If you ask ordinary people but also many architects or urbanists what measures should be taken to make cities ‘greener’ there is a 99% chance that they will say: ‘Let’s plant trees!’ We all have become obsessed by tree planting – so obsessed, that we draw them on facades of buildings, on every rooftop and – latest trend – even in Metro stations. There is nothing wrong about trees but time and time again, we fall for the simple solutions and the simplistic messages. Saving our planet from climate extinction needs more than planting trees.
But the tree can be a good metaphor for what we really need to do. When we look at a tree, then we see a highly recognizable shape with a trunk, branches and leaves. We see, and we perceive what every little child draws. But trees are much more complex. First – we see only a part of it. The roots we don’t see. We also do not see all the other plants that live on the tree – moss or fungi and many others. We only see birds having their nest in trees, but we do not see the many other animals – worms, insects or microorganisms. As for our understanding of a tree, we also need to extend our understanding of urban ecosystems. They are not just green connections, trees and a park here and there. Urban ecosystems are an all-encompassing continuum – above ground, on ground and below ground. Everything is eco-system and therefore everything should be treated as such. But we do not. We treat the carriageway of a street not as an ecosystem. We do not treat the seas of parking lots with their tarmac as ecosystems, and we do not treat our buildings as ecosystems either. Only where we allow for green, in our perception an eco-system exists. Only in rare occasions nature reminds us, that it also exists outside the man made green: when some rare bat or salamander species delay or derail regeneration of construction projects.
We need to change our eco system thinking and embrace the omnipresence of nature much more actively. Likewise the solution of technical challenges, we need to integrate eco system thinking and design into our work right from the start. We need to think in a much more holistic manner and act accordingly. If we do that, we can achieve a lot more than just making more room for animals and plants. We can create entirely new qualities for humans living in the city. More ecological diversity and biophilic design can lead to a much richer experience where buildings and nature become more intertwined and where we can perceive seasons, weather conditions and all kinds of species.
Mike Wells, the pioneer in British urban ecology shows us what that can mean in many of his projects around the world. He not only delivers more complete and integrated eco-systems – he also creates a new urban green aesthetic that is radically different from the modernist grassland voids that still dominate many of our cities. To our eye, conditioned to desire order and cleanness, they look messy and out of a different context – the context we only encounter on weekend countryside tours or hiking holidays – real nature – really complex and diverse eco-systems. It is high time to get them back to where they used to be before we came to turn them into urban living environments for humans – to our very own cities.