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Life after humans: Columbia

What does Columbia look like after we're all gone?

December 20, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

What if all human life were wiped out in a single day? What if a new, incurable strain of the bubonic plague ran rampant through South America into North America? What if it were carried on the thousands of flights that day, and the disease spread across oceans to the other continents? What if tomorrow were the first day after humans disappeared from the world?

Nick Peckham, an architect and co-founder of Peckham & Wright Architects; Angela Belden, a resource forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation; and Mark Giessinger, a district maintenance engineer for central Missouri’s Department of Transportation, speculate what Columbia would be like after humans are gone.

One year

Columbia is still recognizable, though overgrown. Plant life continues to spread out without the maintenance of humans. Animals that naturally live in and near the city, such as squirrels, deer and opossums, have adjusted to a humanless existence. These generalists, or animals that can essentially survive anywhere, take full advantage of what we have left behind. Other animal populations, especially those that depend on human care such as domestic dogs, begin to decrease.

A single summer’s heat damages roads such as Providence, Broadway and Stadium. Normally fixed by maintenance crews, the typically manicured roads are left to decay. Plant life begins to sprout from cracks in the pavement, and the once-maintained neighborhood yards fill with weeds.

20 years

Buildings are starting to show signs of neglect, and roofs sink in. The Tiger Hotel, built in the 1920s, Jesse Hall, built in 1893, and other Columbia landmarks begin to show signs of disrepair. The concrete in Memorial Stadium is starting to crumble. The FieldTurf that was installed this summer has been left unmaintained for so long that it has worn out 15-year maximum life and is shredded and covered with debris.

Older roads, such as Old 63, are completely destroyed from exposure to the elements. Small plants and weeds cover the asphalt and concrete, leaving only a trace of evidence that the roads existed.

50 to 100 years

The generalists take over buildings for shelter and eat all of the food they can find. Other animals, such as elk, bears and quail, wander through the once-busy town past rusted and mangled cars and barely recognizable buildings covered by vegetation. The small plants that grew from fallen organic matter in the cracks of the broken roads and sidewalks are now thriving trees. After decades of weathering, the MU Columns on Francis Quadrangle are starting to crumble, and the once well-maintained botanical garden at MU campus hasn’t survived without weeding.

The bridges connecting the decaying buildings near Stephens College have long been on the ground. The Highway 63 Interchange was one of the newest projects near Columbia when it was opened in 2012, and now it, too, is run-down.

1,000 to 10,000 years

Trees invade the city, and the environment resembles a pseudo-forest ecosystem. Although the land seems to thrive, the surrounding area is still adjusting to the lack of regular fire and human regulation. Outside the former city limits, plant life grows freely and aggressively.

A world without humans might seem unfathomable, but the potential is there for it to thrive. Even after the powerful impact of humans on the planet, the land was self-sufficient. It survived before us, and it will survive after us.

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