Envisioning the Rural Metropolis: Ethanol urbanism strategy, from Near-Collapse scenario: Em Sawyer, Charles Song, Yiqun Wang, Regina Yang. Harvard School of Graduate Design, 2024.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel 23121 presents us with a compelling portrait of  humanity overcoming ecological limits imposed by the finite resources of their immediate  ecosystems. As the book goes, after a plausible chronology of climate disasters, sea level rise,  famines and social revolts, the only path forward is out, and eventually technological efforts are fully directed to the colonisation of the solar system. Robinson’s inventive takes on what I like to brand sci-fi urbanism include Earth biomes preserved from extinction in hollowed-out asteroids or Archigram-like moving cities permanently escaping the torching sun as the chosen urbanisation strategy for Mercury. Surely, this makes 2312 a bedside table favourite for wannabe space-coloniser billionaires such as Elon Musk. Yet, most importantly, the fictional approach reminds us of some rather relevant, but still much ill-discussed, factual insights about our current ecological condition. Before technological capacity allows us to jump-start urbanisation  beyond our own planet, we really should come down to earth – as Bruno Latour wisely put it.2  And this is perhaps where the concept of sci-fi urbanism presents interesting avenues to useful alternative thinking about our future. 

In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and the publication of seminal investigations like the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth,3 thinkers such as Patrick Ophuls or William R. Catton Jr.  produced strikingly clear reflections about humanity’s ecological conundrums stemming from the emerging fields of political ecology or environmental sociology. For what matters here, they both discussed and expanded upon one fundamental idea: contrary to a long history of  “ecological scarcity,”4 we have recently enjoyed four hundred years of growth only because we have expanded colonisation and extractivism to their possible limits, much beyond the resources offered by our immediate surroundings. Learning from ecological science, the usual consequences of such progress would be the exhaustion of resources available to the once-thriving species and, ultimately, its massive die-off. In this dire scenario, climate change would be nothing but one of the many triggers at play. 

Thus, delving into issues of globalisation in his referential Overshoot (1980), Catton speaks of  “ghost acreage”5 as the multiple ways in which we have artificially extended the typical carrying capacity of our nearby environment, including the conquest of new territories (think Ukraine), temporary technological improvements (think machinery or fertilisers), hidden ocean resources (think depleted fisheries), or the fact that we are “borrowing” both from the far past  (think fossil fuels) or from the near future (think our grandchildren). So, today, when we nonchalantly state that we consume the renewable resources of nearly two planets every year, we usually forget to mention that what makes this possible is ramping inequality in resource distribution, both across the global South/North divide, and within each local society across lines of class, race, gender and age. More than just clinging to climate justice, we should thus be broadening our discourse to terms of ecological and environmental justice. 

In Robinson’s novel, as in recent film depictions such as Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, the concept of predatory planetary urbanisation, as studied by urbanists such as Neal Brenner, is taken to its logical next step. So that growing urbanisation continues, and ecological bounds are further distended, new “ghost acreage” must be brought in. In due time, inevitably comes the pressing need to terraform and colonise every bit of territory in the nearby solar system, from artificial space stations and asteroids to moons and planets. As such, our overshoot of carrying capacity would once again be temporarily postponed – as it has been successively the case over the last centuries. Coming back down to earth, one has only to be reminded that, with the ecological  footprint of a metropolis like London at more than double than what is deemed sustainable, the land needed to support this city’s life system is practically equivalent to that of all of the United Kingdom.6 So, while fantasies of space colonisation are still wildly beyond our current  technological capabilities, we may rather need to direct the fertile imagination of sci-fi urbanism to very down to earth, but also very wild problems of, for instance, the wish (or the need) to reduce London’s ecological footprint by 80% until 2050.7 This is the complicated intersection at where we enter the concept of a future rural metropolis

If sci-fi urbanism is a useful tool to anticipate the ecological dilemmas of our unstoppable urbanisation, it may also be helpful in looking at the future uses of territories that are usually left behind by that crunching process. As in Robinson’s novel, it might even help us imagine alternative modes of urbanisation, including those in which remaining ecological systems and agrarian landscapes must now be understood beyond traditional oppositions of rural and urban. In this fashion, the paradoxical concept of the rural metropolis came to my mind around 2020, as a typical post-pandemic notion when many were desperately seeking for some sort of outdoors lockdown. And, soon, the idea actually turned into the main conceptual driver of a bid I was leading on behalf of 17 towns in Portugal’s heartland for the 2027 European Capital of Culture. The idea of the rural metropolis became a “back to the future” attempt to merge cultural impact and ecological thinking as a possible response to the already classic urban and economic dilemma of “shrinking cities,”8 or, in this case, a whole shrinking region

With 70% of the Portuguese population flocking like lemurs to a narrow 25km strip along the Atlantic coast, whole areas in the country’s interior have been depopulating at a rate of 10% every 10 years. Maths, and especially accelerating feedback loops such as the difficulty to provide services for increasingly smaller populations, tell us that this depopulating rate could drive this territory to total desertion by 2100. However, in the midst of a pandemic and increasingly dire forecasts of climate change impacts, it certainly felt like this trend might be reversed. With the benefits of swelling 5G digital networks, perhaps a new metropolitan spirit could be infused into an area that had largely retained its rural and natural assets – and could thus preserve more of a resilient ecological footprint in the form of (quite appealing) low-density urbanisation? 

With the European Union not yet ready to assume such challenges within its cultural sector, in the Spring of 2024 the investigation of the paradoxical concept of a rural metropolis eventually evolved into a more directed piece of sci-fi urbanism research at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Following Samuel Beckett’s motto of try again, fail again, fail better, the idea of envisioning a rural metropolis was refashioned to address a more contained, ever depopulating area in the same territory, looking at Cova da Beira as a bio-region with the potential for ecological self-sufficiency. Midway between Lisbon and Madrid, Cova da Beira is a fertile tableland confined by mountain systems, roughly 40x25km in size, with an already ongoing process of diffuse urbanisation and a population of nearly 100,000 people distributed across three municipalities: Covilhã, a declining textile cluster that is now headquarters to one  of the few universities existing in the Portuguese interior; Fundão, a mid-size town  reconceiving itself as a rural tech hub; and Belmonte, the smallest of the three, a tourist  destination especially catering to Sephardite Jews and Portuguese-Brazilian descendants looking for their family roots. With its relatively resilient water systems and slightly delayed impacts of climate change, Cova da Beira offered itself as an ideal place to anticipate a sort of ecological stress test for low-density urbanisation in a coming age of multiplying climate migrations and encroaching environmental emergencies. 

At the heart of our exercise of sci-fi urbanism, we decided to deploy scenario thinking – a  strategy tool introduced by the US military in the 1950s – which is today mostly used by corporations to prepare for trends that may affect their businesses in the near future. As our horizon, we targeted the year of 2074, as both the 100th anniversary of the revolution that brought democracy to Portugal after a long fascist regime – and also the time at which demographers estimate the Earth population will plateau at around 10 billion inhabitants. Involving interdisciplinary teams of landscape, urban design and architecture students, we  departed from three distinct scenarios that could offer slightly distinct possibilities and conditions. The Business as Usual scenario considered desired outcomes if humanity maintains its current course of permanent economic growth, tech optimism, and constantly postponed goals for decarbonisation and biodiversity preservation. The Managed Degrowth scenario welcomed an entirely fictional narrative in which the European Union would create pilot degrowth zones as testbeds for fully circular economies and ecologically-sustainable urban  development. And, finally, in a more dystopian vein, the Near-Collapse scenario would look at what expressions of preparedness could be adopted as regional authorities would gain acute awareness of increasing risks of food, energy and social breakdowns.

Departing from these three glocal scenarios, the planning strategies had to establish  chronologies of plausible sequences of events and how resulting triggers would lead to specific design responses. Students had to question what values and measures to implement along the given 50-year period, so as to eventually turn the region into an ecologically-balanced, nearly self-sufficient territory. The ultimate goal would be to welcome and integrate all strata of climate migrants – in-between the upper crust of today’s budding climate gentrification and the 300 million people that the UN estimates will be dislocated by climate change by 2050. To make it spicier, midway through the research, students were asked to consider the sudden arrival of 100,000 climate refugees and the impacts of such population doubling. With these  conditions in view, the projects looked at how future urbanisation could embody an ecological steady state or find a dynamic equilibrium with its surrounding ecosystems. Ultimately, the designs had to ponder the economic systems and competitive land uses that would sustain food, energy and social self-sufficiency in the midst of environmental disasters and the ensuing consequences of deglobalisation – such as resource-driven conflicts or the impossibility to rely on failing international supply chains. 

The brief was certainly complex and demanding. It asked for speculation and extrapolation out of currently available data, in an uncomfortable pedagogical methodology that, while often present in advanced design studios, is still more akin to science fiction than to orthodox teaching routines. Particularly, it is not easy to engage with fiction and its specific needs for internal coherence and plausibility. But once you allow yourself that freedom, you may discover truths that will hardly emerge out of more factual approaches. By way of a kind of shock therapy, which included a full injection of hard facts about our current ecological emergency, the exercise was actually intended to shift mindsets, and hopefully push students beyond the lethargies of eco-anxiety. This purpose actually echoed Catton’s call for a radical shift in our ecological worldview as a “basis for revolutionary change.” And I remember feeling  that this particular goal was achieved when students were seriously concerned about their calculations of the region’s “carrying capacity” to sustain a population of 120,000 people – in the exact same expanse that, in our current megacities, often holds 12 million humans. 

What I’m playfully calling sci-fi urbanism here, does not necessarily offer a design response to the immediate problems that planetary urbanisation is imposing on us. But, at the ecological crossroads we are in, it may help us shift the parameters we must embrace when addressing such problems. Using scenario thinking to look a little bit further into the future – and to consider what we already know about that future in quite certain terms – may help us avoid some costly missteps and some seriously pathological paths forward. If all fields of knowledge will necessarily be called upon to contribute towards the great transition ahead, it is particularly relevant that we anticipate and tackle the ecological footprint of our unstoppable  rates of urbanisation. In this sense, sci-fi urbanism encloses the ability to generate critiques of the urban and regional planning goals that we are still deploying today when addressing  further urbanisation (think “more housing,” “more infrastructure,” “more new towns”). If we are to avoid catastrophic endings, we need to urgently shift course in every field of action.9 Borrowing from Patrick Ophuls’s most recent book title (as I did more extensively elsewhere10 ), “electrifying the Titanic”11 will not do the job. Ultimately, as weird as it may sound, sci-fi urbanism is just one of the many alternative ways of thinking that we will need so as to tackle the challenges of the very near future. 

  1. See Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312. Orbit, London, New York: 2012.
  2. See Bruno Latour, Down to Earth, Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Wiley, Hoboken: 2018.
  3. See D.H. Meadows, D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth. Universe  Books, New York: 1972.
  4. See William Ophuls, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. W. H. Freeman, New York: 1977.
  5. See William R. Catton, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of  Chicago Press, Urbana / Chicago: 1982.
  6. See Hari Srinivas, “The Ecological Footprint of Cities: Innovations For Greater Sustainability,” GDRC Reseaarch Output - Policy Analysis Series E-199. Kobe, Japan: 2023. Available online at, last visited April 1, 2024.
  7. See Brook Lymdhurst (ed.), London’s Ecological Footprint: A Review, Greater London  Authority, London: June 2003. Available online at, last visited April 1,  2024.
  8. See Philip Oswalt, Tom Rieniets, Elke Beyer, Anke Hagemann (eds.), Atlas of Shrinking Cities.  Hatge Cantz Publishers, Berlin: 2006.
  9. For more on the unavoidable changes coming our way in the fields of architecture and the  built environment, see Pedro Gadanho, Climax Change! How Architecture Must Transform in  the Age of Ecological Emergency, ACTAR Publishers, New York / Barcelona: 2022.
  10. See Pedro Gadanho, “Electrifying the Titanic,” in Prologue magazine, Madrid: 2024.
  11. See William Ophuls, Electrifying the Titanic: The Shipwreck of Industrial Civilisation, Bite Sized Books, London: 2021.