The coming together of the Digital Age with the challenges of the Urban Age – the largest part of humanity living in urban settlements – is summarized under the notion Smart City. As information-communication networks become ubiquitous in the Internet of Things (IoT), Smart City applications are developed with the goal of improving urban management, allowing for real time responses to urban challenges.
We are experiencing accelerating transformation processes driven by developments such as urban growth and demographic explosion, climate change and decreasing biodiversity as well as by technological acceleration with ubiquitous digitalization. The accelerating growth of megacities worldwide demands for optimization of limited resources in limited space and for the integration of many separate technical resources into one sustainable system of urban metabolism. As information-communication networks becomes ubiquitous in the Internet of Things (IoT), Smart City applications are developed with the goal of improving the management of urban flows and allowing for real time responses to urban challenges.
Due to global warming extreme weather conditions with intense precipitations and floods as well as draughts force us to restructure our cities. Mega-cities with accelerated urbanization ask for solutions to food security. Intense exploitation of soil, use of fertilizers, and water contamination are serious challenges to be addressed.
The increasing complexity of global challenges such as sustainability, food security and climate adaptation demand for trans-disciplinary approaches and green urban infrastructure is gaining in relevance.
Today’s agriculture is pioneering ‘smart’ developments. Digitalization is far more developed and integrated in farming than in the management of urban environments. The Digital Age has given rise to Precision Farming with, just to mention some aspects, robotics and autonomous driving on farms, drones and satellite monitoring or transponder-implants.
With the help of green urban infrastructures, Precision Farming methods are informing Smart City development and enabling NatureTecture, a hybrid architecture integrating nature in built environment.
BioBubble is a new urban typology, proposed by Hybrid Space Lab as an integral element of a Smart Eco-City transformation. BioBubble is an integrated solution for developing healthy urban environments in eco-friendly cities. It is a flexible greenhouse system to be applied and integrated in compounds that enables the greening in dense urban situations.
As an ‘Integrated Urban Biosphere’, BioBubble deals with arid climates and extreme temperature changes, creating comfortable climate conditions. It contributes to energy and water savings and addresses environmental and food security challenges while purifying the city’s air, food, and water. Supporting intelligent water management is very relevant for arid climates; facilitating vertical farming it is of great relevance for megacities.
BioBubble’s urban system is covered by an innovative flexible transparent structure that spans between existing buildings or is an integrated building element in new urban developments. BioBubble creates a greenhouse situation with a regulated environment, enabling plant cultivation integrated in an urban semi-public space.
The BioBubble covering protects from smog and sand storms. Controlled ventilation with the help of a “chimney effect” cools the BioBubble environment, creating moderate climate conditions. The BioBubble system helps mitigate extreme temperatures generating a comfortable environment with regulated temperature and humidity.
Self-adjusting solar panels contribute to energy production. These photovoltaic panels are integrated in an adjustable shading system protecting the transparent cover of BioBubble.
Protecting from heavy precipitations, the BioBubble covering also enables to collect water by harvesting rainwater from the transparent roof. A closed water system, keeping the perspiration in the interior of BioBubble, enables saving and quality control of needed irrigation water. Water recycling with grey water treatment supports urban agriculture with urban fish farms, hydroponics, and vertical farming, enabling local circular economy loops.
BioBubble is a tool to green and clean the city while enabling children to play together outdoors and grannies to dance and socialize in public space, turning the urban environment into a “Healthy City”. The BioBubble urban typology is therefore proposed as an infrastructure for the New Silk Road as well as for dense urban tissues in Asian cities.
Based on the NatureTecture-approach that fuses buildings and nature Hybrid Space Lab developed projects for the Berlin Humboldt Forum. These projects are representatives of the contemporary trend of ‘hybrid’ architecture that incorporates vegetation in built environment, fusing nature and architecture.
In Berlin, revivals of historic symbols and contemporary ideas on the transnational cultural development tie into the under construction Humboldt Forum. In the heart of the city, opposite the Museumsinsel (Isle of Museums), the Humboldt Forum is the ambitious project that revives the exterior of the Kaisers’ palace establishing a cultural center of international renown, which will house, from 2019, next to the various ethnographic collections and the museum the city also a venue dedicated to the global “Dialogue of Cultures”.
The project Humboldt Jungle by Hybrid Space Lab gives a more extrovert, more modern and more environmentally friendly form to the Humboldt Forum building. With the slogan “Jungle instead of concrete!”, it proposes the greening of the facade with vegetation referring to the Amazon explorer Alexander von Humboldt, the name-giver of the Forum. The project was developed in 2015 when the funds for financing the Humboldt Forum facade had not been covered yet, meaning that the possibility of consultation for alternative proposals was then still open.
The project received very broad publicity in Germany as the Humboldt Forum has caused an intense debate in bias point, as it involves issues of national symbols, the international role of the city and of cultural supranational networks.
As the stone façade is being finished, Hybrid Space lab developed Humboldt Volcano that again received a lot of media attention: The Humboldt Volcano, a BioBubble prototype, introduces as an extension of the City Palace a greenhouse-pavilion with a vertical tropical garden.
As an innovative flexible transparent structure, Humboldt Volcano contrasts with the historical appearance of the introverted power-radiating reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace, which houses Humboldt Forum. Humboldt Volcano enables the appropriation of the Humboldt Forum, opening it up to the city.
As a stacked oasis, which integrates vegetation in the built environment, Humboldt Volcano brings solutions for the greening of very dense urban situations. Humboldt Volcano demonstrates the possibility to establish an unconventional green space in highly dense inner-city public space and is a prototype for an infrastructure for the New Silk Road as well as for dense urban tissues in Asia cities.
Poly Garden City, developed by Hybrid Space Lab for Athens Municipality, is a project for greening the Athens’ apartment buildings. As a participatory climate adaptation project, it follows a different strategy. Poly Garden City integrates green into Athens built environment by fusing building and gardens into new hybrid urban typologies with the help of bottom-up processes of Place Making.
Climate changes occurring in recent years bring severe weather events such as very high temperatures as well as sudden rainfall with disastrous consequences. These phenomena are becoming more noticeable in densely populated areas due to the lack of green areas. It is known that planting mitigates intense temperatures and contributes to the gentle flow of rainwater, protecting against catastrophic floods.
But how could we introduce green in extremely dense cities? Most of Athens’ streets are narrow (and still occupied by cars), so a strategy aiming at greening the city has to focus on integrating green into the built environment. As green is essential to climate adaptation, we have to literary ‘bring green to a higher level’, integrating it into the existing buildings. The block of flats with its balconies and its horizontal roofs provides the infrastructure for nature.
With small green interventions, one can improve the microclimate and quality of life in the city. Poly Garden City therefore considers the whole city as a canvas for ‘greening’: vegetable gardens on the balconies, gardens the spaces in-between the buildings, green rooftops with endemic plants, lively green terraces!
Next to temperature regulation, Poly Garden City can contribute to biodiversity and to filtering dust and pollution. At the same time, the micro-gardens absorb sound and reduce noise pollution, so that balconies can become again pleasant extensions of the living space of the apartments.
Green roofs provide insulation thus reducing the cooling and heating costs in the summers and winters respectively. They retain and slow down the water flows that burden the sewer in moments of heavy rainfall. Beyond their high aesthetic value, the communal planted terraces and courtyards can also serve as a communication spaces, strengthening a more public and communicative character for the block of flats. Taking care of the rooftops as the “fifth” facade of the city also upgrades the image of the city.
‘Poly’ stands also for the multitudes of the city, as the main problem Athens and similar cities are facing today is the disintegration of its social fabric with mistrust, immigration flows, and strong political discord with great economic deprivation. Behind the immediate aims of the Poly Garden City program lays the goal of improving life quality in general and strengthening social cohesion and the neighborhood feel. ‘Garden’ (‘gardening’) can be interpreted in a very broad, also metaphoric, sense, being connected to existential dimensions, to notions of post-materialism and to processes of community building.
As a participatory project, Poly Garden City stands for Smart City governance that involves the citizens. The digital revolution supports the transition from centralized to distributed and interactive social networks. Smart City solutions could therefore have a highly human oriented approach, engaging citizens in participatory processes of expert/user co-creation.
The climate adaptation strategy of Poly Garden City is very relevant for dense urban situations in ‘flat roof regions’, where processes of informal urbanization have produced settlements with very little or no space for urban green, for example, the outskirts of large metropolises in the wider Eastern and South Mediterranean. So next to work with Athens Municipality and citizen groups, Poly Garden City also cooperates with Middle East State authorities and civil organizations.
Similar to this, processes of informal urbanization have produced also in China very dense settlements with no space for urban green, the so-called Urban Villages. For an Urban Village in Shenzhen Hybrid Space Lab developed Urban Garden Kit, a hybrid (combined computer and urban) game. Urban Garden Kit provides a co-creative bridge between the experts and the users of the urban environment, turning the users of the city in “city-makers and -gardeners”.
The goal of Urban Garden Kit is to help citizens revalue their local surroundings and incorporate the new, imaginative green layers created in the virtual world. Making ‘hybrid gardens’ as small green modifications to the personal, physical environment in digital space changes the experience of living in the real world.
The program aims to activate the residents and city-users by fostering participatory processes of climate adaptation and city co-creation, transforming the perception of the city. Urban Garden Kit creates a platform for exchange between different groups, focusing on local knowledge, on oral history, and on endemic plants and their use.
Behind the immediate aims of the Urban Garden Kit program lays the goal of strengthening social cohesion and developing models for pilot interventions that can be duplicable and scalable in deprived Urban Villages in other cities in China.
All projects shortly presented above are green infrastructures enabling the integration of nature into built environment. In this convergence of architecture and nature, new hybrid urban typologies and architectural solutions emerge. At that time “Anthropocene”, the geological age that is being shaped by the influence of human activities and the whole of our planet is determined by human intervention, the confrontation “nature versus the artificial environment” is obsolete: NatureTecture!
The incorporation of infrastructure for green (and its necessary systems) opens up innovation in architectural design. The needed know-how already exists as sophisticated technologies in agricultural production are currently rapidly developing. The integration of green in buildings fosters new architectural forms and typologies and aesthetic solutions with special zones and infrastructures for the incorporation of plants. The need to integrate nature into the built environment creates a huge innovation potential in the field of architecture.
But even more interesting is the coming together of Smart City and Smart Landscape, as shortly described in the beginning of this article. Converging technologies (such as BANG: Bits Atoms Neurons and Genes) are enabling us to generate materials with processual qualities that serve as building blocks for objects and environments that interact with their users. Integrating the Natural and the Digital in architecture, enables buildings to “grow, think, feel and communicate”, accelerating architecture into the post-biological era.
Subject to the exponential technological acceleration and challenged by alarming ecologic and social changes design is becoming increasingly important in shaping our hybrid world. Here lies the potential to appropriate technology to address urgent challenges and to meet our needs and desires.
Increasingly complex challenges require a transdisciplinary, a hybrid design approach. Embedding design discourse in an interdisciplinary context in this way can strengthen reflections on the role of the designer in relation to the shaping of our environment.