The Re(f)use City and WALL·E

Imagine our colossal, municipal landfills as mines full of resources for building our future urban and suburban spaces. What kind of effort is required to reuse their copious contents? For hundreds of years we have designed cities to generate waste. Now that more than half of all humans are settled in urbanized areas, waste management needs a radical revision: it is time we design waste to generate cities.

This message, which I’ve propounded for a few years, brought me and my design team at Terreform 1 to the attention of Disney. While we were drawing up plans to transform our relationship to waste, Disney’s “imagineers” were working on a cartoon, WALL·E, around the same theme. We were all motivated by some grim facts:

America is the lead creator of waste on the Earth, responsible for about one-third of the world’s trash. Each of us tosses out almost a ton of refuse per year. Where does it all end up? At the moment, New York City is disposing of 38,000 tons of waste per day. Most of this discarded material ends up in landfills. Manhattanites toss out enough paper products to fill a volume the size of the Empire State Building every two weeks.

Picture 5.png At Terreform 1, we’ve developed a Rapid Re(f)use project that strives to capture, reduce, and redesign New York’s refuse. The initiative supposes an extended city reconstituted from its own waste materials producing, at minimum, seven entirely new Manhattan Islands. Specifically, our plan remakes the city by utilizing all the trash still entombed in the Fresh Kills landfill, which was closed in 2001. Started by Robert Moses in 1948, Fresh Kills grew into the largest man-made structure on the planet: almost five square miles of waste; in places, it is 25 meters higher than the Statue of Liberty. Following this pharoahdian ziggurat’s closure, plans were raised to create a park and cover over the trash with lawns and shrubs. But we’re suggesting we take a different view of what we throw away. Guided by prudent engineers and smart equipment, why don’t we turn this “waste” into something?

When I arrived at the fabulous Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, California, our expectations were elevated. I was going to meet people with the finest imaginations on earth and talk shop. Our Terreform 1 group had prepared a presentation that would unpack a comprehensive view of tomorrow’s world. It’s a world free of carbon loading in the atmosphere and abundant in self-sufficient lifestyles. I had meticulously crafted cities so rich with green wisdom they made Kermit the Frog appear like Dubya – or so I hoped. Much to my chagrin, on my trip to Disney, I discovered the WALL·E creators were light-years ahead of us, at least when it came to the topic of municipal waste. At the time, I had a sketch of a new city composed of waste ordered by massive industrial 3D printers. A cadre of our students had run through a number of iterations. When Ben Schwegler, mastermind, Chief Imagineer, and Mouseketeer, pulled back the proverbial black curtain to reveal WALL·E, I was crestfallen. They beat us to it: they had envisioned a waste processing machine that can crush objects into cubes for assembly into building blocks.

Picture 1.pngWALL·E is perfect – almost. He is a tightly-packaged, solar powered, curious, obedient, evolved, robotic trash compaction and distribution device. His name is an acronym; Waste Allocation Load Lifter·Earth Class. Left behind by mankind, he toils with trillions of tons of non-recycled trash. Not only is he a highly advanced rubbish manager, he is a mechanized, new fangled Mesopotamian architect. He piles Ziggurats quicker than Hammurabi. Also, and this is vital, he is incredibly adorable. There’s just one catch. Ceaselessly, he configures mountains of discarded material into pyramids of trash, but why? WALL·E didn’t seem to have a reason, because the humans had no intention of returning to Earth. The Imagineers at Disney had conceived a vision of the future almost as bleak and futile as our current vision of burying the trash in the earth.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for deeper connections in our relationship to waste. What if the refuse was re-fabricated to become real urban spaces or buildings? How much new technology needs to be obtained to do so, or should we modify existing methods? If it is plausible to adapt the current machinery, how much material is available? At first look, any westernized sanitary landfill appears like an ample supply of building “nutrients.” The heavy industrial technologies to compact cars into “lumber” or automatically sift through garbage are readily available.

Our city will be derived from trash—but not ordinary trash, smart trash. I was inspired by Woody Allen. In his stand-up comedy, back in the 1960s, he used to tell a great parable about mechanical objects with attitude. He detailed the relationships he had with various household appliances, such as his blender, his toaster, and the quirkiness of their individual personalities. He met with them often to discuss problems and on occasion had to chastise them, like hitting his television set for poor signal display. One day in a New York elevator, the voice of an automated operator asked him, “Are you the guy that hit the television set?” and promptly bounced him up and down the building before dumping him in the basement.

Picture 4.png I don’t expect all the systems in our future city to be perfect. A significant factor in our city composed from smart refuse is post-tuning. Unitized devices will not immediately adapt. Integration into the city texture is a learning process. Items will need to talk or poll one another for useful information. After a time the responses will become more attenuated to the needs of the urban dweller. This city is made from trash, but each individual component is enhanced with a modicum of CPU power and the ability to evolve

My final objective for this city is to establish a “perpetual motion” urbanism. Perpetual motion is said not to exist, yet. But what if our city was like a gadget that produces more energy from renewable sources then it consumes? Or instead of a city like a single gadget, it is a city of a trillion gadgets making more with less. In this case, nothing can be thrown away. Every bit is a vital piece of stored energy poised to be reused in a cyclical nutrient stream. It is a city without a tail pipe. It is a city that not only has zero impact, but it is a positive contribution towards the natural surroundings. It is the highest standard we can conceive. JFK said: “If man created problems, man can solve them.” I think it is not only about solving our ecological issues, but returning to a system of perpetuity. This is the future for a true, breathing, interconnected, metabolic urbanism.

Cities have passed the age of industrialization and entered the age of recovery. After this great cleansing, we may transition into the grandest of orders: positive waste. Here is an order that captures our socio-ecological needs. Not a utopia, but a philtopia, a place where everything is precious and nothing is disposed.

Project Credits

Rapid Re(f)use: Waste to Resource City 2120
Terreform 1, Mitchell Joachim, Emily Johnson, Zachary Aders, Maria Aiolova, Melanie Fessel, Webb Allen, Niloufar Karimzadegan, Lauren Sarafan.