The Urge to Affiliate

photo 1I was out on a run yesterday, my usual loop, when I found this piece of tree bark lying across the path.

Here along the border between France and Switzerland, we’re in the midst of a bise blanche, a fierce wind that blows down through the Geneva basin from the north.

A bise blanche weather forecast looks cheery – wind and sun, like this:Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.35.12 But the wind is a bully, cold and muscled. Roads and paths are littered with parts of trees and debris.

This bark segment caught my eye because it was colonized by so many different groups of lichen, moss and insects and spiders. Part of an arboreal architecture, home to so many other forms of 3-1

I couldn’t resist stopping to take a few pictures.

It’s a vision of life living on and with other life. photo 3-2

I had planned on writing today’s post on biophilic design. It’s defined as the integration design principles for architecture and urban planning with ‘biophilia’ – “the passionate love of life and all that is alive” (Erich Fromm in 1964) and “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (Edward O. Wilson in 1984).photo 1-1

The concept of bringing nature into cities and buildings has been gaining traction (taking root?) over the past couple of decades.

There are aspects of sustainability (green walls and vertical gardens, for example), but many correlate the integration of nature into design, including sunlight, with lower stress levels and better health and improved 2-1

Industrialization and its design aesthetics often led to a distancing from nature in homes and cities; many would argue this has been to our detriment (not to mention damaging to the environment). Biophilic design is an ongoing discussion on letting nature back in.

Feeling the wind blow through me while looking at this heavily inhabited bit of bark on a blazingly sunny afternoon, it’s almost impossible to imagine keeping it out.

Life finds its way in 2

Telling Time

There’s a new chill in the morning air, in spite of unseasonable warmth. Winter is still around the corner, according to the calendar, but it’s still as warm as late summer. We wore shorts yesterday. A few roses shoot another round of late blossoms that might cost the plants dearly, a couple of the tomato plants are pushing out tiny doomed tomatoes even as the leaves turn and fall.

I can see the confusion all around me – I live in an area that, while under heavy construction, still counts as rural. Out my front windows are houses, Geneva in the distance; behind the house are only meadows, forest, a stream and then the Jura mountains. Here, nature and I still interact directly, I can see her changes and moods beyond temperature and precipitation.

Over half of the world’s population now live in cities. That number is expected to rise to between 70-80% by 2050.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid. Source: Guardian/UNFPA Click the image for a full view.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid.
Source: Guardian/UNFPA
Click the image for a full view.

And that means that, even more than today, most people will have a relationship to the natural world that is determined by city planners, landscapers, with human needs and requirements paramount. How are we supposed to understand sustainability when most Earth dwellers won’t be directly confronted with changes to the natural world that still lays outside the cities, but which impacts the cities every day?

We live by our human clocks – nature’s clock runs on its own time.

Bril, a Japanese design collective, has designed a clock that tries to import nature’s time into human homes.

The Coniferous Clock Image: Bril/Dezeen

The Coniferous Clock
Image: Bril/Dezeen

It’s a Coniferous Clock, a time-device made entirely of cedar, with no hands or numbers.

It starts the year green and slowly browns over the course of an entire year.

According to Dezeen, “The Coniferous Clock references traditional sugidama, also known as asakebayashi: boughs of fresh cedar branches tied together, clipped into a sphere and hung up when sake – Japanese rice wine – was pressed following the rice harvest. When the cedar leaves had dried and the sugidama had turned completely brown, it was a signal that the sake was ready to drink.”

Bril co-founder Fumiaki Goto is quoted as saying, “We could feel the seasons in our homes as if we were in forests.”

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year. Image: Bril/Dezeen

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year.
Image: Bril/Dezeen

For the moment, my neighbors and I continue to treat our homes and gardens as if the seasons still follow the regular course we’ve come to know. We are, after all, creatures of habit. It’s in our nature. Even if we don’t move from our old house here in France, if we are still around in 2050, we will live in an urban area.

Our habits have changed those of nature’s, and those changes are only news stories to many people living in cities, the resources all come from elsewhere.

How well and quickly will we be able to adapt our habits to the world that lives beyond city borders, but which affects everything that goes on within those borders?

The Hand Tree

I like gadgets as much as the next person, and I certainly understand the appeal of turning to nifty electronics for green objectives. Not only do some of the gadgets look cool and do cool things, they also monetize green goals by making products that can help drive employment and the economy. All good things. Okay, so they also use resources and generate waste, but maybe there are work-arounds for those drawbacks.

The hand tree, for example, is a cool device on the drawing board that would act as a personal air purifier as well as a technological fashion statement.

The Hand Tree, a battery-powered purifier made from recyclable materials. Design: Alexandr Kostin/Electrolux Design Lab

The Hand Tree, a battery-powered purifier made from recyclable materials.
Design: Alexandr Kostin/Electrolux Design Lab

Conceived by students at the Electrolux Design Lab, the hand tree is a largish bangle (or other accessory form, such as a pendant or belt buckle) that filters air.

“Combining millions of personal air purifiers we can achieve the image of living in a forest,” says the web page for the project. “If every inhabitant in a big city would wear such a device, we would be all to breathe easily in smoggy air.”

Okay, this is where the cool factor rapidly diminishes for me. This is the kind of production-oriented, consumer-centered ‘solution’ that is fully in keeping with the mentality that got us into cities full of smoggy air in the first place. And that’s not the fault of the young designer who came up with this neat idea; this is how we think.

Forest pool Artist: Aristide Maillol via Davidson Galleries

Forest pool
Artist: Aristide Maillol via Davidson Galleries

It’s no surprise that these creative futuristic designs for environmental gadgets are part of a 2013 competition sponsored by an appliance company.

Maybe I’m biased because I spend a lot of my time around actual trees, but my thought is this: How about we just plant more trees, and stop cutting down the ones we’ve already got?

They do a remarkably efficient job of purifying air with almost no production cost, when they reach the end of their life span they leave behind useful biomass, they maintain ecosystems and water tables, hold soil in place and provide a natural cooling system.

Practically the only thing they don’t do, unless they are being used for timber or packaging, is generate a profit.

And that might be their biggest weakness.

Civilization Tree Artist: Robobenito

Civilization Tree
Artist: Robobenito

Arboreal Lemonade

Trees bend under the weight of ice in Maine (2013) Photo: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

Trees bend under the weight of ice in Maine (2013)
Photo: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

One of the cornerstones of creating smart, sustainable cities and human landscapes is good tree management. Trees provide structure, color, movement and life to streets and parks – and they provide heat-reducing shade, absorb pollutants, and offer a haven for animals.

The severe storms of the past winter were devastating to trees in parts of the United States. Branches snapped and trunks splintered on trees that had been around for generations.

At Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, a well-established and meticulously documented urban forest was decimated by a December ice storm. Biology professor Frank Telewski took the lemons dealt to the trees and made lemonade, adding the documentation from the trees – some of which dates back to the 19th century – to new, post-storm assessments to determine which trees can best withstand ice storms.

A cooperative project between researchers from a number of U.S. states is under way that will examine which types of trees can be expected to survive extreme weather, including drought, and plan accordingly for the future. I would be interested to see how native trees fare in severe weather when compared to trees introduced over the decades from elsewhere.

Many trees that have been popular for urban planting, such as pleasing ornamentals, or trees that have rapid growth, end up costing more in the long run than slow-growing or less exotic choices, because the fragile trees succumb to extremes. And sometimes, they take power lines, roofs, and lives with them.

Telewski says he’s looking for big companion trees that will stay with us for the long haul.

“We want to plant trees that live a really long time.”

High Flying

A few years ago, we found ourselves floating high in a hot air balloon just after dawn. I’m not really one for heights, but the view was impressive. Our journey was accompanied by the distant barking of dogs far below, unnerved by the balloon’s shadow crossing their suburban territories.

Melbourne, Australia Source: Robert Kerton/CSIRO

Melbourne, Australia
Source: Robert Kerton/CSIRO

Urban sprawl is nothing new, but I still find the images mesmerizing in their geometry and human lines.

Low density urban development brings with it a host of environmental issues – loss of wilderness and farmland, water supply challenges, over-extended services and infrastructure, increased consumption of fuels, and so on. Still, I understand the financial necessity of living outside of large cities but within commuting distance, as well as the desire to live close – but not too close – to urban hubs.

Las Vegas, Nevada Source: Ecoflight

Las Vegas, Nevada
Source: Ecoflight

There are methods of developing large-scale housing and urban areas which plan for more sustainable use of limited resources and require less driving, but these are still the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, urban sprawl seems to grow whenever local economies permit – only to have all that newly developed land become a financial and maintenance burden when an economy contracts.

Back to our balloon trip, which took us far above the high desert of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The city spread in all directions, and at the edges, it went further in the form of empty roads, a skeletal outline of charted territory, ready to be filled with more homes.

Room to grow Albuquerque, New Mexico Source: Ecoflight

Room to grow
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Source: Ecoflight

It was a great and picturesque ride, until our landing, which somehow went very wrong. What had looked safe, planned and controlled turned out to be none of those things.

A powerful gust of wind, a whoop of controlled panic from the pilot, the earth coming up at the wrong angle. Then the basket with us inside, skidding horizontally along a dusty field, our pilot hanging on from the outside, trying to right the sideways basket before anyone got hurt. A miscalculation in flight, ending in a crash by any definition.

That time, though, there was no permanent damage. We were able to right the basket, get up, and walk away.