Category: Landscape Futurism

November 2nd, 2018 by Mark Laurence

This article was first published in 2007 and has been updated 2018.

Future gardens will be an integral part of a living biosystem that is part house, part garden, an energy conserving and production environment, a resource for water retention and cleansing, food production area, biomass and environmental haven as well as a sanctuary for the soul and from the world at large.

Why do I say this? We cannot consider the future of gardens without accounting for climate change, which is now having a tangible impact on us all. UN scientists say (in 2018) we have 12 years left before things reach the point of no return. Whilst there is less talk now about global oil reserves peaking and that energy will be in increasingly short supply, it is still true that we have a long way to go before we have a fully renewable clean energy supply chain. Whatever the outcome, big changes are on the way.

So when we look to the future of our gardens, it’s not so much a matter of what style or vogue will be popular, for such things come and go and in this context are not particularly relevant. You might imagine it is a case of asking what will our climate be like and how will gardens adapt. Yet to talk only of adapting plants to suit the changing conditions is actually to miss the main opportunity for our gardens to become part of the solution to global warming and perhaps, even a core part of our individual – and so collective –  survival.

House-garden water capture, cleansing and re-use system

House-garden water capture, cleansing and re-use schematic.

 
That might sound ridiculous in the face of such monumental problems but I don’t think so. If we all decided to make sure that in our personal lives, we were “carbon neutral” (or as close as possible) then energy demands and pollution from domestic use would drop considerably.  At a rough estimate, gardens in England and Wales occupy at least 80,000 hectares, mostly in urban and suburban areas. This makes them a precious resource and opportunity for change on a big scale.

The first thing we have to do is start looking at our environment as a living bio-system; in this case, the house and garden, with its connections to the wider world (air, earth, wind, rain, food, materials, waste, energy, communications). Think of it as one cell in a big organism. Almost all the elements this cell needs to survive are coming from outside, beyond its sphere of influence. Yet the way that cell is constructed, used and connected to its immediate surrounds (garden) could, if designed correctly, reduce its dependency on external (manmade) systems. To decrease those we must increase our connectivity with natural systems, namely the sun, wind (energy) and rain. To put it more directly, with have to reduce to a minimum the inputs and outputs of our homes.

A fedge (fence-hedge) uses biomass grown in the garden to create new boundaries.  good for wildlife

A fedge (fence-hedge) uses biomass grown in the garden to create new boundaries. Good for wildlife and resource conservation.

Those items which we cannot produce internally, need to be sourced from outside, as close to us as possible. Therefore neighbourhood and regional systems need strengthening to minimise production/transport costs. This is particularly true and desirable for food products, but also building materials etc. For that reason, even if we manage to live off-grid – the ultimate, but extreme, conclusion to this line of thought – we cannot do it all alone and live in splendid isolation, nor would most of us want to. Many bio-systems will only work efficiently when connected together to give sufficient inputs to allow them to function properly (for example, reed-bed sewerage systems). Local community-generated bio-systems are essential to a sustainable future.

The main areas which the outside garden spaces could deal with are:

  • Passive solar gain (microclimates)
  • Water saving and (grey water) cleansing
  • Waste recycling (composting)
  • Energy production/conservation
  • Increasing site biomass
  • Food production
  • Biophilic nurturing
  • Nature conservation/biodiversity

You may think this all sounds very philanthropic, but where is the incentive to expend all this time and money “greening up” our homes and gardens? Some of the incentive will be economic; for example metered water users already consume about 15% less water than unmetered and government will gradually introduce a number of Carrot and Stick measures. But as cost of pollution will have to be met by industry and so, by consumers, simple economics means that inevitably everything will get more expensive. For many people, I suspect that having a lifestyle that gives independence and doesn’t add to pollution will become increasingly desirable, as we all witness first or second-hand the effects of climate change.  Whilst we all see the horrors of hurricanes and droughts in distant lands, at home (for me, the UK) we see increasingly severe flooding etc. right on our own doorstep. Less dependency on outside systems will give increased sense of security in an uncertain world.

In all of this, beauty and relaxation will be paramount, so gardens will still fulfil this most traditional and personal of roles, giving us joy, relaxation and sanctuary. For example, looking at a beautiful water system of rills and planted gravel filterbeds is made all the more exciting by knowing it has a useful function and is saving resources.

A rain garden which captures roof-water and allows it to infiltrate the ground

A rain garden which captures roof-water and allows it to infiltrate the ground

For these principles to be taken up by the average garden-owner and made successful, we must resolve two conflicting issues: the subject needs to be driven by a sense of fun, adventure and positive aspiration to really make a difference; and yet we must also avoid the “dumbing-down” or over-simplification of a complex topic, something that can occur when it appears in magazines and TV shows.

An example might be solar panels: it would be wonderful to run your garden pond pump, shed, or garden office from solar panels – no cables to the house to bury, a good eco-friendly solution. But you have to balance that ideal with the cost of initial installation (probably greater than laying electric cables from the house), the limitations of supply and the increased maintenance that may be involved. Having got your solar supply, you might be frustrated to find that you can’t charge your battery mower if you didn’t purchase a high enough generative capability. This is typical of a fragmented approach to sustainability – it’s a start but not really useful just thinking of the power to your pond and ignoring that used within the house, or your car.

 

So where are we? Standing on the threshold of an exciting new future, I would say. Technology and information is available as never before, and hooking up to the IoT (internet of things) is great fun and useful too. The brightness, however, is troubled by the looming stormclouds on the horizon and the knowledge that the societal cost of failure is high – and will be witnessed by ourselves but paid for by our children.

I do firmly believe that we can all make effective choices in what we do and in what we demand of the world, of business and our societies. We have to make rational choices and sometimes temper our own personal indulgence. Gas or electric patio heaters may be a nice luxury but the environmental damage is not justifiable. Maybe a log burning fire basket is, provided we do other things to counter the carbon emissions, such as growing more bio-mass. Extra woolly jumpers may simply be the best bet along with passive solar designed spaces! Most issues simply come down to us making informed decisions and balancing personal ease with environmental sanity.

Remember, what sounds “eco” or fringe today, is going to be tomorrow’s norm.  Get out there, explore ideas and enjoy being the change!

Posted in Adaptive Planting, Climate Change, Design, design principles, Ecosystem Services, Edible Planting, Environment, Garden Design, green roof, Landscape Futurism, Planting Design, rain gardens, Smart Cities, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

horticultural robot
August 23rd, 2016 by Mark Laurence

The way in which we design, create, maintain and use urban landscapes is likely to change radically in the next 15 years (in fact, modern society is in for overwhelming change).  Urbanisation, climate change and the rapid rise of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will see to that. Don’t think that the rate of change will be the same as has occurred in the previous 15 years, for technological growth is on an exponential growth curve, not a linear one.  Cities and systems are becoming smart, connected to the Internet of Things and that is just for starters.  So how will this change the way we design and use our urban landscapes?

Firstly, we know that there is huge movement of populations from rural to urban life, especially in the developing worlds and most markedly in Asia.  This creates huge pressure for new urban infrastructure and this is not always well planned growth, especially in terms of forward thinking to account for future changes.  Nonetheless, it is happening and happening fast.  The UN expects 66% of the world’s population to be urban by 2050, by which time there will be 9bn of us – so 6bn in cities.  Mega-cities have to grow in a way that sustains huge numbers of people.

Secondly, climate change is also occurring at exponential rates, raising the difficulties of living in any environment but with especial problems for mega cities, most of which are in coastal regions and subject to rising sea levels and worsening weather patterns.  Cities are hotter than the surrounding land due to the nature of materials used, whilst heavy rainfall brings flash-flooding. In arid countries, built environments are in danger of becoming too hot for humans to inhabit. Cities will have to take on these challenges, generating micro-climate.

Thirdly, technological change is happening exponentially and this will impact what we do, how we live, how – if – we work and how we tackle the above problems.  Some view the challenges and changes with fear, thinking they will only exacerbate problems.  They could do, anything can be mismanaged (such as a planet) for example.  I foresee that technology is actually the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the mess we have created, the only thing that can act on the vast scale needed to re-balance an out-of-kilter Gaia.

When we take these three factors into account, we can see that the future of urban landscapes has to be so much more than the addition of the odd pocket-park here and there.  Landscapes have to mitigate the environmental factors, make huge mega-cities liveable for a population increasingly disconnected from nature and provide meaningful lives in an era when many of us may not work in the way we are used to.

A weedy landscape

Weedy and neglected landscape plantings are all too common. No-one wants to pay for maintenance

How will cities become smart and use this to better the environment?  If we are looking to increase the amount of urban landscaping significantly, then the first issue to tackle is cost of maintenance.  No one wants to pay for maintenance and often, no one does.  How many planted landscapes do you see smothered in weeds, wrecking or negating the designed purpose?  Or municipal plantings and car-parks where plants inevitably die and are never replaced, leaving huge gaps.  Shrubs hedge trimmed into amorphous shapes because that’s the quickest way to “maintain” them.  It’s a poor standard and it’s all we’re going to get – no-one is going to pay for trained horticulturalists to do something better.

landscape lobotomy

Landscape lobotomy: maintenance is the quickest, cheapest possible

Yet there is an interesting possibility – automation is likely to remove nearly 50% of jobs in the next decade, especially low-skilled or repetitive ones.  In the landscape trade, there are already semi-autonomous strimmers and grass-cutters on the market, how long before we have horticultural robots maintaining our landscapes?  All the technology is already here, prices are falling and an uplink to an AI would identify every weed known, give the correct procedures, know how and when to prune every plant in common cultivation. Robots would work long hours without tea breaks!  If basic maintenance getters a lot cheaper, we can have more landscape and such robots would be cheaper, eventually.  Living walls would be a prime candidate, with a simple maintenance cradle (much like a 3D printer head) that crosses the wall with a maintenance bot on it.  I’ve seen so many potential living wall projects fall at the maintenance-cost hurdle.  In such a scenario, displaced maintenance crew can retrain as bot-supervisors or true horticulturalist for private clients.

horticultural robot

Horticultural robots will make maintenance cheaper and more effective.

We’re going to have to do more than just make maintenance affordable; rather, that is the factor that releases the possibility to do more urban landscaping.  Many of the elements we need to put in place are already in existence and being used, but we need to join the dots and think holistically.  For example, green roofs are seen as a separate trade from green (I prefer living) walls.  Instead, we need to be talking of biological membranes (biomembranes) for buildings, a whole-system concept, where the living skin regulates the internal environment, filters pollution in both directions, dealing with generation of energy, cooling, clean air and water. Living walls that currently use potable water for irrigation when they could be cleaning up the used greywater that all buildings generate is another example.

building biomembrane

Building Biomembranes regulate building ecology and create vertical landscapes

Systems that provide services that are of consequence to the functioning of a building, street, or neighbourhood need careful management and control, much of which will become automated.  In just the last year, for example, new irrigation controllers have come on the market which not only are connected to you via internet, they also connect to the nearest weather station and adjust their regime according to the conditions.  I use these for living walls; I do not advocate any irrigation for horizontal landscapes in temperate climates.  But things will move beyond this, with AI monitoring ground moisture levels and moving harvested rainwater from one holding system out to another part of the city where it is needed.  And urban farming – especially vertical – will be a large part of mega-city greening, although it might not be on display.  Sophisticated hydroponic systems are springing up in warehouses and roof-top polytunnels all over.  Such food can and should be organic, local, healthy, nutritious.

A smartly connected landscape means we can maximize the benefit it gives to the people who live, work or pass through it.  With the majority of people living in urban mega cities, we have to create an environment that is fit for ultra-dense urban living.  As these metropolis’ grow, people will have less and less daily contact with Nature, which is not good for our deeper wellbeing.  Biophilia is our innate need for contact with the natural world: plants, trees, flowers, insects, sunlight, water, earth.  A concrete jungle is not a substitute for the real thing but we mostly won’t have time to “get out there” and experience wild Nature.

I think inner city pollution will blow over – excuse the pun- in the next 5-10 years as we start a massive switch over to electric transport, most of it driverless.  In fact, drone taxis are already under development and as buildings and living habitats reach skyward we can expect the landscape to move with them.  It will become commonplace to have high-level dronepads – even private ones.  Some people might not even go down to the ground much!  So landscapes and biophilia must come to them.  Fortunately, there is a rash of building-integrated vegetation going on and I see this trend increasing.  Incidentally, if you wanted more good reasons for using bots to maintain planting, imagine working on living walls or trees that are 50 stories up!

As for the wider environment and the looming crisis of climate change, I can only hope that emerging nanotechnologies give us the tools to clean up our act and neutralise the positive feedback loops we are creating.  Scientists are already working on nanotechnologies which capture and convert carbon into useful materials and one day such microscopic machines may roam our land and seas, removing plastics and other dangerous waste.  If this is done at a molecular level, we turn problems into resources.  We’ll be printing our houses (already being tested) compounds made from waste materials but without the current worries of using say, bricks made from recycled plastic which off-gas VOCs.  We can only hope these technologies emerge before it’s too late to save the climate in a state that we can survive in.

 

So the next 10-15 years are going to see change at an unprecedented rate and it may not all be a smooth ride.  I am excited by it however and think that there is much to be done to ensure that we create new urban environments worthy of habitation and that we take care of all environments and indeed the whole planet.  Smart cities are coming and at their best they could loosen our imaginations and liberate us from a monotonous life of work and stress.  Let’s make that the scenario that happens…

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Landscape Futurism, landscapes, living walls, Smart Cities, Sustainability, Urban Landscapes, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,