City Nature and the Nature of Cities

Integration with nature across scales

Throughout the history of human settlement, the form and growth of our cities have traced a story of human and environmental interaction. Since the onset of industrialization this relationship has often been focused on the control and extraction of nature, viewing it as other and separate from the city. As our world becomes ever increasingly urban, and we face the interwoven crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, it is time for designers, planners and all those engaged in city building to reimagine and begin to write a new story as we shape our environment.

The reintegration of nature within our cities presents the potential to support ecosystem regeneration and increased resiliency for our cities while enhancing day-to-day human well-being. Such an impulse to connect natural and human ecologies through design has been central to the design philosophy of Henning Larsen and represents a challenge that we continue to contend with across our work from large-scale urban design to the finer details of building tectonics.

Cities that are rebuilt with respect for nature.

The spine of the former “Runway” at the heart of a reimagined Downsview, Downsview Framework Plan, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Henning Larsen. Image © Henning Larsen

The need for regenerating cities falls into especially clear relief in the case of brownfield redevelopment.  These once productive, now abandoned and polluted sites, often exist as barriers and points of amnesia within the urban fabric, disconnecting people and places and bereft of natural life. Along with design partners SLA and KPMB, we were confronted with such a case at Downsview in Toronto where we developed a framework plan for Northcrest Developments and Canada Lands Company to guide the redevelopment of a 520-acre former airfield into a neighborhood that can support a thriving community for generations to come.

Where the site is currently crisscrossed by roads, rail lines, and former airbase infrastructure, the framework plan envisions a series of interconnected and human-scaled neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods are organized by a network of green infrastructure, built around the geometry of the former runway, that links parks and open spaces, supporting biodiversity and lending a legibility to the public realm in support of civic life. Designed according to “15-Minute City” principles, open space, civic amenities, and everyday needs are distributed along this network for ease of access within a short walk, bike or public transit ride.  Underlying all of this is a concept of "City Nature": a both/and approach to urbanism that weaves landscape and nature together with architecture and public space to create a sense of place that fosters community.

Nature, people and city are intertwined.

A framework for the weaving of people, place and nature at Downsview, Downsview Framework Plan, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Henning Larsen. Image © Henning Larsen

Lying just beyond the Copenhagen city center, the planned community of Fælledby, to be built upon a 18.1 hectare former dump, presented another opportunity for this both/and approach to nature and city. In this case, by merging traditional Danish urban and rural typologies, the design for Fælledby, which will be Copenhagen’s first all timber neighborhood, aims to support the establishment of close-knit communities with intimate connections to nature.

To achieve this, the masterplan is organized into three enclaves with each forming the framework for a smaller-scale community. Woven between these community clusters, native-planted landscapes provide bio-habitat and allow for the movement of local wildlife. Beyond these site planning strategies, the architecture and the community gardens within the landscape have been designed to integrate nests for songbirds and bats into the walls of houses, wetlands to support frog and salamander habitat, and pollinator gardens. As a result, nature—untamed and indigenous—is within a two-minute walk from any resident’s home.

In the city of Copenhagen, a façade that integrates nature.

A modular integrated green wall facade system, render for Nordø facade, Copenhagen. Image © Henning Larsen

Just as ecosystems nest across scale, so must us our design thinking.  A modular green facade system designed in collaboration with BG Byggros and Komproment and supported by the Danish Ministry of Environment is an interesting case study in exploring the potential to integrate ecology directly into built form. This system, which will first be realized within Nordø, a mixed-use development in Copenhagen’s North Harbor district, integrates vegetation into a modular, unitized enclosure system. Rather than applied to the building exterior, this system integrates vegetation within the wall construction, behind a perforated cladding of weathering steel with integrated rainwater irrigation. The weathering steel recedes  to the background during summer, when vegetation is most intense, only to present itself again during the winter when native plants have withered. In this way the architecture provides a dynamic and regionally specific expression of nature that changes with the seasons, without compromising aesthetics.

The future success of our cities requires a shift to a more ecological mindset which recognizes the deep interdependencies of humans and nature. Through design, regardless of scale or typology we can seek to nurture these connections, make space for nature, and enhance biodiversity.  Perhaps expanding upon Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City we might add a Right to Nature, and in seeking to address both simultaneously only enhance the joys of urban life.

Main image: A new model for community building with nature at its core, Fælledby, Denmark, Henning Larsen. Image © Henning Larsen 

Video: Evergreen Innovation, Henning Larsen, Raket Film