The impossible city

Robin Blackburn's latest book, Age Shock and Pension Power, is published by Verso.

Saving the City from the Flood

On June 7, the BBC aired a documentary on the watery fate awaiting some of the world's leading cities as global warming melts the polar ice caps. Most of London and New York will be submerged beneath the waves by 2060. Hampstead and Highgate, Harlem and Columbia will be small islands but Wall Street and Canary Wharf, Mayfair and the City, will be several feet under at high tide.
David Cameron has set up a task force to see what can be done to allow the great investment banks, the hedge funds and the private equity houses to escape the deluge. According to a leak in the Financial Times, the Conservatives' "head of economic competitiveness", John Redwood, has come up with an imaginative solution. As the story's strap line explained: "Cities in the Sea Could Turn Climate Change into a Business Opportunity, Says Tory Policy Adviser" (FT, 14 June).

Redwood's idea is that a new city should be built in the sea to be known as Thames Reach. He envisions his "Venice-style" city in the sea as built up on stilts from the sea-bed. Tidal schemes would supply the city with renewable energy and huge sea walls would protect it from the waves. There would be a desalination plant and "imaginative planning" would allow shipping lanes in the estuary to be improved.

Redwood was quoted as saying that this "bold plan" would allow Londoners to "manage the impact of climate change ourselves without needing the rest of the world to change". However, he did concede that converting over sections of the sea might be "controversial".

He also granted that the scheme would be hugely expensive and seems to have realized that "Save Canary Wharf" somehow lacks the pathos of "Rescue Venice". So he proposed that the scheme be financed using money raised by "reclaiming and selling the underwater land to developers".

Once upon a time, it was socialist visionaries like Owen and Fourier who dreamt of building utopias and taming the ocean. In the 21st century it is modernizing Conservatives. There is also something biblical in the vision, with Thames Reach as a sort of latter-day Ark rescuing endangered species - "risk arb" traders, derivatives merchants, and hedge fund operatives - from the Flood.

Some will urge that these high priests of short-termism deserve their watery fate, but this is mean-spirited. However the New Tory vision does seem unduly earth-bound. Why not float Thames Reach on pontoons, enabling it to rise with the tide and obviating the need for those expensive walls? And why not adapt Churchill's wartime idea of bringing down loose ice floes from the Arctic, using them to buttress the pontoons?



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