Bioplastics: A Path Towards a New Urban Hydrology
Bioplastics: A Path Towards a New Urban Hydrology

text and graphics:
Léa Alapini,
student at Ecole Nationale Supérieur d’Architecture de Paris-Malaquais, Paris
Edward Catlin,
student at Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Guillaume Jami,
student at Ecole Nationale Supérieur d’Architecture de Paris-Malaquais, Paris

English proofreading of the articles on behalf of the SARP Krakow Branch:
dr inż. arch. Marta Anna Urbańska
Original English texts were delivered by the authors.

reading time: obout 15 mins

According to most geologists, the era of human dominion over the environment and the earth’s geology, the Anthropocene1, began with the Industrial Revolution, which influenced the physical landscape of human society. Cities were built along rivers, harnessing the natural power of water and its strategic and economic benefits for the improvement of human life, most notably in terms of assisting the development of industrial economies. However, as the rapidly developing industrial economy determine the form of cities, it also dramatically affected the shape of the surrounding landscape of farms. It is by looking at both the physical form of the city and the surrounding environment that an accurate understanding of what the urban is allows for an understanding of the world as completely urbanized.

While urban society is often used to refer to the physical aspects of a city, Henri Lefebvre 2 wrote that the urban implies something other than just the traditional metropolitan elements. He argues that the social ideas and consciousness, of which the city is a representative object, have extended over what would traditionally be considered rural areas. The countryside exists to supply food and other resources for humans, parks exist to provide relaxation and tranquility to humans, and the built city exists to house human activity.

1. Anthropocene is the unofficial interval of geologic time, making up the third worldwide division of the Quaternary Period (2.6 million years ago to the present), characterized as the time in which the collective activities of human beings (Homo sapiens) began to substantially alter Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans, and systems of nutrient cycling. A growing group of scientists argue that the Anthropocene Epoch should follow the Holocene Epoch (11 700 years ago to the present) and begin in the year 1950. The name Anthropocene is derived from Greek and means the ‘recent age of man.’ https://www.britannica. com/science/ Anthropocene-Epoch, consulted the 24th August 2019

2. Originally published in 1970, The Urban Revolution marked Henri Lefebvre’s first sustained critique of urban society and is widely considered a foundational book in contemporary thinking about the city. This first English edition, deftly translated by R.Bononno, makes available to a broad audience Lefebvre’s sophisticated insights into the urban dimensions of modern life.

3. In one of many cases taking place now and of the many to come, Chile is suing Bolivia in the International Court of Justice, Dispute over the Status and Use of the Waters of the Silala (Chile v. Bolivia), a case that began in 2016 and is ongoing.

In Lefebvre’s approach, the world would appear to be completely urbanized. The anthropocenic categorization of the current global epoch would also appear to be an accurate one. All of the earth’s resources are under human control, but perhaps that control is not as universal or complete as we initially believed. If we take a look at today’s water infrastructure around the world we can observe a global tendency of cities towards poor water management - an actual lack of control. For instance, western and well-developed countries are developing their water systems around potable and clean water for all kinds of uses related to human activities. Shower, cleaning, agriculture - the whole systems are using clean water as a standard and anything else is relegated as wastewater. In many developing countries, the rich populations are converted to this western doctrine, monopolizing clean water for themselves while the rest of the population has to deal with non-filtered water sources for their survival.

This point is essential, because regarding the tension around fresh water today, the distribution of these resources tends to be controlled and vertically distributed in many parts of the globe. In the opposite way, wastewater is running in a totally unlocked and horizontal distribution system. Even in the least developed areas, canals, drains, trenches, are indispensable informal infrastructures collecting wastewater. Alongside oil, water is quickly shaping up to be a resource of geopolitical conflict that will determine the course of the 21st century.3 However, this next crisis is mostly caused by our lack of infrastructure surrounding the use and reuse of water. Regarding the clear division between two distribution paradigms; solutions for our future are maybe already running in our streets and down our buildings and factories.

The poor management of water around the world is heightened by climate change as already dry places become deserts and wet places become floodlands, forcing people to move from what would traditionally be considered as rural areas to city centers. With a changing climate and the consequences it has brought and continues to bring, the Anthropocene perhaps deserves a slightly different definition. Rather than an era of human dominion over the environment, it is instead that all events within the environment have a direct causation from human action. Human dominion implies an ability to control, whereas we seem to be witnessing a lack of human control as major nations depart from international efforts to affect environmental change.

4. The genesis of this man-made environment, approximately occured in year 1000. Before that time, during the Glacial Era, the coastline of the North sea was 200 km further west than its present position. Around, 1000 AD, water systems started to be set up by first settles.

5. Het Lage Land (1998) was an effort to address the spatial position of water in the Netherlands, focusing on three layers: 1) The underground (land and water), 2) the traffic networks and 3) the pattern of settlement of cities and villages.

But what if the Anthropocene existed as it does in its original definition - what possibilities exist when humans do have dominion over the earth’s resources, specifically water? The Netherlands are probably the most famous and striking example of such an attitude towards natural resources. The country’s present geographical shape is the result of centuries of human intervention 4 and improvement of flood defense systems. Without any of these interventions, 65% of the country would regularly be flooded and would be essentially uninhabitable, let alone arable on an industrial scale. To avoid high water levels inside the embanked areas, water was released through outlets at low tide. The first artificial drainage tools were hand and horse driven mills with very limited capacities, but with time the reclamation of large flooded areas became a common practice thanks to advanced drainage techniques. In the 17th century, with the economic growth of Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, money was invested into the enlargement of the agricultural areas, as there was a higher demand for agricultural production. After all this came the industrial era, which enabled the creation of new systems based on steam driven pumping stations. Water has always been the first priority in the Netherlands before even undertaking any planning or new settlement in the country, and that, since the very beginning of the history of the country. ‘Water as an organising principle’ has even become a catch phrase in planning in the Netherlands. This system of land use and water control is defined with three layers in manifesto Het Lage(n) Land (the Low and Layered Land). 5

6. Deltawerk is the wave testing system monument by RAAAF architecture office.

7. Westland is a municipality in the western Netherlands mostly known today to be one of the most important regions in the world for greenhouse cropping

This attitude is part of the Dutch culture and allowed the country to ensure its own long term viability so far. Indeed, the history of the Netherlands in the last ten centuries is particularly characterized by flood disasters, reparative works and reclamation. The main contemporary example of such undertaking were the Deltawerk monument. 6 Another policy set up after the North Sea Flood in 1953 lead to the construction of a chain of thirteen major flood protection structures, consisting of an intricate network of dams, barriers, sluices, locks, dikes and levees. In these conditions, the Netherlands is a relevant example of how water is becoming part of the landscape. This scheme of resource utilization is part of what has created the contemporary workscape, the idea of having in a given landscape several forms and networks of working and production areas. The Netherlands is a developed european country, but their relationship with water and different kinds of infrastructures related to it are present in countries around the world. We can imagine the workscape as a new paradigm of production that can be applicable to other regions. Today, UV farms, vertical cropping and giant greenhouses stay the closest example we have for cultivating biological products intensively, especially in the Netherlands, where the Westland region 7 is fully dedicated to this intensive cropping. Even if these systems are already optimised they are still using water inefficiently. Today new technologies are emerging and allowing us to rethink the infrastructures and the shape of our urban landscape.

8. Kombucha is a syntrophic mixed culture of yeast and bacteria used in the production of several traditional foods and beverages. A gelatinous, cellulosebased biofilm called a pellicle forms at the airliquid interface and is also sometimes referred to as a ‘scoby’ (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast). The scoby is in fact a natural metabolized kind of polymer. Kombucha bioplastics culture are today used by many experimental designs for their properties.

9. Agar-agar is a gelatinlike product made primarily from the red algae Gelidium and Gracilaria (division Rhodophyta). Best known as a solidifying component of bacteriological culture media, it is also used in canning meat, fish, and poultry; in cosmetics, medicines. Agar agar based bioplastics culture are today used by many experimental designs for their properties. https://www.britannica. com/topic/agar-seaweedproduct, consulted the 24th august 2019.

As one of the most interesting examples of the implications of this technological evolution could be, the production of bioplastic is highlighting several opportunities to shape a better urbanism. The emergence of bioplastic production on a city-wide or urban-wide scale can participate to the economic transition towards more sustainable systems. During the past months we studied how the production of bio-sourced plastics such as kombucha 8 or alage-based alternatives 9 could start a suitable transition for global plastic production and also a way to manage and allocate fresh water for industrial production. Kombucha is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast and has the incredible capacity to metabolise a strong and waterproof plastic when it is cultivated in the right conditions. Kombucha cultures are also very resilient and can survive a wide range of temperature variations as well as different water base solution for growing. The proposal we’re deploying is to rethink the relationship between our cities, our industries and the countryside with a new urban hydrology based on fair trade and efficient use of water.

If we try to take a look to other resources we’ll see clearly how their infrastructures reveal problems and innovations that could be applied to an urban hydrology. For instance, oil is one of the most coveted resources, partially because its exploitation remains mostly vertical (extraction from beneath the earth’s surface) and localized in specific areas, allowing it to be transported and carried by the same private companies that are monopolizing the extraction. In the opposite way, electrical exploitation is based on horizontal power grids. Even if these grids are sometimes divided along borders of nation-states for security reasons, electricity remains shared between different entities. The primary reason for that is that we cannot store electricity as much as we want. The second is that to maintain high electrical tension everywhere and thus optimize the distribution, the best option is to interconnect the different sites of production with all the potential consumers. This infrastructural logic connects the local with the global service and is even more interesting today as private entities can contribute to the common grid, selling back energy produced by local solar generation. Infrastructure acts as a functional system for the exploitation of resources and takes the shape that society tends to give it—sometimes for the good, but in other cases can increase inequities and tensions. Our thinking here tries to take advantage of this situation and reimagine the way water is exploited as it becomes an increasingly crucial resource.

Water lends itself to a horizontal infrastructure organization, both because of the way it is collected but also because of its necessity for all of human life. Although there are different striations of water,10 the majority of western cities today use blue water for everything from agriculture and flushing toilets to drinking and bathing, but this has remained not because of rationality but rather because of tradition. There are preliminary steps being taken towards a more conscious approach towards water usage with buildings collecting rainwater to flush toilets and water plants. However, these efforts are taking place on the scale of individual buildings, rather than across urban society.

As mentioned before, many bioplastics do not need blue water, but can be grown using water with lower levels of purification. 11 By taking wastewater, an essentially unused byproduct today, and transforming it into a valuable resource, production units that can utilise this water can bring new forms of economic means to individuals, allowing open access to a shared resource. These emerging bioplastic production units can utilise urban wastewater, most ofwhich is discarded rather than purified because of the high economic and energy costs. They could also disrupt the traditional agro-industrial landscape by distributing the production across urban landscapes, much like solar panels for electrical grids.

As seen in the Netherlands, agriculture in most western countries is still based on a 20th century thinking that uses fresh water and industrial fertilizers to optimise soil production. The metric of success is the volume of production per square meter, which leads to a high concentration of monocrops and drastically reduces biodiversity. The introduction of a bioplastic production unit could be the first step towards a new infrastructure of water operating at the individual and global scale. This would ensure not only an efficient use of water across the urban landscape, but would also allow humans to begin controlling not only the earth’s resources but also the consequences of their usage.