Bacteria, active paints and aquariums

Dr Rachel Armstrong, senior lecturer at Greenwich University’s School of Architecture, Design and Construction, looks to a future of regenerating cities

Our predictions about the foreseeable future are based on a view of tomorrow that is much like today in which populations need to consume fewer resources and use less energy, assisted by smart metering technologies.

While modification of current consumer-based practices is essential to buy us time to adjust to new expectations of environmental practice, our methods will change and possibly more rapidly than expected, due to disruptive innovation in the built environment.

Cities are our richest drivers of transformation being situated at the convergence of cultures, ideas and practices. While there is no single fix to our current situation, we are already witnessing systemic changes due to distributed new technologies that are making a positive impact on our urban lifestyles.

Buildings are becoming part of the solution to our polluted surroundings

We are living in a time of digital natives that have forged online communities with access to affordable manufacturing platforms, who share a passion for self-sufficiency and DIY cultures. By decentralising the way that cities are made and empowering those who seek a different kind of urban lifestyle, these communities are transforming city environments.

Ideas about the role that cities can play in our future are also changing. Buildings are becoming part of the solution to our polluted surroundings. Active paints and surfaces on exteriors can remove carbon dioxide and environmental pollutants to render them harmless.

But the city fabric is reaching beyond remediation and zero impact; it is making a positive contribution to urban living using the regenerative qualities of biological materials. Bacteria can help concrete self-repair. Lichen painted on building walls can regulate their temperature without the need for any electrical circuitry.

Building facades designed as urban aquariums not only removes carbon dioxide, but the CO2 can also be used to make fuels. This implies a near-future where energy consumers will become producers.

These “can do” approaches and technologies empower citizens to reclaim the future of their cities rather than waiting obediently for centralised directives. The resultant optimism invites participation and builds community, where inhabitants are not damaging their city, but are making a sustainable contribution to its ecology.