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Explore Urban Infrastructure at the MacroCity Conference, May 30-31

Posted on Tuesday, April 15th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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We rarely see in full the cities that we live in. Focused on our daily lives, urban dwellers are often only dimly aware of the numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.

Come and explore the amazing stories and surprising histories to be found lurking just below the surface of our cities at MacroCity, a two-day, whirlwind tour of this bigger picture of urban life. The event brings together a diverse set of panelists, speakers, and participants to explore the vast, often overlooked networks of infrastructure that surround us. The line-up includes rogue archivist and Lost Landscapes creator Rick Prelinger, as well as Laci Videmsky of the New California Water Atlas.

The schedule also includes a variety of field trips, offering an opportunity to explore first-hand some of the vast networks of infrastructure that sustain the Bay Area.

Organized by the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, the conference will take place on May 30-31 at SPUR and the Brava Theater in San Francisco. The Long Now Foundation is partnering with BAIO on the event, and Long Now members receive a 25% discount on tickets – please check your email for your discount code.

Field trips will take place on May 30th, with most of the speakers scheduled for May 31st. A basic pass to the talks can be reserved for $100; the deluxe pass for $150 includes access to a field trip, as well. Half-price tickets are available for members of the nonprofit community; please see the event registration page for more information.

Watermark: New Film by Edward Burtynsky

Posted on Monday, April 14th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Every living thing requires water. We humans interact with it in a myriad of ways, numerous times a day. But how often do we consider the complexity of that interaction?

Renowned photographer and former SALT speaker Edward Burtynsky explores these questions in a new film. Co-directed by Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal,

Watermark is a feature documentary film that brings together diverse stories from around the globe about our relationship with water: how we are drawn to it, what we learn from it, how we use it and the consequences of that use. … Shot in stunning 5K ultra high-definition video and full of soaring aerial perspectives, this film shows water as a terraforming element and the scale of its reach, as well as the magnitude of our need and use. This is balanced by forays into the particular: a haunting memory of a stolen river, a mysterious figure roaming ancient rice terraces, the crucial data hidden in a million year old piece of ice, a pilgrim’s private ritual among thousands of others at the water’s edge.

The film is part of Burtynsky’s larger Water project, which also includes a book and an exhibition of dramatic large-format photographs. Watermark will be playing at theaters throughout the United States this month and the next; you can find a list of screenings here.

In San Francisco, Watermark will be screened at the Opera Plaza Theater  for one week, starting this Friday, April 18. Come see the film on opening day for a chance to hear Burtynsky speak about the film: he will attend the 4.30 PM and 7.00 PM shows in person for a post-screening Q&A with the audience.

More information about the Water Project book can be found here, and the accompanying photographs will be on exhibit at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco through the end of the month.


The New California Water Atlas

Posted on Saturday, February 1st, 02014 by Austin Brown
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Almost forty years ago, California’s young new governor faced the challenge of leading his state through one of its worst droughts ever. Around that time, a group of cartographers had been hoping to develop a comprehensive and definitive atlas of the state and one of them suggested the idea to an advisor to the governor’s office, Stewart Brand. In light of the crisis, a scaled-back, more focused atlas detailing California’s water systems garnered support from members of the administration and governor Jerry Brown.

Several years later, in 01979, California’s Office of Planning and Research published the California Water Atlas, an attempt at “providing the average citizen with a single-volume point of access to understanding how water works in the State of California,” as the volume’s foreword, written by Project Director and Editor William L. Karhl, put it.

Several decades later, California is once again governed by Jerry Brown. Drought has returned and so, coincidentally, has the water atlas. The New California Water Atlas seeks to revive and update the original’s citizen-serving, data-sharing approach by offering online, interactive maps.


Headed up by Laci Videmsky, a project director at the Resource Renewal Institute, The New California Water Atlas operates as a non-profit project, rather than directly out of the Governor’s office. Now moved to the web, it also seeks to publish not a single volume, but a growing body of tools and interactive visualizations with regularly updated data.

Videmsky spoke with me about the project from Berkeley, where he also lectures for the College of Environmental Design at the University of California. He described at length how the original Water Atlas inspired this new project and about what’s in store.

Videmsky first encountered the original Atlas when his wife brought it home from UC Berkeley’s library. “Both of us were in awe,” he says.

Around this time, Videmsky explains, he’d been exploring the world of web mapping, open data and open government:

I was really interested in the ethos of open government and how people were using data, thinking about transparency and accountability, and how their systems communicate with government and the kinds of technologies they were using to connect people. And most of this work was being done at the city level and then at the federal level and also most of it was related to various amenities and services that were often not natural resources, so I wondered, why don’t we take this open government and open data to natural resources agencies? They are civic institutions and they could benefit from this.

One area he began researching was California’s system of granting water rights.

I was learning how to do web mapping and I called the state water board to download their data from their site. They had kind of an older application that they’d built a while back that kind of half works and doesn’t have an easy way to search or to download data, and they were actually nice enough to just give me their whole data set.


Not long after these extracurricular efforts, he walked into the office of Huey Johnson, founder and president of the Resource Renewal Institute (and a former SALT speaker), and noticed a copy of the Water Atlas. Johnson had been the Secretary for Resources in Jerry Brown’s first administration and served on the Water Atlas’s advisory board along with Stewart Brand. They got to talking about the original Atlas, as well as some of Videmky’s efforts to visualize water data.

I showed him this interactive map that I’d made with the water board data and the lightbulb went off and we started having conversations about open government and how open data’s kind of changing the way government works and how we can maybe do that for California water.

It was out of that conversation that the New California Water Atlas was born and from that early prototype map that the site’s first big visualization would eventually grow. Videmsky and others are currently working on two more interactives for the site, with hopes of many more being developed as the project grows. The first focuses on groundwater levels:

We’re working on groundwater – so another state agency called the Department of Water Resources, which actually funded the first atlas, they have a data set of all the water levels in the ground of about 15,000 groundwater elevation monitoring wells. We downloaded from their water elevation monitoring system about 500,000 records which represents about 30 years of data for the whole state. It was very laborious – it took us a month to get 30 years.

Using the final product, Californians will be able to zoom into an area of the state on a map and move a slider to view the last 30 years of fluctuations in groundwater levels.

Another interactive in the pipeline will track water prices across the state:

I’m starting a collaboration with the California Public Utilities Commission to make data available to visualize water prices. Water isn’t priced according to scarcity, it’s priced according to the price of delivering the water. So I think it’d be really, really interesting for people to be able to compare what they paid for water.

Something Videmsky has found to be consistent with the original Atlas is the eagerness of state agencies to share their data, despite budgetary and technical challenges. Stewart Brand wrote in the original’s afterword:

Some of it was easier than expected. The state government probably has more information on water than any other subject, but early fears that the information would be jealously guarded by the agencies turned out to be incorrect. At every level, from local to state to federal, people were generous with their data and their time.

As Videmsky put it:

A lot of state agencies don’t have the resources either in staff or money to improve the way they make water understandable and water data available to the public. And so there’s definitely a need for private-public partnerships and that’s actually happening in many different sectors. We get a lot of moral support from the agencies. They’re very excited about this. We’re making something that’s very visible, highly accessible and so they’re really eager to participate.

Beyond helping the state’s agencies tell their stories, Videmsky is also exploring the idea of making a platform for citizens to tell theirs as well.

One idea – this is not implemented – but one idea is to allow for, almost a site within a site so a user would be able to create a blog around a certain geographic area. They’re dealing with issues locally that are important to them, like groundwater contamination, so it’d almost be like a citizen atlas, where citizens’ science sits alongside authoritative data. There are a lot of stories to tell that are not necessarily data stories but personal stories.

Additionally, they’re looking for help from programmers, translators (they want the site to be in both English and Spanish), designers and data-wranglers. Much of their work is open-sourced on GitHub, where they’d be happy for help building part of the visualizations or cleaning up the data.

Keeping the project open-source isn’t just a collaborative choice, though. Videmsky sees it as a way to help the project bear long-term fruit. While the original Atlas was a single volume, the web will allow the new Atlas to live and grow along with the state and possibly to be adopted by other states or for analyzing other natural resources. Along other long-term lines, Videmsky said they’re looking for a good institutional partner to help support and archive the data so that the database of California’s water system they hope to build can continue to grow and inform the state’s citizens for generations to come.

An Animated Atlas of The Known World

Posted on Tuesday, January 28th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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In 01830, English journalist Edward Quin created a historical atlas that illustrated our expanding knowledge of the world. Depicting a time span that stretched from 02348 BC to 01828 AD, or more than four millennia, each successive map showed a slightly larger piece of bright, colorful land, surrounded by the ominous clouds of the unknown.

Slate recently compiled these maps into a single, chronological GIF (high res version) that highlights the sense of dynamism, evolution, and enlightenment that Quin sought to convey. As each image follows its predecessor, the viewer sees a menacing black sky gradually receding until the modern world is finally revealed.

The atlas, which belongs to Long Now Board member David Rumsey‘s map collection, certainly tells a story – though it may not be the one Quin sought to tell. To a modern audience, these maps are less an account of expanding geographic knowledge than a history of Western thinking about the rest of the world. The maps depict a decidedly European perspective, beginning with the biblical world of Noah’s Ark, and progressing, via ages of imperial conquest (Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and finally colonialism), to incorporate the entire globe. As Slate summarizes:

To say that an area of the world was “known” was, for Quin, the same as saying that it was “known” by Greek, Roman, or European cartographers. A set of such maps drawn from the perspective of the Aztecs, Egyptians, or Chinese would, of course, look quite different.

For more information about the atlas, please visit David Rumsey’s online collection, where each map – with descriptions by Quin – can be examined on its own.

David Rumsey’s Historic Maps of San Francisco on Display at SFO

Posted on Friday, December 20th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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There’s no place like an airport to ponder the notion of place in both its microscopic and macroscopic manifestations – in its continuities, and its evolutions.

Next time you fly in or out of San Francisco’s International Airport, take a stroll down to Terminal 2 (post-security), where a series of historic local maps and drawings are on display. The images, on loan from Long Now Board Member David Rumsey‘s collection, document San Francisco’s transformation from sleepy backwater into lively boomtown during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

San Francisco was at once improbable and inevitable. Much of the land at the northern tip of this hilly peninsula consisted of wind-swept sand dunes and was frequently blanketed with a cold fog during its summer season. But its location at the entrance to the largest natural harbor on the Pacific Coast, a series of auspicious events, and consecutive generations of citizens boldly reinventing their home on their own terms all combined to produce a city considered by many of its residents and visitors to be one of the world’s finest only fifty years after its founding. By all accounts, the transition of this sleepy village clinging to the shoreline of a sheltered cove to a boisterous, thriving metropolis was sudden. Charts, maps, and illustrated views document the remarkable pace of San Francisco’s early development in the latter half of the nineteenth century and its perpetual state of transformation throughout the twentieth century.

For those who would rather avoid the TSA, the exhibit is also viewable online. Every image includes a link to David Rumsey’s own online collection, where you’ll find detailed information about each map.

A visit to Star Axis

Posted on Monday, November 11th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Having climbed the staircase for some time, I stopped on a step that sent me back to the sky of twenty-five hundred years ago, the sky that loomed overhead when the Book of Job was written. I braced myself against the cool stone of the corridor that bracketed the staircase, and looked up through the tunnel. In the 5th century BC, the orbit of Polaris was much further out from the pole than it is now. We know this from our understanding of precession, but also from observations that were recorded at the time, observations that suggest a new way of looking at the sky had begun to emerge by then. Very slowly, it seems, the conceptual filters that humans used to interpret celestial phenomena had started changing, becoming less theological and more empirical. Instead of scanning the sky for the moods and faces of a humanlike god, people began looking for patterns in it. They went searching for order itself in the void.

Aeon Magazine Senior Editor Ross Anderson recently had the privilege of visiting Star Axis, a large-scale architectural installation in the New Mexico desert by artist Charles Ross. Anderson tells the story of his journey to the incomplete and mystery-shrouded artwork, with plenty of backstory on its creator and the astronomical mechanics it highlights.

Humans and nature: It’s complicated.

Posted on Friday, October 25th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Depending on your point of reference, humanity can seem distinct from and damaging to nature or like an emergent part of a single thriving force. Two interviews with the authors of new books illustrate this elasticity and the multifaceted conceptions of ourselves and nature we shift through depending on the questions we ask and the spaciotemporal scales we consider.


J.B. MacKinnon and Sharon J. Riley, writing for Harpers, discuss The Once and Future World in which MacKinnon explores the impact humans have had on the Earth’s ecosystems and how misunderstanding that impact can lead us to misunderstand nature itself. He relates the story of a whale that was spotted just off the coast of downtown Vancouver:

Vancouverites saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because hardly anyone was aware that whales lived in the area by the hundreds until they were hunted out a century ago… If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.

It’s been said that “technology is anything invented after you were born.” In a similar way, our reference point for nature often comes from what we grew up with, even though most of us were born into environments hugely affected by human development. Ecology and Natural History can show us a deeper picture of the major changes wrought by humans the world over and illustrate major inflection points (like the Industrial Revolution, or the Columbian Exchange) against former baselines. MacKinnon reminds us that these baselines are relative, but that they also tend to be fairly stable in comparison to human rates of change.

Human society, in MacKinnon’s account, has degraded nature by harming biodiversity. It’s this diversity, he says that we ought to seek, rather than the restoration of any particular baseline of the past. In looking forward, he offers a model for valuing biodiversity that, surprisingly, comes from one of nature’s symbolic antipodes – the city:

I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity.

If MacKinnon asks how humanity has affected nature on Earth, Ross Anderson and Lee Billings discuss what life on earth has to learn about itself as our search for other worlds really gets going. This galactic expansion of scope compresses, in some ways, the conversation’s working definitions of nature and humanity.


Ross Anderson, for The Atlantic, spoke with Lee Billings about his book Five Billion Years of Solitude which explores the science and cosmological ramifications of the search for extrasolar planets and their potential inhabitants. The book is largely about the scientists who are on the cutting edge of this field, but Billings and Anderson also discuss the emergence of life on Earth and the inevitable end of Earth’s habitability.

A point Billings repeatedly stresses is the fragility of our newfound ability to look and venture beyond our own small world. Ecological, political, cultural and technological obstacles threaten to limit our achievement and, as alluded by the book’s title, doom our planet to a life of solitude. The work of the scientists in Billing’s writing is important and grandiose in effect, but often mundane in practice and the same can be said about the governance of a society.

Throughout history, countless aspirations of heartbreaking beauty and staggering genius have been torpedoed by all-too-human foibles or by simple bad luck, and that’s not going to change. Maybe we will build super-intelligent machines or travel to the stars someday, but even then we’ll still have to do the dirty laundry.

These concerns, in Billings’ mind however, aren’t limited to humanity. What we’ve achieved, we owe to the natural world from which we’ve been born and to which we’re still a part. We aren’t beginning to consider that Earthlings might someday reach other planets and stars because of humanity’s exceptionalism, though that’s been important; we’re considering it because of the riches we lucked into on this precious world.

We really owe our progress and our current state not only to our biology, but also to our planetary resources—to the fossil fuels we burn, the ores we mine, the rich diversity of other species we exploit, and so on. We’re presently using most of those resources in very unsustainable ways. We’ve already plucked all the low-hanging fruit, and much of what we are burning and mining and exploiting now is only available to use through our already sophisticated technology.

So if we somehow drive ourselves extinct, if all our great edifices collapse, I think it would be very difficult if not impossible for anything else to rise up and rebuild to where we are now, even given a half-billion or a billion years. People can and will disagree with me about that, but my position errs on the side of caution, on the side that says humanity’s present moment in the Sun is too valuable to treat as something disposable.

Any species can overreach its niche and in that we may not be exceptional. Environmentalists often threaten apocalypse and the fall of human society if we don’t learn to value the Earth’s resources properly, but Billings expands the scope and the stakes. Our work seeking other worlds isn’t just a human endeavor, it’s a planetary one. Like MacKinnon suggesting that we imagine ourselves to be a citizen of diverse city, Billings suggests that we’re ambassadors for that city and we may not have a successor.

In taxonomy, classifiers who focus on their subject matter’s similarities are known as “lumpers,” while those most interested in difference are “splitters.” Ultimately, of course, humans are just another part of the natural world, governed by evolution and physics like anything else. But in our day to day lives, and even across generations, our place on this planet is clearly unique in key ways. As these two conversations show, parsing our role on this planet involves both lumping and splitting.

Primatologist Robert Sapolsky has spent a career studying humanity’s close biological family and often focuses on lumping us in with other primates, but he offers a single, essential split he’s observed about humans: that we can simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind at once. And maybe that quirk itself is what allows us to zoom from a galaxy, down to a planet, and in to a city and to simultaneously lump and split this thing we call nature and ourselves.

Harmonic Spheres and the Music of the Cosmos

Posted on Wednesday, August 21st, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras developed the science of harmonics. Legend has it that he was inspired by the sounds emanating from a blacksmith’s shop; producing experimental music with hammers and anvils, Pythagoras realized that the relationship between different musical notes can be expressed in the form of simple mathematical ratios.

Pythagoras saw in this a fundamental theory of the universe, and redefined the world – from the motion of celestial bodies to the emotional fluctuations in a human body – as iterations of a kind of cosmic music. More than a millennium later, Johannes Kepler interpreted this musica universalis as proof of Divine splendor, and devoted his career to a description of the geometric and harmonic order of our solar system.

Efforts to chart this celestial harmony can produce strikingly aesthetic images. Kepler’s sketches proved as much in his publications – as does this work by software developer Howard Arrington. Arrington used his own Ensign software to visualize the relationship between pairs of planets, producing a series of intriguing geometric mosaics. Better yet, he shares the program with which he created his images, so that you, too, can capture the music of the cosmos.

Leap Seconds and the Nature of Civil Time

Posted on Wednesday, July 31st, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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About two months ago, a group of scholars gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to discuss the future of civil time – the universal clock that keeps the entire globe and its nearly 7 billion human inhabitants in sync. Their conversation had begun with a meeting in 02011 (at which Long Now co-founder and Board member Danny Hillis submitted a paper on timekeeping in the 10,000-Year Clock); this year, the debate focused on the merit of the leap second: the corrective increment of time that is added to (or subtracted from) the end of a winter’s or summer’s day roughly once every eighteen months in order to synchronize the world’s clocks with the small but erratic changes in the speed of Earth’s rotation.

At stake in this debate is a question about how we wish to define civil time – or Coordinate Universal Time (UTC), as it is officially known. Now based on atomic timekeeping systems, eliminating the leap second would effectively mean decoupling UTC entirely from the movement of Earth, Moon, and Sun. In a recent article published in Aeon magazine, conference attendee and science writer Dava Sobel took the opportunity to explore some of the deeper questions this possibility raises about the very nature of timekeeping, and of time itself.

Until quite recently in human history, time was governed by the astronomical cycles of Earth’s orbit and rotation. We scheduled our daily activities around the moving shadows on a sundial, and planned our year in accordance with the seasonal lengthening and shortening of days. Time was indelibly bound to our precise physical location, yet simultaneously defined by rhythms much larger than ourselves.

But with the emergence of global commerce and communication came the need for standardization: we had to take control of time, and submit its rhythms to our need for disciplined coordination. First came the adoption of Greenwich Mean Time as the basis for timekeeping across the globe; then came the realization that the behavior of tiny particles – atoms – could offer a much more precise measurement for time than the movement of large celestial bodies. Sobel writes:

A second of time has its roots in the sexagesimal numerology of the ancient Sumerians, but it was too fleeting an interval to be registered on a mechanical clock until the 16th century. By 1960, a single second could be subdivided into slivereens by an atomic clock. The regularity of atomic-frequency timepieces promised a far more reliable standard than the spinning or revolving of the wobbly old Earth, and forced authorities to rethink their concept of a second’s duration. In 1967, the official definition of a second changed accordingly. What had once been a tiny fraction (1/86,400) of a 24-hour day became the time taken by an atom of caesium-133 to flip through certain characteristic quantum-mechanical changes 9,192,631,770 times.

When the caesium clock replaced the Greenwich Meridian as the world’s authoritative measure of time, it was decided that this new UTC should nevertheless maintain agreement with GMT and the rotation of Earth; these two had, after all, served so long as a global reference point. But as Sobel suggests,

… the Earth hiccups and falters. Its rotation, as monitored by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), speeds up and slows down in response to the motions of the tectonic plates that pave its surface, the flow of molten iron in its core, the recession of glaciers, the circulation of the atmosphere, and, most important, the pull of the Moon.

Earth’s imprecise wobbling causes a seeming drift in our precise atomic clocks, upsetting the coordination of new time with the old. In 01972, therefore, the IERS introduced the leap second: whenever the agency records a discrepancy of more than 9/10ths of a second between GMT and UTC, it legislates the insertion (or deletion) of a second at the end of a predetermined day in summer or winter. In the forty-one years since, 25 such added leap seconds have silently stretched the length of our atomic days.

Over the course of these four decades, UTC has replaced GMT as the world’s main reference for time. Time is no longer local, yet grand: it is now abstractly universal, yet wholly disciplined to the needs of a global civilization. And now, even leap seconds – this last connection between our clocks and the erratic cycles of the natural world around us – are up for debate.

Doing away with the leap second means decoupling civil time from the Earth’s rotation – something that has never been attempted by any known civilisation. The demise of UTC as we know it would alter the meaning of ‘day’ that underpins legal, cultural and religious practices the world over. UTC would no longer be ‘coordinated’ in the same fashion. Although it would take a few thousand years for Saturday to fall on Sunday, that event would loom on the horizon.

Image ©Robert Mann (

We seem to have arrived at a stand-off between man-made and “natural” cycles of time – between the precision of the atomic clocks we’ve designed, and the unpredictability of our planet’s motion. Sobel suggests it’s easy to mistake that precision for truth:

Given that all atoms of caesium-133 behave the same way, it’s tempting to regard the unwieldy number 9,192,631,770 as some sort of fundamental rhythm – a microcosmic time cue, or zeitgeber.

But seeing through this elision, as Sobel urges us to do, invites us to recognize that no timekeeping system is any more or less “natural” than any other. In fact, isn’t the notion of “time” itself (and in particular, the idea that it is linear) ultimately always a man-made abstraction? Something we’ve invented, much like money, to quantify and keep track of the natural cyclical processes that govern the world we live in?

In a thousand – or perhaps even just a hundred – years, we might discover a clock that is yet more precise than a caesium atom, and transform our notion of time yet again. For these, as for our present-day clocks, the irregular movement of Earth, Moon, and Sun will offer a perpetual challenge. Nevertheless, these natural cycles are likely to outlast any human definition of time. No matter how successful we are (or become) in disciplining and standardizing time, the imperfect cycles of day and night, summer and winter, low tide and high tide will most likely always serve as an important reference point for our understanding of the world we live in. In the year 12,034, Earth might spin around its axis in as little as 22 hours – or perhaps as much as 25. But here at Long Now, we predict that it’s this cycle, rather than the fluctuations of a caesium atom, that will continue to define our notion and experience of a ‘day’.

The next 50 years of land use planning

Posted on Friday, May 17th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Since the beginnings of civilization, humans have had reason to think carefully about where to grow food, where to sleep, where to put waste. We call it land use planning and for most of history it’s happened pretty haphazardly. Like other activities, though, we’ve gradually systematized the process, especially as we’ve come up against scarcity and competition. Until we can move significant portions of the population to a new planet, land will only get more scarce, of course, and how we make use of it in the future is an important conversation to have.

Patrick J. Kriger, writing for Urban Land, describes two visions for the next 50 years of American land use planning. One scenario extrapolates forward the trend-line of ever-increasing urbanization:

By 2063, the suburban tract house and the shopping mall will have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and a generation of workers in the knowledge-based economy will flock to high-density, walkable urban mixed-use neighborhoods. Some may live in “smart” apartment buildings with motorized walls designed to transform bedrooms and offices into dining rooms and home gyms, depending on the time of day, and travel in miniaturized robotic cars that are controlled by a wireless network to minimize congestion.

Another scenario imagines that innovation will allow certain benefits of city-life to be enjoyed in the countryside and that this compromise will shift the trend towards less concentration:

50 years from now, people increasingly will forsake the cities for the rural countryside. They will live in updated, technologically advanced, and economically self-sufficient versions of the 19th-century village. These lower-density “micro urban” communities will enable their inhabitants to own spacious houses and their own automobiles, but also will allow them to enjoy the same economic opportunities and cultural amenities of urban areas while savoring the pleasures of living close to nature.

He lists the core factors that will influence these trends as population growth and demographic shifts, advances in technology and design, climate change, scarcity and abundance (water in particular), and the decentralization of production.


Human population is both growing faster than ever and expected to level off in the next century (though exactly where remains open to debate). Alluding to these facts, Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, points out in his essay in The Atlantic that,

It is unlikely that city building on the scale to be seen through 2050 will happen ever again.

In other words, the population and urbanization explosion we are currently living through is an event, not a permanent reality.

As Kriger points out, the average lifespan of a residential building is 53 years; for commercial it’s 65. Decisions being made and designs being drafted now will have profound impacts on the quality of life, economic prospects, and environmental impact of the next 2 to 3 billion citizens of Earth. The approaches described in these two essays will determine how well we manage this event and they will establish how we utilize one of our most precious resources – the Earth’s surface – for generations to come.