Drew Smith is an architectural designer and educator based in Chicago. He is a member of the utopic spatial practice, Interesting Tactics. Previously, he was a visiting instructor in architecture at South Dakota State University.





Terraform the Desert

A speculation by Sam Brissett, Drew Smith, and Tyler Snell, as a part of Compounding Anthroposphere studio taught by Vahan Misakyan and published
in Litorum 01

A possibility of the ad-hoc terraforming sprawl produced through infractecture & SaharanCoin incentives

Slow Motion Emergency
The West might want to believe that climate change can be mitigated. Maybe someone will invent a machine to reverse the quantities of carbon in the atmosphere, the masses of plastic floating in the oceans, the growing deserts and rising seas, the dwindling biodiversities.The reality is that most of the world has lost hope in nation-states, corporations, and humanity to effectively respond to climate change. We are so invested in our own systems that we cannot see beyond it. But this prompts a question: what if we have exhausted our answers and now have to pose a new question for our relationship with the world?

Instead of living in fear of human impact, we must embrace it. This is the anthropocene. Humans must harness our sublime agency to shape a world where everyone can prosper. This is not a solution for climate change. It is climate change.

Displacements to Come
Desertification is already claiming about ⅓ of the Earth’s usable land. Soon, this phenomenon will cause many seemingly stable regions to become less habitable. The number of displaced people around the world will begin to rise dramatically as their homelands become less viable due to increased conflicts, resource instability, and changing landscapes. Having infrastructure that responds to desertification and displaced people becomes a world wide issue.

Desertification and Re-Greening of the Sahel by Rasmus Fensholt, Cheikh Mbow, Martin Brandt, and Kjeld Rasmussen

Climate Change
But the Sahara is greening. Well, it might be. Some climate models predict the Sahara, the largest desert on the planet, will expand. But others, even the same models sometimes, predict that climate change will actually green the Sahara. This is enough for us. The possibility, the hope.

A system that terraforms the desert already exists within the African deserts. Termites aerate the ground while building their intricate mounds. Water seeps into the soil. Plants grow. Livestock come to feed, and unintentionally fertilize and protect the soil. A green field surrounding the termite mound emerges.

Refugee camps are distinctly separated from their surroundings. What if these settlements were to use existing terraforming techniques on a massive scale to make their surrounding more hospitable.

Agri-pens collect water and use cattle as a means to way to terraform the soil

Infratecture & SaharaCoin
Could new citizens be prompted to create and invest in a new way of living - one that can make areas of scarcity prosperous? Could this new way of living also provide the basic tools that can green the Saharan Desert? Perhaps even the infrastructure becomes in-habitable - a sort of “infratecture.” The investment, power, and agency are distributed amongst the inhabitants instead of NGOs or foreign entities. This very process could be incentivized by block-chain smart contracts stipulating that “if someone builds infrastructure, then they get a SaharaCoin.” In this way, the inhabitants of these settlements create a system of investments that grow in value as the settlement expands and as infrastructure stabilizes. What is valued in the settlement is not what is owned, but rather the labor and knowledge that is implemented to produce it.

Sprawl is Good
Traditionally, human settlements have been clustered around areas of rich soils or resources that are extracted for use. Density, at a healthy scale, is desirable because it minimizes the area of human activity and ostensibly protects the surrounding resources. However, Terraforming the Desert flips this paradigm. Humans are clustered around areas of scarce resources where lushness is manufactured. In this case, human activity must occur everywhere possible. Sprawl is the rule.

Who’s project?
This project is a specualation of three midwesterners. It’s not a solution. It’s a question. A question about collaborating with climate change and embracing the impact of humans. It’s a question about displacement. About home.

How does it end? As the need grows, so does the dream. And so as it shrinks. Perhaps it would grow, insatiable, just as the actions that generated this need in the first place.