Bionic Cities For The Future – A New Teaching Idea

I have been lucky enough to visit Singapore a few times, and have always thought it to be a quite unique city. I am certainly looking forward to returning once again in the near future in order to see the new ‘Gardens By The Bay’ complex, which opened in June of this year.  I have decided to include this exciting futuristic urban regeneration project in my geography lessons – finding a space for it in the GCSE exam settlement section, and also in a year 9 unit on sustainable planning, where we examine planning issues in our own town and make comparisons to developing world shanty settlements.

 The Gardens By The Bay complex functions as a complete ecosystem – a gigantic urban organism which creates its own nutrients and naturally adapts to its surroundings. It consists of a number of giant conservatories, not dissimilar to the domes of the Eden Project, which have been modelled on the shape of sea clams. The two largest structures in the project are the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. Six thousand special glass panels make up the exteriors, which reflect a large amount of the island’s tropical heat.

Towering above the oversized greenhouses are a series of 25 to 50 metre tall steel constructions which have become known as ‘super trees’. They do indeed imitate real trees, capturing energy from sunlight, providing shade, filtering carbon dioxide from the air and converting it into oxygen. They also act like vertical gardens, inside which hundreds of other species of plants survive and thrive. This demonstrates the principle of ‘bionics’ – where intelligent design found in nature is borrowed in modern technology. Singapore stands as the forerunner in this architectural revolution, and can rightly be called the bionic capital of the world.

There are over 300 cities worldwide with over one million inhabitants, and 30 of these – including Singapore – have a population in excess of 5 million people. As these mega-cities continue to swell, they approach their capacity for growth. As the demand for energy and raw material consumption increase in these giant cities, so do levels of pollution. Currently, these needs are being met, but there may be a point in the near future when our millionaire cities collapse. Urban planners have the task of designing communities that practice responsible resource management in much the same way as natural ecosystems, and are striving to develop ‘bionic cities’ that only use as much energy as they produce, and cause no harm to the environment from pollution and disposal of waste. New initiatives like vertical gardening have become necessary because in crowded modern super cities – the only way left to develop is upwards. Incidentally, this is not a totally new idea – for instance, sixteen years ago in Harare, Zimbabwe, architects designed the Eastgate shopping centre which used a ventilation system modelled on termite mounds. This maintains a constant interior temperature of between 23 and 25 degrees, without the need for any powered air conditioning.

So where is the geography for me to concentrating on in my lessons? There are obvious links to sustainability – a key driver in curriculum design at my school – and perhaps less obvious links to urban growth and futures geography.  I think the concept of ‘Gardens  by the Bay’ will also be intriguingidea for students to enage with, and provide an opportunity to allow their creative juices to flow in some tasks I am preparing that challenge them to design their own urban spaces for the future. 

The prime minister of Singapore recently set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050. An ambitious target, and if we are going to aspire to targets like this, it will require more innovative design like the Gardens By The Bay in our other major cities. Perhaps our students – citizens of the future – can come up with some planning ideas of their own?

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About devongeography

Head of Geography and Assistant Vice Principal at South Molton Community College, North Devon. Exeter Chiefs supporter!
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