The Salon Conversation

The Seed Salon May 12, 2009

Biodiversity expert Thomas E. Lovejoy talks with architect and urban planner Mitchell Joachim about victory gardens, vertical farms, senators in the jungle, and more.

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Since 1965, when Thomas Lovejoy began exploring biodiversity in the Amazon, he has worked to defend ecosystems against human impact. Mitchell Joachim creates human habitats and transportation systems — and believes that ecology can inform a new, more resilient, ethos of design. When the two met recently in Manhattan, the ideas flew: from victory gardens to vertical farms, senators in the jungle to students toting trash. And from their discussion, a critical question emerged: Are we a society of Homer Simpsons or WALL-Es?

MITCHELL JOACHIM: If we expect another 2.5 billion people on this Earth, and a lot of them are going to be urban dwellers, we have to rethink the concept of the city. So, a lot of my work centers on that — everything from infrastructure and mobility systems to designing vehicles, cars, trains, and public housing.

THOMAS LOVEJOY: That’s great. As I look at the global scale of our environmental problems, it’s all about accommodating human aspiration in a way that’s less damaging to the Earth. As Bill McDonough would say, it’s so much about design.

But I’d love to hear more about some of the specific things you are doing, like “soft cars.”

MJ: At MIT, we were charged with designing the car of the future. It was boring, because “of the future” quickly becomes anachronistic. There’s the future car; there’s been the future house. So instead we thought to design products, or a lexicon of ideas, that would fit into every car. We decided to rethink mobility, period, starting with the wheel and moving on to things like chassis and ownership and identity — bigger concepts.

“Soft car” became one meta-thought, in that if we could put the entire vehicle on these very smart wheels, with just enough power to work in the context of a city, the rest of the envelope could be freed up for anything.

It could be made of any material — pleated, soft, scuffable materials, surfaces that are okay rubbing against one another. Vehicles in this kind of system would move in a gentle congestion, in flocks and herds. Their patterns would be controlled computationally, but locally, you could switch over to user control.

TL: I’ve spent decades looking at development challenges in the Amazon Basin. And the worst thing that can happen there is for somebody to build a highway. Once you do that, spontaneous colonization occurs, deforestation becomes rampant, and you basically lose control.

Bruce Babbit and I recently wrote an op-ed in Brazil’s largest paper about a project almost nobody here knows of — a continent-scale infrastructure plan for South America. One of its key pieces has already been funded and built: a road from the Western Amazon of Brazil, through the rainforests of Amazonian Peru, and up the Andes to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital. It’s a recipe for disaster. We basically said that the whole thing needs to be revisited in the light of current knowledge. We’re not dismissing the need for transportation or the integration of South America; we’re saying that we need to consider other options. The whole Amazon worked on river transport until 50 years ago. Where does the river system figure into this new plan? And where is the place for railroads? Where should cities be? How do the economics of those cities relate to the forests?

MJ: Right.

TL: My sense is that people don’t care how they get somewhere as long as they can get somewhere.

MJ: Speed might be a factor at some point, but I agree. I like that you’ve taken a holistic, top-down approach to thinking about the overall infrastructure, at the scale of a continent. Eisenhower did this in the United States with the interstate highway system.

TL: It almost killed the rail system. There are always huge subsidies for the highways and almost none for Amtrak.

MJ: Well, it looks like the Obama administration is going to be concentrating on infrastructure for the next several years. All these things we’ve been talking about for the last two or three decades — decentralizing the grid, making it renewable — could probably reach fruition. It’s a tremendous opportunity. So we’ve begun to formulate a new field that would look at the infrastructure of cities within the rubric of ecology. The idea would be to design them from scratch or to fit them into some kind of circumstance like the Amazon.

Do you know of any examples, in and around the Amazon, that fit the paradigm of a large-scale, sustainable infrastructure?

TL: The river system is one. It’s vast, with 20 percent of the world’s river water, and it’s cheap, too: If you can get soybeans from southern Brazil up into the Amazon and send them down the river, it becomes inexpensive transport because you’ve got the current working for you. It’s almost like a local bus service.

MJ: But the population inside the Amazon is negligible compared to a mega-city, right?

TL: At the moment, it’s about 30 million. It was just 3 million when I first went there in the 1960s. Again, I think the key with cities is to create appealing urban centers with activities and labor that benefit the people, so that they don’t find it necessary to reap short-term profit by clearing forest.

The city of Manaus, for example, is now an economic free zone, with a lot of small-scale manufacturing. This has created a nucleus of economic activity, both attracting people to Manaus and keeping the local population — roughly 2 million people — within the city. The state of Amazonas, of which Manaus is the capital, has the lowest deforestation rate of any of the Amazon states.

MJ: It sounds like you’re trying to design around the issue of containment, trying to stop people from destroying the forest.

TL: Well, I would think about it the other way around: instead of containment, more the attraction of cities that offer a reasonable quality of life.

MJ: What do you think of things like vertical farming? You essentially have a tower, and inside you grow things like dwarf wheat and dwarf corn with robots to service it all. You recycle water and waste, all within the same system, and locate this thing in a downtown core, so that food doesn’t have to travel a great distance to get to populations.

TL: So, the ultimate in local food. Has anybody done the numbers for that?

MJ: Supposedly, Dickson Despommier at Columbia University has. Are you familiar with the idea?

TL: Only very vaguely. I just wonder how you get enough solar energy.

MJ: The idea is that with the right geometry of the tower, you can get it with a lot of light wells and reflectors, or with heliostats to focus light in the building. The problem, from a policy standpoint, is that it would be very hard to put something like this in the Bronx. A tower devoted to vegetables, when so many families need public housing. So some people are working to integrate housing and food, to create urban farms within the places where people live.

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