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Article Urban Solution

This is where future cities are built


Words by Suzanna Knight

Illustrations by Stephanie F. Scholz

How can we build future-proof cities that battle urban heat islands, extreme flooding, or the very real threat of running out of resources? Easy, says Arjan Karssenberg. Provide the builders of the future the right tools to get the job done. As head of SUS Ateliers, part of the Sustainable Building department of Rotterdam University, Arjan leads his students through various hands-on, real life projects from concept to construction. With a focus on circular design, self-sufficiency and sustainable materials, SUS Ateliers is a true breeding ground for the cities of the future.

Life in a greenhouse

“The Concept House was our first real project,” says Arjan of the greenhouse-like house located in an industrial area west of the Rotterdam city centre, complete with a rooftop vegetable farm to grow food. “It was created by a group of students and mentors from several different fields and has been up and running for almost a year now, with a family of four living there.” Water tanks on the roof store rainwater to flush toilets or water plants, plenty of greenery in the home provides natural cooling and cleans the air. Loam walls provide proper insulation; they absorb heat at the peak of the day’s temperature, and release it when it gets colder at night.

“The project is a work in progress, and students monitor it closely to see what works and what doesn’t,” Arjan explains. One of the students is currently drawing up a plan for how many heads of lettuce the roof should be able to produce for a family of four – not exactly the kind of subject you would expect an architecture student to be studying. “Building sustainable cities is about far more than just the materials you use to build them, or how many solar panels you install on your roof. We teach sustainability in the broadest sense of the word, combining architecture with ecology and biodiversity, creating circular systems for self-sufficiency. That’s what building future-proof cities is all about.”

A circular neighbourhood

Where plans for an entire row of concept houses in the north of the city are already on the drawing table, the program’s current students are working on new projects that take Arjan’s teachings one step further.“ Our global population grew from 1.5 billion to 7 billion in 500 years – such a rapid growth causes issues, especially in urban areas,” Lennart Wildeboer, one of Arjan’s students, explains with fervor whilst standing over a miniature replica of the Circular Parkade. The Parkade has the ambitious goal to become the Netherlands’ first fully circular neighbourhood, surrounded by luscious gardens and urban farms, and connecting fully sustainable systems for heating, cooling and water management between 15 buildings.

“Think about issues like urban heat islands, extreme flooding, the lack of local food production – all of that can be solved with neighbourhoods like this,” Lennart claims with conviction. The homes will be surrounded by vegetable gardens, where residents can grow their own food together. Green roofs absorb excessive rainfall, and the latter is also collected on constructed wetlands to be used to flush toilets, water the gardens or run a washing machine. Heating and electricity works as a central system, generated through natural sources and to be used when needed.

It sounds like a complicated construction, but according to Lennart, the hardest part isn’t the practicalities. “Our biggest challenge isn’t convincing everyone involved that they need these system – it’s that they need a collective system,” he explains. Instead of creating houses that are sustainable on their own, the SUS Ateliers students are convinced that the future lies in collective circular systems. “It’s far easier to fix one broken system or upgrade an outdated system than 15 different ones, for example. And it creates a sense of cohesion and togetherness amongst the residents – that’s definitely something missing from most cities.”

Building sustainable cities is about far more than just the materials you use to build them.

Future studies

As for Arjan, he’s currently working with the department on a new major with which SUS Ateliers will merge: Future Studies. The major is meant for students interested in looking beyond what’s currently possible: imagining new building techniques that haven’t been invented yet, exploring new ways to incorporate green into the future of our cities, and transforming the field of architecture and the built environment one circular system at a time.