Imagining the ‘post-fossil fuel’ city

One entry in the Post-Fossil City Contest imagines a day when solar panels are almost everywhere, including above highways. (Post-Fossil City)

What might cities in a world without fossil fuels look, smell and sound like?

The Post-Fossil City Contest, sponsored by the Urban Futures Studio at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, aims to imagine an urban utopia devoid of gasoline, diesel and coal — and the fumes and pollution associated with them.

The competition tapped the creative juices of artists, designers, architects, urbanists, writers, photographers, filmmakers and visionaries. The 250 submissions from more than 40 countries have been whittled to 10 finalists.

Some entrants warn of a bleak urban future defined by rising seas and failing services in the overwhelmed slums of developing cities. However, most take a rosier outlook. They imagine a day when cities are no longer befouled by tailpipe emissions and roaring engines. Urban air would be as sweet as that of the countryside. The never-ending din of traffic that is the norm in cities today would be replaced by nearly silent electric vehicles that barely hiss when accelerated.

The wackiest idea comes from designers Anastasia Eggers and Ottonie von Roeder, who propose a Cow on Tour that makes it easy for city folk to collect fresh milk. A smartphone app would allow urbanites to locate these “walking vending machines”. Each cow would be equipped with a machine on its back powered by its own methane gas — in the form of farts.

Could urban dwellers use a smartphone app to order milk on demand from a roving cow? (Post-Fossil City)

Among the other highlights:

  • Ubiquitous solar: Researcher Tom van Heeswijk and designer Sabrina Lindemann foresee the day when solar panels are everywhere. Vast stretches of panels would line the tops of highways, shopping streets and athletic fields. Just about any public space could add them.
  • Dawn of on-demand: Designer Michel Erler thinks that Uber and Airbnb are just hints of what’s to come. By 2050, he projects that cities will be full of options for on-demand, shared and otherwise “smart” services.
  • Sleek new African cities: South-African urban designer Blake Robinson sees an opportunity for fast-growing African cities to pivot towards sustainable development. Rather than copy outmoded solutions from the Global North, new forms of energy and infrastructure could be built from scratch.
  • Pleasant urban sounds: The Sun City theatre collective created a soundtrack that allows listeners to hear what they’re missing in cities today. Without the roar of traffic, everything from birds to street hawkers become more audible.

Not everyone is optimistic. A submission titled People of Petrotopia depicts a dystopian future in which our insatiable appetite for fossil fuel has left cities ailing from pollution and climate change. >Utrecht is pictured as a bleak landscape with crumbling buildings and flooded streets. A smattering of windmills and solar panels have failed to reverse the damage.

The finalists, announced last month in Utrecht, each received €1,000 (USD 1,070) to pursue their projects. All will be highlighted at the Post-Fossil City Exhibition in Utrecht, on 15 June. The competition winner, to receive €10,000 (USD 10,700) will be announced at the event.

Learn more about the Post Fossil City Contest here and here.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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