Creating Resilient Cities in-Step with the Seasons


By Melissa Sterry – Design Scientist at the Advanced Virtual and Technological Architecture Research (AVATAR)  group at University of Greenwich and Futurist and Curator at Earth 2.0 – a movement re-establishing a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature using science, art and digital creativity.

The English proverb ‘It never rains, but it pours’ is apt to describe one of the great sustainability challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century. Earlier this year the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Elisabeth Rasmusson stated, “The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events is increasing, and this trend is only set to continue. With all probability, the number of those affected and displaced will rise as human-induced climate change comes into full force.” [1]

Putting Rasmusson’s statement into perspective, in 2010 forty two million people were displaced by natural disasters, of which an estimated 90% were displaced by extreme weather events, including flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes. [2]

The extreme weather trend continued into 2011 and by August The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) had already reported ten billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States, including the Groundhog Day Blizzard, the Mississippi River Flooding, the Southern Plains/Southwest Drought, Heatwave and Wildfires, several major tornado outbreaks and Hurricane Irene. Dubbed ‘mega-disasters’ these events were mega-expensive and cost an estimated sum exceeding US$45 billion.

In June 2011 Bernard Weinstein of the Southern Methodist University in Dallas stated “There is a $15,000 billion economy in the US” [3] that is able to “absorb” the cost of extreme weather events, which leaves a clear deficit if, as climatologists anticipate, frequent ‘mega’ weather events become as frequent as they have been of late.

The scenario in the US is unfolding worldwide, with Asia hit hardest, having been subjected to a relentless assault of major flooding events in a matter of years. Asia is no stranger to major flooding events, indeed several of the largest flooding events in recorded history took place there, including the 1931 Central China floods, of which the death toll is unknown, but which ranges between a few hundred thousand up to 4 million lives lost. This flooding event starkly illustrated the proverb with which I began this feature, for it was not a stand-alone natural disaster and was instead preceded by a two-year drought.

The seesaw weather effect is well documented by both climatologists and meteorologists. For example, throughout the 17th Century Britain was plagued by a combination of severe summer droughts and exceptionally cold winters, a number of which were so cold that the River Thames famously froze over (1620-21, 1635, 1648-49, 1662-7, 1677, 1683-4, 1688-89, 1690-99).

However, it’s not only in scientific and historical documents that we find reference to ‘double-whammy’ weather events. There’s an old English folklore saying ‘when berries be many in October, beware a hard winter.’ Those that casually dismiss this belief ought consider this: Britain has witnessed large autumnal wild berry harvests this past couple of years and did indeed proceed to experience usually cold winters. Similar nature-related folklore sayings include ‘If autumn leaves are slow to fall, prepare for a cold winter’ and ‘when birds and badgers are fat in October, beware a hard winter.’

References to natural ecosystems’ ability to anticipate meteorological events are not exclusive to English folklore, for an ancient Chinese proverb states ‘Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men’. Which raises the question ‘how’? How is a wild berry bush able to accurately predict future weather events? Clearly such flora is in an on-going conversation with its environment, sensing subtle changes in heat and humidity and quite possibly endowed with a genetic memory that enables it to recognise and prepare for meteorological events. In order to understand why a berry bush may fruit more abundantly prior to a harsh winter, we need to recognise the fact that its long-term survival is dependent upon mutualistic symbiotic relationships with other species, including insects, birds and mammals which pollinate its flowers and spread its seeds. Therein, it makes sense for a berry bush to help sustain these species by enabling them to gorge on a bountiful harvest, therein increase their fat reserves, prior to an extreme cold event.

There is much humanity can learn from studying the interplay between species and meteorological events. The world-over ecologists are documenting the fact that many species are migrating to climes, which until recently were too cold for their habitation, for example tree lines are rising in numerous Alpine regions. When we compare paleoclimatic records with paleoecological data we see a clear ability on the part of past ecosystems to anticipate climate change. Yet, a very small handful of built environment practitioners are researching how we may potentially utilize nature’s inherent intelligence when developing resilience to extreme weather events in our urban habitats. Simultaneously, we see a continued preference for supposedly ‘one-stop-shop’ built environment solutions, wherein rather than an explore the possibility of bringing together myriad approaches, in which hi-tech sits side-by-side with low-tech, natural technologies alongside man-made ones, one or other approach is given preference.

However, something upon which most can agree is the fact that the Built Environment 1.0 model is not fit to cope with extreme meteorological events. Aside from the many reports that clearly illustrate this, day-in, day-out, distressing images of homes, towns and lives being swept away in flash floods and severe storms hit the international news headlines, hand-in-hand with reports of a global economic meltdown of such great proportions that entire nations are bordering on bankruptcy.

Of course while it’s easy to critique the traditional built environment model, evolving new alternatives is a complicated affair. All too often researchers are encouraged to reduce problems down to their lowest common denominator – to take one problem at a time, usually in an isolated context. However, when the nature of meteorological events is complex, I believe it is odds on that this approach will not work. While a geological disaster and not a meteorological one, the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on 11th March 2011 illustrates this point in that many buildings that easily withstood the magnitude 9 earthquake were washed away by the tsunami.

The Bionic City hypothesis I’m developing centers on the concept that it could potentially be possible to create a blueprint for a metropolis with embedded resilience to extreme geological and meteorological events. Having presented the concept at several international scientific conferences and written a handful of articles, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is “what would this city look like?” However, a more pertinent question is “what would it do?” because so long as its form fits its function, it doesn’t especially matter what it looks like. In making that statement I’m not saying that aesthetics have no role to play, for I’m abundantly aware of the interplay between the look and feel of an environment and the mental wellbeing of its inhabitants. I am instead referencing the fact that if you were on a sinking ship, your first concern would not be what your life-jacket looks like and would instead be whether or not it’s going to save your life.

Getting back to the humble wild berry bush… it teaches humanity that it pays to plan ahead, so that a natural hazard doesn’t become a natural disaster, which in the bush’s case would be its pollinators and seeders dying in a cold spell. Civic planning for extreme cold events in the United Kingdom generally stops at buying in extra salt reserves to scatter on roads to prevent them icing over. However, baring in mind the extreme cold events of 2010/11 caused £13 Billion worth of damage to the nation’s roads, at a time when the UK economy is on The Bank of England’s version of a life-support machine (Quantitative Easing), it would pay to research and develop road surfaces with inbuilt tolerance to heat extremes, i.e. surfaces with the same acclimatization properties as Alpine plants, which use a range of methods to prevent freezing including the accumulation of solutes, supercooling and dehydration amongst others.

In the introductory chapter of the Protocell Architecture edition of Architectural Design Professor Neil Spiller and Dr. Rachel Armstrong state ‘Buildings are still mostly dumb, inert blobs of material that act as ecological obstacles. The fundamental problem that we currently design buildings as barriers to the environment and not as proactively beneficial environmental technologies now needs to be addressed. To do this effectively we must start to develop architectural paradigms and technologies that cooperate with and embrace, rather than dominate, natural imperatives.’ [4] This statement reflects the view of a growing school of interdisciplinary researchers who believe, as do I, that the time is nigh to ambitiously pursue the development of a new genre of built environment technologies with life-like behaviors.

Recently described by The Urban Times as a ‘biomimetic imaginarium’, The Bionic City may sound as fantastical as the factory imagined by Roald Dahl in his 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for I have described it as a shape-shifting, colour-changing Biomimetic metropolis, that like the forests and meadows of the Northern Hemisphere changes in accordance with the seasons. However, fantastical though that may sound, technologies abound that could take the concept from science fiction to science fact.

An early pioneer of anticipatory architecture was British architect Cedric Price, whose iconic works championed impermanent architecture designed for continual change. On the other side of the pond, in 1965 American architect Glenn Small conceived the city as a ‘biomorphic biosphere’, which he described as a nearly living ecosystem conceived in the context of nature as the ultimate technology [5]. One of the most prolific practitioners and champions of the field of Adaptive Architecture is Chuck Hoberman, whom together with Craig Schwitter commented “Even with newer passive and energy-efficient systems, most buildings do not use natural resources effectively, whereas adaptive buildings can change their form, building surfaces, and interior spaces in response to intelligent controls that monitor dynamic feedback from the environment.”[6]

I’ve described The Bionic City as embodying life-like features from the molecular to the metropolis in scale. An example that illustrates the growing viability of dynamic adaptive building surfaces is the Hylozoic Ground Installation created by Philip Beesley and Dr. Rachel Armstrong exhibited at the Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale in 2010. Beesley and Armstrong described this work as ‘an environment organised as a textile matrix supporting responsive actions and ‘living’ technologies, conceived as the first stages of self-renewing functions that might take root within a future architecture’. [7] Hylozoic Ground is one of many research projects exploring the notion that it’s possible to create building interiors and envelopes endowed with properties historically associated with biological surfaces.

Similarly groundbreaking innovations are taking shape in fields including sensors and signal processing, motion systems, artificial intelligence, data networking and super-computing. Simultaneously humanity’s understanding of the Earth Sciences, including geoseismic events and ecology has greatly expanded in recent years thanks to a plethora of new research technologies including amongst others open-innovation and enhanced computer processing capabilities. Therein, when the dots are joined up, it becomes clear that the idea of creating cities with life-like abilities is not so far-fetched after all.

Indeed there’s an irony to the notion that humanity could not create a city able to reconfigure itself in response to changing environmental changes, which is illustrated by this statement by Dr. Rachel Armstrong ‘The current approach to the production of architecture is ancient and yet the technology that could potentially revolutionise our approach to the construction of buildings is even older than the invention of concrete. This technology is life.’ [8]

Another irony is the ocular-centric preoccupation of many with what a concept such as The Bionic City may look like, because a truly adaptive, ecosystem-like, therein seasonal city would morph throughout the year – it’s appearance changing from Spring to Summer to Autumn to Winter. Not only that, but there would be variations in the timings and specifications from year to year, as meteorological, geological and ecological fluctuations occurred.

What is important is the epistemology such an idea embeds, for it’s all too easy to make assumptions about how ecosystems operate. Indeed though a growing body of architectural projects is labeled with the term ‘biomimicry’, a significant number of these are in fact biomorphic, wherein there is no scientific research embedded in the concept, which is instead an artistic interpretation of one or more natural life-forms.

The beauty of the natural world is in its detail – where complexity not linearity is the norm. Species and ecosystems embed myriad resilience strategies to threats such as extreme weather, geological events, disease and predators. Frequently these strategies are exotic and unusual when compared to traditional human technologies, which I believe makes them all the more interesting and inspiring. When related fields such as Adaptive Architecture, Biomimicry, Living Materials and Complex Adaptive Systems are evolving at great speed, it’s not entirely clear how a seasonal city will manifest. However, I suspect the city will ultimately evolve as a strange fruit that is somewhat unfamiliar to the Traditionalist’s ideological palate.

You can find out more about Melissa’s efforts to re-establish a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature by watching Earth 2.0 Initialization – The Director’s Cut.


[1] Haldorsen, K, 42 Million Displaced by Sudden Natural Disasters in 2010, Norwegian Refugee Council, www.nrc.no, June 6 2011.
[2] Haldorsen, K, 42 Million Displaced by Sudden Natural Disasters in 2010, Norwegian Refugee Council, www.nrc.no, June 6 2011.
[3] McNulty, S, US counts the cost of extreme weather, Financial Times, June 28 2011.
[4] Spiller, N & Armstrong, R, ‘It’s a Brand New Morning’, p17. Architectural Design, Vol 81, No. 2, ISSN 0003-8504, Profile No. 201, ISBN 978-0470-748282, March/April 2011.
[5] Small, G, Biomorphic Biosphere, Futurist Magazine, June 1977.
[6] Hoberman, C, Schwitter, C, Adaptive Structures: Building for Performance and Sustainability, Design Intelligence, August 11, 2008.
[7] Beesley, P & Armstrong, R, Soil and Protoplasm: The Hylozoic Ground project, p. 81, Architectural Design, Vol 81, No. 2, ISSN 0003-8504, Profile No. 201, ISBN 978-0470-748282, March/April, 2011.
[8] Armstrong, R, How Protocells Can Make ‘Stuff’ Much More Interesting, p. 71, Architectural Design, Vol 81, No. 2, ISSN 0003-8504, Profile No. 201, ISBN 978-0470-748282, March/April, 2011.

Image 1: Hylozoic Ground Installation, Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennale in 2010 by Philip Beesley and Dr. Rachel Armstrong
Image 2 courtesy of  howzey on flickr
Image 3: Biomorphic Biosphere by Glenn Small

  • http://twitter.com/ULGlobalCities Annick Labeca

    Very interesting as usual, Melissa. Let me go back to some parts of the text:
    1. “However, something upon which most can agree is the fact that the Built Environment 1.0 model is not fit to cope with extreme meteorological events. Aside from the many reports that clearly illustrate this, day-in, day-out, distressing images of homes, towns and lives being swept away in flash floods and severe storms hit the international news headlines, hand-in-hand with reports of a global economic meltdown of such great proportions that entire nations that entire nations are bordering on bunkruptcy.” I agree and I cannot stop saying that today’s construction techniques, city design — namely cityd esign 1.0 — and building materials are obsolete and we need problem-addressing (and not problem-solving) mechanisms and innovation that will provide a better adapation — not 100% but at least event 20% will be fine — to challenging issues that you so briliantly enumerated: climate change, rising sea level, etc. 
    2. “While a geological disaster and not  meteorological one, the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on 11th March 2011 illustrates this point in that many buildings that easily withstood the magnitude 9 earthquake were washed away by the tsunami.” Here in Japan conversations on solutions that will improve resistance, if not to say resilience are ongoing but the question which will be rapdily raised is that once again construction technique, city design and building materials should be reconsidered deeply. And as many Asian cities regularly do with risks, risk management must be improved constantly to make cities and of course their residents capable of adapting to natural disasters, but also climate change. A Tokyo-based urban planner and researcher Christian Dimmer underlined recently in a very interesting article published in the Japan Times the lack of realistic urban planning in Japan that certainly took part of the effects of the 3.11 events. Without a deep reflection on city planning consider each case separately — today’s Japan’s city planning is conceived as: one-city-planning-all-cities, namely based on Tokyo to a certain extent — that will not work. But let’s take another sad example: Bangkok and this rising sea level that threatens the city and its residens. What would we do? As it is seen, it’s time to take different directions in terms of thinking and designing cities.
    3. Today we undertake research to find problem-solving instruments and strategies to respond to climate change. Renewable energy, solar energy and biofuel are the main fields in which attracts industrials to invest. But as mentioned above, this will not be enough. I will say: that will limit the issues in short-term but withouth solving them. In this context, it is urgent to undertake research that pose the question of adaptability of our cities. The idea of Built Environment 1.0 is very interesting because it is linked to urban planning until the 21th century. Now that are we in a new era with lots of unpredictable issues, it is time to shift into a Built Environment 2.0 that will reconsider, re-examin each component to set problem-addressing instruments. That will be possible if and only if, and you all — Rachel, Tia Kansara, and you to quote a few — mentioned it intelligently: with a join-up team that includes biologists, environmental scientists, etc.
    4. To conclude my comment: why problem-addressing instead of problem-solving? I consider the concept of ‘problem-addressing’ much scalable, much flexible because it shows “what’s wrong” and what we can do to adapt to this problem. It is more adapted to this idea of “the adjacent possible” while problem-solving which is linked with the built environment 1.0 considers the problem to be solved and try to find solutions for this detected problem. Yet what we are facing, namely global warming and its consequences, is too much difficult to be detectable and predictable. Hence this idea of problem-addressing that admits challenging issues in the nearing future but is not able to predict the contents of these issues. It adapts to variations, to feedback loops like cellular organisms, species or plants if you want. I think in science fields, this idea of problem-addressing is more common while it is not yet in architecture, engineering and urban design fields.
    This is why I agree with Rachel, you and those who call for setting an ambitious target of investing massively on Research and Development that are oriented toward research for a better adaptive city. The path to an adaptive city is long and full of challenges but it’s time to engage seriously in this way. I have been too long. Sorry for this. I hope to have been clear since English is not my mothertongue…