New tech­nol­ogy lead­ing ur­ban sprawl fight to put na­ture back into fu­ture city plan­ning

Shanghai Daily - - OPINION - Carlo Ratti FOR­EIGN VIEWS

EVER since the an­cient Greek poet The­ocri­tus wrote his pas­toral idylls ro­man­ti­ciz­ing ru­ral life, peo­ple have been pon­der­ing how to build cities that are in con­cert with their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings. But with rates of ur­ban­iza­tion grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially around the world, the need for greener cities has never been more ur­gent. For­tu­nately, in­no­va­tion and tech­nol­ogy can help strike this lon­gelu­sive bal­ance.

Bridg­ing the ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide has long been a fo­cus of city plan­ners. In the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, Euro­pean cities ex­pe­ri­enced un­prece­dented growth as huge num­bers of peo­ple moved from the coun­try­side to newly boom­ing me­trop­o­lises.

As these cities grew, they be­come over­crowded and pol­luted, which in­spired a new gen­er­a­tion of thinkers to search for so­lu­tions.

One of these vi­sion­ar­ies was Bri­tain’s Ebenezer Howard, who in 1898 coined the term “garden city” — which he de­fined as res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties built around a mix of open spa­ces, parks, fac­to­ries and farms.

Soon, Lon­don was sur­rounded by leafy sub­urbs de­signed to keep high-qual­ity hous­ing and abundant green space in equi­lib­rium. Howard’s mantra was to bring the city to na­ture.

A few decades later, on the other side of the At­lantic, Frank Lloyd Wright con­jured up Broad­acre City, an imag­ined sub­ur­ban de­vel­op­ment bal­anc­ing the built en­vi­ron­ment with the wild. And back in Europe, Charles-Édouard Jean­neret, an ar­chi­tect and de­signer known as Le Cor­bus­ier, was sketch­ing vi­sions of utopian cities that seam­lessly en­veloped the nat­u­ral world.

And yet, while each one of these ideas was rev­o­lu­tion­ary for its time, they failed be­cause they re­lied heav­ily on the au­to­mo­bile and pro­moted ur­ban sprawl.

In fact, most early ur­ban­iza­tion in the West was char­ac­ter­ized by de­vel­op­ment pat­terns that crashed against na­ture, con­nected not by green spa­ces and parks, but rather by end­less rib­bons of im­per­vi­ous pave­ment. As plan­ners rec­og­nized the short­com­ings of 20th cen­tury reme­dies, they sought to re­verse the equa­tion: How can na­ture be re­turned to the city?

New York City’s High Line, an aerial green­way built from a con­verted rail bed that opened in June 2009, was one of the first projects to cap­ture this new am­bi­tion in ur­ban plan­ning. From Lon­don’s (now de­funct) Garden Bridge to Seoul’s Sky­gar­den, projects are be­ing de­signed to bet­ter in­cor­po­rate na­ture into the ur­ban fab­ric.

Green city so­lu­tions

Sin­ga­pore’s Gar­dens by the Bay is among the more am­bi­tious ef­forts. At the park’s Su­pertree Grove, pho­to­voltaic cells har­vest en­ergy from the sun, and rain­wa­ter is stored in the steel trees’ “canopy” to feed ver­ti­cal tow­ers of fo­liage. De­hu­mid­i­fied air is even col­lected to help cool ad­ja­cent build­ings.

Mean­while, in Ger­many, a startup called Green City So­lu­tions is build­ing mo­bile moss-cov­ered walls to clean pol­luted air and help lower ur­ban temperatures.

The com­pany’s Ci­tyTree con­cept — es­sen­tially a nat­u­ral fil­tra­tion sys­tem — is be­ing tested from Mex­ico City to Mi­lan.

We are even wit­ness­ing a boom in ur­ban agri­cul­ture, as ad­vances in hy­dro­ponic and aero­ponic farm­ing tech­niques make it eas­ier to grow veg­eta­bles in con­fined spa­ces. While cities will never re­place ru­ral ar­eas as the world’s main source of nutri­tion, a higher per­cent­age of food can be cul­ti­vated in ur­ban ar­eas. New ven­tures like Freight Farms in Bos­ton and InFarm in Ber­lin are al­ready har­ness­ing these tech­nolo­gies to bring ur­ban farm­ing to more peo­ple.

As in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions like these take root, ur­ban plan­ners are turn­ing their at­ten­tion to even bolder en­deav­ors.

One con­cept that my col­leagues and I have ex­plored is cus­tom-de­signed ur­ban ecosys­tems and cli­mates. In Mi­lan, we re­cently un­veiled our Liv­ing Na­ture ex­hibit, a 500-square me­ter pav­il­ion that can recre­ate four sea­sons si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­der the same roof.

The goal of the project was to spark con­ver­sa­tion about sus­tain­able de­sign, and to il­lus­trate the sur­pris­ing ways that na­ture will be in­te­grated into the cities and homes of the fu­ture.

More than a cen­tury ago, the French ge­og­ra­pher Élisée Reclus as­tutely pre­dicted that peo­ple would al­ways need “the dual possibility of gain­ing ac­cess to the de­lights of the city … and, at the same time, the free­dom that is nour­ished by na­ture.”

Reclus’s ideal was vi­sion­ary, if pre­ma­ture. But to­day, thanks to new tech­nolo­gies and bold think­ing, the ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide in city plan­ning is slowly clos­ing.

Carlo Ratti, Di­rec­tor of the Senseable City Lab at MIT and founder of the de­sign firm Carlo Ratti As­so­ciati, co-chairs the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s Global Fu­ture Coun­cil on Cities. Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate, 2018. www.project-syn­di­cate.org

Carlo Ratti

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