Saturday, March 17, 2012

David Lynch's Nature Film

Hollywood types supposedly love making heavy-handed ecological allegories to brainwash us into being more considerate and thoughtful. It turns out that David Lynch was no exception. Here's a short film about inner-city wildlife in Lynch's signature "neo-noir" style, from 1991:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Relic from the Gold Rush Space Program

A couple years ago I wrote about the Mannahatta project, an effort to reconstruct the pre-colonial ecosystems that existed on Manhattan Island, and the gorgeous computer-generated birds-eye-views that it produced.

Now, a Californian geographer named Mark Clark has made a similar speculative map, showing most of California as it might have looked from space in 1850 (via the Strange Maps blog):

What's most striking to me is how edenic the Central Valley looks with its original rivers and marshes streaming snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada into the lush swirl of marshes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in the north, or, in the south, into the long-lost Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater body west of the Great Lakes.

Now, the same landscape is all massive monoculture farm fields spotted with dusty, heat-blasted cities like Bakersfield and Fresno. Even more remarkable is that most of the transformation happened within a single generation during the early 20th century. Why aren't there more Hollywood blockbusters about this story?

And speaking of native Californian hydrology, a friend recently turned me onto the L.A. Creek Freak blog, which is all about trying to restore watersheds and their ecological functions in the Los Angeles metro area. I'm actually planning a visit to southern California early this summer — if any Californian readers want to leave tourism suggestions in the comments, or just say "hello," it would make my day.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

High-Rise Forestry

This pair of luxury housing high-rises under construction in Milan includes beefy cantilevered balconies that have been designed to support hundreds of fully-grown trees and shrubs.

Architect Stephano Boeri boasts that the project "is a model of vertical densification of nature within the city." The trees that will be suspended off of its balconies are equivalent to a hectare's worth of flat-land forest, while the homes inside the buildings represent five hectares' worth of single-family homes in the Italian suburbs.

It's called Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest.

These construction photos are by Daniel Iodice, and come from the Stephano Boeri Architetti website:

And a close-up of the tree boxes:

Here's the architect's vision of how the buildings will look when complete:

The plantings, which will include holly oak, European wild pear, and a mix of shrubs like Cain Apples and hawthorns, seem to have been chosen for their tolerance for constrained soil conditions and for their ability to improve the environmental quality inside and around the towers — shading the windows on hot summer days, insulating the apartments from city noise and particulate pollution, and filtering the apartments' grey water.

I first saw this project on the Green Futures blog, which included this critique:
Alexander Felson, Director of the Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory at Yale University, agrees that “there will potentially be microclimate and air particulate removal benefits”, but warns that the “overall energy required to construct a building that would support both trees and the wet weight of soil” places some serious question marks over its overall sustainability. He favors a more modest approach focusing on green roofs.
True, all that beefy steel and concrete required to hold up trees on an Italian balcony probably required the environmental sacrifice of a good chunk of China.

Still, I think Dr. Felson is missing the point (maybe he just can't see the forest for the trees?). This is a luxury high-rise, after all. While the architect Boeri is clearly interested in sustainability, he's also interested in creating a nice place to live for wealthy Milanese city-dwellers who can pay his commission. There are lots of luxury high-rises — the vast majority of them, actually — that blow their budgets waste construction material on much more masturbatory design flourishes.

What I find most interesting about these buildings is their approach to re-introducing wild nature into the city. I write about that idea often on this blog, but this project takes it to a new level (literally) by marrying a forest with a skyscraper. It's not merely creating a park that's geographically delineated from the rest of the city: it's integrating a forest with one of our most anthropocentric infrastructures: a high-rise apartment building.

That's pretty cool, not just for the people who live there, but for everyone in Milan who will be able to look at a vertical forest in their city's skyline.

Notwithstanding the technical questions of the construction project's sustainability, the buildings still presents an extremely bold vision of a sustainable city — a city in which nature is prominent and integrated into daily life.