'Bio-filia': the role of respect in developing new urban ecologies

Sensemaking / 'Bio-filia': the role of respect in developing new urban ecologies

Urban ecology can bring huge benefits to people, the environment and food security, writes Sumita Thiagarajan

By Sumita Thiagarajan / 22 Sep 2016

Nestled in the cosy neighbourhood of Changi Village, at the eastern end of Singapore, the compound of Greenology is a great place to spot birds such as the majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle or a family of Oriental Pied Hornbills. However, alongside the birds in the sky, one might be surprised to find airplanes taking off and landing in the background. That is the beauty of urban ecology. There is a common misconception that urban development and nature cannot co-exist, but Greenology aims to get people to reconnect with nature, in the urban environment. Founded in 2008 by Veera Sekaran, the small-medium enterprise aims to blend both architecture and ecology together to address the various issues that are present in the urban environment. A term coined by E O Wilson in 1984, ‘biophilia’, describes the urge of humankind to connect with other life forms. Veera prefers his own coinage, ‘bio-filia’ – implying filial duty. For Veera, ‘bio-filia’ is the sense of respect and care achieved by integrating various sciences and disciplines into designs that create habitats and sustainable ecosystems for all species to co-exist while solving a city’s problems. With 70% of the world’s population projected to live in cities by 2050, a holistic approach to greening our cities will be needed. As rapid urbanisation places pressure on the environment through the reduction in greenery and loss of biodiversity, we will be increasingly challenged with urban man-made problems such as air pollution, noise pollution and storm water run-off. This is where ‘bio-filial’ cities come into the picture.

Imagine a central business district clad in plants: a living, breathing skin covering the concrete buildings that would otherwise absorb and trap heat. The Greenology Vertical Greenery (GVG) aims to reduce the urban heat island (UHI) effect by occupying the vertical spaces of buildings, both indoor and outdoor. Growing plants vertically tackles many issues at once. It reduces space constraint in land-scarce cities such as Singapore. When placed on the external façade of buildings, green walls decrease the heat inside on all floors, and reduce sound pollution from traffic, construction, airports and other sources of urban noise by up to 35 decibels by acting as a buffer. On the other hand, concrete walls allow sound to bounce off them, thereby amplifying noise pollution in the city.

These same green walls can be brought indoors with the help of energy-saving LED lights (such as Greenology’s Grow Lights) that are fine-tuned with the required wavelengths to promote plant growth and development without requiring sunlight. When the green walls are brought indoors, they help to improve air quality by filtering out volatile compounds from the air, keeping the home or office free from urban air pollution. Developed over five years, the product is lightweight, low water usage, low maintenance and fire-resistant as it does not contain any plastics. Irrigation and fertigation is automated with a timer to prevent over-watering or over-fertilisation. This also means that you can lay back, sip a coffee and enjoy your green wall without having to worry about it. In the future, the company hopes to turn the GVG™ system into a living plant battery so you can plug your phone into the wall while you enjoy that coffee.

Green walls also encourage the return of biodiversity. Greenology has tested over 600 species on its walls, to ensure their ability to thrive in an urban environment. With regards to biomimicry, buildings that are covered with the walls can function like a “tree”. Unlike roof gardens, GVG does not require fauna such as birds and butterflies to be strong fliers to reach rooftop flora. Instead it creates a “living ladder” for wildlife and this can be further enhanced with a choice of native plants to support native flora and fauna.

To tackle the issue of food security in an urban environment, Greenology has researched and developed vertical farming systems that save space, time and energy. Compared to traditional farming methods, vertical agriculture has a high harvest rate. In one square metre, Greenology’s own system can produce 27.2kg of lettuce while conventional methods produce only 3.2kg of lettuce and it can do this while reducing water usage by up to 81 times. By moving key services such as food production from rural spaces to urban spaces, energy and transport costs are lowered together with the city’s carbon footprint. In the future, the company hopes to expand on this with automation of the hydroponics system by including robots to reduce its reliance on labour.

You need more than hardware, however, to green a city.  Greenology also focuses on greening the ‘heart-ware’ of the city by reaching out to the people who live in it. The outreach programmes consist of customisable workshops and talks that target city-dwellers of all ages, from pre-school students to the elderly. By raising awareness of the challenges of the urban environment and providing solutions, the company hopes to promote a green lifestyle too. For senior citizens with dementia, the simple activity of plant propagation can help with providing horticultural therapy to increase focus and improve moods.

Nature is a vital part of the human experience. Innovations to bring nature into urban environments can mediate environmental impacts, enhance food security and improve habitat creation to bring people, flora and fauna back in touch with one another while living in densely packed cities.

Sumita Thiagarajan is Outreach Assistant Manager at Greenology.

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