Sapone / Precision Wildland

Precision Wildland Designing Third Landscape Within the Smart City

Author: Sara Anna Sapone, PhD Candidate, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Sara Protasoni, Prof., DENG, Politecnico di Milano; Emilia Corradi, Prof., DAStU, Politecnico di Milano; Michela Longo, Prof., DENG, Politecnico di Milano

Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Paper

Focus the lens – Core of the research

In the context of a Smart City, shifting from its traditional narrative, technology may be intertwined with nature to preserve biodiversity and manage the reclamation of the abandoned spaces, where spontaneous nature thrives. To do so, the concept of Precision Wildland is proposed, thus similarly to what is done with precision agriculture, the informal landscape is mapped, managed, emphasized and ultimately tested in a precise context, the one of railyards redevelopment.

The need for reconsidering this practice is given by the increasing relevance around Europe of former closed-off sites, habitats for undisturbed nature, now open for redevelopment interest.

The end goal is to elaborate a proposal that promotes an open-end result, not pushing for a precise outcome but with a precise approach towards the existing, adjusting and reacting to the unfolding of the site’s development. To achieve this, it is deemed crucial the understanding of the site condition and changes through the aid of digital technologies and tools.

Ultimately is proposed a redefinition of the redevelopment process and design, avoiding the complete destruction of existing nature during the construction phase and allowing instead the coexistence of spontaneous nature and formal design, defining their interaction in the in-between spaces and foreseeing different degrees of intervention and ways to design with the unexpected.

Search for Meaning – State of the Art and Framework

The research operates within a given frame, the one of the Smart City. For this reason, the initial effort was to outline and understand the key characters of this approach, looking at the contemporary debate whilst using a precise angle, the one of landscape architecture.

In a nutshell, we can say that is an urban strategy where traditional physical grids and public services are improved through digital systems and new technologies, managing the use of resources and enhancing the processes’ sustainability.1 The components of this network are interconnected and regulated by protocols that collect and react to flows of data, dealing with problematic conditions while forecasting future outcomes.2

However, looking at it from the design perspective, is evident that the Smart City narrative3 was traditionally mostly shaped by political and economic interests, dealing more with strategies than site-specific intervention, more with advertisement than actual change.

In light of this, the research tries to question this trend, largely made of processes optimization, proposing a new paradigm that intertwines technology and nature. Technology is understood as the cornerstone underlying the smart city. Historically it was seen as a tool for humans to fulfill necessities and separate themselves from their environment. Today is both a material and immaterial entity that shapes physical and digital environments.

Research map, synthesis of the research key-topics, drawing by author

Figure 1: Research map, synthesis of the research key-topics, drawing by author

At the same time, it was briefly outlined how we use and understand nature. Traditionally discerned as untamed wilderness, productive entity and garden and nowadays as performative4 and informal nature.56
Ultimately is underlined the relevance of a specific type of nature for the contemporary city, the third landscape.6 This fragile and changeable entity, which thrives in places of abandonment, may preserve habitats, and holds ecosystem service. Moreover, it also pinpointed how contemporary research shed light on the idea of a natural “network”.7 Plants are not understood anymore with a Darwinian outlook as competitive entities but as part of a network that through chemical signaling aims to preserve the wellbeing of the habitat.78 Therefore the technological network may communicate with the biological one to understand and react to its needs, as “constant and bidirectional extension between the animate and inanimate beings”.9

Given its premises and the previously outlined state of the art, the scientific frame considered roughly regards theories and writings from the 1980s onwards.

This choice is due to the compresence in the theoretical debate since those years of reasoning both on the Smart City as urban strategy and the interest on informal nature.10

In the same years is also relevant how theories and design experiences dealing with the revitalization of railyards were central for the scientific debate.

Positioning – The Research Attitude

From the outline of this theoretical frame, it’s defined this concept of “Precision wildland.”

In this process, similarly to what is already done with precision agriculture.11 the use of technology allows to collect and react to the information provided by the third landscape to serve specific needs.

The coexistence of wildland and city may imply constant and dynamic monitoring of these unstable and fragile patches.7 Thus, wildlands are seen with a design approach, looking at their biodiversity, aesthetic value, management, and rule through the Smart City tools.

Ultimately the research tries to react to the given idea of what a Smart City can and should do, investigating a precise field of interest to narrow its scope. For this reason, a precise test-bed typology is at the core of the study, railyards, due to the innate “intelligence” of the railway network and the spontaneous pockets of wildland that may inhabit it. In addition to that, its peculiar characters create a compelling design testing ground: the structure of the soil (slope, materiality, cabling underneath), the presence of spontaneous nature (unique combination of seeds transported by the trains)12 and the dynamic of two opposite systems (linear/monodirectional line of the rail opposed to the mutable pockets of nature).

At the same time, the need to rethink the reclamation practice of these specific sites is given by the increasing relevance around Europe of former closed-off areas, habitats for undisturbed nature now open for redevelopment. Following construction and economic priorities, often rich natural ecosystems are destroyed along this process. For this reason, it is stressed the need for an alternative redevelopment practice, which may consider, integrate, and enhance the existing value of the site in its design and redevelopment.

The end goal is to elaborate a proposal that promotes an open-end result in the practice of railyard reuse, not pushing for a design outcome frozen in time but with a precise approach towards the existing, adjusting and reacting to the unfolding of the site’s development and natural growth.
In this sense, there are already several design experiences, like the Gleisdreieck park in Berlin,13 where the former railyard is transformed into a successful urban park. However, building on these experiences, the research explores how technology could prove to be an added value, supporting designers and developers in understanding the complexity of the existent condition and ensureing verifiable processes. In addition, there is the idea that technological tools may accompany these inherently unpredictable processes, constantly adapting to them to achieve the wished result.

Atmospheric image of the informal landscape in Railyards, drawing by author

Figure 2: Atmospheric image of the informal landscape in Railyards, drawing by author

The question of the interaction with time is crucial: climatic, natural, and anthropic events are not always predictable,14 so the process needs to be adaptable and variable.

The goal is to react and predict different scenarios using a system of sensors and actuators, that read and forecast the needs of a wider territorial network.2 The process doesn’t follow a straight line but accepts to reassess it previsions and follow the flow of events unfolding amidst informal nature.

Concurrently, technological means may allow the development of invisible projects, not absent but unseen, making their outcomes blend into their landscape, drawing from the character of the place. Recognizing and narrating the informal landscape for its hidden value, may also prove to be relevant for day-to-day management and be economically beneficial.
Ultimately is proposed a redefinition of the redevelopment process, carried out without completely destroying existing nature during the construction phase, and allowing instead the coexistence of spontaneous nature and formal design, defining their interaction in the in-between spaces, foreseeing different degrees of intervention and ways to design with the unexpected.

On scale and impact – How theory becomes design

The research tries to deal with a challenging issue in the contemporary debate, the reclamation of abandoned sites. It looks at them through an unusual paradigm, the one of wilderness in combination with technological means. The ambition is to have an impact on the processes of renewal of abandoned spaces, not only from a theoretical standpoint but deeply rooting the research in a design-driven approach, striving to define a methodology applicable to real design scenarios.

This investigation is inherently experimental and, due to its nature, it’s deemed impossible to reference it to a single design experience. It will rather look at a “matrix of case studies”, to search for interference between different design and artistic experiences that deal with the paradigm nature-technology in a manifold way. Some of the key-topics in this regard are the ways to design with nature, mapping and reacting with sensors to the environment, remediation processes, storytelling, and representation of nature through technology. Both the technical aspects of the reclamation practice and the more experiential ones will be considered. One case study won’t provide alone all the answers, but the selected system of projects may help to draw conclusions and shed real insights to shape an effective methodology, feeding into the proposed methodology.

In addition to this, the research will pose a set of precise inquiries to various interlocutors, scholars, and experts from different fields, questioning the design, economic and ecological relevance of the way it proposes to manage and maintain railway’s wildlands. The idea is to root the research in the practice, to comprehend the processes behind the design of railyards and the way spontaneous nature is treated according to different usage scenarios. Moreover, a comparison between different county’s outlooks will be proposed, to reflect on the European attitude toward this issue.

Schemes to confront the current redevelopment of the railway and proposed approach. Image by the author

Figure 4: Schemes to confront the current redevelopment of the railway and proposed approach.
Image by the author

To complement this, the research will define precise test beds, railyards with specific characteristic and relationship to their territorial network, to inform the proposed methodology through a design-driven approach. The chosen sites are located in contexts of urban pressure, where the impact of transformations is potentially greater, and in the European context, closely knit network with territorial continuity, interested by several past and current instances of redevelopment. One case will look at the German context, interesting as forerunner experiences of inclusion of informal landscape in public spaces. Another will be in the Italian context, to study how to redevelop after years of abandonment and potential issues with ongoing reclamation processes. The third will look at the Dutch context, interested by the overall planning and realization of the high-speed network, that will free large railyards near urbanized areas; the latter may offer an instance on how to guide the process even before the redevelopment stage to favor spontaneous nature to thrive.

The comparison between the cases may stress the different ecological output according to diverse management and usage of the railyard, highlighting the spatial effects on the preexistence of spontaneous vegetation possibly introduced by the design practice.

In a nutshell, the research strives, looking at the redevelopment of railyards, recognize, maintain, and use informal nature, both along the construction process and in the final outcome, through the aid of emerging technological tools and the perspective of landscape design.

Case Study Matrix, drawing by the author

Figure 5: Case Study Matrix, drawing by the author

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