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AR 'game' helps plan sustainable urban spaces – naturally

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Earthwatch Europe's tablet-based game allows the public to place green elements in urban spaces to chart their effects on extreme weather and other environmental impacts

The AR game asks users to experiment placing different natural elements in a city to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
The AR game asks users to experiment placing different natural elements in a city to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

We might be busy tackling COVID-19 but architects may be more able to help with the environmental crisis and gaming is showing one way of doing that.

A prototype augmented reality ‘game’ that challenges the general public to protect a city from the effects of the climate crisis using natural elements like trees and green roofs, is being showcased by citizen science charity Earthwatch Europe.

Developed in collaboration with creative agency Atticus Digital, the tablet-based experience enables users to place green elements like trees, parks, rain gardens, lakes, ponds, and green roofs in different combinations and visualise their impact on things like flooding and heatwaves. 

The project builds on Earthwatch’s scientific research into nature-based solutions in 17 major cities across nine countries, including the UK. Urban areas are increasingly vulnerable to the consequences of global warming, including more severe weather events. They also increase pressure on wildlife, with UK species having declined by 41% since the 1970s.

Maria Pontes, director of programmes and partnerships at Earthwatch Europe, told RIBAJ: ‘There's still very little general understanding of the power of these types of solutions in urban environments, including what they are, how they work and why they're important. As an environmental education organisation, we needed to do something about it and AR is an innovative, fun and engaging way to communicate with people.’

Research by Earthwatch found that the most effective natural solutions in the built environment are heavily context specific and necessarily involve benefits and trade-offs. For example, urban trees can have either a positive or a damaging impact on air quality depending on the species and where they are planted.

According to Pontes, architects are often unaware of the climate resilience benefits of natural elements. ‘During research, we engaged a lot with developers and the wider construction sector on these things. Knowledge depends very much on the company you're working with. Some are quite forward thinking and have started changing their business models to integrate natural solutions, but it's not very widespread just yet.’

The system is based on scientific research into nature-based solutions in 17 major cities across nine countries, including the UK.
The system is based on scientific research into nature-based solutions in 17 major cities across nine countries, including the UK.

The charity has carried out work with built environment professionals to help embed nature-based solutions into urban environments. Monitoring toolboxes were created to help residential developers engage with communities and encourage them to assess the health of natural features.

Earthwatch recently worked with Witney Town Council in Oxfordshire to plant the UK’s first ever ‘tiny forest’ – designed to tackle urban wildlife loss where available space is at a premium.

The 200m2 plot, about the size of a tennis court, will include some 600 native trees. ‘The innovative science-based methodology mimics native woodland and enables the forest to grow up to five times faster than normal tree planting and provides benefits like carbon storage, biodiversity and flood mitigation,’ said Pontes. ‘It makes perfect sense in urban environments where there's lots of competition for space.’


 

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