virtual world ones and now that Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles are going to build a LEMV (Hybrid airship) for the Us Army we should see a new big airship flying in a few years time.
If you want to see more on modern airships, past, present and future see: www.airshipblimp.com or if you just want a helium sniffing laugh try www.airship.me the worlds only lighter than air comedy site, with lots of funny pictures and U tube links fit for all the family.
Regards Bond, James Bond.
(Skyship blimp pilot in a View to a Kill)

@rciafardone

That's interesting. It seems you're arguing we shouldn't use any fuels that aren't renewable. Why not? Also, why is nuclear so bad? You say it's more expensive, but you haven't listed out the costs for us to see. It'd be nice if you could list out the costs of wind and solar too, so we can compare. Thanks.

nuclear is the cleanest and cheapest source of energy; cheaper than coal, and the nuclear 'waste' is only waste because its wasted. It could easily be processed into more fuel. Anyway most of the things this person's talking about are pure fantasy. Flying vehicles? Not anytime soon.

Interesting!I hope that everyone had a happy Father's Day and a great weekend.

I find it somewhat ironic that the artwork at the top of this article and on the magazine cover is a rendering clearly based on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road corridor (a few minutes from my home). I wonder - is Dubai destined to be an "ecological super city?" Anyway, as an urban planner myself, I think it's great that there are some who have the imagination to think about how technology might significantly change how we live in the future. Not enough of us think that way. On the other hand, I'm not going to hold my breath for some of the concepts illustrated above or on Terreform's website (although they are cool).

Kudos for all the ideas Joachim has come up with. Humans are going to need as many as possible to get through this "Anthropocene" epoch. Not all ideas are going to work but brainstorming is the best bet. I suggest all of you, including visionaries like Joachim, who have a deep passion and love for life on this our home planet read "The Ecotechnic Future" by John Michael Greer; it may help open some "eyes" and it may make some stay closed.

Question is what is the carrying capacity of Earth to sustain humans and all other life forms sustainably? Unlimited energy sources such as fusion reactors (highly unlikely - if we can transition from fossil fuels and overcome technical barriers) will only keep powering the current industrial (destructive) economy.

Without a fundamental re-structuring of human consciousness there is little hope for future human generations surviving far into the future. However, the current and deepening environmental crises we are living through will help bring about this needed change. Wether we make it or not is not a concern of Earth; it has seen countless species come and go. It is our choice to stay or go and we make these choices everyday. Bike to work, grow your own garden, support a non-profit environmental organization, make close friends and above all keep a sense of humor.

All my relations, peace

With due respect to Mr. Joachim's creativity, but his ideas are so impractical as to be laughable. As other commenters have noted, how would disabled or elderly passengers board his mass transit blimps, and how would those airships and the dangling pods they carry hope to cope with the gusty winds that are so prevalent between the tall buildings of a large urban center? If these blimps move slow enough to allow able-bodied passengers to simply hop on and off, then they must be moving at less than a walking pace, so why would anyone choose such a slow mode of transport when they could walk to their destination faster?

His idea of "bump and glide" jet-pack flocks is quite simply horrifying. I don't know if Mr. Joachim has ever seen what happens when aircraft collide in mid air, but it typically does not end well for anyone involved. A similar criticism can be made about his "bump and drive" flocks of cars. Sure a soft exterior is going to absorb some impact, but unless he can also invent a Star Trek-esque "inertial dampener" for the passengers, they are still going to be jarred around with each impact. I can see a sharp rise in neck injuries if this system is ever implimented.

I would say that Mr. Joachim should stick to architecture, but even his ideas in that arena are fantastical at best. His proposal of "living homes" is a neat idea, but I wonder if he is aware of how slowly trees grow. Maybe it's just me, but I don't want to wait 40 years for my new house to grow.

There's no doubt that these are very creative ideas, but I would like to sample some of whatever Mr. Joachim was smoking when he got the idea that they are even remotely practical, inclusive, and safe.

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