N o 1 — 2 011
ABST RAC T
Ideas, fActs ANd Fictions
Land in Sight
The rural future
And other stories about the
quantification of culture,
cristall balls for financial bubbles
and the anti-jetlag pill
Land IN SIGHT
12 The differences between town and country must remain
Interview with Mike Guyer
By Michèle Wannaz
30 Of satellites and ploughshares
Interview with Jürg Minger
38 More trees!
By Guido Hager
44 The conversion: reversing the urban sprawl
By Matthias Gnehm
60 If land went public …
By Burkhard Varnholt
62 Court martial for Iseblitz
By Gerd Folkers
66 Restoring the urban-rural relationship
By Michael Pawlyn
74 Perspectives on the rural future
By Robert Huber and Alina Günter
Innovation, trends and visions that form the spirit of the age
160 From Fiction to Science
166 Culture & Gadgets
180 Ag e n da
Cities have always depended on the countryside and the relationship
has been one of extraction and depletion. This reflected
a mindset that was rooted in the belief that humans
could ultimately conquer nature. New approaches such as
biomimicry offer the potential for a reconciliation with nature
and a restorative approach to the land.
By Michael Pawlyn
Cities became possible when agriculture had advanced to
produce a significant surplus and increasing numbers of
people were released from the drudgery of food production.
Urbanism therefore has always depended on the
countryside and, for most of the last two millennia, that
relationship has been based on a highly extractive model of
land use. Perhaps the most striking example can be found
in Julius Caesar who, after exhausting the fertility of the
land within the empire as it then stood, embarked on a militarised
shopping trip to North Africa. What he found was
a wooded landscape covered with cedar and cypress trees.
Over a short period the forests were cleared and farms established.
For the next 200 years North Africa supplied the
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empire with half a million tonnes of grain per annum but,
gradually, deforestation, salinisation and over-exploitation
of the land took its toll. Productivity dropped, the climate
changed and the Sahara desert spread northwards.
The view that humans could tame the countryside
and ultimately dominate nature prevailed and in many
respects is still the mindset of the industrial age. Stanley
Kubrick captured this brilliantly in “The Ascent of Man”
which forms the twenty minute opening to “2001 a Space
Odyssey” and culminates in the cut from the bone thrown
into the air to the space-ship orbiting a distant planet – arguably
the most stunning time-cut in cinematic history.
The point that Kubrick appears to have been making was
that once humans had discovered fire and learnt how to
make tools and weapons, it was really just a matter of time
before we dominated nature and went beyond the limits of
our planet. Many of the advances that civilisation has produced
are indeed miraculous, like modern medicine and
the digital revolution, but we are now at a point in time
that demands an urgent rethink. At the start of the industrial
revolution people were scarce and resources were
abundant; now we have the opposite scenario.
Amory Lovins neatly captures the inadequacy of
“sustainability” when he says “If you asked one of your best
friends how their relationship was with their partner and
they said ‘Well, it’s sustainable’ you would probably say
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’” We need to move beyond sustainable
to restorative ways of existing and paradoxically one
of the most promising sources of solutions to our problematic
relationship with nature can be found in nature itself.
Biomimicry is a rapidly emerging discipline that looks
to nature as a source of inspiration for innovative solu-
tions. Comparing the design of man-made systems with
the way that ecosystems operate reveals some stark contrasts.
Ours tend to be simple, linear and extractive whereas
natural systems are complex, cyclical and regenerative.
Whereas mankind concentrates on the maximisation of a
single goal, life on earth has developed into zero waste systems
that run on current solar income and emit no longterm
toxins. Zooming in from systems to individual species
one can see some remarkable adaptations and highly
efficient structures that could inspire new man-made solutions
that achieve radical increases in resource efficiency.
One of the simplest justifications for biomimicry would be
to look at nature as being like a sourcebook of solutions
that have all benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and
development period and, given that level of investment, it
makes sense to use it.
It would be hard to find a better example of what
this discipline can offer than the Namibian fog-basking
beetle. This creature has evolved a way of harvesting its
own freshwater in a desert. The way it does this is that, at
night, it climbs to the top of a sand dune and, because it is
matt black, it is able to radiate heat to the night sky and become
slightly cooler than its surroundings. When the
moist breeze blows in off the sea droplets of water form on
the beetle’s back. Then just before sunrise it tips its shell
up, the water runs down to its mouth, it has a good drink
and goes off and hides for the rest of the day. The effectiveness
of beetle’s adaptation goes even further because it has
a series of bumps on its shell which are hydrophilic and between
them is a waxy finish which is hydrophobic. The effect
of this is that as the droplets form on the bumps they
stay in tight spherical form which means that they are
much more mobile than they would be if it was just a film
LAND in Sight
of water over the whole beetle’s shell. So, even when there
is only a small amount of moisture in the air, it is still able
to harvest it effectively. It’s a remarkable adaptation to a
resource-constrained environment and consequently, very
relevant to the kind of challenges we are going to be facing
over the next few decades.
We have used many of these ideas in the design of
the Sahara Forest Project which, ambitiously, proposes a restorative
model of land use – a way in which areas of desert
could be returned to vegetation. The scheme brings together
two existing technologies, the Seawater Greenhouse and
Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), for the first time. The
greenhouse uses the evaporation of seawater to create a cool,
humid growing environment for crops in arid regions and
condenses some of that humidity in a process that is effectively
identical to the beetle. CSP uses mirrors to focus the
sun’s heat to turn water to steam to drive turbines that generate
electricity and this technology offers the potential to deliver
vast quantities of energy to cities from the world’s deserts.
One of the striking things about the first Seawater
Greenhouse that was built was that it produced slightly more
water than it needed for the plants inside. This surplus was
spread on the land surrounding the greenhouse. The effect of
this, combined with the elevated humidity created around
the greenhouse, had a striking effect on the site. Prior to the
project’s construction the land was largely barren; one year
after completion the greenhouse was surrounded by new
vegetation. In this sense the scheme went beyond “sustainable”
to achieve “regenerative” design. The Sahara Forest Project,
by integrating CSP with the greenhouses, aims to push
this effect even further. Waste heat from the electricity generation
could be used to evaporate more seawater and potentially
create more fresh water while the shade created by the
Namibian fog-basking beetle
CSP mirrors make it possible to grow crops underneath that
would not survive in the direct sunlight. The Sahara Forest
Project is a model for how we could produce food, fresh water
and clean energy in arid regions as well as restoring areas
of denuded land.
Our best chance of creating an abundant future lies
neither in vainly trying to dominate nature nor in simply
preserving small pieces of countryside, but in reaching a reconciliation
with nature in which we can retain the many brilliant
things that civilisation has developed but rethink the
things that have proved to be poorly adapted to the long
term. Biomimicry may well prove to be one of the most powerful
tools in facilitating the shift from the industrial age to
the ecological age of mankind and in brokering a deal between
the city and the country that sees both as essential
parts of the same living system.
LAND in Sight
Sahara Forest Project
Michael Pawlyn is the founder of Exploration Architecture
which develops transformative design solutions to contemporary
challenges. He recently delivered a talk featured on
TED. Com, is currently working on the Sahara Forest Project
and has written a book titled “Biomimicry in Architecture”
which is due for publication in September 2011.
Editor in chief, Researcher W.I.R.E.
Dr Stephan Sigrist
Head of W.I.R.E.
Dr Burkhard Varnholt
CIO, Bank Sarasin & Cie AG
Prof. Dr Gerd Folkers
Director, Collegium Helveticum
Daniel Bütler, Michèle Wannaz, Florian Huber,
Beate Kittl, Annina Coradi, Sarah Jäggi
Head of Graphic Design W.I .R.E.
Sub-editing and Printing
Neidhart + Schön AG
Neue Zürcher Zeitung Publishing
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Cover illustration: Stephan Troll (www.trollinteriors.ch)
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