Prof. CJ Lim. Photo credit: Lourdes Photography

Nature Returns To The City

At MICAS’s education conference, ‘Connecting with Nature: Placemaking and the Urban Garden’, C.J. Lim proposes how urbanism must resolve its confrontation with nature through bold and imaginative solutions that allows humans to recover an ecological symbiosis lost to industrialisation

From humanity’s innate love of the tree, with its power to absorb harmful carbon, and its survival even in the most cataclysmic of man-made events, Prof. C.J. Lim (Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the Bartlett, UCL) proposes to the MICAS audience a challenge: embracing the fury of nature for a new paradigm in architecture, or ‘placemaking’, his preferred term.

Juxtaposing Thomas Cole’s Dream of Arcadia (1838) with the horrific scorched-earth aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb attack that ended World War II, Prof. Lim is drawn to the crisp burnt trees that ‘outlived’ the bomb attack. “Everything evaporated from the city… except for the Gingko trees. And while everything disappeared, the branches of the trees started to sprout.”

It is with this stark contrast in mind – the Gingko trees surviving Hiroshima through their deeply-anchored roots, with Cole’s idyllic, pre-industrial landscape – that Prof. Lim presents nature as a tapestry of solutions, of hope for human in the anthropocene, plagued by the anxiety of the climate crisis.

This is what is at the heart of Prof. Lim’s WanMu Ecological Park project for Guangzhou city in China, a ‘Smart City’ of over 29 square kilometres where environmental engineering marries the 21st century challenges of sustainability, food production, water security, and energy conservation, providing ecological education within the very aesthetics of the wetland system and orchards.

This ecological symbiosis – many times only treated as a planning afterthought – is part of Prof. Lim’s philosophy, not just on the romance of trees, but also on their innate bond with environmental justice and indigenous rights and wisdom. Taking inspiration from the brave campaigning of Nigerian environmentalist Kenule Saro-Wiwa, or Hernan Bedoya and other anti-deforestation campaigners murdered for their activism, Prof. Lim sees trees as “living monuments of environmental heroism”.

Because the flipside to this disappearance of trees, is land cleared for industrialised monoculture, soya-bean agriculture or cattle farming, the loss of indigineous cultures living in harmony with nature, or the proletarianisation of Chinese farmers who abandon their land for a precarious livelihood in urban centres. So in an age where the climate crisis renders cities vulnerable with food and water shortages, as well as other demographical challenges, Prof. Lim argues that Smart Cities must have sustainability at their forefront: with urban agriculture and tree-planting in its most radical form.

“I want trees in the sky,” he says about images from his Tomato Exchange smart city, where tomato production hangs, like towers overhanging the urban buildings and monuments of London. In a more radical iteration, Prof. Lim dreams of urban cities that are attuned to the climate, the changing of the seasons, and ultimately, the fragility of life: he would like its urban dwellers to refuse to buy berries off-season from supermarkets… instead, why not scrap the consumerist seduction of supermarkets, and only eat what we plant?

Why not? Prof. Lim proposes a stitch-and-patch up of city brownsites, abandoned spaces and railway tracks, that can be turned into gardens of wellbeing, where the average 10×10 metre plot and 130-day temperate growing season can sustain a family annually, and even provide the requisite exercise to keep obesity at bay.

It is a confrontation: an agrarian past and belief in nature, against the vulnerability of the skyscrapers of the cities. Prof. Lim conjures up the image of the artist Agnes Denes in a field of golden wheat in 1982, behind her the New York skyscrapers towering above a two-acre field planted over a landfill (later to become Battery Park City). ‘Wheatfield’ could almost pass for an AI-generated ‘artwork’, such is the incongruity of this agricultural sea in concrete Manhattan. And yet, it is a scene that is ahead of its time – here we are today, arguing to resolve the tension between the natural and man-made, and reintegrate nature, wildly, into the urban fabric.

“I think we are, as a society, so solution-orientated, that sometimes we forget about how to imagine and dream for bigger and more exciting things… risk-taking is important,” Prof. Lim says. “I think that everything with built environment comes with an element of risk and failure.”

This is why renaturing or rewilding, introduces what Lim calls “an unpredictable element to the otherwise predictable nature of buildings”.

“We must see the boldness and added value of introducing nature as a key player to a strategy of resilience in architecture – an ecological symbiosis, a model of resilience, for nature as well as food production,” he says, so that even the 21st century human being can forge a link back to the idyllic nature of the Romanticist landscapes. After all, Cole’s Dream of Arcadia too was borne of a fear at the loss of American wilderness to the preternatural advent of industrialisation. This time, we venture forward boldly, renaturing the urban and the industrial.

You can watch ‘Connecting with Nature: Placemaking and the Urban Garden’ on the MICAS Facebook feed here.


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