Nature as Leverage: Design Approach For Climate Change

By Martin Probst 20 September, 2022

Despite the massive climate challenges, Probst, Associate Director at MLA+, remains optimistic thanks to new design thinking methodology - 'Nature as Leverage'

Continued population growth & draw to metropolitan regions like the GBA are opportunities for new design thinking, the 'Nature as Leverage' methodology
'Nature as Leverage' stands for a new balance: not economy or urbanization first but using nature as a tool for development; the layered approach works on three scales
Award winning projects showcased include the Shenshan Coastal Area Vision & Mangrove Museum in Shenzhen, as well as Walk Des Voeux Road in Hong Kong

Nature as Leverage

Massive drought, storm flooding, and large forest fires are extreme weather events that make climate change very palpable to everyone. There is no question anymore that human activity has a negative effect on Planet Earth. It is also the existing planning practice and development thinking that has led to this crisis. We need radical reconsiderations to solve the massive problems we are facing.

Continued population growth & draw to metropolitan regions like the GBA are opportunities for new design thinking…

…the “Nature as Leverage” methodology

But we at MLA+ are optimistic. MLA+ has spent over 10 years working on development projects in Europe and the GBA, from building residential neighborhoods in the Dutch Harbors to working on urban regeneration plans in many of Shenzhen’s districts. We see the continued population growth and draw to metropolitan regions like the GBA as an opportunity.

Especially the transformation of existing neighborhoods, and new thinking in urban + nature integration along coasts, rivers, mountains, and city edges offer opportunities. With a new style planning approach, we can develop a healthier environment, where people as well as the whole planet thrive.

In this article I introduce, a methodology that supports the development of a more inhabitable planet for all to come. “Nature as Leverage” stands for a new balance: not economy or urbanization first but using nature as a tool for development. The layered approach works on three scales.

Layer 1 – Synergetic Systems

Nature as Leverage is highly contextual, based on the genius loci. It takes topography, climate, and existing habitats of all kinds as basis for solutions. Instead of technological interference, the approach works with and adapts to the local conditions of each location. Blue-green systems and the public space systems are its main framework and come first in our plans.

Layer 1 – considers topography, climate & existing habitats as basis for solutions

Both systems are not monofunctional, but synergetic. They offer the chance to interlink many key aspects for sustainable development. Classic technological infrastructure systems such as public transport, civil services, roads, but also smart management systems are still required, but are secondary structures that follow and enable the larger synergetic thinking.

Layer 2 – Future Places

Spatial characteristics shape our behavior. New types of hardware (space) encourage and enable changes in the software (behavior, lifestyle).

Layer 2 – considers our interactions & behaviors with our surrounding space

The design of future places is therefore very interconnected with a more sustainable lifestyle, and if we get space right, we can trigger more positive change. Because the problems we are facing are complex, and were created by old planning and design professions, our office aims to go beyond the classic boundaries of the professions. MLA+ blends masterplans, architecture, and landscape.

Layer 3 – Enabling Actions

The “massive change” needed to avert climate disaster cannot be achieved by good plans and integrated designs alone.

Layer 3 – collaborating with key players that shape our cities

Different ways to work on development must help to overcome the inertia of the status quo, and to bring on board the many players already involved in shaping our cities. “Nature as Leverage” and MLA+ advocates collaboration-oriented processes. We use the power of design to tell inspiring stories. We deliver actionable results for each stage to facilitate progress and learning along the long path of change.

Below are three example projects where one or all three layers of “Nature as Leverage’ are showcased.

Shenshan Coastal Area Vision

MLA+, with OKRA, Shenzhen IBR

Shenshan Coastal Area Vision was commissioned by the local development authority by competitive tender in 2019 and is now the legal basis for all development. The innovative quality of the vision was recognized with the IFLA Outstanding Award, Analysis & Masterplan Category in 2020.

This Planning Vision and Urban Design Concept covers a 103 km2 coastal area within Shenshan Special Cooperation Zone, a new district of Shenzhen. This distant location offered an opportunity to develop an exemplary, alternative solutions based on the “Nature as Leverage” approach.

Includes a 12km coastal barrier integrating climate adaptation & ecological regeneration in the design…

The Shenshan Coastal Area Vision proposes a synergetic framework for integrated mountain, sea, and land-development. A future-proof coastal defense integrates engineering and landscape design into a vibrant sequence of natural and urban habitats along this beautiful 12-kilometres long coast. A resilient blue-green system between mountains and sea is the framework for climate change adaptation, ecological regeneration, and the basis for all other developments – natural, social, and economic. Within the nature-led system plan, urban development guidelines focus on the development of life and economy in synergy, not in contrast with nature.

…won several awards & became the legal basis for all developments

At place scale the Shenshan Coastal Area Vision guides local and new development patterns in relation to the natural framework. It offers development principles for main urban development platforms, recreation-oriented coastal zones, and white zones, where positioning is kept open for future innovation.

At actions scale the Shenshan Coastal Area Vision focuses on public transport as facilitating infrastructure. Local mobility with less roads and fewer cars is closely linked to indoor and outdoor destinations and experiences that create a new rural-urban form of everyday life and experience of local qualities. In this way urban infrastructure supports the regenerative qualities of Shenshan Coast and is strongly linked to the unique experience of the place. Further implementation proposals focus on processes that allow local stakeholders and partners to grow in capacity and in ambition over time.

For more on this project click here.

Mangrove Museum Shenzhen

MLA+, Nieto Sobejano Architects, Wadi

Our proposal for the Shenzhen Mangrove Wetland Museum was honored as top 3 design in a competitive tender in 2020. The political decision makers finally chose for another entry of the strong top group. The design blends urban design, structuralism and organic architecture, and nature-led solutions into an overall spatial experience and low-impact building.

Inspired by mangrove structures, the design offers eco-friendly activities & enhances surrounding vegetation & water facility mgmt

The shape of the mangrove is the driving force of architectural design, and the basic form of architecture is inspired by the metaphor of mangroves. The construction logic corresponds to the shape of the tree: roots, stumps, and trunks. The green building technology is also derived from nature. The unit structure acts as a filter device for sunlight and water to provide a comfortable indoor space.

The design establishes five elements of habitat, corridors, barriers, sources, and sinks to maximize ecosystem functions and services, reshape important habitats, and form a healthy ecological succession of plants. The use of ecological engineering methods enhances the structure and function of the ecosystem, develops eco-friendly experience activities, and establishes vegetation and water facility management based on the life process of the target species.

The Mangrove Museum bridges in a gap in a green corridor between Shenzhen Bay and the mountains of Shenzhen. The experience of indoor and outdoor environments plays with the multiple lifestyles and habitats between coastal, urban and mountain for flora, fauna, and man.

For more on the project click here.

Walk Des Voeux Road Central Hong Kong

MLA+, dmau, Mobility in Chain

The NGO WalkDVRC organized a competition to envision a people-oriented transformation of Des Voeux Road in Hong Kong Central in 2018. The MLA+ team was awarded the winner. Interestingly it was the way we communicated our idea, that made the difference amongst several strong proposals.

The award winning design bridged the gap between NGOs & stakeholders to broaden certain discourse & accelerate change

The team sensed that communicating ideas to stakeholders and the public would really help the NGO most to broaden the discourse and to raise support. Beyond working with local identity in our design, we invented the character of Flora – a Hong Kong girl – to tell of her problems and dreams in a hand animated multimedia presentation. The film is narrated in local dialect and interwoven with live and historic footage of Des Voeux Road.

The jury and client first thought it was a locally produced entry. This shows that even foreign designers can work with sensitivity for a place, and that a well told story touches the heart of people.

The products at the end of this stage in the process are action oriented, and more than urban design objects. They are tools for the NGO to promote an idea and to accelerate the change process. The team invested the award into building a small travelling exhibition with posters and 3D printed models. Together with the multimedia video and life size figures of Flora, the show toured through venues in Hong Kong Central engaging locals and decision makers into the process of development.

For more on the project click here.

Further Reading

  • Designing Resilience – 2 Architectural Students’ Take on Coastal Threats – Shocked by HK’s coastal threat, HKU’s Fergal Tse & Oscar Wong became CWR’s interns to re-design Victoria Harbour. We sit down with them to understand what local youths think about climate change and & their projects with CWR changed their perspective
  • Scalebusting For Greener Buildings: Scale build-up in water systems wastes water & energy but Jonathan Gur from Ion Enterprises is optimistic. Find out more as he shares how their tech not only greens buildings but also cuts OPEX by 20%
  • Cement’s Role In A Carbon-Neutral Future – Energy Innovation’s Jeffrey Rissman shares how to achieve carbon-neutral for cement production by 2050 with the help of carbonation & potentially becoming a carbon-squestering process
  • The Adaptation Principles: 6 Ways to Build Resilience to Climate Change – Adaptation cannot be an afterthought to development. World Bank’s Dr. Hallegatte, Dr. Rentschler & Dr. Rozenberg share 6 adaptation principles
  • Building Flood Resilience For Hong Kong – HK is the rainiest city in the Pacific Rim and with the threat of climate change, it’s heading for a wetter future. The Drainage Services Department’s senior engineer Patrick Chan shares the city’s strategies to improve flood resilience

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Martin Probst
Author: Martin Probst
Dipl. Ing. MSc RIBA 25 years of experience on strategic consultancy, urban design, and architecture. Most of Martin’s work is about the transformation of existing cities. This means dealing with complex existing systems and engaging with people already involved locally. Strong integrator of urban, architecture and landscape knowledge and a successful leader of redevelopment projects in Europe and internationally. Since 2017 Tutor Urbanism, Academy of Architecture Amsterdam Since 2012 Founding member and Associate Director, MLA+ Rotterdam Since 2011 Active in the Greater Bay Area, mainly in Shenzhen Since 1997 Architect and Urban Designer in Austria, London and Rotterdam 2004 MSc European Urbanism, Bauhaus University Weimar 1997 Dipl. Ing. Architecture, Hochschule München University of Applied Sciences
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