DEEP GREEN: Post Anthropocene Architecture and Re-designing Urban Spheres
COUPLING BIOLOGICAL AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IN URBAN DESIGN
Recent history, a period in time which has been coined the Anthropocene Epoch, has seen major rupturing impacts of human behaviour on our earth systems. The earth is quite literally reaching its boundaries, as famously researched through the framework of the nine planetary boundaries by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Ever since the second wave of the Industrial Revolution during the 20th century, humans have played a significant role in affecting geophysical processes, such as changing land systems, mainly through agricultural land use and cover. Changes in land systems have been proven the principal proximate cause in the loss of habitats and biota globally, while also having contributed largely to atmospheric greenhouse gases, and suspected of triggering climate changes as far back as the early Holocene (Ruddiman, 2003). Land use is the largest source of biologically active nitrogen to the atmosphere, especially critical to sources and sinks of carbon, and has a major effect in the hydrologic cycle of the earth system (Bouwman et al., 2011). This last component, the effect on the hydrologic cycle, will be the main issue of the article. Although land system change has effects which run in a rather holistic sense throughout the whole earth system, it is equally important to mention the effect on regional climates, and ecosystem functions and the services they provide. The article will therefore provide a case analysis of Tallinn’s urban ecosystem. General trends of rising temperatures affecting the ocean layer and glacier poles melting, coupled with human population growth and evolution, are affecting biodiversity significantly. The current system of co-existence between the human and the non-human, with humans intervening in habitats and their biodiversity ecosystems, has managed to lose the boundary between entities that would prevent biodiversity loss. We need to reestablish this boundary with nature, and regeneration is needed.
Architecture in the Post Anthropocene
The 1950s has brought a new, third geological age within the Holocene epoch, in which humans are the dominant force shaping the planet, the Anthropocene (Stockholm Memorandum, 2011).
Humans have been rather capable of understanding environmental conditions and therefore have been able to adapt to changes to these environmental conditions. However, humans have not been able to do the opposite. Our behaviours have had significant, even great impact on the geophysical processes of our Earth’s Systems, with the environment being exploited in favour of productive sectors posing as a threat to natural systems and debilitating biological relations, which then poses a serious risk of desertification. The exploitation has serious repercussions such as the disappearance of wetlands and their biodiversity. It should be a human priority to protect and recover territorial identities that are being or have been destroyed. A new paradigm should be proposed which reduces the pressure on the environment, while also increasing human’s ability to anticipate the impact of behaviours (Cantera & Torrijos, 2017). This new paradigm might establish itself in the form of constructive engagement between technology and nature. A rather new school of thought known as Post Anthropocene is pioneering this paradigm, imagining new conditions that aims to construct our world in a way that reaches beyond human-centred design. Here, technology and AI computes, conditions, and constructs the land and ecosystems we live in (Liam Young, 2019). The shift away from the human-centred condition and moving towards the post-human is a way to open the world to a larger and more global consideration of the world that sees beyond the status quo of human construction without consideration to surrounding environments. Building land and urban environments with a wider vision of the different forms of life, concerned with the impacts of the construction itself and redefining the relationship of humans with animals and other non-human entities.
One way of addressing the issues of anthropogenic design in the construction of our land and city systems, is the protocol project developed by Claudio Pasquero and Marco Poletto. With this project, the two researchers are exploring a protocol specifically to design the Urbansphere, or what they call the urbanization of the non-human, titled DeepGreen. Their research is based on state-of-the-art digital computable technologies with ecology and the study of animal and plant colony behaviour, and how these can come together to tackle complexities in the design and planning of more sustainable global urban futures. In essence, their vision is one of a post-anthropocentric reality where the impact of artificial systems on the natural biosphere is global, but their agency is no longer entirely human (Pasquero & Poletto). This suggests a high level of interdependence of digital and biological intelligence, achieved by a new bio-computational design workflow that enables pairing what is algorithmically drawn with what is biologically grown (Pasquero & Poletto 2016). Making use of integration of remote sensing, big data analysis and AI, scientists and researchers can assess vulnerabilities and find specific urban design and planning solutions with both short- and long-term impacts to the Urbansphere.
In the case of Pasquero and Poletto, they are using these techniques to decipher the biosphere’s anthropogenic dimension; they use GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks) algorithms (Radford et al., 2015) that can be trained to ‘behave’ like a Physarum Polycephalum organism (ACADISA, 2020). Polycephalum is a unicellular slime mold otherwise know as ‘the blob’, ideal for biomimetics in the DeepGreen protocol because of its impressive computational abilities and self-organizing behaviours to distribute itself over a broad geographic region. Pasquero and Poletto’s aim is that when the GAN algorithm is trained for Physarum mimicry and deployed as an urban design technique, it can test the potential of Polycephalum’s intelligence in solving problems of urban re-metabolization, and even in computing scenarios of urban morphogenesis with a non-human, Post Anthropocentric conceptual framework (ACADIA, 2020).
Although further testing is still necessary to confirm widespread applicability, the approach has the potential to be employed in urban planning modelling through accurate scenario simulation for more sustainable contemporary city design.
Tallinn Wet City Project – a Case of DeepGreen
More recently, in 2020, Pasquero and Poletto presented more concretely the first steps in their development of this new blue-green urban planning strategy for the Estonian capital. Their future vision of the city and its urbansphere recognizes the challenges of climate change and land system change as initially discussed in the introduction of this article, which consist of rising sea levels as well as the expansion of urban environments. Redevelopment of the Paljassaare Peninsula, which is a natural ecosystem peninsula right off the urban environment of Tallinn, is an interesting opportunity because of the unique, aquatic terrain that has a hybrid form of wilderness and infrastructure (ecoLogicStudio, 2020). The project would build a new urban centre on this Peninsula based on the advanced processing of the city’s waste and supported by the DeepGreen bio-computing technology that generates GAN algorithms replicating Polycephalum’s metabolism. The result would be the design of a symbiotic anti-city that co-evolves with today’s Urbansphere of Tallinn, redefining its entire urban metabolism.
The protocol for the Tallinn Wet City project entails two phases; Phase 1 on the Ground, and Phase 2 in the Air.
Phase 1 proposes the morphological redevelopment of the existing landscape and its living systems, where ecoLogicStudio’s synthetic urban landscape design, based on bio-computational technology, is constantly monitored via satellite and built-in feedback mechanisms informing the city’s wastewater network in real-time (ecoLogicStudio, 2020). The analysis would enable to examine the urban landscape as a living body with dynamic changes in time. Specific locations that appear the ‘wettest’ would then be networked to form new, distributed infrastructure or proto-filtering gardens on the Paljassaare Peninsula.
Phase 2 of the project proposes the application of active bio-technological units for constant cultivation of the landscape, where the phase 1 prototypical filtering-gardens and bio-digestive systems are emerging. Real-time monitoring enables the back-and-forth of information on the status of the internal metabolism and enables alteration and adjustments to the landscape by distributed sensing and feeding machines such as cyber-worms. The process of digestion generates nutrients and heat and cultivates a new microclimate with new habitats. The habitat would attract growing plants, insects and birds which are active agents of urban transformation and re-metabolization. The microclimatic islands on the Peninsula would eventually become an Urbansphere that is symbiotic of their counterpart in central Tallinn. The landscape will be fed by the city’s waste and in turn develop natural gas and fertile soil to become a sort of anti-centre of the old Tallinn. We might imagine this re-development as a densely inhabited synthetic garden populated by humans, animals, machines and other hybrid systems (ecoLogicStudio, 2020).
The DeepGreen protocol has been researched by Pasquero and Poletto in specific cases, as the two have been asked in multiple instances to apply their protocol to the Urban environment of cities around the world. In 2017, the two, together with other renowned architects and researchers experimenting with architecture, biology and computation, headlined the 2017 Tallinn Architecture Biennale Symposium at the entitled bio.Tallinn. The collective of architects explored the idea of cityscapes as self-organizing systems and took a non-human-centred approach on the urban environment of these cityscapes based on the emerging role of biotechnology in urban planning (ecoLogicStudio, 2017). The TAB Symposium reflected specifically on re-metabolizing the Urbansphere of the city of Tallinn, implementing the DeepGreen protocol, and was titled “Polycephalum City” or “Tallinn Wet City”.
The Paljassaare Peninsula is recognized as part of the Natura2000 network of European sites of significant ecological value, however because of the settlement of birds in the ecosystem in combination with the proximity of the wastewater treatment plant for Tallinn, there is some political tension between the plant management and ecologists claiming contamination of the reserve. Pasquero and Poletto, however, came to a different conclusion upon on-site examination of the Peninsula. In fact, the birds were spotted at the wastewater treatment facilities, seemingly enjoying playing in the warm and nutritious waters of the bio-digestion tanks and the large filtering machines. This observation established the researchers’ vision of the contamination becoming a morphogenic force, inducing artificial hyper-articulation of the land ecosystem which evolve into a digestive membrane (ecoLogicStudio, 2020). Practically, what this would mean for the land and urban environment is that pathogens are re-metabolized, diluted or captured by augmented ecosystems. In technical terms, infrastructural networks would thicken into filtering surfaces, which in turn fold into a complex landscape populated by a large number of biochemical reactors, resulting in a merging of the Urbansphere of Tallinn and the marine biome of the Baltic into a bio-informational Anthropocene Peninsula(ecoLogicStudio, 2020).
FINAL THROUGHS ON NEW URBAN SPHERES
Looking into this innovative and futuristic approach to urban planning systems confirms the limitations of framing the relationship between a humanly constructed environment and natural systems with the traditional zoning logics used at present. The DeepGreen protocol applied on Tallinn Wet City proposes an approach where these constructed and natural environments are treated as part of a co-evolving network that reflects the complex interaction that characterizes them. This approach to re-designing cityscapes also follows the trend of circularity as, essentialy, the city would grow out of the re-metabolization of its waste. The overall vision of the DeepGreen protocol is taken from the relationships that are taking place at the scale of the microbiome as well as the architectural Anthropocentric scale, but in a way that the different scalar domains are no longer organized in a hierarchy where the human is the dominant actor and rather that there is a continuous feedback loop of information that helps create a more equal overall strategy. Through this narrative, there is a potential of an evolving urban planning strategy that allows administrators to continuously assess the effects of the policies they create so that strategic decisions are more resilient. Monitoring land system changes and following up on policies that aim at lessening impacts should be a standard practice in urban planning, and this type of tool developed by Pasquero and Poletto has a huge potential of aiding accomplishing this in wet urban climates.
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