Could floating shipping containers help sort out the world’s slums?

The interior of the first completed City App. Image: Waterstudio.NL.

“What if a city was as flexible as a shuffle puzzle?” Koen Olthuis asked in his 2012 TEDx talk. He was referring to those games in which you move squares around until you make a picture. At the time, his audience probably didn’t realise he was serious.

But using moveable little boxes to meet a city’s needs were exactly what Olthuis was proposing. His talk was on the subject of the “Floating City Apps” developed by his architectural firm, the Netherlands-based Waterstudio. (You may remember them from their plans for a floating golf course in the Maldives. Or maybe you saw their designs for a snowflake-shaped hotel off the coast of Norway.)

These mobile buildings would float on bodies of water at the edges of cities. They could also be moved around according to a city’s needs, and could fulfil a range of different functions. Some would be educational, with internet access and computers; others could act as bakeries, housing, healthcare centres, or floating mats of solar panels. 

In June, the first piece of Olthuis’ shuffle puzzle was completed: an educational suite which will double up as an internet cafe in the evenings, all powered by solar panels on its roof. It’s been built inside a shipping container, to makes it easy to transport; a base constructed from thousands of plastic bottles collected by slum residents will be added once it reaches its destination.

It’s due to be shipped out to a slum in Manila in the autumn. Here’s the architect’s mock-up of the city app in situ:

Olthuis’ interest in water-based construction was inspired partly by his home country: around half the Netherlands lies below sea level, and massive amounts of water are pumped away daily to keep the country high and dry. But it’s not the low countries that could benefit most from this kind of architecture: it’s the rapidly growing and slum-packed cities of the developing world, and wet slums – those edging onto bodies of water, and so at risk of rising sea levels – were forefront in Olthuis’ mind when he came up with the idea:

“They’re some of the hardest areas to help, because they’re so close to the water,” he says. “People are unwilling to invest in development that could flood, or just wash away.” His hope is that these City Apps could help change that: the units they would rise with sea levels if an area floods, and could be moved elsewhere if necessary. This first app was funded by the prize money from the 2012 Architecture and Sea Level Rise Award, the studio and other sponsors; in future, the studio is hoping to build them then lease them out to NGOs and development agencies for a low monthly cost.

There’s a case for helping the world’s 1.1bn slum dwellers to more permanent settlements, rather than just improving the slums, of course. But in Olthuis’ view, “slums aren’t going to go away, so the only thing we can do is upgrade their prosperity”. There are a few creases to iron out first, though – at the moment, the studio may have to pay tax on transporting the Manila app, and are meeting with embassies to try and avoid this “real waste of money”. 

While the city app will be run by a local organisation once in Manila, Olthuis is keen to stay involved. “The most important thing is that we can measure the app’s effects, and check how it’s working.” He wants to build hundreds, even thousands, more apps for different purposes around the world: 90 per cent of the world’s largest cities border a body of water, whether it be river, lake, or sea, so the project’s applications could stretch far beyond wet slums. Because of their floating foundations, the apps are relatively stable, though they may not work so well in waters prone to violent waves.

For Olthuis, floating architecture offers a way to use the dead space off the coasts of cities. It also offers flexibility, as units can be moved to a different location, or even another city, as the needs of the surrounding area change – just as you can change the apps on your phone.

Image: architect Koen Olthuis at Waterstudio.NL.


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.