Beneath The Soil: Reimagining Urban Design

Imagine if the tallest structures on our horizon were giant mushrooms. Between 470 to 360 million years ago, the ancient landscape was speckled with something quite similar, called Prototaxites. Not so much in the image of the fly agaric species, whose white-spotted red caps have inspired the bulk of mushroom representation in our popular culture. These organisms are thought to have looked more like tree trunks or spires, towering over other terrestrial lifeforms. Today, the fungus among us is rather less visible, but no less impressive. Fungi facilitated major changes in the earth’s biosphere. They were intimately enmeshed in the transition of life from the oceans to the shores, and played a crucial role in the development of life on land; striking up symbiotic relationships which still characterise the ecosystem today.

Whilst fungi were only given their own kingdom classification in 1969, they have shot up out of the darkness in which they were kept, to the fore of revolutionary thinking about how to address the interconnected environmental, energy, and equity crises of today. A billion years ago, they were instrumental in the major ecological adaptations that took place. Today, it looks as though they may play a significant role in shaping pioneering visions of societal and ecological change.

The biotechnological revolution is upon us, and a world in which organic processes inform and influence technological decision-making is a better world for it. Increasingly, architects, engineers and designers draw on an awareness of ecosystems to set and meet objectives. The cityscapes of visionary Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut are shaped by a confluence of infrastructure and “nature”. These Utopian urban environments appear to live and breathe as built ecosystems, rendered in Biomimetic principles of design. Cities such as those envisioned by Callebaut hint at the false dichotomy between nature and culture. The character of the relationships at play in fungal communities, and how they relate to the ecosystem as a whole, make fungi-modelled Biomimicry particularly powerful.

You might have heard of promising advancements in construction concerning building blocks made of mycelium; a non-toxic, carbon-sequestering alternative to concrete and its heavy carbon footprint. Or perhaps you have heard about Bioremediation, and how fungi are playing a major role in the healing of contaminated spaces. Their unfussy appetites have been making headlines, munching through pollutants such as plastic waste and oil spills. The ways in which humans have introduced fungi into their designs for a better world are truly wonderful. We watch and learn in awe as these formerly B-listed organisms spread their dendritic fibrils into the industries that are searching for a more sustainable future. However, these myco-societal integrations relate to fungi as a material resource. At an immaterial level, there is more we can learn from these complex organisms. In the grand scheme of fungi’s 1.5 billion year existence, humans are a drop in the ocean. From what we currently understand about how they relate to other organisms in the ecosystem (and we know relatively little), it seems that they have figured out a thing or two about cohabitation. It is interesting to apply the incomplete knowledge we have about fungi, to principles of urban design for human health.

In the U.K., the relationship between physical space and health has been acknowledged in the ONS’s ‘experimental’ health index, published in December 2020, which seeks to provide granular insight into the environmental and social determinants of health. Where we live, where we work, and how we get around all influence our health. A familiar notion is that we humans like to take and take from our surroundings. We have had, in recent history, a terrible habit of fostering a parasitic relationship with our environment. Except parasitic isn’t really the right word because in a parasitic relationship, the parasite (us humans) fares well and thrives as it feeds off its host (the environment). However, in our story, what’s going on is we humans have managed to create urban spaces in which our health cannot thrive. We have been largely ignorant of the necessarily symbiotic relationship between human health and the physical environment. We have therefore, in many but not in all ways, neglected both.

How smart are we really if we cannot reconcile aims for economic growth with aims for preventing disease? Construction and design, like so many industries, have been guilty of cutting corners to satisfy their employers who prioritise profit over purpose and principal. What we can learn from the entangled, interconnected fungal systems beneath our feet not only concerns the physical aspect of our cities, but the abstract principles of design with which we forge the sinews of those landscapes. The function of fungi within the ecosystem inspires a reimagining of the values which govern decisions around how urban spaces should perform.

Mycelial networks facilitate the flow of resources around the soil. This infrastructure consists of microscopic hyphal threads which come together to form mycelium. The connection between mycelium and the root systems of plants is called mycorrhiza (from the Greek mykós (fungus) and riza (root)). This intricate, collaborative network is popularly referred to as the Wood Wide Web. Through its filamental passageways, mycorrhizal fungi distribute nutrients, energy and information around a local community of organisms. These underground superheroes help nourish and sustain the life which surrounds them. Mycelium can facilitate a Robin Hood style handing-out of resources whereby it takes nutrients from established trees with access to vast mycorrhizal networks, and delivers them to the fungally-poor, younger saplings in the community. However, unlike in the tale of Robin Hood, these trees are not so much the victims of stealing but, rather, benevolent actors in an egalitarian process. Or so we might like to think. Naturally, the trees don’t have eyes to roll when we hypostatise their moral qualities. Projecting socialist or capitalist ideas onto the forest’s systems is in vogue, but very clunky. I am guilty of exploiting its metaphorical fecundity too. We know too little to understand the extent to which fungi are altruistic, self-seeking or neutral, but looking at the symbiosis between plants and mycorrhizal fungi, their relationships are largely characterised by mutualism whereby both the fungi and the plants benefit. In any case, the lens and language through which we understand other organic life are likely too limited to even grasp the nature of these relations. Nonetheless, the little we do understand about mycorrhizal symbiosis is enough to unearth the extent to which we dance outside of the rhythms of the natural world from which we are not, essentially separate.

Infrastructure within a city must, like the mycelium, form a connective tissue which favours equitable access to resources and opportunities for growth. At a basic level, this includes access to health services, transport access to well-paid jobs, and the types of food accessible in the vicinity. On another level, the built environment should facilitate access to physical experiences which promote health. The impact of green spaces and natural light on our health is felt physically and emotionally. Large windows, balconies, allotments, and landscaped walking routes can all become actors on an urban stage in which the grey seamlessly transitions into green; in which an urbanised existence is not an organically-deprived one. Implicit in the design of an urban environment is the ethical code with which it was constructed. Health can become the compass which guides the design process. This would naturally embrace and enlist environmental health too, as a sustainable city and a healthy population are mutually reinforcing goals. The health benefits quote unquote nature are known to all who have ever felt the soothing, therapeutic effects of relaxing by a body of water, or the energising effect of fresh air and a brisk walk. The health benefits of ample exposure to natural light, on the other hand, are less widely acknowledged. Being misaligned with the cycle of natural light through a paucity of daylight and an excess of artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythms, messes up our sleep cycles, and affects cell function, inflammation, immunity, and disease management amongst other things on a long, sobering list. For a lot more information on this, bury your nose in Linda Geddes’s Chasing the Sun or Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. A big window with a view is more rewarding than just being nice to look at. All that extra daylight can help your body maintain the natural disease-fighting, emotion-coping mechanisms that keep you feeling good. In her illuminating book, Geddes writes: "If we can strengthen these [circadian] rhythms and let sunlight back into our lives it should make a tangible difference to our health and welfare. It’s unlikely that strengthening our circadian rhythms is going to cure serious diseases such as dementia or heart disease - but if implemented over the long term, it could reduce our risk of developing them, and if we already have them, reduce the severity of some symptoms.”

In a mycorrhizal network, when a fungus colonises the roots of a plant, it stimulates the production of defense-related chemicals. This sets up an immune-response which protects the plant, making it more resistant to future disease. The hyphae also forge the infrastructure for a signaling system. For example, a plant under attack from aphids can raise the alarm to a neighbouring plant so that it gets its defensive ducks in a row before the aphids show up. Living connected to fungi is a health insurer for the plant. For humans, living in a hyper-connected, urban environment can be a risk factor for disease. Our cities are not built with protective functions beyond piecemeal measures which respond to technological advancements. Examples might be traffic lights for driver and pedestrian safety, or the Low Emissions Zone in London for better air quality. Low Emissions Zones (LEZ) and Clean Air Zones (CAZ) are forecast to take shape in many other U.K. cities later this year. These valuable schemes are certainly something to rave about, but they must exist within a multidimensional, holistic network of initiatives to truly be effective in preventing disease. Urban design’s most exciting challenges should centre around preempting future problems and working to forestall them.

An ageing population presents one such issue. Old age is the biggest risk-factor in diseases such as dementia, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. By 2030 Britain’s over-65 population is set to triple from what it was in 2016, and the over-85 population is set to double. Mission-driven design which addresses the projected prevalence of age-related ill-health would make a palpable difference to the otherwise enormous economic and emotional burden. Whilst old-age is the biggest risk-factor for the aforementioned diseases, if we roll the clock back a little to middle-age, we see that obesity, along with smoking, are the surest ways to increase your chance of developing a debilitating condition as you age. Tackling obesity is important for cultivating an urban environment fertile for prolonged quality of life and life expectancy. Interventions in public health, especially when it comes to people’s lifestyles, spark debate around autonomy and identify the threats associated with a ‘nanny-state’. This is why urban design should be a trusted custodian of human health, alongside access to good education and good jobs. The physical infrastructure which shapes our environment also architects our lifestyles, and can influence obesity in a number of ways; through impacting physical movement and emotional health. Health policy and healthcare services play a fundamental role, of course, and this role is a visible one. So too is it subject to change, and at the mercy of economic and political status. If there is insufficient funding, the health services cannot keep up with the prevalence of disease, and the court of public opinion shifts towards a lack of faith in health officials, which means that interventions in public health may be met with disaccord, or have little impact. The permanence of physical infrastructure means that an urban space designed to improve physical and emotional health performs its function perpetually, imporous to the influence of economic flux, and impervious to public offence.

Mycelium architects a network which, albeit built for efficiency (google the slime mould rail network experiment), favours health. Our built environments favour cars. Imagine if the design brief had been different. If instead of easing the flow of vehicle traffic, it had been to ease the burden of obesity and age-related disease. Of course, people need to get around. In the lifestyles we know and lead, free-flowing people and resources through the city in part rely on road vehicles. Emergency vehicles use roads. Buses use roads. Scrapping roads isn’t the answer. Nonetheless, it is interesting to let the imagination take a stroll and dream up what might fit in the space of a road, or what might replace roads as the main arteries which crisscross the urban landscape. Imagine if instead of prioritising car travel, we had prioritised urban gardens, moving walkways, and cycle routes. A city in which the efficient way of getting to work is the enjoyable way of getting to work, where blocks of flats foster connection and interaction over isolation and loneliness. If green spaces are the vital circulatory system of cityscapes, then the choices which favour good physical and emotional health become the easy choices. Those of us living in cities have all had moments this past year where we’ve felt particularly rubbish, only to realise it has been a number of days since we actually went outside or saw the sun. Reimagining urban spaces with good health as the underlying design principle can dismantle the distinction between nature and culture. It can set the rhythm of urban life to the beat of our own biological tune. Our bodies are hosts to organic processes; some of which make us happy, some of which can kill. Allowing organic processes to infiltrate and inform our urbanised existence will allow for a healthier future, for people and planet.

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