How green, flexible infrastructure can make cities resilient 

Examine any piece of urban infrastructure—a street, sidewalk, park bench, or dock—and evidence of a losing battle is quickly evident. Nature has always been a relentless destroyer of anything wooden, stone, or steel.

“For several hundred years, we’ve been fighting nature,” says Scott Burnham, a writer and urban strategist. “With increasing numbers of droughts, sea levels rising, and rain falls increasing, it’s clear fighting nature doesn’t work. Let’s try working with it, instead.”

That philosophy is at the core of NatureStructure, an exhibition curated by Burnham that opens May 17 at the Boston Society of Architects’ exhibition space. The exploration of new engineering and infrastructure projects with a more organic, natural bent, suggests that urban planners, architects, and designers are beginning to embrace a different narrative, one of collaboration instead of suppression.

“The history of the built environment and the city is roughly defined as man’s battle against nature,” says Burnham. “It’s about conquering, to gird or guard ourselves against nature. Nature Structures is advocating a complete reversal, and using nature as a tool, as an infrastructure tool, to use it to clean water, mitigate the heat island effect, and mitigate the damage that we’ve done.”

Burnham says that Norwegian engineers and designers have a phrase for this type of naturalistic landscape and infrastructure design: “playing on the same team as nature.”

The exhibit features 30 projects from around the globe that demonstrate the potential of collaborating with, instead of overpowering, nature, such as a bridge from Geneva, Switzerland that contains tubes of algae to absorb and consume carbon emissions from the traffic below.

POP-UP by Third Nature is a parking garage concept that rises to accommodate excess water.
Third Nature

The designs suggest a move toward infrastructure that’s both organic and man-made. As writer Karrie Jacobs explored in her Engineer Nature series, there’s an increasing recognition of the power of designing with, and not against, the landscape.

At a time when climate change is altering rainfall patterns, encouraging more and stronger storms, and raising sea levels, water is a particular focus of the exhibition. Many of the highlighted projects either restore the habitat lost from rapid growth and expansion, or find clever ways to divert, absorb, or otherwise utilize the increasing amounts of water that, due to climate change, threaten existing urban infrastructure.

POP-UP, by the Danish firm Third Nature, exemplifies this way of thinking. An underground parking garage concept that works like a cork in a glass, it contains a vast reservoir to hold excess groundwater from storms, slowly rising as water levels increase. It’s a different way of thinking about water, as a force to adapt to instead of push and channel away.

Many of these projects replace natural ecosystems that helped protect cities and urban landscapes. Burnham points to the impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York City. At the time, the city’s waterfront had lost the natural oyster beds that once cultivated city harbors and provided a natural way to dispense wave forces. Now, Kate Orff, a landscape architect with the firm SCAPE, is leading a project to add artificial oyster beds, a form of so-called “oyster-tecture” that restores and reclaims a vital piece of natural infrastructure.

MARS, or Modular Artificial Reef Structure in Melbourne, Australia, created by the Reef Design Lab.
Reef Design Lab

As cities increasing reckon with the impact of a changing climate, and the trends and activities that have created ecological change go unabated, there will be more of a need to consider organically inclined architecture. One of Burnham’s favorite projects in the exhibit is MARS, or Modular Artificial Reef Structure, a project in Melbourne, Australia seeking to replenish Pacific coral systems. This response, and instinct to repair, is what the exhibit is all about.

“How can man-made design and technology help move nature forward,” he says. “For lack of a better term, it’s an apology. Sorry, we screwed you up.”