Urban discussions currently start in a similar way: the population of cities will grow, cities are responsible for great part of gas emissions, how to deal with increasing urbanisation, etcetera. The World is undoubtedly becoming more and more urban. As the United Nations presented the facts: ‘by 2030 all developing regions, including Asia and Africa, will have more people living in urban than rural areas. In the next 20 years, Homo sapiens, “the wise human”, will become Homo sapiens urbanus in virtually all regions of the planet’. In all these discussions cities are often approached as a problem. We live in cities, we are attracted by them. Why are we so pessimistic about our own urban living space?
‘Cities are not the problem, but the solution’, said Jaime Lerner, the former mayor and urban planner of Curitiba, Brazil. Lerner was responsible for an urban revolution in Curitiba in the 70s. He created the Bus Rapid Transport system, which became an example of pioneer sustainability and has been reapplied in 83 other cities worldwide. He sees cities not as the problem that we should remediate, but as our living space, our home, which we should cherish. A positive approach and a new ‘urban state of mind’ can change the way we approach the relationship between ourselves, our cities, and our environment.
All kinds of green technology – including green energy sources, clean transport, and many other examples – are important, but useless if not well integrated within the city concept.
A healthier relationship between urban areas and the natural environment is undeniably a key for not only resilient cities but also for a resilient world. The intensification of urban areas as a result of a growing urban population requests a shift to an environmental-alert planning mentality. Curitiba’s Lerner declared once that all kinds of green technology – including green energy sources, clean transport, and many other examples – are important, but useless if not well integrated within the city concept. All urban systems must be included into a greater coordinated approach. Besides, we should also plan cities based on a decentralised system.
Cities can no longer sustain centralised systems. How long can we afford to collect all our sewage, transport it via large concrete pipes to some location outside the city, treat it and then send it all back to where it came from via another system of water pipes? How long can we all drive every day from A to B in the morning, and back from B to A at the end of the day? In a very inspiring TED talk Professor Kent Larson from MIT envisioned that ‘the metropolises of the future will look more like cities of the past’, when the size of a village was based on the walking distance from a water well or a market square. A decentralised city is then formed by several small ‘20 minutes walking distance-based’ villages that provide enough facilities to avoid unnecessary daily commuting. A decentralised city is also faster when adapting to changes, therefore more resilient. Changing a large single system unit is more difficult than adapting several small ones. Furthermore, approaching the city in smaller conglomerations also provides a tailored solution to the space and a stronger connection to local needs of the community.
But we are not declaring anything new here. The decentralisation of city systems is already a known need and a constant discussion. It actually often ends up with new questions: how to spread the functions through the city while they are already densely occupied? Cities keep growing, how to stop the sprawl and simultaneously reorganise urban functions?
We dare to declare that the answer is in nature. Not by bringing nature into the city, or relating cities more to nature, but by understanding that we are, along with our cities, part of nature. The integration of urban areas with nature should happen smoothly and naturally, by the integration of green spaces. But how can we reintegrate with nature within densely occupied areas? Well, our use of space has to become more efficient through smartly combining functions. We could integrate nature through multi-functionality, and think of green spaces that can simultaneously perform within different systems and provide maximum social, economic and environmental profit per square meter.
One outstanding example of unexpected green can be found in Budapest. The Hungarian company Organica developed an innovative (and patented) technology that provides wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) with a sustainable botanical garden-like appearance, designed to fit seamlessly into any urban environment. Attila Bodnár, the co-founder of the idea, declared that “the sustainable urban planning principles which Organica embraces rely on a more decentralised approach where treatment can happen closer to where people live. (…) When the greenhouse is expanded and integrated with a park, tropical plants, fish, frogs and so on – then suddenly the ecology has entered into the urban fabric in a manner that works, an attractive working landscape with which local people can identify.”
The integration of green spaces in smart multi-functionality can also be executed on a smaller scale. In buildings, an integrated approach could be used for creating, for example, multifunctional wall systems. A building in the future will not solely be a building, but a living organism. The strict boundary between nature and building will vanish. Instead of creating climate problems such as heat stress due to large build up and paved areas, buildings become the centres of green and adaptive tools for a healthy and safe city.
On an even smaller scale, building materials should become multi-functional building blocks of the city structure. When in the natural world materials are living entities and react to their environmental challenges and advantages, building materials should also relate to these profound characteristics. Bioengineering and building with nature are interesting concepts, where living natural systems are used for technical purposes. Next to this, biomimicry is an upcoming approach, whereby nature serves as inspiration for material performance, processes and systems.
On all scales, the unexpected factor of green is achieved by multi-functionality. It raises awareness about the possible integration of city and nature. A sewage-treating garden, a green interactive facade, or farming on a rooftop are examples and ideas that – when spread in the city within a smart decentralised planning method – inject energy flows that boost the city socially and economically, besides guiding our living space towards an environmentally aware future. The urban space of the future will merge with green in unexpected ways and in unexpected places, forming resilient and remarkably surprising cities.
Picture above: Green as a surprising element (photo: Natasha De Sena en Charlotte Lelieveld)
Charlotte Lelieveld Architect
Charlotte Lelieveld is educated as an architect and received her PhD on the subject of adaptive buildings systems and smart material technology. Her interest lies in bridging knowledge fields in order to create innovative solutions. She sees an important contribution of the multifunctional and evolutionary performance of biological systems for the optimisation and adaptation of future proof city cities on all scales.
Natasha de Sena Business Developer in Green Cities
Natasha is a Brazilian architect and urbanist born in Brasília and raised in Curitiba, who is passionate about the complexity and liveability of the urban environment. After graduating as an architect in Brazil, studied Urban Design and Planning at the Technical University of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. She works as Business Developer in Green Cities at Alterra, a research institute of the Wageningen UR.