The habitat of the citizen of the 21st century
Published 05th October 2009 - 3 comments - 2122 views -
Last week I visited the Pallet House in Brussels. This house, designed by Gregor Pilsz and Andreas Claus Schnetzer, won in 2008 the gau:di European student competition on sustainable architecture. Their idea is very simple. The entire ‘coat’ of the building is made of recycled pallets. This transport-element is usually burnt at the end of its life-cycle. Using it as a constructing material is thus a win-win solution.
The designers envisaged three main functions for this house. First it can be used as a holiday-house, secondly it could replace shelters in slums and thirdly it is easy to construct in a refugee-camp as contemporary building. This minimal house of the 21st century is low-cost (5 euro per panel), highly ecological, sustainable and easy to construct for anybody. The space between the pallets can be used for the needed insulation, depending on the context in which it is used.
The Pallet House as the house of the future?
What is so interesting about this design is that it evokes a global image. Pallets can be found all over the world. Which is not so surprising as globalization has spread industrial activity with similar production processes all over the globe. Not only in this way the house represents globalization for me. As it is so easy to construct and move from one place to another this design incorporates the wanted or unwanted nomadic existence human beings are taking on more and more. For a lot of contemporary people taking the plane seems as (or even more) natural as it was 60 years ago to take the train. But there are also large groups of people who are on the move against their will. Instable and war-like situations but also environmental catastrophes deprive people of their homes. The number of refugees all over the world in January 2008 amounted 11, 390,670 according to figures of the UNHCR.
As climate change is seen as a major cause for future displacement we can ask the question whether the pallet house is a visionary construction? Is it the house of the future? Thousands of years ago we stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled down (at least most of us). Will we, in the future, return to our nomadic existence and maybe make use of the futuristic tent, the pallet-house?
The answer to this question is very simple. We will only return to this moving way of living when we are globally forced to do so, when we did not anticipate what would happen if global climate change would push us from one place to another. You only have to look at the contemporary conflicts that arise when a large group of displaced people comes into contact with other groups to see that a globally moving world will lead to global chaos. We will only be pallet-house inhabitants if we don’t act at an early stage (now would be a good moment).
From architecture to environmental planning
We thus should leave the architectural level and take a more global point of view. By organizing our collective way of ‘living’, by taking into account environmental (rural, town, urban) planning , a fundamental step towards sustainability can be taken. We, the thinkers of this blogging-forum, were witness of a very nice example of town planning which incorporates a responsible attitude towards nature. The 116 inhabitants of the eco-village of Dyssekilde are an example of people who really chose to live together and to join forces in order to make progress concerning a common ecological goal: living in harmony with nature. One interesting question that arises is whether the scale of this community is determining for the success of their project. In other words, is eco-living in group only achievable at a small scale and thus impossible in cities?
In a text of Erik Rombaut (Belgian biologist who a.o. teaches courses in urban planning) I found an interesting example of how cities can also have the label ‘eco’. The following figure lists the three main strategic decision fields in order to achieve an ecopolis.
The lobe-city is presented by some scholars as the model that is best able to cope with these three main aspects: the responsible city, the living city and the participating city.
Rombaut gives the following definition of this urban configuration:
‘For the city centre a closed hexagon is the best form, in terms of costs of investing in infrastructure and management costs. The edge of the city needs a lobed structure. The lobe city characteristically has blue-green wedges (= fingers) between the built-up lobes. Those blue-green fingers can be connected with the ecological infrastructure in the rural area. The blue-green fingers bring more nature next to the centre and give possibilities for storage and infiltrating of white (rain)water that comes out of the city. Storing storm water in blue-green fingers close to the cities, can avoid flooding the built-up areas. The blue-green fingers are attractive for citizens to cycle and to walk very close to the dwellings, indeed they do create attractive cycling facilities to the centre. Moreover, blue green fingers have a good influence on the city-climate: tempering the urban heath-island effect and providing humidity. These blue-green wedges can be combined with some extensive green urban functions such as graveyards, children's farm, vegetable gardening for citizens, some sport and leisure infrastructures, … . When one is designing a good pattern (gradients) and one is thinking about an ecologically sound management process, the nature-values and the social values of those green wedges can be huge.’
Amsterdam can be seen as an example of the lobe-city.
Such a model can only be sustainable if it is supported by the citizens who live in this city. Inhabitants of a city (or a quarter of a city) have to have a say in the shaping of their own “habitat”. This of course is the most simple in cases where completely new city-parts have to be build up from scratch. A nice example of this is the Loretto-Areal in Thübingen (Germany) where people (with very different backgrounds) could join together in order to work out a project for a building where they would like to live in, which then had to be approved. This does not mean that there is no solution anymore for cities that are yet constructed. Not at the level of architecture but at the level of green space the joint willingness of citizens can bring enormous changes. When inhabitants share their private gardens collectively, they can collectively shape bigger green spaces that become semi-public, and which can be enjoyed by a larger group of people. Such kind of initiatives create the possibility of a city that is green on the one hand but compact on the other hand as well. The compactness brings enormous advantages for reducing the costs of transport, as well as for the use of energy-systems. It is thus a more fruitful way of bringing green in the city than the way this is organized in the typical American urban planning model which consists of an infinite grid in which every American family owns its own acre of land. Green spaces are privatized and separate one family from the other. As this kind of Broadacre city stretches out infinitely, it is not compact at all and elevates the energy costs for mobility and for heating in the city.
How cities are an important aspect of our common future
The model I have been presenting is just one example of how urban planning can contribute to a more sustainable world. Why have I been focusing on the city in this blog? Although the example of Dyssekilde is very nice and praiseworthy, it can not function as a global example. The city on the other hand has the advantage of compactness: to be the home for a lot of people at a relatively small area. It is estimated that in 10 years from now halve of the world populations will live in cities, even though today cities only amount to 1% of the earth’s surface. For the moment, however, still a lot of work has to be done to make the city into a place which is seen as a nice place to live. We thus have to re-include nature in the city, and this has to take place at three levels as we said: flows, areas and actors. First, the cities of the world are responsible for 80% of total CO2 emissions in the world. This and other flows of sources entering and leaving the city have to be treated more responsibly. Second, more green areas need to be brought in the cities. Third, ecological initiatives in the city should be supported by the local inhabitants. An open mentality is needed for this. There are examples in the world of people who have given up there private acre to make a more enjoyable bigger public space. It is a way to make city-life more pleasant for all inhabitants and a step towards social enrichment against the general trend of social isolation. Rearranging the spaces where we live in not only contributes to the way we behave towards nature, but brings benefits for us as citizens of the ecopolis as well: our environment will be more varied and new possibilities for social contacts are generated. We have to learn from the examples that exist in the world, to understand that we all can engage in a common goal if we really want to.
Citation and figures are used from the article: 'Architecture, Urban Planning and Biodiversity: Thoughts about an ecopolis. plea for a lobe city.' by E. Rombaut.
About the author
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