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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, December 01, 2003
    When cities die
    Finishing Dead Cities today, and then reading various doomsday scenarios in The Ecologist I found it both frightening and fascinating what happens when cities die - when desolation hits them; and it's likely to hit all of them at some point in history.

    Frightening because, well, you think, it can happen here: within months of a nuclear strike or natural disaster this place could be unrecognisable, colonised by previously-underground creatures, swampland covering shopping centres, violent weather patterns battering famous old buildings to the ground, transport systems shot to pieces by subsidence; and so on. Not unrealistic, according to many scientists who've made this their study [eg, read Laura Spinney's Return to Paradise - download it here]. But fascinating also, because it's another reminder of our temporary hold on things. Mike Davis:
      The ability of a city's physical structure to organise and encode a stable social order depends on its capacity to master and manipulate nature. But cities are radically contingent artifacts whose "control of nature," as John McPhee famously pointed out, is ultimately illusory. Nature is constantly straining against its chains: probing for weak points, cracks, faults, even a speck of rust... Environmental control ... [is] an inevitably Sisyphean labor.
    I ponder if the trick in life is to reach a point where you become comfortable with your own temporary nature and the temporary nature of the world around you. We'll struggle to keep them alive and well but when cities die, will we accept their demise and happily leave the earth to rearrange things, happily let the plants and creatures reassert their claims on the places we just now call our own..?