July 26, 2012
Over the next few days you’re going to see a lot of the London Eye, the giant slow-spinning Ferris wheel along the Thames River, particularly since during the Olympics it will be portrayed as a massive mood ring, changing color every night to reflect what people have been tweeting about the Games. If tweeters are feeling good about what’s going on, it will glow yellow. If not, it will turn morosely purple.
What you’re less likely to see is the vertical garden covering the corner of the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair or the one at the Edgeware Road Underground station or the one climbing 14 stories up the side of an apartment building on Digby Road in Central London.
Which is a shame, because while none of these walls are able to change color to reflect the whims of Twitter Nation, they are choice examples of one of the more pleasing architectural innovations trending in cities around the world.
But they’re much more than urban eye candy. Last week a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that green walls planted strategically could help cut pollution in cities by as much as 30 percent, almost 10 times more than previously thought.
The key, say the researchers, is that green walls can filter out pollution not just at street level, as trees can, but much higher up in urban canyons. Their computer models suggested that grasses, ivy and flowers attached to the sides of walls and buildings could be even more effective at cleaning the air than plants in parks or on rooftops.
Some have taken to calling this “vegitecture.” Not so easy on the ears, but the point is to give props to vegetation as a valuable component of architecture. It’s how the firm Capella Garcia Arquitectura describes the vertical garden it built to cover an unsightly wall on a Barcelona apartment building last year. Using steel scaffolding erected next to building, they essentially created a stack of huge planters layered more than 60 feet high. And, thanks to an interior staircase hidden by the plants, a person can enter this hanging garden from the inside and take a break from the city’s whirl on one of the wooden benches.
But for all the talk of urban canyons, you don’t see many vertical gardens on the sides of skyscrapers. Most are still about style more than function, such as the verdant coating around the windows of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, or the wild, multi-layered facade of the CaixaForum Museum in Madrid. Both are the creations of Patrick Blanc, a botanist turned landscape architect whose hair matches his walls and who designed the system of metal frame, PVC pipe and nonbiodegradeable felt that makes it possible for plants to take root on vertical surfaces without the need for soil.
Architects in Mexico City, working for a non-profit called VERDMX, have taken a slightly different approach. They’ve erected three towering “eco-structures,” shaped like upside down L’s and U’s and ringed with vegetation. The hope is that they will help clear Mexico City’s notoriously nasty air. But pollution dies hard. Exhaust from cars on nearby streets already is causing some withering on the vines.
Here are more recent examples of cities going natural:
- Yes, we have new bananas: What do you mean, you can’t grow bananas in Paris? Sure, you can’t now, but SOA, a French architectural firm, wants to make it so. They just unveiled plans to build a vertical banana plantation inside an old building on a busy Paris street. The place would be gutted and turned into an urban greenhouse, with trees, under artificial lights, growing inside. There will be a research lab, a restaurant and the obligatory gift shop, but mainly it will be banana trees. And all will be visible from the street through a clear glass wall.
- Trees and supertrees: Probably the most spectacular urban homage to nature is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, which opened last month. It has two lakes, two glass conservatories, many gardens and 700,000 plants. But the real showstoppers are the 18 steel supertrees, some more than 150 feet tall. Each is a vertical garden, its “trunk” wrapped in ferns and tropical climbing plants. Many are also solar towers, with photovoltaic cells on their canopies creating the energy that lights them up at night.
- Down on the farm in Motor City: Detroit and Michigan State University announced an agreement last month to develop a major urban agriculture research program that likely would include converting abandoned buildings into multi-tiered farms.
- Waste not, want not: A former pork processing plant in Chicago is being transformed into a combination urban farm, fish hatchery and brewery. Called The Plant, it’s set up so the waste from one part of the operation serves as raw material for another, making it a net-zero energy system.
- Start spreadin’ the moos: Who’d have thunk it? New York has become a leader in the burgeoning world of rooftop farming. And it’s no longer just little community gardens up there. Now two for-profit companies are in the mix, Gotham Greens, which started a farm on a Brooklyn rooftop last year and has three more in the works, and Brooklyn Grange, which has been farming a one-acre roof in Queens and now is also growing squash, tomatoes and scallions atop the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Video bonus: See where it all started in this BBC piece on Patrick Blanc, the green-haired Frenchman who turned vertical gardening into urban architecture.
More from Smithsonian.com
March 15, 2012
Obesity, it would seem, is one big “My bad,” a painfully visible failure in personal responsibility. If you regularly chow down a pizza and a pint of ice cream for dinner, and your idea of a vigorous workout is twisting off caps on two-liter bottles of Coke, well, it’s pretty hard to give yourself a pass for packing on pounds.
Certainly, most doctors and dieticians still believe that being overweight is a matter of too many calories in, and not enough calories out, or put more bluntly, way too much food and way too little exercise. It’s all about overconsumption, right? End of story.
Except the plot appears to be thickening.
Recent research is beginning to suggest that other factors are at work, specifically chemicals used to treat crops and to process and package food. Scientists call them obesogens and in one study at the University of California, Irvine, they caused animals to have more and larger fat cells. ”The animals we treat with these chemicals don’t eat a different diet than the ones who don’t get fat,” explained lead researcher Bruce Blumberg. “They eat the same diet–we’re not challenging them with a high-fat or a high-carbohydrate diet. They’re eating normal foods and they’re getting fatter.”
The theory is that the chemicals disrupt hormonal systems and that can cause stem cells to turn into fat cells. In other words, the thinking goes, obesogens may help flip your fat switch.
But before you cleanse yourself of all responsibility for your tight-fitting clothes, keep in mind that plenty of researchers bristle at the suggestion that anything other than excess calories is to blame. In fact, a much-cited, recent study led by George Bray of Louisiana State University found that any diet can work so long as calories consumed are consistently reduced. Said Bray: “Calories count. If you can show me that it (the calories in, calories out model) doesn’t work, I’d love to see it.”
And yet, Kristin Wartman, writing on The Atlantic website, raises a provocative notion: “If the obesogen theory comes to be accepted… the food industry will be in trouble. It would be harder to keep promoting diet and “health” foods that may be low in calories but that also contain an array of substances that may actually prove to contribute to weight gain.”
Now that could get ugly.
More is less
Another new study on obesity does its own number on conventional thinking. Most of us likely think that we overeat because we love every bite. Not so, say Kyle Burger and Eric Stice at the Oregon Research Institute. They found that when we eat too much, it’s because we’re actually getting less pleasure from the food, so we have to consume more to feel rewarded.
The pair reached this conclusion through the use of a classic combo: teenagers and milkshakes. Based on brain scans done on the slurping adolescents, they determined that the ones who ate the most had the least activation of dopamine neurons, which generate pleasurable feelings. To compensate, they had to eat more.
But help may be on the way for eaters who can’t get no satisfaction. Later this spring the FDA is expected to approve a new drug called Qnexa. It both increases the pleasure of food and reduces the desire to keep eating.
Weight, weight, don’t tell me
Here’s more recent news from the fat front:
- Walk the walk: A study presented at the American Heart Association conference in San Diego yesterday concluded that people could overcome a genetic predisposition to obesity by walking briskly for an hour a day. By contrast, people with obesity in their families who watched television four hours a day were 50 percent more likely to carry on the weighty tradition.
- Blame your car: There seems to be a higher level of obesity in cities where a greater percentage of people drive to work alone.
- Sweet revenge: Research at the Harvard Public School of Health found that men who drink one sugar-sweetened beverage daily have a 20 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who drink none.
- You’ll have to pry my Big Gulp from my cold, dead hands: Hawaii recently became the latest state to reject a proposal to impose a tax on soda. Over the past few years, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association have spent an estimated $70 million to lobby against these soda taxes, designed to get people to drink less sweet stuff.
- Enough, already: French researchers say that obese men are more likely to be infertile or have a low sperm count.
- Do these genes make me look fat? Scientists in Japan discovered a genetic mutation that could make people more likely to become obese if they eat a high-fat diet.
- Expensive tastes: A study of 30,000 Medicare recipients showed that the health care costs of overweight people increased almost twice as much as those with a more normal body mass index. Also, according to Gallup research, Americans paid around $80 billion for additional health care costs related to obesity in 2011.
- How about a little fudge for breakfast? Okay, let’s end on an upbeat note. A study in Israel found that starting the day with a full meal that includes a sweet dessert makes it easier for people to stick to a weight-loss program.
Video bonus: Obesity marches on: A little show-and-tell from the Centers for Disease Control.
August 29, 2011
The week started with an earthquake, which led to the surreal scene of thousands of people standing on sidewalks in downtown Washington, realizing collectively that no one could get through on their cell phones and we’d have to talk to each other about our shared 15 seconds of shake, rattle and roll.
It ended with recurring reports of how it was going to rain cats and dogs and flying monkeys and how the power would probably go out, resulting in long lines of people buying enough batteries to light Vegas.
Usually, I love raging nature. It’s the great leveler, rendering us awed, thrown off our routines and scrambling like ants lugging rolls of toilet paper. Except, that in the past few years, these extreme events have come with such frequency that all sense of wonder is fading—not to mention that they’ve been tremendously destructive and costly. Hurricane Irene is the 10th billion-dollar natural disaster we’ve had in the U.S. alone this year, and it’s not even September.
You’re starting to hear this described as the “new normal.” While no climate scientist would blame a single storm on global warming, most will say that climate change increases the likelihood that weather will turn ugly—torrential rains, more intense heat waves, longer droughts and relentless snowstorms.
It looks as if Mother Nature will be going large on us more often in future. Surely, our old friend Technology can help us out, right?
Irene has been our first apps hurricane, the initial chance to see if smart phones can allow you to avoid watching local reporters trying to stay upright as they tell you it’s windy. There are plenty of storm apps out there already. The Weather Channel, naturally, has one (free). So does Accuweather (free). So do the National Hurricane Center (Hurricane Express, 99 cents) and NOAA (NOAA Radar U.S., free). Most come with cheerfully colored maps (which actually are much easier to read on iPads than phones,) satellite images, alerts and forecasts—in short, everything you’d get from the windblown reporter except the slapstick.
The Department of Health and Human Services is getting in on the app action, too, offering a $10,000 prize to the developer who designs the best Facebook mobile app to help people create support networks to get them through natural disasters.
Ready or not
That’s all good, but there must be someone thinking bigger, someone who has figured out a way to move hurricanes. Enter Bill Gates.
A few years ago, he and a group of scientists applied for a patent for technology to slow or weaken hurricanes. Simply put, a fleet of barges would be towed into the path of a developing storm and each would then pump warm surface water to the bottom and, at the same time, pull cold water from the deep up to the surface. In theory, it would work because warmer water strengthens hurricanes. But reality is always the tricky part. According to some scientists, it would have to be done on such a massive scale to be effective, that it likely wouldn’t make economic sense. Plus, wind is just too shifty. Imagine trying to get this big fleet into position in enough time to suck the life out of a storm.
We may, for the time being, have to be content with dealing with nature instead of trying to control it. Like the team of scientists at the University of Texas using IBM’s Deep Thunder computer model to do high-speed-simulations of flooding. It will allow them to predict water flow in an entire river system—every stream, every tributary—instead of just the main rivers. And that would help local officials evacuate the people at greatest risk of fast-rising water.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Missouri are taking on the flip side of extreme weather. They’ve built drought simulators—100-foot long mobile greenhouses on tracks—that are moved over crops when it rains and moved away when it’s sunny. No matter how this might seem, the goal is not to kill plants. It’s to see how different crops in different soil react to droughts of different lengths and intensity.
These days, it’s all about being prepared.
Bonus: Watch this video collection of TV reporters getting blown away, compliments of The Daily Beast .
Is it time we got more serious about manipulating nature? Or should we just keep focusing on being ready for its biggest punches?
August 17, 2011
Ever since my wife and I bought a cottage near the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia I’ve noticed that when I’m out in the country, I’m much more likely to (a) bring up snakes in conversation and (b) spend a great deal of time staring at butterflies and spider webs.
While so many things said to be awesome aren’t even close, much of what I see out there on a daily basis actually is. Or as the scientist Janine Benyus put it in her popular TED talk, it’s like being “surrounded by genius.”
Benyus was referring to nature, the world’s greatest headline act. She went on to talk about biomimicry, the burgeoning science of learning from nature to develop technology. Most people know that burrs on a dog’s coat was the inspiration for Velcro and that the swimsuits worn by Michael Phelps and others at the Beijing Olympics were modeled after shark’s skin. (The suits basically turned swimmers into human fish, which wasn’t quite what the ancient Greeks had in mind. Scorned as “technology doping,” the outfits have been banned in future Olympics.)
Truth is, biomimicry is driving innovation just about anywhere you can imagine—medicine (spider webs), construction (termite mounds), bullet trains (kingfishers), self-cleaning fabrics (lotus plants).
Impressive. Yet nature could end up giving us the biggest boost where we need it most. These days we yammer on about “sustainability,” but something that’s been around a million years … now you’re talking sustainable. And we can conjure up all kinds of notions about energy efficiency, but why not steal from creatures that have been thousands of years in the making?
Here are a half dozen ways where taking our cues from nature is making us smarter about energy.
- Bump it up: By copying the little bumps on the fins of humpback whales, engineers have been able to reduce drag on wind turbine blades by 32 percent, making them more efficient and quieter.
- Motion slickness: An underwater system called bioWave generates power through blades that mimic the swaying motion of coral and kelp.
- Clear the air: Two Columbia University scientists have developed a plastic “tree” that sucks way more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than the real thing.
- Old school: By imitating schools of fish, engineers have found more efficient ways to design wind farms.
- A wind win: Dutch engineers have designed wind turbines that look like trees and would feel right at home in a city park.
- Jelly on a roll: A California Institute of Technology scientist has found smarter ways to capture wind and wave power by studying how jellyfish move.
Of course, nature can sometimes cause people to dream too big. Most of us would look at a dragonfly’s wing and say, “That’s some wing.” Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut looked at it and imagined a towering urban farm on New York’s Roosevelt Island that would make the Statue of Liberty look like a hood ornament.
And here’s today’s bonus video, watch robot flowers come to life.
What else do you think we can copy from nature? Where else can it make us smarter?