Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Reversible infrastructures

What are reversible infrastructures?

During the Greening Cities Symposium, Raphaël Languillon talked about reversible infrastructures as an element of green cities (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/greening-cities-symposium-what-happened). His description of the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (SST) in Japan (https://fujisawasst.com/EN/) caught my attention. One of the ways that the town is sustainable is its integrated approach to disaster resilience—disasters in this case primarily related to earthquakes and tsunamis. Thus, the town’s public areas have several multi-use elements—the pergolas are covered in solar panels and serve as charging stations, the public gardens have spaces to install toilets, there are public areas ready to be converted to dormitories, and the park benches, when turned over, are fitted with gas burners for cooking. The idea is that these form “reversible infrastructure” that can be rapidly converted to have useful functions during disasters, while serving as recreational infrastructure during normal times. I did wonder why it would be necessary to have gas burners hidden under benches when you could have barbecue stations available in the park all the time—but maybe Japanese people don’t like to barbecue in parks, or perhaps it is considered unhealthy and bad for the air quality.

We don’t exactly need new technology or even new design concepts to put in place “reversible infrastructure”. The familiar image of evacuees sleeping in a school gym is the same thing. In areas with severe winters, people are used to the environment changing dramatically between seasons. The use of water bodies frozen in winter as transporation routes for snowmobiles, sleds or ice-scates is an example of dual-use natural infrastructure. Rather than having multiple uses in different conditions or situations, infrastructure can also be designed to work the same way across conditions. Stilt houses are a traditional architectural design found around the world that allows people to live in areas with dramatic tides or seasonal flooding. (Although as climate change alters flooding patterns, for example in the Amazon, stilt houses may need to be adapted to changing conditions.)

It is potentially not only architecture and town planning that can be made adaptible to disasters, climate change, and natural fluctuations such as seasonal flooding or winter snow. The way we exploit nature, and how we organize economic systems around this, can also benefit from flexibility. In my work with Fabrizio Frascaroli and Giacomo Parinello on restoration approaches in the Po river valley and delta in northern Italy, we saw how a very long history of different economic and technological systems based on different models of resource exploitation, led to successively greater control over the landscape through the elimination of wetlands and natural seasonal flooding patterns. Dry land is stable, it easier to exploit and control, and also a better bet for economic investment since large amounts of money can be used to improve infrastructures with single uses—as long as the risk is low, the concentration of resources on single uses is very efficient. Unfortunately, the dramatic engineering works that accumulated since the Romans altered the hydrological regime in such a way that disasters—uncontrollable and extreme floods—became more and more common throughout the 20th century, leading to failure of agricultural production, loss of life, disease and mass emigration from the delta area. One of the things that this suggests is that an economic model that adapted to natural seasonal flooding (e.g. by restoring non-canalized river banks, meanders, wetlands and floodplains) might avoid most of the harms of disaster-level flooding. Restoration ecologists and landscape designers or engineers who discuss “river rewilding” (as this is now sometimes called) see this as a purely engineering and design issue, with ecological implications. When they ask what to do with this landscape, they almost always assume its only uses will be nature conservation and recreation (e.g. picnicking, bird watching, non-comercial fishing). This is all very well, except that it entrenches the divide between humans and non-humans, between cities and nature. As we see in the Po river case, investing in this divide only increases the risk of instability and disasters. This kind of solution thus may ultimately be conterproductive.

In my view, one way to avoid counter-productive investment in a city-nature divide is to imagine uses of nature and natural spaces that are sustainable but that go beyond contemplation and recreation. Are there other economic values could also be integrated sustainably into areas with fluctuating water levels, for example? Some resources are only available in fluctuating or marginal (e.g. between wet and dry) natural environments (what I have called the “mirescape”). In the mid 20th century, reed crafts that relied on harvesting reads from vast wetlands were a viable livelihood, until replaced by plastic. Given the contemporary interest in craft and sustainability, I don’t see why such an industry couldn’t be revived. (That is, in such situations, the response is always that it would be impossible, but we need to use our creativity to see beyond the various impossibilities involved.) If we look to cities, we see the professionalization and legalization of temporary occupations of abandoned buildings for a variety of small businesses, artistic activities, and social organizations (as I have discussed before: http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/ruins). Contemporary research on smallholders suggests that their diversified strategies reduce resource extraction pressure and negative impacts on their environments. It is easy to reply that, in fact, it is increasingly impossible to make a living as a diversified smallholder, given the globalization of the agricultural economy and competition from multinational companies specializing in industrial monocultures allowing incredible economies of scale. This supposed impossibility is precisely why experimentation with different economic models to support diversified and adaptible small-scale production is so important. This is not about being a reactionary or a luddite and seeking to return to a simpler past where everything was more complicated and difficult—digital technologies of connection and traceability can be of great assistance in the organisation of such economies, while automatization of production and delivery technologies are also interesting. This goes hand in hand with experimentation in small-scale economic models—local produce delivered by subscription boxes, platforms such as Etsy and Patreon that allow individuals to make money by selling art, craft, writing, or digital media, and so on. These don’t work perfectly or in all cases, but there seems to be a great interest in developing small-scale, targetted-audience business models based on a diversity of products (or an inherently diverse production), often combining old and new technologies and methods.

Reversibility might occur across different spaces, and at different time scales. Imagine if wetlands, rivers, forests and prairies could be reversibly occupied by people gathering materials for craft economies. Of course this does happen already (e.g. mushroom collection), but to massify and institutionalize it we would need transportation and housing that was temporary, green, and left a minimum of disturbance or pollution. Imagine that the same thing could be implemented to create some kind of modern swidden agricultural practices, where temporary agricultural fields could be established and then restored back to natural succession, accompanied by temporary towns of agricultural and conservation workers. Imagine if animal transhumance took place through cities, creating temporary green corridors for a host of seeds, nutrients, and small creatures. This does exist in some places, but to increase the practice we would need changes to transport infrastructure and regulation. Imagine if abandonment and reconversion into a forest garden were programmed into the life-cycle of industrial parks, Olympics installations, and large public spaces. Imagine that all of the sidewalks in a city were turned over at certain hours to reveal carpets of moss and lichen or little streams (I admit there are some practical issues there). This is just brainstorming on a Sunday morning, I am sure there are many other such practices that are already being developed, that can mix city and nature together to create reversible economies that adapt to natural change.

References:
Frascaroli, F., Parrinello, G., & Root-Bernstein, M. In submission. Linking contemporary river restoration to economics, technology, politics, and society: perspectives from a historical case study of the Po Basin, Italy
Root-Bernstein, M., Frascaroli, F. 2016. Where the fish swim above the birds: configurations and challenges for wetland restoration in the Po Delta, Italy. Restoration Ecology 24(6), 773-784.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein, 26-01-2020

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