4/01/2012

In search for an ecologically adaptive city… Or will cities be able to adapt to temperature rises

In a post titled The Weather Bowl, published in 2006, Geoff Manaugh wrote that:
Weather control will be the future of urban design. Engineering the climate is how we'll make our cities interesting again.
Or should we ask if the integration of weather control, or in a less speculated way, the inclusion of weather issues in the new urban agenda would be the best way to adapt to climate issues.

Suggested article: BLDGBLOG, The Weather Bowl, October 2006. The article has been compiled in: Geoff Manaugh, THE BLDGBLOG, The Chronicle Books, 2009.

Why does any of this matter? The Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration between The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Slate, The Guardian, and others, dedicated to exploring the impact — human, environmental, economic, political — of changing climate, as mentioned in The Atlantic, poses today an interesting question: Will the Human Body Be Able to Adapt to Rising Temperatures?
In a geological era dominated by what is called anthropocene, namely an era shaped by humans, some scary questions arise concerning the adaptating ability of human species to warming tendencies. In a previous post, I mentioned the forecasting estimation of the Arctic region being under threat of methane. Perdue University climatologist Matthew Huber discussed with The Climate Desk the manifold threats of global warming on human species citing, among others, a vast quantities of methane leaking "now trapped beneath permafrost and sea ice that's becoming less and less permanent."

As global temperatures rise, people will resort to more air conditioning, The Climate Desk asks. In this case, as Matthew Huber pointed out:
The increased use of air conditioners is likely to have large deleterious impacts.
A fear shared by many other observers such as David Roberts. Thus, even if we adopt new ways of designing cities and buildings, even if we develop new techniques and methods of manufacturing and fabrication, and new materials, the consequences, nonetheless, will remain, in some ways, exacerbated by temperature rising. Indeed, no matter how efficient and intelligent cities could be, the urgent question to ask is: will intelligent cities be able to adapt to pressing issues? As David Roberts writes:
Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, global avarage temperature would continue rising for a good half-century just in response to past GHG emissions. Rising temperature will drive more and more extreme weather. This will ceate all sorts of health, agricultural, energy, and economic issues for which we are grossly unprepared.

Suggested article: David Roberts, Climate change is already harshing the weather, Grist, March 30th, 2012.

A large percentage of observers shares the same comment saying that all these mentioned above are based on uncertainties, predictions and that these effects do not reach a majority of people as skeptics are numerous. This skepticism can be explained in that that could happen by 2100.

Hence this difficulty of envisioning new tactical planning to preserve cities from release of climate change. In any cases, we must admit that we live in an age of uncertainty, speculation in that we cannot control pressing issues that will be coming up. We are and will be being forced to speculate, to base urban design — and at the scale of buildings — on predictions. In this case, it is fundamental for urban design to engage a new conversation about the environmental factors from industrial economies — as industrial economies have a role in the consequences, and not a minor one.

Accordingly thanks to uncertainties it is been tricky to reengineer our cities, to develop new methods of city planning and building materials and fabrication. Let me borrow and modify the question Matthew Huber posed: how much warming can our cities technically tolerate? (the original questions that Matthew Huber asks are as follows: how much can we physiologically tolerate? At what point does it get so bad that our bodies can no longer keep cool, so bad that we can no longer work or play sports or even survive for long out doors?).

Consider our cities turning into underground cities in search for cooler climes. What might happen? What would be the long-effects of this event on human body? Obviously, as far as temperature rises, this would have serious impact on urban and landscape patterns that would push us to reconsider our habitat. Would the human body be able to adapt to an underground life? Considering a life without sunlight appears to be impossible for today's human species. Yet in the case that we would be forced to opt for such a choice, it would not be surprising that our body will evolve in order to adapt to such environmental constraint. And the point is IF we are capable of adapting to this constraint… Theologian Martin Palmer reported, in a conversation with Tom Levitt for The Ecologist, a similar consequence occured around 1160 BC in Iceland due to a natural disaster, precisely a volcanic eruption. This led to the creation of so much ash in the air that it blocked out the Sun for possibly as long as a decade. Accordingly everything died: from crops to fauna, from flora to humans.

Scientists and architects at a number of laboratory of research are conducting research into anthill or termitary structures to understand how these habitats are able to control the environment without consuming power or producing waste. Others study the relationship between plants and environmental factors. These studies are called behavioral ecology. As Michael Hensel says:
Behaviour is an observable action or response of an organism or species to environmental factors/ Behavioural ecology entails, therefore, the ecological and evolutionary basis for behaviour and the roles of behaviour in enabling organisms to adapt to their ecological niches. It concerns individual organisms and how these organisms are affected by (and how they can affect) their biotic and abiotic environment.
Suggested essay: Michael Hensel, Computing self-organisation: environmentally sensitive growth modelling, in Architectural Design: Techniques and Technologies in Morphogenetic Design, March/April 2006.


According to these researchers, behavioral ecology, to quote only one, can provide new tools and methods to architectural and city design, as they may facilitate a much better understanding of synergies between non-human habitats and environments. The engineering principles of non-human species habitats can be applied to the design of buildings. This process is called biomimetics. As Michael Weinstock argued:
Biological systems are self-assembled, using mainly quite weak materials to make strong structures, and their dynamic responses and properties are very different to the classical engineering of manmade structures. The behaviour of all natural system is complex and adaptive, and plants in particular manage their structural behaviour ain a way that provides new models for engineered structures. (…) Plants are hierarchical structures, made of materials with subtle properties that are capable of being changed by the plant in response to local or global stresses.

Suggested essay: Michael Weinstock, Self-Organisation and the structural dynamics of plants, in Architectural Design: Techniques and Technologies in Morphogenetic Design, March/April 2006.

In short, and simply put, it is urgent the need for a reconceptualisation of urban and natural environments.

In any cases, the very equation of pressing issues — not only global warming, but also urban migration,  lack of infrastructures, housing shortage, water shortage, health and well-being, energy, population growth, to name a few — with urban design might be questioned. What will be cities in the new era is not intelligent cities but cities under pressures. In this context, opting for problem-addressing and flexible techniques seem to be a better and daring way to withstand these scary scenarios. As based on uncertainties, a problem-addressing strategy does not search for solving an issue. Rather it is based on the principles of doing with, of adapting to critical issues.

As mentioned above, another possible scenario can be the inclusion of weather engineering in urban design. If so, now architects, you need to add climatology in your skills. Or, at least, a collaboration with climatologists will be needed in this new anthropogenic century.

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