The Green Revolution in the City

Biophilia and trans-species design

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Until the Industrial Revolution, the integration of the city and the landscape was driven by the need to obtain food and resources, such as water, within short distances. Many cities integrated agricultural and livestock production into their urban space. Preindustrial Barcelona, for example, was supplied with water through wells and irrigation ditches such as the Rec Comtal, which collected water from Montcada and crossed the neighborhood of La Ribera in the intramural area. It also provided the energy to turn the grain mills. Residents lived with the animals that provided them with milk and eggs, and many buildings had workshops and corrals on the first floors and in the courtyards. Livestock grew in the mountains and traveled along the transhumance routes from the river basins to the meadows and farms of the Barcelona plain, where they were fattened for slaughter as a source of meat for the city. Cultivated fields occupied much of what is now the Barcelona plain. Although this urban nature had a strictly utilitarian and food-oriented vision, coexistence between humans and nonhumans was taken for granted.

Since 1850, there have been at least three occasions in the Western world when the city has become aware of its environmental shortcomings or dysfunctions. The first is preceded by the immense changes associated with the first Industrial Revolution. Profound social changes and sudden demographic increases never seen before, coupled with new production models that would take air pollution to a new level, which was already very evident due to coal combustion in stoves. This first awareness crystallized in the hygienist movements of the nineteenth century and gave rise to the birth of modern urban planning with scientific criteria.

The second occasion is the result of the effects of the different waves of industrialization and globalization and the implementation of a model of capitalism that ignored environmental parameters. Around the 1960s, ecology was born as a romantic movement of denunciation. Still, it would eventually establish itself, as urban planning had done before it, as a fully-fledged and autonomous scientific discipline. The combined force of environmentalism as social awareness and ecology as science drives a change in urban environments.

Urban spaces will incorporate biodiversity-preserving designs.
The new Mazatlán Aquarium is a space to learn from, love and enjoy nature, Sea of Cortez Research Center, Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico, 2023, Tatiana Bilbao Studio: Tatiana Bilbao, Catia Bilbao, Juan Pablo Benlliure, Udayan Mazumdar. Image © Tatiana Bilbao Estudio

At the end of the last century, importance began to be given to the structuring capacity of public and green spaces. A revision period of urban planning started at this point, and the most degraded areas, such as rivers, began to be environmentally recovered. The social demand for more parks and public spaces or traffic calming was a driving force behind a profound change in cities, which recovered their sea and river fronts, contained their uncontrolled growth in the territory, pedestrianized and rehabilitated their old quarters, and understood that parks and green spaces were essential for any new development.

The current situation marks a third turning point in the awareness of the critical role of urban areas in environmental quality. Society’s understanding of the risks of the climate crisis requires changes beyond physical transformation: a systemic transformation is needed. It is not enough to modify physical and built space; it is necessary to ensure that these transformations result in more efficient and rational behavior.

This need to transform the environmental functioning of the city must prevail over purely design criteria and involves the introduction of new analytical instruments and intervention strategies that differ substantially from those followed to date. For authors such as Salvador Rueda, this new way of intervening in the city, this new model, must be born of the definitive blend of the two disciplines mentioned above: urban planning and ecology. Applying new analytical instrumentation of environmental parameters before urban design can generate a new “science of the city” based on objective criteria, what some authors have called “ecosystemic urbanism.”

Urban space of Barcelona in a view from Montjuïc.
Pollinating insects, such as bees, are disappearing, and in the future, cities will incorporate spaces and buildings designed to preserve biodiversity, European Commission’s Pollinator Park, Vincent Callebaut, 2021. Image © Vincent Callebaut Architectures

Achieving a sustainable urban model for the twenty-first century involves integrating many different aspects: moving towards 100% sustainable mobility, a critical factor in air quality; starting to implement agricultural or energy production within urban spaces to reduce the territorial footprint; recognizing the connection and continuity of natural elements and landscape, superimposing them on urban fabrics; increasing the presence of green areas and ensuring the correct distribution of continuous open spaces with infrastructural logic, adopting the functional scales of greenery and biodiversity; integrating new technologies, both in the analysis and the responses; changing the way we build and reducing the energy consumption of buildings.

As was the case in the preindustrial city, nature is once again the leading player in any town, and, just as then, it takes on a utilitarian and systemic role that goes hand in hand with the perception that its presence beautifies the city. But something even more essential has changed in our perception of it. In an increasingly urbanized and technological world, we are more and more aware of our innate and profound connection with nature and other living beings. This concept is known as “biophilia,” coined by biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s. Thinking about the city from the perspective of biophilia means understanding it as a trans-species community, where architects and designers no longer think only of human beings in their design, but have come to have millions of new potential clients, in many cases, as demanding as or more demanding than humans: the living plants, insects and animals that share our daily lives and the space of our cities.

Main image: Engraving of a view of Barcelona from Montjuïc published in 1572 in the book “Civitates Orbis Terrarum.” The original work, from 1535, is by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, a Dutch painter and tapestry designer who worked in the service of Emperor Charles V. Image courtesy AHCB

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