What If We Let the Oceans into Our Cities?

What will cities look like in the coming era, when billions of people are projected to move into major metropolises — most of which are clustered along the coasts — at the same time that waters are rising?

“Instead of moving to higher ground as is usually assumed, what if we were to stay?” mused Jonathon Keats, an artist known for his playful thought experiments. For his latest, the Primordial Cities Initiative at STATE Studio in Berlin, Keats got inspiration from the distant past, when single-celled life-forms were just beginning to establish themselves on Earth. The climate was harsh and unpredictable back then, but cities (of a sort) found a way to exist. They are called stromatolites — communities of single-celled organisms that live immersed in the tides of Earth’s ancient seas. These once-ubiquitous communities now only survive in a few spots in Western Australia and the Bahamas.

Stromatolites aren’t much to look at — they are basically towers of muddy goop. But if you look at them under a microscope, there’s a lot going on at each level of the tower. On top, there are bacteria that can turn sunlight into food. Below them are layers teeming with different species of single-celled critters, performing different functions at each level. The waste from the uppermost layers filters down, becoming food for the creatures beneath them — classic trickle-down economics (except that it actually works). Get enough of these organisms together, and their ooze starts binding mud in place, eventually forming towers amid the waves.

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