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Stepping Stones

Rotterdam-based landscape architecture firm Openfabric has come up with plans to guide animals and plants back into urban areas using public transport networks, writes Duncan Geere.

The Earth is currently undergoing a mass extinction event. Known as the Holocene extinction, it's thought that up to 140,000 species per year might be going extinct, largely due to the encroachment of humanity on natural habitats.

Openfabric's plan to try and reverse part of this biodiversity loss doesn't start with nature, however. Instead, it starts with urban areas. "The public transportation network is an amazing, already existing, web of lines and dots covering the whole city," explains Francesco Garofalo, who runs the practice. "In Rotterdam, 93 km of tram lines, 340 bus stops and 72 metro stations overlap and continuously grow in order to link every corner of the city together; furthermore, the infrastructure coverage is even more dense in the part of the city where the urbanisation reaches higher levels."

Garofalo's vision involves transforming these lines and dots so that they act as conduits for nature to penetrate back into cities. He describes renovated tramlines as "green highways" where crickets, grasshoppers, and butterflies can travel back into cities. He sees redesigned bus stop roofs, and other unused rooftops, as habitats for different bird species. He envisions the dank, cave-like metro systems as a home for bats.

The key thing, in all of this, is that the transit networks will still be able to be used for their original purpose too. "Protecting and enhancing biodiversity is about linking; making people move with public transportation is about linking as well," Garofalo explains. "Our vision aims to embed solutions for these new needs in the existing infrastructure. Adapting, changing, implementing what we already have can be a more efficient and realistic way to enhance biodiversity in our cities.

It doesn't have to end in Rotterdam, either. "Diverse Networks can be adopted by many cities around the world," says Garofalo. "All that is needed is a widespread public transportation network and a certain urban density, which allows transformation."

Openfabric has presented its plan to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation in Rotterdam, and has begun conversations about implementing some of the ideas. Garofalo is patient on that front, saying: "We are waiting for it to unfold, and at the same time looking for other cities that could wish to implement our vision."


Duncan Geere is a freelance journalist based in Gothenburg, Sweden. He's fascinated by the way technology interacts with design, entertainment, science, and the environment. Find out more over at his website or follow him on Twitter.