Thinking and designing the city as an ecosystem

Today designers and policy makers are facing urban challenges that cannot be solved by thinking traditonally in only local, punctual or linear interventions. Causes and effects, architecture and the environment but also humans, plants and animals are interrelated. These relations can be approached afresh with system thinking.

Applying this thinking Mathias Lehner of nextcity taught a design course at the Academy of Architecture Amsterdam with inspiring results. The tasks for the Master Students of Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism was not only to design a new neighbourhood on a given location, but to design it with a systematic approach that took into account stakeholders. Moreover it included time: What happens in between the design phase and a future re-use of the realized project?

The students focused either on energy, food, water or an other dimension of their interest. See above Vyasa Koe’s work that integrates local fish breeding in the urban plan and below Augusto Rodrigues’ design that focuses on the changing energy system of the new neighbourhood.

4 features for succesfull wildlife-inclusive urban design

(Landscape and Urban planning/Volume 200, August 2020, Beate Apfelbeck e.a.)

In an urbanizing world there is an increasing priority for making cities nature-inclusive environments. Cities offer places for human-wildlife experiences, and thus for broad societal support of biodiversity conservation. Cities also depend on ecosystem services provided by biodiversity to remain healthy, liveable places. Although biodiversity is frequently addressed in urban green infrastructure plans, it often is not an integral topic in city planning, urban design and housing development. As a result, wildlife-rich urban green is often lacking in those parts of the cities where people live and work. Here, the authors introduce the concept of ‘wildlife-inclusive urban design’ for the built-up area of cities that integrates animal needs into the urban planning and design process. To identify key features that determine the success of wildlife-inclusive urban design, they evaluated lessons learnt from existing best practices. These were collected during an international workshop with architects, landscape practitioners, ecological consultants, conservationists and urban ecologists. in which Maike van Stiphout participated as well.

The authors propose that features of successful wildlife-inclusive urban design projects are:

1) interdisciplinary design teams that involve ecologists early on,

2) consideration of the entire life-cycle of target species,

3) post-occupancy monitoring and evaluation with feedback to communicate best practices

4) stakeholder involvement and participatory approaches.

The authors propose how wildlife-inclusive urban design could be included into the different steps of the urban planning cycle. They conclude that following these principles will facilitate incorporation of wildlife-inclusive urban design into urban planning and design and enable urban environments where humans and animals can thrive in the built-up areas.

A sunny afternoon: the city seen as ecosystem

Within its 2020 program ‘A sunny afternoon: the city seen as ecosystem” the Architecture Centre Nijmegen (ACN) focuses on nature and biodiversity in the city. Nextcity contributes to this program with an audio tour and looks at the city ‘with the eyes of an animal’. Recorded today via Zoom Mathias Lehner of nextcity walks with Harrie Boeschoten of Staatsbosheer and ecologist Jochem Kuhnen and they let the audience discover unknown aspects of the city, while inspiring the listeners with the ideas of ‘The Green Metropole’ and the “Next City”.

Follow ACN on their website or subscribe to their newsletter and be the first to listen to the audio tour or, even better, make an inspiring stroll through the centre of Nijmegen while listening. Conveniently the tour starts at the train station and guides you during the one-hour-tour to river De Waal.

Some of the lectures held by ACN within their 2020 program have been recorded, and are freely available online. Watch philosopher Matthijs Schouten, author Piet Vollaard and social ecologist Riyan van den Born and look at nature inclusive building from various perspectives. All online content is available in Dutch only.

Private online park addresses the longing for quality of life by engaging with nature

The Chinese Devolution architects noted that formerly public parks in China are becoming more and more privatized for a smaller ‘gated’ community of surrounding neighbours only. This ‘cutting off’ public quality of life sparked the idea for their 2017 ‘Devolution Park’ project:  a design of extreme privatization that can only be ‘visited’ online, e.g. on your individual cell phone, via the surveillance cameras installed.

Notably the park is located on the 27th floor of a residential tower which can house up to 300 families. It is an indoor installation in the mono functional building located in the new high-density residential area in Xiamen. Its temporary realization was possible because the apartment was acquired for investment purposes and therefore empty.  

Read more about the project on archdaily. Photographs copyright by Xiaodong Xu.

Ever listened to a biophony? “A healthy landscape is best seen with the ears” *

Because of covid-19 many human activities are more silent which makes the voices of nature resound on an unprecedented scale. The initiative Dawn Chorus took this year’s exceptional spring as a starting point to map the soundscapes performed by birds on a global scale in a citizen science project.

Recordings will be included in a scientific database for biodiversity research. Dawn Chorus project is planned to take place every year and thus provide comparative data. Birds are important biodiversity indicators. This group of animals is researched well and may reflect the “state of health” of a habitat and. the condition of the other species occurring in an ecosystem.

Dawn Chorus may eventually provide valuable information about the diversity of species, the behavior of the birds, as well as the effects of climate change and habitat change on the populations.

Read more about the Dawn Chorus Project.

* Bernie Krause, Soundscaping pioneer. See his 2013 TED talk here.

No barriers between inside and outside – an old idea for nature inclusive design with new relevance?

Plein Air school in Suresnes, France

Architect, real estate developer and sustainability expert at the Ryerson School of Interior Design Lloyd Alter draws a parallel in his April 2020 blog between today’s corona crisis and the beginning of the 20th century when children were sent out into schools in the open air because of the risk of tuberculosis. Alter says there is a similar situation now: kids need fresh air and sunlight, but also a bit of separation. What if we re-adopt these ideas, learn from the past and reinterpret them today?

In 1904 in Germany the first ‘Waldschule’ opened. Later famously the Plein Air school in Suresnes (Beaudouin and Lods), and of course the Openairschool in Amsterdam (Duiker) 1927. Teaching in nature was to believed “to help build independence and self-esteem in urban youths” and even an International Bureau of Open Air Schools was set up.

Can the past downsides – high maintenance and an educational climate that demanded control and avoided distraction – be ovecome? What if the principles were for example rethought for homes for the elderly? Visiting granny with no barrieres between inside and outside makes a 1,5 m social distance a burden that can be overcome.

Nature-inclusive design: a “no regret” for architects to stand out of the crowd now

On behalf of BNA, Royal Institute of Dutch Architects, Mathias Lehner interviewed Jip Louwe Kooijmans of Birdlife Netherlands about the ‘Toolbox Nature Inclusive Building’ that was launched at the end of 2019. Is nature-inclusive designing a new businessmodel?

Jip Louwe Kooijmans: To begin with: nature-inclusive construction does not have to be expensive. Many things are free. With a cavity in a wall of 10mm, for example, nothing happens, but with a cavity of 18mm, animals can enter. That brings no extra cost. A project such as Bosco Verticale in Milan and Wonderwoods in Utrecht will have additional costs. Although the Trudo tower is now being built in Eindhoven in which social rental housing will be built – and that is also succeeding.

But nature-inclusive design can strengthen the entrepreneurship of an architect in various ways. You can become an expert with a unique proposition. Architect Daan Bruggink of ORGA architects or landscape architect Maike van Stiphout of are, for example, designers who profile themselves with that theme. They offer unique services and can advise you. For example: what kind of green roof yields the most? Architects can also distinguish themselves with nature-inclusive building when it comes to their public relations. Doing something for nature can radiate positively on you. Doing good and positive news contribute to your good image and reputation.

Already designing nature inclusive is also of strategic importance. Sustainability has become an integral part of construction in the past 10 years. In the future, nature-inclusive construction will also become even more important, especially in Europe. There will be a uniform standard and clients will more often ask for nature-inclusive designs. In the future, such regulations will apply to everyone and will ensure a level playing field. There is no longer any fear of, for example, a pause in your construction period: if you build nature-inclusive, you anticipate on the local biodiversity in advance and you can avoid financial setbacks.

Read the full interview at the website of BNA.

Fact Sheets on the benefits of urban ecosystem services

Biodiversity, climate change, work stress, mental health, learning and work performance and health care costs – green cities can contribute to solving many of today’s urban problems. Scientifically proven facts about the added value of green space are now bundled by Wageningen UR. De Groene Stad provides these fact sheets as free downloads.

Curious to hear five great proven benefits of ‘green in the city’?

  • Crime in green areas is lower and residents feel safer than in areas without green areas.
  • Greenery in the form of parks and public gardens increases the real estate value of homes by an average of 4 to 5%.
  • An average city tree captures 100 grams of fine dust annually. This corresponds to 5500 kilometers driven by car. Other forms of green also contribute to air purification; a square meter of ivy captures 4 to 6 grams of fine dust per year, a sedum roof 0.15 grams / m2.
  • 10% more greenery in a city reduces the heat island effect in that city by an average of 0.6 ºC. Around Kensington Park in London, a cooling effect of up to 440 m from the park was measured with up to 4 ºC.
  • A study in Toronto found that people living in neighborhoods with a higher density of street trees not only felt significantly healthier, but were also significantly less affected by cardiovascular disease. Ten extra trees per street block ensure that age-related health problems occur seven years later on average .

More info? De Groene Stad is part of the European program “Green Cities for a sustainable Europe”. Projects realized iare aimed at greening cities. The program offers access to an experts’ network, scientific knowledge and stakeholders meet-ups.

Less pavement, more biodiversity and ecosystem services

“Next to limiting urban biodiversity many ecosystem services are decreased by sealing urban surfaces. Petrification enhances the urban heat island effect which has a negative effect on people’s health. Sealing surfaces also has a negative effect on air quality eg. when it comes to fine dust. The absence of greenery has a negative effect on health, recovery and human well-being. And, of course, application of pavement reduces the permeability of the soil. The accelerated drainage of rainwater leads to overloading of the sewer system”, states the Steenbreek Foundation.

The Steenbreek Foundation (‘breaking the stone’) is greening the environment together with municipalities, water boards and provinces by e.g. replacing unnecessary pavement in private and public space with a diversity of greenery by involving residents and entrepreneurs. Also, extra ponds and wadis are constructed with as a result water can enter the ground more easily.

More info?
Operation Steenbreek was established in 2015 to act against the trend to harden private gardens by four city ecologists joining forces together with Entente Florale Nederland, the University of Groningen, Wageningen Environmental Research and Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. Prominent events are the National Garden Week, Soil Animal Days, Nature Work Day, National Green Day and various Knowledge Meetings in collaboration with Elba | REC. Image (c) 2017

Soil & species: ecosystem services delivered underground

Let’s pay some more attention for the soil in cities! Next to the function of soil species in the eco system of being food for other species, and contributing to natural control, their more important role is the delivery of ecosystem services that are relevant above ground, too: soil structure, soil fertility, water infiltration, development for vegetation – and biodiversity.

There are more than 34.000 species living in the Dutch soil of which 28% – some 6000 species depend strongly on the ground as habitat. A part of them lives part of their life circle (facultatively) in the soil, but many also remain there during their full life circle (obligatory).

In the city of Amsterdam a large amount of the nationally present species can be found. There are eg. 14 species of all ants (30%), but of others species sometimes more than half of alle species can be found in the city. Mapping evidence shows that of some species there are even more examples in the urban areas than in the more rural parts.

Want to know more about all species in The Netherlands?
Check the Dutch Register of Species. This blog is based upon a presentation by Prof. Dr. Matty Berg from the Faculty of Science, Animal Ecology using data from the VU university Amsterdam and the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.