THE CONCEPT OF "BIOTOPE CITY" – Interview with Österreichisches Wirtschaftsblatt

Available translations: 
 
Elisabeth Wertmann: Biotope City - what does this mean? 
Helga Fassbinder: The concept "Biotope City" – city seen as nature – is an all-embracing concept, more inclusive than the concepts of the "Sustainable City" or the "Green City". These two, however, are two of three elements that add up to Biotope City:
A sustainable way of building virtually is the 'intrinsic truth' of a city, barely visible to the eye. It is about measures of energy saving, ecological construction and about the durability and the possibilities to recycle building materials.
The greens in a city, in contrast, are clearly visible – but not their positive effects: chlorophyll enhances the air quality, it bonds carbon dioxide and lowers the concentration of particulate matter and it slows down the runoff of rainwater, which is important during heavy rainfall. We have known for decades that for these reasons trees in a city are important. Over time, the realization has been added that green roofs and a "green skin" on the cladding can have the same positive effects – they even contribute one other advantage, which is the regulation of temperature: insulation in winter and cooling in summer. These two elements have been recognized in recent years by a growing number of people. They are sensitized by natural phenomena of global dimensions: by climate change and global warming, by the increase of storms and heavy rainfall and by what we call the "ozone holes", the dwindling of the atmospheric shield of our planet.
 
The Biotope City concept now adds another element – something, that at first happens in our heads: the realization that we and our cities do not form an antagonism to nature, but that our cities are nothing else but one other of the many alternatives, or rather, forms that constitute nature – like heathland, forest, savannah, rocky landscape and so on.

We with our cities are, in a manner of speaking, the variety "rocky landscape interspersed with traces of green". Plants and animals have this perception. Biologists have discovered that biodiversity in cities is higher than in the countryside, i.e. the variety of animal and plant species is higher than on the surrounding, undeveloped land. The reason is that the highly monocultural management has lead to a loss of flora and fauna in the country.
With this realization of city as a form of nature we need to revise our habitual self-perception of us as city dwellers. We are not outside nature – we are one part of her: the city is not a contrast to the countryside, to nature!

Finally we can free ourselves of this acient-old misbelief that is deeply rooted in our Jewish-Christian notion of our dominance over nature – a notion that has lead to an unrestrained exploitative attitude. We have reached the limit of the feasible as natural phenomena like the rapid loss of biodiversity and climate change with its ever more dramatic consequences – storms, inundations and desertification – show. Simultaneously appears the final depletion of our traditional sources of energy. We face a huge problem for which we need to find a solution very quickly.
Here comes the realization about the true character of our cities – that really are part of nature – to our aid: we have to and we can embed ourselves again consciously in the laws and cycles of nature. Organic life, animals and plants are our fellows and allies in the battle for global survival. We need to recognize the advantage of a 'together' instead of an 'against'. Trees and plants help us without the input of energy to clean our city air, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, slow down and restrain rainwater runoff, cool down temperatures in summer for some degrees and decrease the cooling by cold winter winds. Trees and plants, on their part, cannot live without birds and insects, so we need to arrange the exterior shell of our houses in a way that a variety of birds that keep insect population to a certain level find a place to nest. Bees love the flowers our cities have to offer, in cities the looming bee extinction does not exist (!) and bees find nourishment for 10 times more honey than in the country – this has been announced by the apiculturist association of Ile the France about the beehives in Paris. Even bigger mammals come into town to go hunting at night, foxes, in Berlin even wild boars… and at daytime doves clean away everything edible and leave almost nothing for nocturnal mice and rats.
 
However, there are more than the tangible advantages of cooperation. There is also the beauty of togetherness. We look through the window at the green leaves, at vines on the cladding and know about the enchanted gardens on our rooftops. Psychologists have asserted that the sight of green helps to heal body and soul: hospital patients demonstrably recover more quickly if their window opens to green spaces outside…Biotope City, city as nature, is a place of a new beauty and filled with deep emotional experiences: to witness the turning of the seasons in the vegetation, the nesting of the birds in niches that our buildings have to offer, the manifold plants on our roofs, the enlivenment of bare walls and bleak claddings by Virginia creeper and ivy up to marvellous vertical horticultural artworks as designed, for example, by the French biologist Partick Blanc.
 
The point is not a lower density of the city, by no means. Paris counts among the pioneers of such cities, being the densest city on the European continent. Not the building density hinders this concept, but the acquired habits of thinking. We need to find another attitude: no longer the one of a city dweller, that eradicates every sprouting little grass as soon as possible, but the one of a nourishing and caring gardener that rejoices in the nature surrounding him – without being unsettled by the claim that city wasn't nature… And we need to comprise the organic world as a self-evident element into the design of our buildings. The rationality of modernity achieves a new, additional dimension: green as a consciously chosen element of design, such as stone, steel, wood and concrete, and not as a 'architectural cover-up' for failed corners.
Revitalized districts that meet with the elements of 'sustainability' and 'greening' should be revised further developed under this point of view.
 


Some statements concerning "Linz – European Capital of Culture"

 
Elisabeth Wertmann: What is your comment to "Linz - European Capital of Culture"?
Helga Fassbinder: Linz, European Capital of Culture, has taken a big step in this direction. It has gained world-wide recognition for its greening strategy. Its green roofs and highway covers have made Linz an international pioneer and example – it cannot be praised enough! I do hope that the city continues on this track and does not disavow from its strategy by the current financial crisis. The money invested in these measures will pay off over and over, even though it is difficult to measure this return under a bookkeeping point of view.
Its role as Capital of Culture gives Linz the unique opportunity to make the most of this exemplary position. What is culture? Does it just include architecture, design and art? Culture is more than that –and every city that has the honour of being Capital of Culture should visualize the facet of culture that is part of her history and qualities. In Graz this has been architecture and design – the people of Graz have shown very nicely that a big historic old town does not need to be an open-air museum if it wants to further develop itself and its beauty. Graz has shown that a stimulating interaction between historic building and city structure and new architecture and design is possible. 
Linz has another exceptional setting to make the most of. Linz can show us all how the necessity of a sustainable and green urban development can be the source of a new beauty, a new culture of building that is not only 'intrinsically true' and therefore sustainable but also integrates life in its inorganic structure, for its own benefit: the green roofs and claddings, the green cover of necessary but annoying streets, nesting possibilities for birds, the integration of water… Linz can strengthen its position as a pioneer and become a new model for the city of the 21st century. A city that embeds itself consciously into nature to enhance its quality of life, that conceives itself as a form of nature – with all the emotional and aesthetic benefits that we connect with the notion of nature.
 
Elisabeth Wertmann: What can Linz still learn from other cities?
Helga Fassbinder: Firstly it is important to recognize what has been reached and to use this as a basis for the development of the city's new qualities: the new beauty that the 'green skin' bestows on the city. Southern densely populated cities that have a long tradition of horticultural design and usage of their roof structure can be an inspiration here. In Rome, for example, they have been very creative to green these spaces. Not every roof has to be covered by a dull carpet of sedum. By now, combinations of hardy plants have been developed that need hardly any care – and for rooftop gardens with more demanding, spectacular plants automatic irrigation systems are available so that no one needs to stay home in summertime just to water them. The rooftop garden can even reach some height: in Den Haag has lately been hold a conference about "trees on roofs" that showed impressing, beautiful experiences on that field. Besides that there is a very recent invention that is interesting for already existing houses and claddings: the use of moss mats as a lightweight skin. This is especially effective to clean the air of particulate matter because moss does not take up nutrients via its roots, but exclusively lives on particles it takes up from the air – just what we need: a marvellous example how beneficial cooperation with nature can be for us. Moss mats do not need to be hooked to the grid; they work for free once they are created…
 
Concerning vertical surfaces, Paris has developed an interesting program of promotion and discloses some examples enumerated in the program. Besides, there are the already mentioned highlights of vertical horticultural art by Patrick Blanc and others that follow on the same lines. In what concernes wild flora and fauna in cities: there are numerous groups of enthusiastic volunteers that work to support and assist – a broad educative field for schools and youth clubs to show children ways of interacting with life and the living environment.
In its role as European Capital of Culture, Linz can be the avant-garde of a new culture of interaction with nature. Especially as an industrial city that knows many of the problems typical as well for other cities can it do exemplary work for our further urban development. We need to realize that with the environmental problems we experience today we are just at the beginning. The world population will prospectively double again and this enormous demographic increase will according to all surveys happen all but exclusively in cities.
The topic that Linz as Capital of Culture can throw into the debate is a very existential one: there is more at stake than polishing up cities visually, it is about inventing energy-saving techniques of survival in a more and more urban world.
It is especially necessary that the experts, the architects, urban planners and constructing engineers overhaul their thinking – which is often more difficult for them than for the citizens who are non-professionals in this field and judge solely according to their feelings, unaffected by doctrines and professional 'over-sophistication'.
To further this rethinking I have launched the Biotope City Foundation that publishes a non-commercial online magazine that is open to everyone. By now we are about 50 experts from a variety of professional backgrounds and from different European countries and the USA. The magazine therefore features articles in 4 different languages and has readers from all over the world.

Elisabeth Wertmann: How dit you get to develop the concept of 'Biotope City' ?
Helga Fassbinder: I am an urban planner. Probably it were my childhood experiences to sensitize me for the possibilities of integration of nature into cities.
Even though I grew up in a city my parents always drew our attention to trees, plants, insects, birds and other animals, showed us their beauty and explained their habits. They have been city dwellers as well and have learned all this the same way from their parents: a knowledge that has been passed on through the generations, probably at some point derived from the experiences of some ancestors that presumably lived in the country. Most of my free-time activities are somehow connected to the experience of the four elements as already the Greek philosophers of old times described them: earth, air, water and fire. I love gardening and have a garden the size of a living room in the centre of Amsterdam, clematis twining up my house along with Virginia creeper and ivy – the latter I need to keep an eye on so he is doing no mischief. I passionately love sailing and flying a kite is a never-ending delight. Many years I have been doing canoe trips on central European rivers, with tents put up next to a campfire at night… especially with a canoe you learn how to integrate yourself into nature: you have to follow the current of the water to be able to steer – there is no way of forcing and imposing …

 
With Courtesy to 'Österreichisches Wirtschaftsblatt '