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bring nature back to the city

Carlo Ratti Associati

The dualism between the city and nature - the clash between social constrictions, on the one hand, and primordial freedoms, on the other - is a recurrent theme in Western thought. Life amidst nature has long been loved, hated, yearned for, regretted and idealized. The bucolic idyll, remember, is a poetic genre first invented by the Greek poet Theocritus. Today, with the ceaseless growth of urbanization everywhere on our planet, the individual is becoming an “indoor animal” passing his days in either an office, the home or a car. Little wonder then the increasingly felt need to make nature part of the built environment. Thankfully, more attentive urban planning - and perhaps also new technologies - could make this come about, and we may finally be able to reconcile nature and our build world. But let us start from the beginning. This is not the first time in the history of man that our cities have undergone massive expansion. In Europe, the 19th and 20th Centuries witnessed unprecedented internal migration as people from the countryside flooded into the cities. The result was overcrowded polluted urban environments. It was this kind of city that led to the first generation of visionary revolutionary architects. In Great Britain, Ebenezer Howard coined the term “Garden City” to describe the numerous ideal cities planned during the second half of the 19th Century. They were all grounded in the idea of saving the city from overcrowding and the countryside from desolation. In Howard’s view, the Garden City would combine the advantages of urban life with the pleasures of country living. The movement triggered the building of numerous satellite towns around London aimed at providing comfortable homes in rural settings. The aim was clear: to take the city back to nature. A few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Frank Lloyd Wright developed his semi-rural utopia, Broadacre City. Here, in this ideal settlement, everyone would have an acre of land and so live in close contact with nature far from the dehumanizing metropolis. Wright’s ideal is clearly evident in one of his most famous projects, Fallingwater. Acclaimed as the “most beautiful” building of the 20th Century, it blends architecture and nature in a space where extensive glazing, balconies and staircases allow interiors to flow effortlessly into exteriors and making the built volume another component of the natural setting along with the rocks, water and trees. Yet it took only a few decades to realize that the urban idea behind most of these projects was flawed by several inconsistencies. Not only reliant on the constant use of the automobile, this bucolic lifestyle was posited on the idea of relentless urban expansion, a phenomenon that risked bringing about further ethnic and social segregation. For decades, in fact, the history of post-war America was one of sprawling suburban neighborhoods eating into the countryside and linked to the city by ribbons of asphalt. Today, we have understood that those 20th-century utopias are not the solution. Galloping urbanization requires that we minimize our occupation of the land and get used to living in increasingly dense environments where the private automobile is no longer needed for us to move about. So the big question then is not how to take the city to the countryside, but how to bring the countryside back into the city. As mentioned before, today this might just be possible. There are already many examples. One is New York’s Highline, the overhead park in South Manhattan, today an icon of a new kind of urban planning. Unsurprisingly, every city now wants to have its own Highline. London has its somewhat hesitant Garden Bridge; Seoul its recently completed Seoullo 7017 public park. New technologies allow architects and designers to realize even more ambitious dreams. The Supertrees of Singapore’s Garden by the Bay, designed by Grant Associates, is a good example of technology enabling extravagantly bold projects. Photovoltaic cells and turbines harness the energy of sun and water. Rainwater is collected in tanks in the tree “canopies”, and dehumidified air is used to cool the surrounding buildings. Then there is the CityTree project by the German start-up Green City Solutions: a wall planted with moss that removes pollution from the city air, helping to lower temperatures in our overheated cities. These “green walls” or “vertical gardens” are now seen in many cities around the world. Examples are the Verdevertical project in Mexico City and Milan’s Café Trussardi. But new technologies can also mean bringing agriculture back into the heart of our cities. Hydroponic cropping (growing plants without soil) is an ancient practice, but only in the last twenty years - thanks also to NASA’s research into life in space along with growing public awareness of environmental issues - has its true potential been recognized. Hydroponic agriculture would transform large urban spaces into green areas. The work of landscape architect Patrick Blanc, shows how. His green surfaces on the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and the Caixa Forum in Madrid are two examples. Of course, constraints of space and energy would never permit urban agriculture to feed the inhabitants of our metropolises. But growing food in our cities would be key to strengthening our bond with nature and our awareness of the cycle of life with the changing seasons. This is what we have tried to do with the recent Man and the Future - Hortus pavilion at FICO Eataly World, the huge agri-food park in Bologna, Italy. The idea is to give visitors a primordial experience: sowing seeds and growing food, here combined with hydroponic agriculture and digital technologies. Following simple instructions, visitors can plant a seed - basil, curly or butter lettuce, or wild rocket - in a hydroponic tank and then follow its growth with a web app. As anyone growing up in the countryside knows, once we have planted something, following the plant’s growth becomes an obsession. The magic of nature as it changes with time and the passing of the seasons was also the driver behind the research that led to our Living Nature pavilion at the 2018 Milan’s Salone del Mobile. Four seasons were arranged under one roof thanks to innovative energy flow and urban microclimate management. The project proposes a different take on how to tackle environmental sustainability and climate change, not least by introducing into the heart of Milan a space that links in with our instinctive love of nature, or “biophilia”, as biologist Harvey Edward O. Wilson called it, since we all feel better when surrounded by natural elements. The wellbeing we derive from nature is also why we should bring it back into the workplace. This is especially the case with today’s lifestyles of long hours in hermetically closed offices. Many experiments are springing up around the world. In the center of Seattle, Amazon’s new office has three glass and steel dooms covering a forest of over 40,000 plants. 25 minutes further east, tree houses have sprung up in the suburban neighborhood of Microsoft Redmond, Washington. Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, has a garden park roof, and not far away, in Cupertino, Apple’s new “spaceship” building surrounds a 30-acre park with an orchard and small lake. The 280 m skyscraper in Singapore we designed with Danish architects BIG has a façade that opens up to reveal an internal tropical forest. The renovated headquarters of the Agnelli Foundation in Turin has turned the garden around the property into a workplace. Designed by French landscape architect Louis Benech, the desks are now part of the lawn. So what hope is there for the future? New technologies may well allow the city and nature to come together and realize the age-old dream of Elysée Reclus, the French geographer and anarchist who at the end of the 19th Century wrote: “Man must have the double advantage of access to the delights of the town […] its opportunities of study and the pursuit of art, and, with this, the liberty that lives in the liberty of nature and finds scope in the range of her ample horizon”.


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