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

December 7th, 2014 by Mark Laurence

Last winter I did some interesting work in Abu Dhabi, concerning the care of trees.  I can’t name one of the projects (a royal palace), but one was Mushrif Central Park undergoing a major redevelopment (and now reopened – March 2015).  In both places I undertook a survey of 100+ broadleaf trees (as opposed to palms), assessed their condition and trained staff in basic arboricultural pruning techniques.  Such information is lacking out there as most such trees, with the exception of things like ghaf (Proposis cineraria) and acacia (A. tortilis) are imported from abroad, so knowledge of the necessary arboricultural techniques of pruning, especially of broadleaf trees, is generally absent (palms they are well used to dealing with).

 

As you can see in the pics, the trees in the park had been “salvaged”, which is perhaps not a good word. A specialist tree-lifting company from the US had been engaged to train ground staff in the techniques of boxing and lifting the trees, no easy task in a pure sand soil and 35-40degC – and that’s the winter temperatures. I then had to attend to the care and aesthetics of the tree.  My assessment was that most of the trees had been badly pruned in the past, causing poor crown developments and in some cases allowing disease to enter.

Containerised Trees in the nursery area

Not surprisingly, some of the trees suffered severe shock in being lifted, but most survived, with varying degrees of die-back and then regrowth. Much of the work was simply about deadwooding and the teaching of correct pruning cuts and methods. Access is always the main issue and there was no way to teach the guys how to climb – that is a job for a specialist training school, so we were restricted to a cherry-picker and for the most part, hand tools.

Pruning

Many trees suffer, surprisingly perhaps, from over-irrigation. This causes surface rooting which makes trees dependent upon continued irrigation, plus natives like ghaf become prone to wind-throw from lack of deep anchor roots. Exotic trees such as Delonix (below), grown for their beautiful red or yellow flowers, bloom less well when over-watered and become prone to bacterial wetwood infection.

wetwood

Places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are developing at an astonishing speed and their landscapes are growing at a similar rate. Knowledge is the thing that lags behind, and it will take some time for this to catch up. I’m sure it will; there is something alluring about creating beautiful landscapes in a naturally hostile climate. This becomes a critical issue in the light of climate change and global urbanization, which is happening fastest in the hotter regions of the world; landscapes moderate climate and make such places livable, whilst biophilia demands that we need close contact with greenery in this urbanised world.

More needs to be done to increase the knowledge and care of trees, including species selection and nursery practice, reducing over-irrigation and teaching good pruning methods, but it can be done. I’m looking forward to the next phase.

Posted in Arboriculture, Dubai, UAE, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

September 6th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Reporters always have to grab a headline, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the new green wall near Victoria station started grabbing headlines such as “London’s largest living wall prevents flooding”.  It’s a misleading headline to say the least: A, it’s not the largest wall, that “accolade” (if size is all that counts) belongs to Patrick Blanc for his wall at Leamouth Peninsular, constructed by Biotecture in 2009 and B, it doesn’t prevent flooding.  How could it?  Striding about, with a big umbrella?  No, it has rainwater harvesting – as can any building, regardless of whether or not they have green walls (although they then have to have some use for it, such as flushing toilets), and that helps absorb water and delay rainfall from contributing to stormwater runoff.  It may directly capture a small amount on the surface of the wall, but not much.

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and treebox

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and Treebox

Now don’t get me wrong; this is a lovely green wall and most welcome.  I know all the guys involved and they’re all genuine people. The wall will have many environmental benefits. No, what bothers me is the way the press grab shallow headlines that reduce the very real benefits to glib catchphrases, often completely divorced from meaningful context .  Of course rainwater harvesting reduces the risk of flooding, but one small scheme in a large area will have negligible benefit (just as the Edgware Road wall I designed for TfL will, on it’s own, have a negligible effect on air pollution); unless many buildings in that area follow suit and harvest rainwater, the impact will not be felt.

What walls such as this do, is pioneer and display the possibilities of what we may do and the potential outcome if we do enough of it.  But the current attitude is, right, we’ve put up a green wall/green roof/planted trees, so job done, environment’s sorted… it’s just so NOT.

Right now i’m frustrated by this attitude.  For example, it seems that government, having done their bit (on air pollution, mentioned above), now have no monies in the “clean air fund” to take things to the next level; where we so urgently need to be going. The simple reality is that a lot more testing is needed, more system trials; ways need to be found to effect a large-scale roll out of affordable greening (a major criticism is that the technology is too expensive).  If the government won’t make funds available to do this, even in the face of massive EU fines for breaching air quality standards, then who will?  So the Edgware Road green wall becomes just another political chess piece, used then forgotten once it’s done it’s short-term bit of marketing.

It’s time that as a society, we grew up, stopped living off of vacuous soundbites and got to grips with our environmental issues.  One headline I got from a talk I gave last year, was “designer calls for environmental efforts to be put on a war footing”.  Another bit of melodrama, but I did use the phrase, and meant it.  Only with that level of serious intent and commitment can we get to make meaningful progress on adapting our societies to the incoming effects of now unstoppable climate change.

Time to get real…

Posted in Climate Change, Ecosystem Services, Environment, living walls, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , ,

August 28th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I’ve written before on the subject of adaptive landscapes and trans-migrational landscapes but I’ve been reading recently of a real-life ecology that was created by man in the last 200 years, and is thriving.  This is on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, a once barren volcanic rock, which is now a thriving cloud forest, created in a somewhat uncoordinated way by successive generations of British sailors and governors bringing plants from all over the world.  Where there were once just 25 species, there are now over 200, as this article tells.

Non-native bamboo and moss create homes for native ferns

Non-native bamboo and moss create homes for native ferns.  photo Fred Pearce.

Whilst this example may be a one-off, it is nonetheless a hopeful sign. If new and thriving ecologies can be created with little real thought and science, it gives hope for what we can do if we put our minds to it.

In my previous articles mentioned above, I outlined the reasons why this is necessary. To recap, it is due to the planetary changes that are now occurring, whose effects we have yet to fully experience, which is going to change this planet for millennia to come, even if we get a grip on carbon emissions, which we must of course do. If we don’t, runaway climate change could make this planet largely uninhabitable (at least to higher life forms). Ecologist have to radically re-think what they consider to be ecology, for Nature cannot adapt the landscape at the rate of our man-induced changes. That means that species cannot adapt and move with the shifting geological region of the climate zone they are used to. Zones are moving North and South, away from the equator at a rate which may change 20% of the world’s climate zones by the end of the century.

Of course, Nature will correct things given time, but mankind cannot afford to wait, if it wants a planet worth living on – and the ability to live on it.  That’s why the Ascension Island story is such good news.  I would dare bet that we could extensively re-vegetate (or terraform, to use a word found in science fiction stories) areas within a 50 year period if we turned our minds to it, and our political will.

Ironically, I can see some of the stiffest opposition to this coming from conservationists. Much is made of the negative effects of the global migration of plants and insects, but we have to balance that with the positive gains, which are seldom mentioned, yet so taken for granted.  And the planet is going to change now, whether we want it to or not.  I’d rather the UK (for example) had a Mediterranean flora and fauna than none at all.  We may one day grieve the loss of our native oaks, finally unable to cope with the higher temperatures, but we would surely welcome the holm oak (already naturalising in the South coast area), cork oak and olive here.  Having an ecology of beauty and abundance is what counts now, not preserving what we are used to having.  Get used to that; it’s already too late.

But new adaptive ecologies, created by transferring plants, insects and microbes from other similar zones in the world, would give us a new practice, that of trans-migrating landscapes, and a new science, a new understanding.  In this we must learn not to manipulate, but to understand Nature, to assist in what she would herself do, but over millennea.  And we must do it within a lifetime.

Best get started…

Posted in Climate Change, Environment, landscapes, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , ,

July 26th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

This ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) animation does a great job of explaining the need for trees.  One minor criticism: the part which shows the trees’ underground root structure shows it way too small; should be at least twice the radius, if not three times.  Never mind, worth a watch:

Posted in Arboriculture, Environment, landscapes, Sustainability Tagged with: , ,

January 16th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I’ve been doing a lot of research since writing my blog post on trans-migrational landscapes, my theory on how we have to adapt our natural environments – or rather, help them adapt – to combat the rapidly increasing effects of climate change.  It’s not going to be easy; right now I’m not sure if we can do it without making a complete fudge of things, or if we would simply be making matters worse.  I’ve just read this article in the Telegraph, which would seem to agree with my idea, but as some of the comments after point out, it’s the insect and microbial ecologies that count; many of our native population just can’t live on non-native plants.

I’m also reading a book by ecologist Douglas Tallamy, called Bringing Nature Home; in which he talks eloquently about these problems, about the environmental collateral-damage caused by horticulture and agriculture.  That plants, insect and fungi go rogue is understood; that they might only do so after 80+ years of benign cultivation and growth in a new continent is astonishing.  Alien plants displace more fragile natives and they can rampage, simply because they are not subject to the checks and balances caused by a predatory ecology.  What we, as gardeners, admire about an introduced plant – that it doesn’t get eaten by “pests” – shows that it is ecologically barren, is not taking part in the local micro-ecology and so is not being transformed into higher trophic levels of being, ie. into the higher food chain of insects, birds and mammals.

So if, as Tony Russell suggests in his Telegraph article, we were to plant non-native woodlands, they would become ecologically less diverse as a result, even if the trees were better able to grow in an altered climate.  So should we then introduce all or some of the microbes and insects that naturally live in such trees?  That could be very dangerous, with results that are entirely unforeseeable. Of course, we might have to gamble as the climate gets more and more extreme and moving Mediterranean ecologies to Southern England might save them as they die out in the place where they have evolved to live in.

My fear is that we are not smart enough to understand and control (as if we ever could) such a process, my hope is that we could take the issue seriously enough to learn how to do this successfully.  We will need it, if we are to retain useful and beautiful ecologies on which we depend for our survival.  Nature doesn’t need it, because she won’t mind taking a long, LONG, time to rebuild things…

 

 

 

Posted in Environment, landscapes, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , ,

October 30th, 2012 by Mark Laurence

I’ve just finished reading one of the most important books of our time; on the planet, climate change, the economy and the plight of humankind, so I’m going to review it here.  This should be at the top of everyone’s reading list if you want to understand what is happening to us at this moment in time.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0312541198

McKibben is an environmental writer and wrote an important book on the subject 20 years ago, called “The End of Nature”; I never read it, I guess I wasn’t reading environmental books at the time, which is a pity. Twenty years ago we still had time to do something about the state of the planet, but we chose not to.  After all, we were having a recession.  In fact an earlier landmark publication put the writing on the wall for us back in 1972 – the Club of Rome issued a report called “The Limits to Growth”.  We didn’t listen then either, or rather we stopped listening, after we recovered from the shock of the OPEC oil embargo, and we went shopping instead.  Retail therapy.

McKibben’s book starts with the simple but stark premise that the old Earth is gone; that we effectively live on a new planet, one that is not so nice, and which will get worse.  He calls it Eaarth. His reasoning is simple, the Earth is now cascading through a series of tipping points, from which it cannot now recover from, at least not within a humanly conceivable time-scale. Perhaps the chief of these is the amount of carbon we are pouring into the atmosphere; currently around 390ppm and heading inexorably to >600ppm.  The safe level for a habitable planet is 350ppm.  See the problem?

McKibben links environmental change firmly with consumption and economic growth.  As I have been writing, we are fixated on this as the only possible way of living our lives.  Of course it is true that everything is geared for growth and the inevitable consequence of no growth is failure – or so we believe.

But the book, though stark, doesn’t just fill us full of doom; McKibben believes we can, with concerted grass-roots effort, get the carbon emissions back down to 350ppm and he in fact instigated a movement, 350.org to promote – with some considerable success – the need to achieve this goal.

I am reading a number of other books on similar subjects, including Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth”, which I shall review in due course.

Posted in Economic Issues, Environment, Sustainability Tagged with: , ,

October 23rd, 2012 by Mark Laurence

Here in the UK, we may not be following the US presidential election campaigns, but if you use twitter and follow any environmentalists, you can hardly fail to read the comments about the deafening silence coming from all parties.  It’s as if they’re in absolute denial about it; or perhaps they think it’s game over already…

Tweet #climatesilence and read this article in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/oct/23/us-president-debates-climate-change

Posted in Environment Tagged with: ,