“Cities Will Start To Crumble Faster Than We Imagine”

The best science book I read during the aughts was Alan Weisman’s 2007 theoretical tome, The World Without Us. Weisman, a journalist not a scientist, imagines what would happen to all we’ve built if human beings suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth. What would become of oil wells and subways and bridges and apartment buildings if they were untended?¬†Weisman’s findings are fascinating.

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An excerpt about New York City sans people from the book: “In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycles move indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Buildings groan as their innards expand and contract; joints between walls and rooflines separate. Where they do, rain leaks in, bolts rust, and facing pops off, exposing insulation. If the city hasn’t burned yet, it will now. Collectively, New York architecture isn’t as combustible as, say, San Francisco’s incendiary rows of clapboard Victorians. But with no firemen to answer the call, a dry lightning strike that ignites a decade of dead branches and leaves piling up in Central Park will spread flames through the streets. Within two decades, lightning rods have begun to rust and snap, and roof fires leap among buildings, entering panel offices, filled with paper fuel. Gas lines ignite with a rush of flames that blows out windows. Rain and snow blow in, and soon even poured concrete floors are freezing, thawing, and starting to buckle. Burnt insulation and charred wood add nutrients to Manhattan’s growing soil cap. Native Virginia creeper and poison ivy claw at walls covered with lichens, which thrive in the absence of air pollution. Red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons nest in increasingly skeletal high-rise structures.”

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