In Forum Virium’s Future blog, our smart city experts take a peek into the future of their fields, reflect on the change trends in Helsinki and present their vision of how science, technology and experience can best be used for the sustainable development of the city.
The first blog post in the series is by Marja Mesimäki, environmental sociologist and project manager at Forum Virium. She explains how creative solutions for urban nature can increase comfort and biodiversity and support adaptation to climate change.
More nature in the city
We are completely dependent on functioning natural processes, even in cities. From the toil of decomposers that maintain soil health to the pollination services provided by insects, a local forest in a natural state or a rooftop meadow performs a variety of vital functions. A patch of brushwood may be home to thousands of organisms and can serve as a great place for creative play for children. Of particular interest is the relationship between the built city and nature: how organically evolving nature and the urban machine designed and built by humans coexist.
Urban development is subject to a wide range of pressures. On the one hand, we should find solutions to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. On the other hand, we should ensure a comfortable and healthy living environment. Even densely built-up areas need to provide nature in one way or another. There will never be a substitute for ground-based nature, but imaginative solutions can bring more nature into the grey urban landscape.
Which landscape would you prefer in the heat of the summer? One of the winners of the 2022 Scandinavian Green Roof Award was a renovation project. Similar thinking could be applied to street environments.
Many benefits in one package
Over billions of years, nature has developed some real high tech solutions, which should really be put to good use. For example, above-ground natural stormwater management is more affordable than building pipelines underground. At the same time, great recreational environments can be created for the enjoyment of city residents.
When space is limited, a single solution must be as efficient as possible. This is referred to as multifunctional green infrastructure. This means designing different green solutions to collectively and individually deliver a range of ecosystem services, i.e. natural benefits – delaying and retaining stormwater to avoid urban flooding, cooling cities during heatwaves, dampening noise, cleaning the air, absorbing carbon and providing residents with a comfortable and experience-rich living environment, and even locally produced food.
What could a green city of the future mean? What kinds of solutions should be developed to increase greenery?
Nature meets buildings, technology and art
Nature can be combined with human technology. An example of this are biosolar roofs, which are green roofs that support biodiversity, combined with solar panels that generate electrical energy. The vegetation cools the environment, making the panels much more efficient than without it. At the same time, it provides habitats for endangered plant species, for example.
Diverse vegetation consisting of local natural plants is an essential part of a biosolar roof.
Small networks of green roofs that generate solar energy could be used to build green stops throughout the city for pollinators and other invertebrates. Micro forests that involve residents would fit well into the network.
A slightly more out-there vision would involve modular vegetation structures travelling automatically from dawn to dusk to where they are needed, such as to landscape a construction site or cool the environment during heat waves. They could also be powered by solar energy, and the building materials could of course be recycled. Sensors would provide data on environmental conditions. The destinations of the modules would be planned by an artificial intelligence, which would combine different datasets, such as the heat vulnerability of areas with weather forecasts. How would you like to encounter an unexpected green element during your morning commute, or even order a green module to come to you with a mobile app? Perhaps it could have a chat with you or give you the news of the day.
Nature is an endless source of inspiration. Combining environmental art and biophilic thinking with solutions integrated into buildings could create surprising and interesting urban spaces and improve environments that are perceived as unpleasant, for example around underpasses or station areas. Imagine a plant mural combined with light art. And could the work be interactive in some way?
The most impressive implementations could attract visitors from other parts of the city, even tourists. At best, residents would feel more proud of their neighbourhood and thus more committed to caring for their living environment. Green artworks could also be developed into small modules that are easy to attach and remove, for example to provide a pleasant atmosphere at events.
This green wall in Paris, designed by Patrik Blanc, features 7,600 plants and 237 different species.
Building sustainably from recycled and natural materials
Circular solutions are a necessary step towards more sustainable green construction. This still requires a great deal of product development. For example, the plastic cell structures still commonly used in vegetated roof products today are harmful to both plants and the environment. The Fifth Dimension research project of the University of Helsinki, together with Hollolan Rakennusbetoni- ja Elementti Ltd, developed a vegetated roof solution using recycled materials, which also has a fire rating. Natural materials, such as reeds collected during lake mowing, are excellent and inexpensive materials to use. We need more development of these types of circular green construction solutions. Materials can be found in unexpected places!
Attention must also be paid to the sustainability of care and maintenance. For example, in dense urban areas, large amounts of water flow from rooftops and streets into nearby water bodies. This is why it is not advisable to use fertilisers in solutions integrated into buildings, for example. To avoid water pollution, solutions such as biochar or microbes can be used in the growth media to both enhance plant welfare and manage stormwater. Indeed, combining research data with product development is crucial for the development of future solutions.
When I was seven years old, I sat on a big rock in a nearby forest and stared at a birch tree – its beautiful trunk, branches and leaves. What I saw in front of me was a living, breathing creature. Subconsciously, I understood that there was a symbiotic relationship between me, that birch tree and the whole little forest in the middle of the city. I thought about all the things that my local nature provides.
It’s funny that in my little mind I was thinking about ecosystem services, the benefits of nature, not yet knowing that this would later become my profession.Marja Mesimäki, Forum Virium Helsinki
Local nature for everyone
There is now a huge body of research on the positive effects of urban greenery on human health and wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic showed in a concrete way how important nature is to city residents. For example, Nuuksio and Sipoonkorpi were packed with people. However, not everyone has the opportunity to travel far from where they live to be surrounded by revitalising nature.
For example, in the design of nursing environments such as service homes, attention must be paid to the quantity and quality of green structures. Where space is limited, a well-designed roof garden or yard, however small, can be an oasis that provides important multi-sensory stimulation and cooling in the summer months for older people and those with memory disorders. With the help of webcams, nature could even be observed indoors. Who would take on the task of developing health-promoting local nature solutions and integrating them into the construction of nursing environments? Proximity to nature is also important to hospital patients; just seeing nature can help them recover from surgery, for example.
At daycare centres and schools, local nature should be used in many ways as an environment for learning and recovery, which also strengthens the microbiome and thus improves resistance to immune-mediated diseases such as asthma. What kinds of neat solutions might bring health, joy and happiness to children?
Hugging a tree is nature bonding at its best. Photo: Jussi Hellsten / City of Helsinki media bank.
Making ecosystem services visible helps city residents understand and appreciate nature. The B.Green project, coordinated by Forum Virium, developed several digital solutions for green infrastructure to support city planning. Among other things, residents were able to try Granlund’s Green Kalasatama augmented reality app to try out what the park under construction will look like decades from now, while learning about the benefits of the park’s plants in terms of things like stormwater management. What if the benefits were monitored in real time, e.g. how much oxygen a tree is producing right now? The app could have gamified elements, like a ‘NatureGo’ game, to encourage people to move about in nature and collect points by hugging trees, for example.
Roofs as urban living rooms
Cities have a huge amount of roof space. Only our imagination is the limit to what kind of green public spaces could be built on the roofs of car parks, public buildings or industrial properties, for example. You could read a book in a library roof garden, or relax in the green oasis of your workplace, or maybe have a meeting in a pergola that nurtures creativity. My own research has shown that new kinds of green solutions can provide an experientially rich environment and even give faith and hope for the future, symbolising a better tomorrow.
Do you want to be part of creating the green city of the future and contribute to the development of new solutions?
The PilotGreen project brings new ways to increase vegetation in cities. Join the project network!