Desert City

The Sietch Nevada project, envisioned by a design team from the University of Toronto, asks how to survive in the deserts of the American southwest as water becomes an ever-scarcer commodity. Cheap land and power gave rise to cities where cities really had to right to be, in the midst of a vast and arid landscape that simply lacks the ability to carry millions of human being and their consumptive lifestyles.

Recently, the communities along the Colorado River, that used to survive from its seeming endless waters, have discovered that those waters aren’t nearly as endless as they once thought. From its beginnings as a raging torrent that carves through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado ends its flow as a muddy trickle in southern California, its water sapped by agriculture, power generation and golf courses in the middle of deserts.

As a means of surviving dry periods, many communities have turned to water banking, putting extra water into underground reservoirs as a emergency storehouse against future need.

Sietch Nevada takes waterbanking, another step further, by putting the communities underground, along with their reservoirs. In contrast to the sprawling cities they are envisioned to replace, these underground cities are dense urban communities; geometric towers that rise to the surface from vast underground canals and reservoirs.

At the surface, these desert cities appear to be a sort of massive honeycomb, with many of the holes roofed over with glass. Under these domes grow cascading urban gardens to help feed the cities, while the moisture lost by transpiration in the plants is captured by the glass overhead. These areas of the cities would be like giant terrariums, greenhouses in the desert.

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The Sietch concept is inspired by the environmental science fiction of Frank Herbert, and his seminal work Dune. Like the desert cities of that novel, the cities of Sietch Nevada would act to capture moisture from the air itself, adding to their reserves. While this activity isn’t likely to help the desert around them, the underground cities would eventually come to define their very own ecosystems. Some of the water from the reservoirs is bound to find its way back into the natural system, adding green to the immediate surroundings of the domes, and restoring long-spent deep aquifers.

These cities would be designed to be largely self-sufficient, perhaps using wind and the sun for power, collecting their own water, and growing their own food through the use of the terrarium farms and fish and other life in the reservoirs.

The creators of the Sietch Nevada concept had another, darker role for these desert cities: self-contained fortresses, hunched over their underground hoards of water. Protection for their inhabitants and their precious water in the coming water wars, where cities battle for control of the most important resource to be found in a desert.

One hopes that the world never goes that far. Yet the technologies of Sietch Nevada can also be used to green the desert, rather than build fortresses that act more to commemorate the closed thinking that brought these communities to the crisis point in the first place.

Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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