IABR–2014–URBAN BY NATURE–, the sixth edition of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), claims that we can only solve the world’s environmental problems if we solve the problems of the city.
Looking through the lens of landscape architecture, IABR–2014– redefines the way we deal with urban challenges by analyzing the relationship between urban society and nature, and between city and landscape.
This edition of the biennale argues that cities are an integral part of huge urban landscapes, complex systems that have become our natural environment. This perspective has many implications for the way we plan and design our urban environment. Perceiving it as an organism opens up possibilities to develop spatial interventions that make use of its metabolism.
With the use of new and innovative design strategies that effectively address the city as the bigger urban landscape that it is, we can make the city more resilient and thus truly contribute to a more sustainable future world.
Six separate exhibitions, still on display until Sunday, August 24 at the Kunsthal and the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, showcase almost one hundred projects that address these issues.
Photo 2: OWB (Underground Water Storage), Museumpark, Rotterdam © Jannes Linders
EXPLORING THE UNDERGROUND
The increased interest in designing with an eye for natural processes has led to a new perspective on the Underground. Soil, subsurface soil processes, and deep substrata perform numerous functions that are indispensable to urban society, yet they are also the least studied ecosystem on the planet.
‘Under the cobblestones, the beach!’ was one of the famous poetic slogans of the Paris student protests of 1968. It serves to remind us that the city does not stop at the pavement, but that there is something underneath. As the earth’s surface gets busier and busier, the idea of exploring the underground becomes more and more appealing.
The underground has fired our imagination for centuries. Traditionally, hell is depicted as a place deep beneath the ground, smelling of sulfurous volcanic ash. Science fiction pioneer Jules Verne had his nineteenth-century hero Professor Otto Lidenbrock undertake a journey ‘to the center of the earth.’ The underground plays an interesting part in our collective subconscious. And many of us are fascinated by the substrate’s more prosaic aspects. Open up a street to replace a sewer pipe and countless passers-by stop to watch, curious about the world beneath their feet. For a moment, the tangle of cables, pipes, wires, and fiber optic cables that make our daily lives possible is visible.
But there is more: the filler sand on which the city is built, black layers of clay, water trickling to dewatering pumps. Sewers are constructed below the frost line, 2 m deep at most. At the edges of the pit, tree roots continue, but things even deeper down than that remain shrouded in darkness.
There is life in this dark world: it is, in fact, teeming with life. A well-developed forest floor may contain as many as 10,000 different organisms per square meter. We don’t really even know about all that lives there, because the soil belongs to the part of the biosphere of which we know relatively little..New species are still discovered regularly. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and a myriad of worms, arthropods, termites, millipedes, and earthworms are jointly responsible for the final breakdown of dead plant matter. Most of the organic material is recycled and made available to life above ground. Even deeper down, there are living organisms below the soil formation zone. There is no light there, and it gets warmer the deeper you go, but bacterial life has been found up to a depth of 6 km. Not just the odd microbe, carried to the depths along with water, either: according to microbiologists’ estimates, hundreds of trillions (1012) of tons of biomass, a complete ecosystem, survives beneath the surface. Exuberant scientists even speak of ‘an underground Galapagos.’
The underworld exists thanks to chemosynthesis. In the course of a long evolution, a wide variety of bacteria have discovered every chemical reaction that manages to generate even the tiniest bit of energy. Whether soil organic matter or oil, it is processed by specialized microbes. Even minute amounts of chemicals, such as a single electron won in the conversion of trivalent to divalent iron, generate energy for deep sea microbial communities that devour sunken ships. Wait a few hundred years, and not a trace of the Titanic will be left.
Photo 3: IABR–2014–URBAN BY NATURE– EXPLORING THE UNDERGROUND
This living underground fulfills many social functions. It carries our buildings and stores our cables and pipes, and allows itself to be used as a storage facility. The underground is informative: the earth’s geomorphic stratification archive gives us the history of the landscape as well as the archaeological history of human beings that have left all sorts of relics behind. The underground is regulatory: the soil filters and stores water and, as it lives, breaks down organic material.
Last but not least, the underground produces. It is no exaggeration to say that our society largely survives on what we take from the earth. From the deepest layers, we harvest ores and geothermal heat. From other deep layers we extract the fossil remains of 500 million years’ worth of biomass production, or solidified solar energy, in the form of coal, oil, and gas. Higher up are the groundwater reserves we tap into for drinking, agricultural, and industrial water.
What may be the most important layer consists of 2 m of top soil: the ground, on which agricultural production and the world’s food supplies depend. All over the world, therefore, this top layer is mapped with great precision. Its composition controls what will grow on it and is highly predictive of possible revenues. Cities have long remained white spots on such agriculture-oriented maps, but that is beginning to change. The rise of urban agriculture has boosted the mapping of city soil, which is not only useful for finding the locations of former landfills and old explosives. Research also aims to classify surfaces that have been compacted under paving for decades, as they include various types of waste and construction debris and have absorbed substances that are not found in agricultural areas.
Mapping urban soil is absolutely necessary because we need to know where exactly the increasing and progressively bothersome quantity of underground infrastructure is situated, to keep track of it. Gas pipes, water mains, or power cables damaged during road work are regularly in the news. In many cases, the network of tubes, pipes, and cables has been neatly planned and designed beforehand, but in others it has just been dumped in a pit by contractors only minding their own networks.
The Wild Underground resembles the Wild West. The law of the jungle prevails. The result is that most cities have no, or at least no complete and current, understanding of the course of the infrastructure that controls their urban functioning. Sometimes there are historical reasons. Nobody running a tap in Istanbul knows where the water comes from. There are four historical water systems operating in the city, the oldest dating back to Roman times, and they have become intertwined over the years.
Photo 4: Maastunnel, Rotterdam
As is the case in above-ground spatial planning, there are physical problems and conflicts of interests to be resolved below ground level. The more cables and pipes there are, the more difficult it is to reserve rooting space for trees. Underground heat and cold storage is gaining popularity, but it is unclear what effect this may have on the spread of existing soil contamination and the reduction of natural values by negative effects on groundwater levels. With regard to the even deeper layers, there are choices to be made between the risks of shale gas extraction and ensuring the drinking water reserves. Power companies may come into conflict with all industries that depend on adequate and clean water, from water companies and agriculturalists to brewers.
Urban functions increasingly also want to ‘go deep’: they see the underground as expansion space. Moving infrastructure (roads, public transportation) underground gives cities the opportunity to rearrange the vacated space and reunite dissected districts. In cold winters in cities like Helsinki and Toronto, humans have already been forced to retreat underground in the winter, into up to 30-km-long underground pedestrian connections complete with shops. Both cities are familiar with an advanced stage of integrated underground and above-ground planning. Hong Kong is hard-pressed to get acquainted with it: the scarcity of space aboveground in this city has made it necessary to carefully map and structure the underground.
These are all urban programs for the underground, literally top-down. But how does the underground affect the earth surface, bottom-up? The presence of fossil resources in the underground can be perceived directly in the spatial and economic developments on the earth’s surface: from mining areas to oil states, each has a distinct signature. The underground is also strongly present in above-ground subsidence, earthquakes, and landslides resulting from the large-scale extraction of fuels and ores. Until recently, building underground sewage systems in the German Ruhr Region was out of the question, because ground subsidence would break the pipes. The Swedish mining town of Kiruna is being moved in its entirety, piece by piece, because its underground has become unstable. In Groningen, minor earthquakes caused by years of gas extraction were followed by unpredictable ground subsidence.
These are all arguments in favor of more administrative attention at national, regional, and local levels for this new and largely unknown (work) field. It is time for underground master plans. The arguments also support designing in accordance with the values of the underground and for a truly three-dimensional spatial planning. We need a ‘3D-Spatial Planning’ to recognize that we actually know very little about the effects our actions have on what goes on underground.
EXPLORING THE UNDERGROUND puts the design challenges for the underground on the map. How can we deal with the three-dimensional complexity of the underground without relying on the traditional planning methods that we use above ground? If future challenges are increasingly about the productive interplay between plans and activities that take place above ground and underground infrastructure and processes, how can we develop prospects and toolboxes that cover both, and that will achieve a sustainably developed whole?
Photo 5: IABR–2014–URBAN BY NATURE– © Maarten Laupman
IABR–2014–URBAN BY NATURE–
until 24 August in Rotterdam, the Netherlands
Kunsthal Rotterdam Tuesday till Saturday: from 10am - 5pm on Sunday: from 11am - 5pm closed on Monday
Natural History Museum Rotterdam Tuesday till Sunday: from 11am - 5pm closed on Monday
Previously in this series: