MDes Talks: Urban Ecology - The Threshold into a Different Kind of Thinking

The first semester of my MDes programme is over and I sat down to reflect on what I have learned the past four months.

Urban Ecology was the first subject that we spent roughly two months on. What happened during these five-hour seminars over a six-week period might look familiar to many, but the outcome was excitingly unexpected for me.

Yes, we did sit at our desks, and we had enthusiast professors sharing new perspectives on the world. We absorbed as much as we can while figuring out the intricate vocabulary to keep ourselves on track. We researched, presented, read articles and books by architects, philosophers, sociologists and watched documentaries. But lines are blurred between disciplines so we can understand a bigger picture – and this is what Urban Ecology seminar is about.

From confusion to clarity. I understood how little I knew already on the first seminar. From confusion to clarity. I understood how little I knew already on the first seminar


I feel the past months as a planting process which has been started. The seeds are the knowledge while our enthusiasm and group dynamics are the soil. We have been watered by the daily feedback from the professors, and the well-sequenced time acted as a natural fertiliser to our learning. It is not a surprise that I choose this metaphor, I am subconsciously influenced by the meaning of ecology: an analysis of interactions and relationships between all components of our environment. The living components: people, nature, animals and the commons (water, land, natural resources); and the man-made components such as the built environment, infrastructure, agriculture, goods, waste interact with each other. Every action has an effect on the rest. It is just matter of scale.

Ecology as a holistic system where everything is in relationship with everything
Ecology as a holistic system where everything is in relationship with everything.


During my undergrad, I have had questions about the impact of my work as a designer on the environment. The lifecycles of the buildings are extremely short in Hong Kong, while interior spaces change their functions faster than ever. I became a LEED Green Associate to learn more about this topic: Where do the materials come from? Where do they go? Who works on them, in what circumstances? How do they get transported? What happens with the waste? What impact does that have? When fertile green lands turned into brownfield, what will we do with this land? Build a park or the next parking lot? Who are the decision makers? Who takes responsibility?

Thinking sustainably is not bad at all. However, when we are considering design from an ecological perspective, we are thinking beyond “not bad” and ask how our interventions fit into the even bigger picture of Mother Nature? In the seminar, we referred Mother Nature as Gaia, who is the goddess of Earth in Greek mythology.

We asked how our projects and interventions would affect ecologies, economies, societies and the life of an individual? We researched whether it would be necessary to build at all? These are the kind of questions that rarely goes into a project contract, but this is exactly where our power lies as designers of the built environment.

Gaia is the Goddess of Earth. She is the primordial mother; all life is born from her womb
Gaia is the Goddess of Earth. She is the primordial mother; all life is born from her womb. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis states that all life, and all living things on this planet, are part of a single, all-encompassing global entity or consciousness which he named Gaia.


You might say, that is too idealistic – but mind you, it is not a new way of thinking. This is what utopian projects did since Sir Thomas More wrote his book Utopia, in 1516. This is what the 18th-century paper architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée was about. The questions are to propose a new environment where a new kind of society, economy or individual could flourish and where the architecture becomes the infrastructure to this new way of living. An example is Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay project where people would occupy the water as their living environment, or Constant Nievenhuy’s New Babylon where robots would work instead of us due to complete automatisation, while we would focus on connecting with each other and self-actualise through art and play.

Before I did not understand why architects would sit down and work years on utopian projects, without the intention or possibility to see them built. I understand now that envisioning a different future is what designers do. And sometimes that future arrives in a few months, other times it takes decades or centuries. Designers envision possibilities.

An utopia is a large-scale vision for the future, where everything works perfectly. Its aim is not necessary feasibility but that of envisioning limitless possibilities.
An utopia is a large-scale vision for the future, where everything works perfectly. Its aim is not necessary feasibility but that of envisioning limitless possibilities.


Did we ever think that we will occupy the waters? Millions of people are living today on reclaimed land, artificial islands. Just think of Singapore, Dubai, or Hong Kong. Did we ever think that automatization will free us up from work, and we will be all connected as Constant’s New Babylon proposes? Well, here we are, hyper-connected through the Internet, and well, I just met Sophia, the first female robot with a citizenship to have a conversation about mindfulness. We might not be freed up from work yet, but what we do is less and less manual labour, so a shift is clearly happening. How does that affect our experience on Earth? And Earth’s experience with us on it?

Sophia is the first human robot I have ever met. What once was an utopia today is closer and closer to reality. It is a good example on how one piece of design can have a global impact.Sophia is the first human-robot I have ever met. What once was a utopia today is closer and closer to reality. It is a good example of how one piece of design can have a global impact. ­


Today, I question the role of the designer as the facilitator and many times inventor of these futures. Because with power, responsibility comes, too. If we lose sight, we must go back to see the big picture and think of Gaia not as a mythological figure, but as the Shared Home of our Humanity. Shifting ourselves from the illusionary bubble of an EGOsystem to acknowledging our part in the ECOsystem is key. Perhaps this is the first concept that travels with me into the New Year.

We created an extremely EGO oriented system, while the truth is we are all part of a bigger ECO-system.
We created an extremely EGO oriented system, while the truth is we are all part of a bigger ECO-system.


Image/ illustations credits: Panna Boroka Kopacz

Posted by Panna Boroka Kopacz - My main interest lies in how design influences human behavior and ultimately it can enhance human life experience from a spatial design perspective. I have a multidisciplinary background rooting in social sciences, economics, philosophy, fashion and the fine arts. What brought me to this life path is my undergraduate degree obtained from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I have majored in Interior Design, and graduated in June 2017. My brief work experience included retail design and hospitality design before deciding to join the MDes programme in Urban Environments Design.

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MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.
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