• Urban Strategies

Neither Fully Urban nor Fully of the Biosphere

The rupture in the relation between cities and the biosphere is moving forward. Concrete measures have to be taken.

Manhattan drowns in masses of heavy rain, New Delhi is completely covered in Snow and Los Angeles is destroyed by massive tornadoes. The scenario in Roland Emmerichs’s dystopian blockbuster „The Day After Tomorrow” is nothing for light-hearted minds. Dramatic climate change threatens the future of human civilization, as meteorological catastrophes make earth an increasingly hostile place to live. In the end, a new ice age is upon the planet.

This scenario is a recurring theme in science fiction. However, it is not just present in movies, but also highly relevant in real life. Climate change has been proven time and time again, albeit many still doubt its existence. But what can be done today to fight this looming catastrophe for humankind?

There is a specific critical zone for action and intervention regarding the challenges of climate change – but it remains seriously under-used1. We can think of this zone as a complex assemblage of both biospheric and human capabilities. It is an intermediate space which is neither fully urban nor fully of the biosphere.2

Across the world we should be using this in-between space as a hybrid working zone for experimenting with diverse types of knowledge, from biology and materials science to architecture and law. To make this work, we must see the biosphere as containing an enormous range of extraordinary instruments that can enable our societies and their built environments, their modes of producing food, of using water and land, and so much more. We should enable the biosphere rather than reducing her simply to a source of goodies. She is our partner, not our lunch.

It does mean going against some well-established notions. Thus the more familiar emphasis in critical environmental analyses is on the rupture in the relation between cities and the biosphere – a rupture that leads to environmental destructions. This rupture has been described as the unbiological consumption by cities of
 the biosphere. That is, cities today, unlike in past periods, take more from the biosphere than she can regenerate. This is, in fact, mostly the case, especially in very large cities.

And yet, it is precisely this intermediate space – the interstice between biosphere and city – which could contain multiple articulations. It becomes a strategic space for intervention. The aim should be to shift these diverse negative articulations that destroy the biosphere into positives. Such articulations then would become capabilities. This in-between zone should be a hybrid working space for experimenting with diverse types of knowledge, from biology to architecture. Cities have been with us across the centuries and they have outlived enormously diverse socio-political formats.

Such a project is both theoretical and practical: It is predicated on the importance and necessity of using the multiscalar and socioecological properties of cities and recognizing the need to recode these properties as potentials that can be made to work positively.

Buildings As Instruments

One key aspect of such an effort is to delegate back to the biosphere what she does well. Rather than using man-made chemicals –fertilizers, pesticides, and so on – can we use biospheric elements (for example, bacteria and algae).

Architecture, more so than other fields, is marked by its ability to both destroy the biosphere and to work with it in multifaceted ways. One key becomes the implementing of biospheric capabilities in buildings that then become also an instrument for environmental sustainability.3 We can go well beyond such basics as recycling and gathering rainwater. Working with the biosphere can construct channels that might be of great use for other urban conditions screaming for change.

There are now approaches to building that can lead to a whole range of novel bio- technological innovations that advance sustainability in cities and buildings. A growing range of bacteria, algae, and mushrooms are becoming inputs
 for a variety of advanced applications. For William Myers, biodesign is about “forging relationships with nonhuman life to improve the ecological performance of manufacturing and building.”

What makes it work is the marriage between these live elements and forms of technical and scientific knowledge. There are many examples.4 For instance, living mushrooms can be used to make bricks “that can be assembled and configured into almost any form, and naturally weld into a single object when set together.” These “fungal-polyominoes” are the building blocks of what Phillip Ross calls “mycotecture.”4 Algae are another major input for biotech. One example is the Solarleaf façade developed by Arup, the Strategic Science Consult of Germany (SSC), and Colt International. It filters carbon dioxide from the air by using it to grow algae, which in turn can be used as fuel in bioreactors.5

Whole building complexes can become sites for incorporating these types of biospheric capabilities. For example, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL, Rhinebeck, New York) is carbon neutral and produces 100 percent of its own energy through solar and geothermal systems. The green roof collects and cleans rainwater before diverting it to a cistern.6

And for an exploration of possibilities in our not so far futures, even though not yet executed today, see the experimental book by Vanessa Keith, with its explorations of alternative urbanities.7

Via Conclusion

I am pushing for an analytics that differs from more familiar (and romantic) notions of a “return to nature.” We must go well beyond mitigation and adaptation, today’s two dominant approaches for the political classes. While welcome, these approaches are clearly insufficient to address our destructive relationship to the biosphere. Delegating to the biosphere what she does well, does not only entail very complex operations; it can also entail very simple ones. But it does require collaborations across diverse fields of knowledge, including biology, materials science, technology, and engineering. The aim becomes combinations of specialized types of knowledge that can function in an intermediate zone (that is neither fully of the biosphere nor fully urban).

This way, we can actually use the biosphere to help avoid the negative consequences of climate change. This would be in anybody’s interest, who does not wish to iceskate to his office in the near future.


1 For a deeper and more detailed account, see Sassen and Dotan, “Delegating, Not Returning, to the Biosphere,” 20.
… and Sassen “Expulsions” ch 4.

2 William Meyers, Biodesign: Nature + Science + Cre- ativity (New York: Museum of Mod- ern Art, 2012). See also Jake Simons, “Biodesign: Why the Future of Our Cities Is Soft and Hairy,” CNN, August 29, 2014, http://www.cnn. com/2014/08/27/ tech/innovation/ biodesign-why- the-future-of-our- cities-is-soft-and- hairy.

3 See Sassen and Dotan, op.cit.

4 “Biofabricate: There’s a Bio- Revolution on
the Horizon!” Makezine, Decem- ber 18, 2012, http://makezine. com/2014/12/18/ biofabricate-theres- a-bio-revolution- on-the-horizon.

5Patrick Lynch, “For Terreform ONE, Bioengi- neering Is the Future of Design,” ArchDaily, January 9, 2016, http:// www.archdaily. com/779946/for- terreform-one- bioengineering- is-the-future-of- design.

6 Damir Beciri, “Green Archi- tecture—Omega Center for Sus- tainable Living,” RobAid, August 16, 2009, http://www. robaid.com/tech/ green-architecture- omega-center-for- sustainable-living. htm.

7 Vanessa Keith, 2100, A Dystopian Utopia: The City After Climate Change (New York: UR Books, 2016).


Text: Saskia Sassen
Fotocredits: Hilary Koob-Sassen (Name: Ascendent Accumulation)

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and a Member of its Committee on Global Thought, which she chaired till 2015. She is a student of cities, immigration, and states in the world economy, with inequality, gendering and digitization three key variables running though her work. Born in the Netherlands, she grew up in Argentina and Italy, studied in France, was raised in five languages, and began her professional life in the United States. She has received many awards and honors, among them multiple doctor honoris causa, the 2013 Principe de Asturias Prize in the Social Sciences, election to the Royal Academy of the Sciences of the Netherlands, and made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government.

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

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