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

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

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

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 is proposed the concept of Precision Wildland, thus similarly to what is done with precision agriculture, the informal landscape is mapped, managed, and emphasized through design and digital technologies. Building upon its ecological and aesthetic potentialities, the goal is to create the condition for the coexistence between natural and artificial as driver for reclamation processes. The research strives to propose a methodology to acknowledge the potential of this instable and fragile lands and manage it through the Smart city tools.

The objective is to formulate a project/process to drive the transformation of abandoned sites including, from the initial stages, the consideration for the biological processes created by the preexistent spontaneous nature and allow the fruition of the area from the beginning.

The aim is to propose different possible approaches that enforce variable level of intervention, depending on the formal, usage and security needs. From the controlled environment to the untamed wilderness.

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 trough 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 whereas forecasting future outcomes. 2

However, looking at it from the design perspective, is evident that the Smart City narrative 3 was traditionally mostly shaped by politic and economic interests, dealing more with strategies than site specific intervention, more with advertisement that 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 smarty 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.

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 performative 4 and informal nature. 5 6
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 the 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. 7 8 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.

Atmospheric image of the study of rails. drawing by the Author

Figure 2: Atmospheric image of the study of rails. drawing by the Author

Positioning - The Research Attitude

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

In this process, similarly to what is already done with precision agriculture 11, the use of technology can 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 this instable and fragile patches. 7 Thus, wildlands are seen with a design approach, looking at their biodiversity, aesthetic value, management, and ruled 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, railway yards, due to the innate “intelligence” of the railway network and the spontaneous pockets of wildland that may inhabit it. From the structure of the soil (slope, materiality, cabling underneath), the presence of spontaneous nature (unique combination of seeds transported by the trains) 12 to the dynamic of two opposite systems (linear/monodirectional line of the rail opposed to the mutable pockets of nature).

The objective is to formulate a project/process to manage the transformation of abandoned sites to include, from the initial stages, the consideration for the biological processes created by the preexistent spontaneous nature and allow the fruition of the area from the beginning.

The 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, also proving its interest in the day-to-day management of sites still in use. At the same time, they can drive development projects, to map and predict and achieve a future needed use, thus preserving the biodiversity born during the years of abandonment.

In this sense, to validate the research also from an operative standpoint, the research strives to define aspects relevant for the practice and the managing structures of the railways network: the potential carbon credits that railway’s wildland may produce. Normally this kind of quantifications are operated on forests, but the idea is to try to evaluate the amount of carbon dioxide this informal landscape, mostly made of weeds and bushes, may remove from the environment.

The underlying awareness is that the data interpretation and reaction to the inputs belongs to the realm of engineering, whilst the design of a landscape that can allow both informal nature and shape it for productive purposes may be controlled by landscape architects. Together they may operate the evaluation of carbon capture in complex habitats, mapping existing plants and maxing hypothesis to grow complementary ones to make it more sustainable. 13

The aim is to propose approaches that enforce different level of intervention, depending on the formal, usage and security needs. From the controlled environment to the untamed Wilderness.

The idea is that the technological tool may accompany inherently unpredictable processes, constantly adapting to them in order to achieve wished result.

Likewise, the question of 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 sensor 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.

Case Study Matrix, drawing by the Author

Figure 3: Case Study Matrix, drawing by the Author

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 landscape in combination with the technological means. The ambition is to have an impact on the processes linked to renewal of abandoned spaces, not only on the theoretical debate on the subject but deeply rooting the research in a design driven approach, stiving to define a methodology applicable to real design scenarios.

This investigation it’s 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/ reacting to sensor 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 conclusion and shed real insights to shape an effective methodology.

To complement this, the research will define precise test beds, railyards with specific characteristic of usage (abandoned, partly in use, in use), size and relationship to their territorial network.

At the moment, several existing testing grounds in Italy have been identified and others will be located in other European cities. The definition of the precise criteria is still ongoing, but the chosen wider context is Europe, where the is a tight-knitted railway network and cities keep on rebuilding themself with unique instances of urban renewal. There is a natural tendency to constantly “recycle” the city, that can be amplified with the Smart city tools

The research will also pose a set of precise inquiries to various interlocutors, scholars, and experts from different fields, questioning the economic and ecological relevance of the way it proposes to manage and maintain railway’s wildlands. The idea is to question Agronomist, Engineers, and railway consultants to comprehend the processes behind the design on railyards and the way spontaneous nature its treated according to different usage scenarios. The aim is to orient the research in a pragmatic way and give to it a practical relevance, especially significant as it’s inscribed in the DDR methodology.

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