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Collaborating with nature: Reimagining our cities with vertical forests

My friend Jaron put up a post the other day that said we didn't need concrete ideas for the future, but imaginitive visions of the future instead.

We don’t need a concrete vision of the future. But we do need imagininative, vivid, clearly described visions of possible futures

— Jaron Heard (@Jaronheard) May 2, 2020

This is something that I've been thinking about for a while now. A lot of our entertainment is focused on dystopian books and movies, but not nearly as many that envision what a more utopian vision of our cities and world could look like.

What if our cities actually mimicked forests? Where, instead of relegating our green spaces to the ground, why don't we think about our buildings as mountains? What if all buildings had green spaces, gardnes, and moss? What would they look like, how would it impact city happiness, and climate goals?

We've already got some examples that we can look toward. They're being termed vertical forests, and this is a start to how we can reimagine our cities.

A vertical forest in Milan, Italy, called Bosco Verticale has trees and shrubs on each floor of the building, creating a beautiful columnar mountain.

Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy

This building has been created by Stefano Boeri. The apartment in Milan is the first project, but his firm has plans to expand to different countries.

This is a fantastic start! What else could we do to expand on this work?

We don't have to stop at adding trees and shrubs. While this is one way to increase livability and reduce CO2, this can be amplified. We can think about how to better incorporate our structures with nature, and reduce consumption and waste even through the building process.

FPT University in Ho Chi Minh City is designing a campus that aims to integrate the campus with its natural surroundings and "create harmony between humans and nature." Instead of adding plants and trees on the buildings they're making, they're redesigning the buildings to blend back into nature and mimic it.

A rendering of the new campus design. The campus features a building that mimics the structure of a mountain, and is integrated with trees on the ground floor and trees on every level.

A rendering of the future campus

As an example, there's biocement bricks that you can actually grow. The bricks are made by a company called bioMASON. Krieg Dosier had often wondered how something so hard and durable, like coral and shells, could grow underwater. She discovered that the main component was calcium carbonate.

Krieg and her partner Michael Dosier experimented and were able to make bricks that are grown in molds and able to get to full strength at room temperature in just a few days. They're made of a combination of sand, nutrients, and microorganisms (Bacillus bacteria).

Lines of gray biocement bricks lined up on the ground.

Biocement bricks made by bioMASON, a brick made with algae.

There's even moss that can grow within the concrete, like these bioreceptive concrete panels from the BiotA Lab, and creators Javier Ruis, Richard Beckett, and Marcos Cruz. These magnesium phosphate concrete panels encourage growth of moss, algae, and lichens. And these microorganisms reduce air pollution and are resilient as well.

Picture of concrete panels with moss growing in between them.

These panels make it easier for moss to grow.

These are just a few examples of ideas that are already being considered for buildings. Thinking in systems helps us envision new ways of living.

As an example, we could also rethink the lifecycle of a building and the lifecycles of our cities.

If we think about a forest, trees provide value throughout their entire lifecycle, and their role in the system changes as the tree grows, matures, and eventually dies. Instead of building structures with only one purpose, how can we make them as modular as possible, so that they provide multi-faceted use throughout their own lifecycle?

What other ideas could we take from nature to impact our built environment?

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