Designing for urban contexts as a viable habitat for biodiversity: researching creative strategies for integrating the growth of lichens on architectural surfaces in Milan
Research questions - How can we look at the existing urban environment as a viable habitat for biodiversity, through integrating other species growth on architectural surfaces? How can we value the lichen through this approach, by enhancing its aesthetic and performative potential whilst valuing its essential role in the ecological cycles? Could this act as a metaphor for creating awareness on the overlooked forms of life that surround and cohabit with us?
What: Facilitating patterns of growth of lichens on architectural surfaces in urban contexts.
Why: Lichens conservation; biodiversity and habitat preservation; ecological role of the lichens; citizen awareness; aesthetic shift
How: Integration; local context and available materials; bottom up approach; guiding the lichen growth in patterns.
Where: Urban context - Milan, Italy.
Context - 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas and this is projected to rise to 68% by 2050. Their density and the way these contexts function have dramatic consequences on our health and the whole urban biodiversity. Globally, biodiversity in urban environments is 50 % lower than in natural habitats, making the ecosystem less resilient and unable to regenerate itself. This project addresses the issue of habitat conservation and air pollution in urban contexts, locating itself within climate adaptation strategies for the urban environment. It does so from a different angle, placing its design focus on an organism that is usually ignored and overlooked, although it plays an essential role in ecological cycles and the conservation of biodiversity: lichen.
Living organism in focus - Lichen are a symbiotic partnership between fungi and algae. They are extremely long living and slow growing, and they are amongst the most ancient pioneering organisms on the planet, being some of the first living things to grow after extreme events such as a landslide. 6 to 8% of Earth's land surface is covered by lichen, which play an essential role in ecological balances and geochemical cycles: they capture carbon and fix nitrogen to the soil, they are a source of habitat, food and shelter for many organisms, they prevent soil erosion, and they are great environmental monitors as they are very sensitive to air pollution and changes in the environment. However, their presence and role is frequently overlooked and ignored. Especially in the urban environment, they are often removed and seen as contaminants on artificial surfaces, instead of being considered a valuable collaborator for design opportunities.
Process - The researched approach consists of facilitating the lichen growth by guiding their pattern on the urban surfaces, through painting a growth media directly onto the substrate material in the intended shapes. This process involved both scientific research and practical experimentation in order to understand the growth mechanisms of lichen. Patterned growth of lichen was achieved by optimizing the growth media composition, material substrate, and contextual variables. The design development consisted of an exploration of existing surfaces observing and optimizing the integration of this living organism with non-living structures. The cultural perception of lichen rich architectures was a focus, of which future steps could be taken to expand and further develop this social-environmental research.
Outcome - The resulting lichen patterns grown on urban surfaces would have effects on different levels: contribute to remediating air pollutants; expand the lichen population in the local area and support the many organisms that rely on lichen for survival, through habitat conservation. The project also promotes a perspective shift and acceptance of the aesthetics of lichen, from a living organism that is seen as undesirable and to be removed, to one of great visual appeal and creative potential.
Individual project developed within MA Biodesign, Central Saint Martins - University of the Arts of London