tagReviews & EssaysArcology: Miniaturize or Die?

Arcology: Miniaturize or Die?

byDecayed Angel©

Arcology has been discussed as a solution to urban sprawl, overpopulation, and wasteful consumption; some even suggest it is a solution to terrorism. Unfortunately, arcology remains the science fiction of a far distant future.

"Miniaturize or die!" These words of Paolo Soleri echo from the empty domes of his "urban laboratory" called Arcosanti. (1) He preaches arcology, a word derived by combining architecture and ecology, describing his visions of a better way of life. The introduction to "Arcology Theory" at the Arcosanti website explains: "The arcology concept proposes a highly integrated and compact three-dimensional urban form that is the opposite of urban sprawl with its inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy, time and human resources." (http://www.arcosanti.org/arcology/intro.html) In his book, (Arcology - City in the Image of Man, 1969, MIT Press) Soleri discusses his theories and offers thirty different sketches of arcology design concepts. These designs offer stunning visions of futuristic cities ranging in populations from fifteen hundred to nine million people all enclosed within a single massive structure: the city miniaturized. Soleri goes as far as predicting that civilization may die without miniaturization.

While these visions of beautiful arched and domed structures offer enticing possibilities, the realization of anything approaching an arcology is still years and years away. Contrary to some beliefs, Arcosanti, Soleri's project near Scottsdale, Arizona is not an arcology. "Though built upon arcological principles, it [Arcosanti] is not an actual arcology, but rather what Soleri calls an "urban laboratory." (2) Soleri's project, which has been under construction since 1970, was only 5% complete as of 1998, with most of that constructed between 1970 and 1976. Arcosanti has been described as "...still only a construction site for a construction site." (3) With overall interest in arcologies on the decline since the mid-seventies construction progress has slowed. Unless something changes, with only 5% complete as of 1998, Arcosanti will not be completed for another 500 years. An undertaking as complex as the arcologies described by Soleri will be massive, requiring the combined effort of government, developers, designers, engineers, bankers, health care professionals and many others. The cost of a minimal arcology will be staggering. A tiny arcology, roughly the size of Arcosanti, will house approximately 1,500 people in an enclosed space of about 7 acres, with a height of 50 meters (164 feet). (4) This height equates to approximately 10 stories and allowing for some large open areas, the constructed floor area will approach 140,000 square meters (1.5 million square feet). Based upon rough current construction rates, construction costs alone for a structure this size could cost upwards of $400 to $500 million in 2001 dollars. (5) Land costs, financing and infrastructure costs could add over a hundred million dollars to this cost. This is an incredible sum considering the arcology will house only 1,500 people. A modest size arcology of 200,000 people could cost as much as $80 to $100 billion for building structure costs alone. Anyone thinking that setting up an arcology will be an easy thing is very naive.

To take a project of this magnitude from conceptual design through completion will probably take a decade or more, perhaps a century for the orbiting arcology. If a group of people decided to create an arcology today, they would not be able to move in until at least 2011 if not much, much longer. Unfortunately, the interest in arcology has been waning since the mid-seventies and it will be very difficult to find the people needed to even consider the arcology today.

Will future arcologies address the challenges of urban sprawl, overpopulation, wasteful consumption and terrorism? A quick answer to this question is a qualified yes, yes, yes and a definitive no. The design concept of arcology maximizes land utilization. With living, entertainment, medical and work venues all contained within the structure and in close proximity with each other transportation can be reduced to efficient people movers, moving sidewalks, and hiking trails. With the elimination of highway and road systems inside the arcology, an immense amount of area is saved and the consumption of fuel for transportation is reduced to practically nothing. Space requirements are further reduced with more efficient housing construction. Open spaces in the design will minimize the "closed in" feeling this compact construction may induce. These efficiencies of arcology design will allow more people to live, work and play within a given area of land basically solving the problem of urban sprawl, reducing fuel consumption and providing more housing for an ever-growing population. While arcology addresses these needs, it cannot solve the problem of terrorism. Science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Once a population adapts to the lifestyle of an arcology, the overall interconnection of people will be greatly enhanced by the design of the structures. This connectivity combined with the reduced privacy of the more compact living greatly reduces the ability of any terrorist or organization to work within the arcology. However, there will always exist some part of the population that will be dissatisfied within even the best conditions, this is where the seeds of terrorism can germinate. Even if social conditions within an arcology do suppress any terrorist activity, the community cannot control activity outside the structure. With the high-density population, economic, cultural and medical centers all located within a relatively small area; an arcology becomes a very attractive target for terrorists. Even within a self-sustaining biosphere there will need to be connections to the outside world. These connection points, regardless of the level of security, will be weak points. The very concept of arcology will generate some opponents, some perhaps radical enough to consider terrorism. Regardless of the lifestyle changes inherent in arcologies, terrorism will not be eliminated once they are developed. Science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle seem to agree: they open their book about an arcology (Oath of Fealty, 1981) with a terrorist attack. The attack fails only due to what some might consider excessive security measures.

As world population grows and lifestyles evolve arcologies will develop. Today there are several arcologically-similar communities under development that embrace many of the design concepts and philosophies of arcology. Civano, a community about 200 miles north of Arcosanti and Seaside, a community in Florida both embrace many of the ideals of arcology, while remaining economically feasible. These communities, while presently successful, are the first step toward a new way of life for some people. The development of arcology will continue: "Japan's government has recently convened the Hyper Building Research Committee to design ideas of what is essentially an arcology: a multi-purpose building to house 100,000 residents." (6)

Today, arcology is still only a dream, perhaps a design concept of our future. As attractive or unattractive it may seem to some people, it will not be something easily developed, and while it may cure some of society's ills, it will not eliminate terrorism. Miniaturize or die? We shall see.


1.) Schonfeld, Ivan B. Arcology: Solution for the Information Age, 1998

2.) Ibid.

3.) Ibid.

4.) Arcology Info Site, http: peagreenboat

5.) Calculations are based upon an assumed 50% utilization of the surface area for multistory space (10 stories) and construction costs of approximately $2,960/square meter ($275/square foot). These costs are projected for "high-end" institutional type construction in the NE United States. Actual construction costs will vary depending upon location.

6.) Schonfeld, 1998

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