What will the low-carbon cities of tomorrow be made from? An unexpected answer has risen today in the return of ‘premodern/ ‘preindustrial’ materials to central cities and skylines. Champions of new mass timber materials have driven a race on iconic ‘plyscrapers’ and, increasingly, novel systems of industrial prefabrication. This research (with Bregje van Veelen, Uppsala University) explores the distinctive sociotechnical imaginary driving advocacy for this biomaterial, and the cities and urban bioeconomy it might develop. It unpacks a conflicted nostalgic futurism central to the project, which conjoins ‘technofuturist’ and ‘nostalgic-reparative’ appeals. On the one hand, mass timber proponents embrace competitive novelty, uniting drives for architectural distinction and high-tech disruption. On the other hand, aesthetic advocates lead appeals to the material’s more traditional premodern/preindustrial associations, in narratives of biophilic design which claim therapeutic benefits of contact with visible nature in buildings. These conjoined forward- and backward-looking compulsions pose tensions and internal contradictions. Nostalgic-reparative appeals risk greenwashing and reproducing unequal access to environmental amenities, while reinscribing regressive appeals to an imagined past of social-ecological unity and stability. At the same time, technofuturist drives extend late capitalist growth imperatives and pressures for accelerated material churn in both forest production peripheries and urban fabrics—avoiding tough questions about mass timber buildings’ expected lifetimes and claims for long-term carbon sequestration. Appeals to bioeconomic circularity risk further legitimating this churn and ‘flexibility’ as a response to it, including arguments that timber materials can facilitate ‘design for disassembly’ and/as climate future-proofing. Conversely, a reimagined mass timber project might support more progressive futurisms in movements for climate restoration, repair, and reparations.
Sarah Knuth is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University, UK. Her research critically explores questions in the contemporary politics of climate change and decarbonization, speaking across geographical political economy/ecology, energy, urban, and financial studies. One major track of this work has advanced critical understandings of the urban dimensions of climate and decarbonization transition(s), particularly drives for energy efficiency retrofitting, distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar and energy storage, novel strategies and materials for ‘green’ building, and other interventions that occupy the (fraught) intersections between technological transformations in urban built environments, broader trends in urban financialization and late capitalist extraction, and emerging movement visions for more just climate futures.