Biophilic Urban Studio: Making Europe's 2012 Green Capital Even Greener
Making Europe’s 2012 Green Capital Even Greener
By Jenny M. Abel
“How can we design cities that better incorporate nature?” This question is the focal point of the work of Tim Beatley, the University of Virginia School of Architecture’s Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities and newly appointed chair of the Department of Environmental and Urban Planning. The topic was also the center of attention for five A-school students who traveled to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, this summer to participate in a two-week Biophilic Urbanism Studio.
Beatley, who several years ago coined the term “biophilic urbanism” to refer to cities that integrate natural elements into their design and planning, offered the studio as part of the broader Biophilic Cities Project, which he directs. As one of the Project’s partner cities, Vitoria is already regarded as exemplary for environmental friendliness—and even holds the highly coveted designation of European Green Capital for 2012. However, the city is under new mayoral leadership and seeks to further “green” its interior, creating an “interior green belt” to complement its outer green belt.
The interdisciplinary cohort of A-school students, together with students from around the world (including Spain and Italy), descended on Vitoria in June to participate in a workshop—directed in part by Beatley—that culminated in the presentation of real, implementable ideas for the city’s four corridors (north, south, east, and west).
The proposals “combined important ecological initiatives, from daylighting streams to increasing biodiversity in the heart of the city,” according to Jack Cochran (MArch, MUEP ’13), who worked on the southern axis. The plans offered aesthetic as well as practical value—for example, converting an unused plaza into an urban waterpark that captures and infiltrates rainwater while providing refreshment through a series of publicly accessible pools.
“We created drawings to help residents and city officials see what might be possible,” summarized Cochran. “It was very rewarding to feel as though we could make a long-lasting impact in Vitoria.”
For Carla Jones, a dual public health and urban and environmental planning graduate student who is also a part-time researcher for the Biophilic Cities Project, the experience was a unique opportunity to combine her interests, experiment and work with designers, and provide a unique viewpoint regarding research methodologies.
“Our team sought to capture the human experience throughout our [southern] axis of the city in terms of sound, materials, and light,” Jones explained.
With language barriers to overcome and widely varying backgrounds and perspectives among participants, both Jones and Cochran found the collaboration with international students to be one of the most simultaneously enriching and challenging aspects of the studio.
“It was an intense, two-week experience, but in the end we had a product that the city could use in making future decisions,” Jones said. “This workshop serves as a model for cities across the world.”
Beatley added that those involved in the Biophilic Cities Project will continue to draw from the work in Vitoria—and in other partner cities—to develop a “network of planners from around the world, biophilic urbanists who can help each other and learn from each other.” The team plans to hold a conference in 2013—a capstone to the project’s two years of funding by the Washington, DC-based Summit Foundation.
Other A-school students who took part in this summer’s Biophilic Urbanism Studio were Holly Hendrix (MUEP ’12), Rachel Stevens (MLA, MUEP ’14), and Chelsea Dewitt (MLA, MUEP ’13). Learn more about their experiences at http://biophiliccities.org/biophilic-urbanism-studio/.