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Ecosistema Urbano: The Pioneers in Changing Urbanlandscapes

2015/2/26 — 10:14

【Text by Leung Lai Man】

The motto “think BIG, start SMALL and ACT now” drives Professor Belinda Tato and Professor Jose Luis Vallejo on the way of urban social designs. It is an approach of (re) inventing and (re) dreaming a better city for modern society by taking actions and interventions within the fields of urbanism, architecture, art, engineering and sociology. By establishing the firm Ecosistema Urbano based in Madrid in 2000, they work on spectacular and experimental projects that re-define the structures, meanings and relationships of a city.

 

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Self-organization of citizens

“First, let’s spark off imagination.” Both Belinda and Jose are architects and also professors at the Graduate School of design at Harvard University. They observed that public spaces tend to be controlled and constrained in the name of management and efficiency all around the world, rendering city lives inflexible and strangling. They couldn’t help questioning: why shouldn’t we have the right to live healthier and more equitable?  Afterwards, they started to make changes!

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Under the overwhelming influence of consumerism and globalization, cities are becoming homogeneous.“It is interesting to challenge people’s conventions and taboos,”say the architects. To test their idea, they chose an empty dusty space adjacent to a World Heritage zone which had been for decades been used as a parking lot despite its status as an urban green zone. With the students from the school of architecture, they planted trees, eliminated parking spaces and finally built a park in 5 days! Neighborhoods were surprised by the swift change of land use. The low-cost and low-tech urban acupuncture was recognized as a symbolic re-occupy of space by the people. “Empowering the people and making them feel they can be proactive to live and transform their surrounding spaces is in itself very powerful,” commented Belinda.

 

Interaction within communities

The city is where contact and dialogues between different races, cultures and landscapes happen. It should be open enough to allow every individual to be part of it. The professors were born and bred in Spain – one of the urban models on the planet with the best examples of historic, architectural, artistic and groundbreaking practices. “Live and let live” is the well-known philosophy of the Spanish. The past of the Mediterranean country provides an endless flow of inspirations to their creations.  In 2008, they came up with the idea of Spanish Pavilion for the International Exhibition in Shanghai, China. This time, they proposed to build a great open city plaza where any events can take place, lively images of the country are projected and the rhythms of cultures are shared.

The building serves as a great contrast in the land of China where public space is highly controlled. “Public space is political by its very definition,” explained Jose. “Today, it is necessary to develop the appropriate tools to establish a creative dialogue between citizens, professionals and governments. And, we architects, can positively contribute to the imagination and development of new tools. Nobody, including any government, should be scared about empowering the citizens to build a more healthy urban environment.”

 

Human and environment

Public space is the link that allows interaction between human and environment; ultimately contributing to the realization of freedom and ecological sustainability.  Madrid’s Eco-Boulevard is a revolutionary intervention with the inclusion of the Air Trees. “Sustainability is related to the very concept of health and the way we move and operate in the city to satisfy our daily needs,” says Belinda while pinpointing the criteria of a “Better City”.

The Air Trees is a construction of a see-through grid cylinder built from different types of industrial materials such as recycled plastic and rubber tires. At the top, photovoltaic panels makes the structures 100% self-sufficient. Plants and small trees surrounding the cylinder provide a better environment for the residents in the area to play, organize activities and enjoy themselves on the ground. Most importantly, the Air Tree has an essential characteristic that is tailor-made for the neighborhood: it’s natural air conditioning system highly improves the air quality and circulation in the area, which originally bore little vegetation due to climatic constraints. The construction is awarded also because of its easy relocation. When the relationship between human and environment finally reaches its balance in an area, the Air Trees can be dismantled and reused for other areas.

According to the architects, the concept of urban social design is about taking into account social factors and the needs of citizens during the design process. Taking action is the start and also the most essential part of the urban intervention. While asked to give some advices to HK dreamers, they shared: Big urban changes start with small transformations.

 

(Original published in The Communal Times)

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