Friday, July 12, 2013
What Do Toronto, Calgary and Angkor Wat Have in Common?
What do Toronto and Calgary have to do with the mysterious Cambodian city of Angkor Wat? More, perhaps, than we would care to imagine.
The city of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was a vibrant, growing metropolis in the late 17th century. Angkor was the New York, Paris or Rome of its time. At its peak from the 9th to 17th centuries AD, no one could have imagined any threat to this Khmer city-state. Yet, Angkor collapsed almost totally in the 17th century, and the reasons behind its demise offer an important lesson for today’s cities.
Angkor was built on a vast transportation network: canals acted substantially like freeways. The metropolis grew by expanding its network of canals from the central city to form a vast complex of suburban satellites. Ankgor grew exponentially as internal wealth and power increased. The waterways allowed goods and people to move well beyond the central core of the city.
But as Angkor continued to grow, its waterways became more fragile and vulnerable. Rain and other small but severe weather changes occurred, and the system began to crumble.
Angkor expanded in a mild weather period. So, Angkor policymakers assumed this weather regime would continue forever and thus built their canals with few water catchments and earthen dams.
Today’s sprawling cities expanded in a period of mild weather too, with no anticipation that seas might rise or energy resources could be depleted. Angkor and modern cities resemble one another in that they were built to survive in only the most benign weather regimes. The roads, sewers and the like of the modern suburb are based on an assumption of mild weather and cheap energy. Recent events like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and subsequent Midwestern intense storms show how poorly modern infrastructure performs in extreme weather.
Ours is a young country, not properly settled for more than a century. We came to Canada in a period of mild, benign weather. Nobody knew, when we settled the prairie, that it was an unnaturally wet period. No one had any idea that this region had a history of megadroughts lasting up to 60-years. The absence of tall trees and the prevalence of prairie grasses might have given a clue but we didn't understand that at the time.
Like the ancient Cambodians, we built our cities to conform to this mild climate. We had no experience of and couldn't foresee the extreme weather events of an altered climate in the 21st century. We didn't plan our cities to accommodate these impacts. We didn't build our infrastructure to withstand them. And now, like Cambodia's 17th century rulers, we're going to have to decide what, if anything, to do.
The default option is to do nothing. Of course we won't simply walk away as did the inhabitants of Angkor Wat. No, we're more apt to just look the other way, to deny as much as possible and to delay as long as possible in desperate hope of some easy, quick, miracle solution down the road, eventually.