Building Symbiotic Cities From the Ground Up

The importance of regenerating soil in urban design 

Back to the basis of life: Symbiosis

The cities of the future need to be built in symbiosis with nature. A symbiotic city is embedded in nature, provides space for natural resources and has biodiversity as a guiding principle. In urban design over the last decades we have mainly used nature in an anthropocentric way for our own physical and cultural purposes and consequently our symbiotic bond has been broken. This has led to the present challenges of climate change  and the loss of biodiversity. The concept of symbiosis in urban design holds the potential of providing solutions for these challenges. When we acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature, we will understand the earth as a community to which we belong, and we will design our cities with love and respect for nature. An important step is to rediscover and regenerate urban soil in urban design.

Symbiotic cities as future urban landscapes

The concept of the symbiotic city highlights equity and the interdependence of humans and nature. Although its design is based on ecocentrism, in a symbiotic city all inhabitants—human and nonhuman—flourish and benefit equally. In a symbiotic city we embrace four values of nature: physical, cultural, future, and intrinsic values.

The physical value is related to the provision of resources such as food, water and space. The cultural value refers to urban spaces for cultural activities such as walking, gardening and camping. The future value is focused on regeneration and the preservation of nature for future generations. The intrinsic value means that we give nature the opportunity to thrive irrespective of human needs.

Illustration evoking the symbiotic city that regenerates urban land.

The symbiotic city: Developing an urban economy that is rooted in nature. Image © Henk van Ruitenbeek

The importance of soil regeneration in urban design

Urban soil is symbiotic by nature and accommodates both the biotic and abiotic components in cities. In present urban design, the future and intrinsic value of the soil is hardly acknowledged. The physical value of the soil is dominant as it provides space to the built environment and infrastructures, and the cultural values are visible in parks and gardens for leisure activities. Ignorance of the future and intrinsic value of soil has led to the destruction of its quality along with its usable quantity, ultimately hindering its true potential of serving diverse ecosystems.

The most common example of damaging soil is the use of concrete and pavement in urban infrastructures. Heat stress and flooding are serious problems in many cities due to the high level of pavement and a lack of urban greenery. This causes problems in water retention as well as the rooting processes of trees and the destruction of microbial life and other life forms associated with soil. To recover already damaged soil, to ensure the health of less damaged soil and to conserve it for future generations, urban design practices should create room for soil regeneration.

Soil regeneration refers to the process of improving the physical, chemical and biological qualities of urban soil, which will create new healthy components as the end result. Urban design practices should be adapted to use minimal amounts of soil surface in order to give space to soil and water and they should include urban food and waste disposal practices, as well as green space management, all of which contribute to the soil regeneration processes. Planned waste disposal and associated composting help to prevent toxic chemicals and metals and undoubtedly enhance the soil quality.

Urban farming and green space management provide space for flora and fauna to flourish including soil organisms such as microbes or vertebrates. For example, in Amsterdam, a group of enthusiasts established Voedselpark Amsterdam (Food Park Amsterdam). Their plan is based upon the soil being the foundation of a symbiotic urban design of 60 hectares in the Lutkemeerpolder, contributing to its regeneration by planting fruit and vegetables, avoiding artificial fertilizers and pesticides, stimulating biodiversity and implementing initiatives such as a food forest and regenerative farming practices.

A park that aims to contribute to making Amsterdam a symbiotic city.

Hands discovering soil in Voedselpark Amsterdam. Photo @ Iris Poels

Although the involvement of citizens, volunteers, entrepreneurs, ecologists, and urban planners has been encouraged to create new bonds within the community, executing the plan faces many challenges at it does not fit into the present plans of the municipality, which aims to build a distribution center on the same location. A hopeful window of opportunity in the cooperation between the initiators of the plan and the municipality is that the latter has embraced the Doughnut Economics of Kate Raworth to operate within social and planetary boundaries.

Implications for urban design

How can city designers and planners allow for the regeneration of soil to guide spatial development? First, we need to improve our academic and practical knowledge about the importance of soil in urban areas by investing in the pertinent physical, chemical and biological information. Second, emphasize that when the green-blue structure is supported by the qualities and properties of the soil-water system, the spatial development of the living environment becomes robust and sustainable. Third, get all the actors—from citizens and farmers to politicians and companies—moving together. Fourth, establish new strategies in which municipal governments have a central role to support and enable the generation of urban soils. Fifth, we need to rebuild our economy on principles of symbiosis, regeneration and ecocentrism. Finally, we have to speed up the processes, because urban construction often goes so much faster than the greening and regeneration of soils that will build the symbiotic city.

Main image: Voedselpark Amsterdam (Food Park Amsterdam). Photo © Natasha Hulst