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Unearthing utopia
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Unearthing utopia
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Unearthing utopia
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Articles
27 April 2018

Unearthing utopia

“We are obsessed with building labyrinths where before there was open plain and sky. We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us.” —Thomas Pynchon

Written by Shannon Powell

This story originally ran in issue #39 of Dumbo Feather

On a recent venture through Europe I experienced shock, bewilderment, awe and embarrassment at the level of environmental consciousness that European cities and rural areas have adopted. Compared with Australia, European countries are light-years ahead in sustainable energy and environmental design innovation.

I lived in Los Molinos, a sustainable community near the Andalusia coast, which exists almost completely off the grid and without money. The community produces its own food, solar power, irrigation systems and architectural infrastructure. The home that we lived in was called Los Miradors, which translates to “The Observers.” From the rooftop we could see the small desert community below weaving patterns in the sand. The mountainous terrain in Andalusia, peppered with fierce cacti and jagged cliff faces, has since become a destination for mining companies, who after discovering masses of gypsum salt crystal, have flocked to the area, disturbing the peace of this Shangri-la.

Below the azure blue rock pools that spill onto the land surrounding the commune lays an underground water basin, an endangered lifeline that feeds one of the world’s most unique eco-systems. At sundown we would hike into the desert. Off in the distance, beyond a thick, translucent wall of humidity, the remnants of abandoned villages appeared like mirages; a tragic reminder that soon another roaring highway or worse, a mining site might engulf Los Molinos, leaving nothing but the hallucinatory crumbs of another paradise lost. Since returning to Australia, I am constantly reminded of these images of dystopia: giant wounds dug into the surface of the earth, mountains crumbling away from the land, pristine waterways vacuumed away from their beds.

The opportunity to create more sustainable cities is dependent on incorporating systems of the natural world in our town planning. English physician, polar explorer and natural historian, Edward Wilson aims to reconnect humans through Biophilic design—an architectural theory that poses humans have an intrinsic need to be in contact with living organisms. Wilson’s hypothesis is that we need contact with nature as much as we need nutrients and air for metabolism. It’s essential to our wellbeing that we, “Bring as much nature as we can into our everyday environments so as to experience it first hand.” Wilson also says, “We need to shape our built environment to incorporate those same geometrical qualities found in nature.”

We need to re-acquaint ourselves with that wonderfully strange living organism that is our planet. If we are to attempt to repair, or at least prevent, the damage that we are doing to Earth, there must be a return to do-it-yourself methods while also embracing technological advances. Creating small ecosystems within a city such as community gardens and spaces for rooftop agriculture are great places to start. Melbourne’s rooftop honey project—where beehives have been installed on inner city rooftops—proves that we can bring our built environments back to life, while organisations such as 3000 acres connect food growers with empty land.

Similarly, the first vertical forest (Bosco Verticale) is underway in Milan. The two towers will absorb CO2, oxygenate the air, moderate extreme temperatures and lower noise pollution. It will also incorporate a grey-water filtering system (water from the sinks and showers) to water the trees. This remarkable structure marks an important fusion of humans and nature, while also helping to lower living costs and improve quality of life.

Forging this deep ravine between humans and nature will not be an easy feat after so many years of thinking the Earth nothing but a dumb rock. But perhaps we will emerge from an age of destruction to become the architects of an age not yet born, a world not yet known.

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