How can we integrate nature into future cities?
By 2050, the global population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion. Two-thirds of them are going to be living in cities. Today, about 54% of the world population lives in cities, and about 66% are expected in 2050.
This creates a significant challenge in providing global urban populations with sufficient food in a sustainable way. The current agricultural system is not able to meet such a big incremented in food request.
How can we feed these billions of people in a sustainable way?
The next generation of food production, Agriculture 4.0, involves new ways of producing food in more efficient ways through the use of new technologies, such as the Internet of Things, robotics, and Artificial Intelligence, with the potential of radically changing farming practices to cope with the population growth. One solution that is possibly more sustainable is localized production, in particular food production by individuals in the urban context.
New technologies are allowing people to grow food in places where it was previously difficult or impossible, and in quantities superior to traditional farms. Urban farms can be as simple as traditional small outdoor community gardens, or as complex as indoor vertical farms in which farmers think about growing space in three-dimensional terms. Most of them contain rows of racks lined with plants rooted in soil, nutrient-enriched water, or simply air. Each tier is equipped with UV lighting to mimic the effects of the sun. Unlike the unpredictable weather of outdoor farming, growing indoors allows farmers to tailor conditions to maximize growth.
Urban farms have the potential to change cities agricultural landscape. They can bring greater yields in smaller areas, increase access to healthy options in urban food deserts, and mitigate the environmental impact of feeding the world.
Besides large scale urban farms, different forms of urban farming can involve single citizens directly, like community gardens or vegetable gardens in private backyards. The benefits of urban farming practices extend beyond the tangible aspects of growing food in underserved areas — there’s also a fortunate side effect of growing a community. In cities where it’s unlikely that you’ll know your neighbours, urban farming harnesses community interaction and connections, encouraging open-air activities and exchange of knowledge.
Moreover, urban farms add much-needed greenery to the concrete jungles that are big urban agglomerations and act as a natural air-filters in the fume-filled cities. More plants mean better air quality and decreased ozone levels.
Cities of the future: natural utopia or dystopia?
In literature and cinematography, the utopian city of the future has often been imagined as a sterile space filled with flying cars, huge skyscrapers, and technology embedded in every aspect of the city. The ideal of ‘smart city’ is not that far removed from this supposed utopian vision, as cities have always been the epicentre of technological development.
Modern cities work on technology networks that are a far cry from the natural world, and that requires massive capital consumption, such as electric power or Internet communication. The future ‘smart’ cities will be systems through which the environment will adapt to meet citizens’ needs in the most environmentally, economically, and socially conscientious way possible. Technology is seen as the only solution to the main challenges that current cities face. Infrastructural systems and communication networks will be fed with data collected from the environment and the citizens themselves and will be able to adjust and improve based on the changes in data. Technology will permeate every layer of our urbanity.
In contrast to utopian visions of cities, post-apocalyptic urban landscapes are often derelict spaces, devoid of technology and blinking LEDs, but with one very important element obviously present: nature. Vines winding their way through skyscrapers, moss covering every inch of pavement, and trees adorning city squares; apparently, only when humanity ‘fails’ do urban environments become lush green spaces again. It is time to move this imaginary away from their post-apocalyptic roots and firmly plant them into visions of future smart cities. Plants, especially food-producing plants such as those found in urban farming, should be an integral part of the ecosystem of the smart city and can contribute to the fundamental needs of future citizens, starting from food production.
How can we integrate nature into future cities?
Often, plants are merely used as “decorating” elements in urban environments in the form of parks or strips of green along the side of the road. City dwellers rarely pause to ponder the function of this ‘green layer’ added to the city. But there are many ways in which plants can contribute to the urban environment that becomes all too apparent when we consider the amazing characteristics of flora. Plants are capable of communicating among each other, send signals to attract or turn away animals and insects and sensing the presence of others. They can provide air filtration, water capture, and, importantly, can be a source of food. Especially when we consider the role of plants in a wider ecosystem, we see a vision of the future green city emerge.
The urban ecosystem
An ecosystem is a community of living and non-living organisms that cohabit in the same environment and interact with each other. Ecosystems are controlled by external factors, like climate, the conformation of the soil and the topography. The internal factors are, instead, controlled, like the types of species, the way the species interact with each other and how they evolve. If we imagine the future of cities as a bigger ecosystem we would have to design a way to make humans, infrastructure and technology interact with a more “natural” layer of plants and animals cohabiting together.
Where to start?
The main issue that future citizens will face is producing enough food for everyone. The challenge of merging nature in the urban landscape can start from the goal to increase the growth of edible plants and trees. By developing the citizens’ knowledge about the growth of food, stimulating activities and designing spaces to practice urban agriculture, there will be the first step towards a sustainable greener city. Urban community gardens and guerrilla gardening movements are just the most known ways to engage people into nature and food growth activities, but there’s much more that can be done.
Practising urban agriculture, in addition to mitigating the food production problem, can serve as a collective goal to gather the local community, give new life and purpose to disadvantaged areas and start new sharing practices.
We believe that the starting point for this change has to be searched in small actions, products and communications that can awake citizens’ awareness about the importance and the benefits of taking care of nature and collecting its fruits.
As part of Digital Society School, our role is to research a greener future and apply our skills to inspire and activate other citizens to make the vision come true.
In the past year, over two different semesters, we’ve been designing small sensors kits to help people grow food at home (Grow Kit 1.0 and Grow Kit 2.0).
Grow Kit 1.0 — A sensor stick in a pot sends data to the main hub to show the user if the most important parameters of plants’ health (moisture, temperature and light) are optimal for the growth.
Grow Kit 2.0 — The iterated sensor stick integrates into itself both the sensors and the hub, using a simpler and more immediate light language to communicate with the user. This compact version allows a lower usage of material, dropping the production costs and making it more sustainable.
Now it’s time to discover different ways of communicating, design product and inspire actions to make a real change on a larger scale.
The possible outcomes that we imagine vary from new ways of communicating about the topic, the creation of interactive maps to share knowledge of what is already existing and bottom-up activities to engage urban communities.
We want to investigate what the role of technology could be in these actions, but always keeping nature as a reference, of course!
This article is a final reflection based on the research and design work of Ilaria Zonda and Gijs Huisman, with the precious collaboration and inspiration of the two teams of learners who worked on the Grow Kit 1.0 (Joel Ruhe, Anisha Sivakumaran, Maitrayee Sohni, Angelo Moestadja) and Grow Kit 2.0 (
Martin van der Wolf, Jien Wakasugi, Hugo Hruska, Mari Pinheiro, Luca Guagliardo), over the past year. 🌿
The Digital Society School is a growing community of learners, creators and designers who create meaningful impact on society and its global digital transformation. Check us out at digitalsocietyschool.org.