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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A stream runs down to the pond
June 16th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

I have been lucky enough to have designed and built a lot of water gardens in my time; I’ve been looking back over some of my pictures, and thought I’d share them here.  Working with water is like nothing else; it is enigmatic, frustrating, contrary, exciting and absolutely rewarding in a way that few other mediums can be.

A Naturalistic pond with simulated wetlands and planting

A Naturalistic pond with simulated wetlands and planting

Pond bio-filters clean the water, naturally

Pond bio-filters clean the water, naturally

A stream runs down to the pond

A stream runs down to the pond

A stream runs through a gravel-garden

A stream runs through a gravel-garden

A bridge of sleepers over the stream

A bridge of sleepers over the stream

A gentle waterfall emerges from within willow bushes

A gentle waterfall emerges from within willow bushes

Posted in Design, Environment, landscapes, Ponds, Water Gardens Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

November 12th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Is there a “next place to go” for green/living walls? Absolutely there is – there’s probably two next places to go – in opposite directions, seemingly.  First we have a growing need for the mitigation of environmental factors which are largely of our own making; air pollution, rising temperatures, storm and waste water management and purification. Methods of providing ecosystem services, if you like.  We need these in urban areas, right at the heart of where the problems originate or concentrate.  Linear, end-of-pipe solutions to things such as “waste” water (how can H20 ever be waste?) are becoming increasingly unaffordable, especially in third-world regions where the real population growth is taking place.  So we need cyclical systems to deliver on-site solutions.

Global levels of air pollution.  London looks good here, yet still fails WHO limits

Global levels of air pollution. London looks good here, yet still fails WHO limits

Such systems must be cheap and effective.  They will look green, be alive, but not driven by aesthetics, although that is not to say they won’t look good.  But we need these types of wall to be installed an a huge scale, if they are to make a genuine contribution; with the climate changing so rapidly, we need all the help we can give ourselves.  I’m working on such a system now, focusing on air pollution mitigation.

Vertical greening is particularly effective in the urban environment for two reasons: we have very little open space to implement large-scale greening on, and the effects of pollution are most felt in the urban canyon – where the sides of the streets (buildings) equal or exceed the width.. Greening the sides of urban canyons, therefore, has the greatest potential for capturing particulates (pm10 is the range causing most concern).

It is interesting to note that trees are often cited as being good at removal of dust and particulates – but green walls are far better. For a start, most urban trees are deciduous, so they only have leaves for seven months of the year, then there is the recently researched fact that trees in an urban canyon can actually trap particulates under their canopy, preventing the natural air movement from mixing pm10 into the larger air volumes. I work with trees and love them, so have no bias in this; we just need to understand the interactions between air movement and greening.  So this for me, is the next generation of vertical greening technology.  Interestingly, being next-gen doesn’t mean being more high tech.  Given that things have to be cheaper, they have to be low tech but more effective.  This is where understanding the effect of things is crucial.

The street canyon is the best place for vertical greening to remove air pollution.

The street canyon is the best place for vertical greening to remove air pollution.

I said that vertical greening developments would move in two directions; the other is for increased human interaction, for biophilia.  As 80% of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, many of the projected nine billion will have little access to nature.  We need to make our cities green forests – not the urban jungles they have become.  Every building needs to have vertical parks and gardens built in as standard, giving us direct contact with nature (whilst at the same time giving us all those ecosystem services I mentioned earlier), which brings the two directions (function vs beauty) right back into one place. Furthermore, such systems must be easily retrofit-able onto existing building stock.

Vertical "biomembranes" give us vertical landscapes, satisfy our love for nature - biophilia and deliver ecosystem services

Vertical “biomembranes” give us vertical landscapes, satisfy our love for nature – biophilia and deliver ecosystem services

So there is a huge role for vertical greening to play for humanity, keeping us in a functioning, livable environment, giving us beauty, satisfying our need for biophilia and keeping us sane in an urbanised world. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do and I’m certainly looking forward to upping my game with new products that take is in the right direction.

Update:

I now run a new company Vertology Living Walls and have an advanced, patent-pending green wall system, Viridiwall™.

 

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Environment, Green walls, living walls, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

May 28th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I’ve been reading several websites by visionary developers in Azerbaijan, who are proposing some massive Dubai-style developments to the Bay area of Baku, the country’s capital. One, the http://khazarislands.com/ seems like an ambitious Dubai-competitor, an ultra-sleek development on up to 30 artificial islands (think the Palm Jumeirah), the other is based on an existing island and whilst just as pretentious,  http://www.ziraisland.com/ at least aims to generate all its own energy from renewables, and to be carbon-neutral.

Zira_Island

The buildings are all based on the forms of nine iconic mountains in the Caucasus Range.  Actually, not a bad idea from the point of view of seismic safety and thermal efficiency etc.  Serious plans to make a huge modern metropolis that is self-sufficient are rare, with perhaps only the Chinese actually trying this with some of their Eco-Cities.

Zira_Energy

What is needed is to develop a coherent urban greening policy to integrate technologies like living walls and urban tree planting and care, with a carefully thought out irrigation policy.  People still don’t see how essential green walls will be in integrating ecosystem services into a buildings basic functionality, but it will come.  Let’s watch with interest.

Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Economic Issues, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Green walls, living walls, Middle-East, Sustainability, Trees, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

October 23rd, 2012 by Mark Laurence

I gave a talk last week on Internal Bio-Systems for buildings, to eFIG, the European Federation of Interiors Group (http://www.efig.eu.com/) which was reported on swiftly by Horticulture Week .  They picked up on my use of the phrase “war-footing” for the kind of response levels needed to deal with the issues at hand.  Why?  Well, climate change is now more of a real-term threat than terrorism, yet which do we spend the most money on?  With Obama and Romney not even talking about the issue, what is the point of “defence” if for political and business reasons we don’t allow ourselves to see the biggest threat of all which is looming large, and which we’re not even taking defensive actions on?

Bio-Systems need to become an integral part of our solutions to environmental problems, but they need designing and implementing wholesale to make a difference – and what a difference they could make! We can regulate building temperatures and energy use, clean air and water, create biodiversity, quieter streets, rehydrate the local hydrological cycle, grow food where we consume it… so much!  But the odd enthusiastic building owner/user doing it won’t make enough difference – we need critical mass; did I mention CRITICAL?

 

I’ll post a link to my talk here, once it’s loaded onto Vimeo…

Posted in Design, Economic Issues, Environment, landscapes, living walls, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , ,