The moose in the swimming pool, and other urban futures

Sustainable cities of tomorrow will be for everyone, including non-human lifeforms

Whenever I think about the future of urban life, there’s a YouTube video that pops into my mind. In it, a magnificent, very calm moose stands in a backyard swimming pool, occasionally wading deeper, while commentary is delivered by the family who owns the pool. This moose has decided to take a dip in the bustling but still woodsy suburb of Redmond, Washington, where Microsoft’s headquarters are located. And the humans are appalled and excited by turns.

This isn’t some bizarre turn of events brought on by humans encroaching on moose habitats. In fact, it’s a great example of how non-human animals adapt quickly to human-built landscapes. Moose love to swim, and they do it even when there are no backyard pools around -- below, you can see one fording the Snake River in Wyoming. 

Moose spend a lot of time playing in the water, too. I love this drone video of a moose frolicking in a reservoir in Idaho. It doesn’t matter if the water source is a suburban pool, a reservoir, or a naturally occurring river, moose will dance around with glee. There are also at least half a dozen videos on YouTube of moose enjoying sprinklers, though this one of twin baby moose goofing around in a sprinkler with their mother is particularly beloved.

I always want an excuse to talk about moose, but their relevance to cities has come to mind a lot during my virtual book tour for Four Lost Cities these past couple of weeks. Often people ask me about where cities are headed in the future, and I think one important answer is that sustainable cities will be built for everyone -- rich and poor, wheeled and on foot, disabled and able-bodied, immigrant and local. They will also be for non-human residents.

Cities are already home to many lifeforms that are not Homo sapiens. Squirrels chase each other across power lines, coyotes and raccoons prowl the streets, birds, rats, and insects eat our trash, and of course dogs and cats live everywhere. These creatures are not invaders; we build our cities on their land, and they continue to live on it as long as they can. The same goes for wildlife at the borders of our cities, in our suburbs and farms. As William Cronon argues in Nature’s Metropolis, cities are the sum of their farmland, wildlife, and their densely-packed cores -- you can’t have a city without rural areas, for all kinds of reasons. We need food; we need a healthy environment.

If cities are going to survive, they need to be environmentally sustainable in ways that go beyond LEED certified buildings or carbon-neutral energy. We need to build cities with non-human life in mind, acknowledging that our steel-and-brick habitats are ecosystems, a facet of nature. We ignore this basic truth at our peril.

That’s why I think about that moose in a pool when I imagine a well-governed city of the future. Tomorrow’s cities will not operate on the principle that moose do not belong in pools -- in fact, that Redmond family might live near a municipal moose pond for wandering megafauna in search of refreshment. City governments could create roosts for birds of prey in tall buildings, to help keep the rodent populations down; and transit authorities could keep cars off major roads during migration season so elk can pass through. Some cities will need toad tunnels, like the one in Davis, California, built to prevent toads from getting killed by cars when crossing the road.

And maybe, if humans really get our shit together, we’ll start to accept that there are some places humans shouldn’t build and farm -- in bear territory, for example, or the milkweed fields beloved by migrating monarch butterflies.

H. sapiens is not the only lifeform who reshapes the land to suit its tastes. Ants build cities and tend farms; beavers are ecosystem engineers. Cyanobacteria changed the entire composition of Earth’s atmosphere, and trees still contribute enormously to the carbon cycle.

The better we understand our place in nature -- not as its overlords, or its greatest creation, but as one humble beast among many, just trying to survive -- the more sustainable our cities will be.

I wrote some about these ideas in my previous nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, as well as in my novel Autonomous, whose eco-cities are informed by the research I did for Scatter. But these days I’m less interested in the fancy scientific inventions we’ll need to make our cities prosper. Instead, I’m excited about the possibility that makers of the future will hack their cities in simple ways to welcome all life, not just H. sapiens.

Other cool stuff about non-human friends!

If you love moose, you have to watch this short documentary, Alaskan Moose: A Journey with Giants. Sadly there isn’t much about moose playing in water, but there is a great moment where a person feeds a tame moose, kisses her lightly on the nose, and exclaims, “I’ve always wanted to kiss a moose!” Relatable.

I adore this story about recent genetic studies that reveal humans brought dogs with them from Siberia to the Americas 15,000 years ago. That’s right, humans and dogs were already a package deal when we started settling the American continents. There’s evidence that we started domesticating dogs -- or did they domesticate us? -- 23,000 years ago in Asia.

Like all right-thinking humans, I’m obsessed with naked mole rats. That’s why I gobbled up this story about how researchers listened to thousands of mole rat chirps -- and discovered that mole rats have dialects! That’s right. Different naked mole rat colonies use different sounds to recognize each other and communicate. These creatures just get more amazing the more we know about them.

Now you can read excerpts from my book!

Over at Popular Science, there’s an excerpt from my book on the ways that archaeologists have interpreted -- and misinterpreted -- figurines of thick naked women from the Neolithic period in the Levant.

Atlas Obscura ran an excerpt about how cities emerged in the global south. There’s a distinct tradition of tropical city-building that’s quite different from the traditions we see emerging in east Asia and the Mediterranean around the same time. Learning to recognize the ancient origins of that tradition in jungles of southeast Asia and the Americas has changed urban history forever.

And over on Science Friday’s website, you can read an excerpt about the social movements that led to indigenous Americans building a massive mound city on the shores of the Mississippi a thousand years ago.

If you’d like to see me discussing cities, storytelling, and more with the brilliant poet and award-winning author Amal El-Mohtar, we’re having a (virtual) conversation about Four Lost Cities this Wednesday night, 2/17, at the New York Public Library. Get your tickets now!

My new book is Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. You can find information and ordering links for it and my other books on my website, helpfully organized into science fiction and journalism. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram — or listen to Our Opinions Are Correct, the fortnightly podcast I co-host with Charlie Jane Anders. If someone forwarded this email to you, you can subscribe to it here.