September 12, 2017

ASU real estate expert responds to scenario in novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, who will deliver Sept. 20 'Comedy of Coping' lecture

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novel, “New York 2140,” climate change has reshaped the United States. More than 120 years into the future, sea levels on the Eastern seaboard have risen 50 feet, submerging some of the country's most populous cities and scrambling politics and culture.

Twenty-second-century Manhattan has become a “SuperVenice” where canals have replaced paved streets and skyscrapers have transformed into nearly self-sustaining ecosystems with their own farms and water-purification systems.   

In a time — back in the real 21st century — when monster hurricanes ravage communities and public discussion about the effects of climate change is becoming more urgent, the author brings his willfully hopeful view of the future to Arizona State University’s fourth annual Imagination and Climate Futures lecture on Sept. 20 at the Phoenix Art Museum.

In the lecture, “The Comedy of Coping: Alarm and Resolve in Climate Fiction,” Robinson will urge the audience to renounce dead-end apocalyptic thinking and instead think about ways that humans can work together to survive in an increasingly chaotic environment. This faith in collective action and altruism animates “New York 2140,” and it’s integral to Robinson’s entire career, which spans more than 20 books.

But “New York 2140” is about more than climate change and sea-level rise. In a recent interview, Robinson framed the novel as a drama about real estate and financial speculation — energized by drastic environmental upheaval, but also projecting the drivers of the Great Recession and today’s rapidly escalating housing prices in major U.S. cities into a chilling climate future.

Mark Stapp, director of ASU’s Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice and the Master of Real Estate Development program in the W. P. Carey School of Business, shared his expert perspective on “New York 2140’s” vision for the future of real estate in a drowned world. 

One of the major characters in the novel is Franklin Garr, a Wall Street day trader who invents the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, or IPPI, to enable financial speculation on “intertidal” real estate properties that are sometimes submerged and sometimes above water, depending on the daily tidal fluctuation.

Mark Stapp

According to Stapp, in the climate-changed world of “New York 2140,” a financial instrument like IPPI “doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.” It’s an attribution model, built along the same lines as many current indexes designed to predict prices and trends for real estate and in other markets. In fact, Stapp is involved with a similar project to use an attribution model to map and predict real estate price changes as a result of the Valley Metro light-rail project in the Greater Phoenix area. 

What Stapp liked most about “New York 2140” was the sentiment that “New York is going to be New York,” even in the wake of Earth-rearranging flooding. New systems are required for dealing with the massive influx of water into the city, but older systems and constructs — from the money and culture of Wall Street to the neighborhood associations and cranky building superintendents — are still in force in this radically changed portrait of the Big Apple.

“People still work, still go to bars, still hang out with friends,” absorbed in their daily routines even as their lives are powerfully shaped by the sea-level rise, Stapp said. “New York is a resilient place, and it is not the buildings or the streets or parks that make the community; it’s people that make the community, and they adapt.” 

The novel parallels a recent shift in real estate thinking toward resilience, which the Stockholm Resilience Centre defines as “the capacity of a system … to deal with change and continue to develop,” and the ways that “humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.”

For Stapp, a key element in the resilience of a place is the strength of its social systems: In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, neighborhoods with strong social supports like churches and community groups tended to recover more quickly than neighborhoods with less well-developed networks. In “New York 2140,” simple, low-tech innovations such as community dining rooms inside the densely populated skyscrapers and hyper-local farming to improve food security in particular caught Stapp’s attention because they are technological changes that meet basic, universal human needs and build community ties. 

One key point in “New York 2140” that gave him pause was the stubbornness of New York’s denizens and of government to retain density in the city.

“I would assume that the city’s population would disperse throughout the surrounding area, especially to the north in the Hudson River Valley,” he said.

After all, Franklin Garr’s IPPI shows that even as city residents struggle to survive in the intertidal zone, real estate in New York City remains pricey in 2140. Stapp pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, more than 80 percent of U.S. Millennials who own homes already live in suburbs. Some people are irresistibly attracted to big cities, but a majority of Americans are willing to relocate to suburbs, especially in the face of rising housing prices. Affordability, access to employment and quality of life are and will remain important determinants to settlement.

Stapp believes metro Phoenix is a particularly resilient city, precisely because it is not subject to cataclysmic natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes. However, with a decades-long drought showing no signs of abating, even desert dwellers will have to adapt to a future that might leave many homeowners underwater.  

Kim Stanley Robinson will deliver his lecture “The Comedy of Coping: Alarm and Resolve in Climate Fiction” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, at the Phoenix Art Museum. To learn more and RSVP for the free event, visit https://comedyofcoping.eventbrite.com

Top image: The cover of Kim Stanley Robinson's novel "New York 2140," showing New York City after a 50-foot rise in sea level.

Joey Eschrich

program manager , Center for Science and the Imagination

480-442-2682