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Article Architecture & Design

The amphibious ecosystem


Words by Kristina Foster

Photos by Matteo de Mayda

It is estimated that by 2050, the world’s population will have reached almost 10 billion. With our current unsustainable agricultural methods, it is becoming an ever more unnerving question as to how we will be able cope with feeding this many people. Many are turning to plants for the answer. Made up of a team of designers and biologists, Pnat is the Florentine think tank who strive to work in tandem with plants. They responded to the food question with the Jellyfish Barge, a self-sufficient, floating greenhouse. We spoke with Pnat co-founder and architect Cristiana Favretto.

Copying nature

Taking inspiration from plants is nothing new: burr seeds that cling to your jacket after an Autumn walk provided the idea for Velcro, and solar panels were modeled after photosynthesizing plant cells. Biomimicry essentially means borrowing nature’s nifty tricks to create products that help us with our own everyday lives. Pnat does just this, attempting to study plants to solve pressing environmental and social issues. “We can learn a lot from plants. They have a lot to teach us, especially about evolution. We try to look at their 450 million year-old store of knowledge about surviving on earth and combine it with design and technology,” says Cristiana Favretto, the architect who created the Jellyfish Barge with fellow designer Antonio Girardi.

A University of Florence spin-off, Pnat identified that today’s food system is unsustainable because of its consumption of three things: land, energy and fresh water. The Jellyfish Barge grows food using none of these. “The Jellyfish Barge is a new facility for urban agriculture. Water is extracted through a pump from the body of water on which the greenhouse floats. It can purify salt, brackish or polluted water using only energy provided by solar panels. It’s completely self-sufficient and it produces 1,000-15,000 edible plants – all grown by this highly efficient hydroponic system.”

Courtesy of Matteo de Mayda

Built for the sea

Cristiana and her team designed the Barge with the benefit of coastal communities in mind. These areas are particularly vulnerable to food scarcity because there is a high chance that rising sea levels caused by climate change will lead to flooding of cultivable land. The Jellyfish Barge is an amphibious organism prepared for these conditions: “The greenhouse is reinforced with aluminum for protection against the waves. Its cross-frame structure is like that of a bridge making it very sturdy.”

But it’s not just the Barge that has adapted to a life at sea, but also the plants that are grown in it. Cristiana explains that this is where studying plant evolution comes particularly in handy: “In order to adapt to this change, we did a lot of research growing a specific kind of plant genus called Salicornia. These kinds of plants, such as samphire or salt-tolerant rucola, live in or very close to the sea and have adapted to survive in high salt water conditions – they also taste very good!”

We can learn a lot from plants. They have a lot to teach us, especially about evolution.
Courtesy of Matteo de Mayda

A tool for urban regeneration

Cristiana envisions that the Barge will do a lot more than just feeding communities: “Yes, we are going to produce fresh food for people living in cities, but there is another very important aspect of the project. We foresee that the Jellyfish Barge will  facilitate the urban regeneration of abandoned dock areas on the outskirts of cities. By creating lots of these barges, we can produce more jobs, businesses and leisure for citizens.”

For now, the three constructed Jellyfish Barges remain on the banks of the Arno and the Tiber for further research. Cristiana looks forward to growing the project: “We are very ambitious. We have received some funding from the EU which we hope to use to construct more models so that we can help feed and regenerate communities. You see, the Jellyfish Barge is a tool and a marketplace. Its modular design means that you can connect lots of different units and create an agricultural platform in cities. We want a community to engage with the Jellyfish Barge. This is the goal.”