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RATP MAGAZINE
Vincent Callebaut, Symbiosis
Interview RATP
Paris 2020
France
"THE RESILENCE OF CITIES REQUIRES A SOFT AND SHARED CO-MOBILITY"

Vincent Callebaut thinks of himself as an “Archibiotect”, with an approach blending architecture, biology, and information and communication technologies.
His subject? Transforming cities into ecosystems, neighbourhoods into forests, and buildings into trees. A graduate from the Institut supérieur d’Architecture in Brussels in 2000, he decided from the outset to use his profession to put forward new and sustainable solutions. If he attracted attention abroad first and foremost, his project for Paris 2050 showed the application of his ideas in cities with severe heritage and urban constraints.


A meeting with someone building the city of tomorrow.


In the face of current challenges, you’re proposing a city where humans and the environment exist in symbiosis. How do you conceive that?

V. C. : After having built cities on nature, then cities on cities, now the challenge is to repatriate nature into the heart of cities. With that in mind, I design my projects based on four pillars. The first is energy decentralisation, which implies positive-energy buildings using natural materials, integrating renewable energies – wind, solar, thermal – and recycling their waste.

The second is urban agriculture. We approach planting greenery from a sustenance point of view, by bringing growing sites back to buildings so that the produce is as close as possible to where it’s consumed. Then there is the social dimension. We must remember that an ecological city requires the construction of a common project with which everyone is involved. Today, in our design phases, we’re working with local residents. They tell us what they’re missing, their expectations. This is crucial if we want cities to reflect their wishes.


Finally, the last pillar is mobility. And precisely on this point, how can we design travel in a densely populated city, where services, leisure, living, and work spaces are in such close proximity?

V. C. : If we want to stop horizontal urban spread, this means abandoning the idea of cities as human bodies, with their complementary components. This has led to a need for connection, and thus arteries dedicated to cars alone. Today, we’re seeing some backtracking; riverbank roads given back to pedestrians, for example, or the Grand Paris Express, which illustrates this desire to re-densify, to link up secondary hubs. In fact, there is an explosion in the demand for public transport, and for soft mobility in general. Of course, while we’re talking about shortening the distances between living, leisure, work, consumer, and production spaces, this sometimes generates a fear of autarky, linked to the idea of everything being pedestrianised.

But I think that each neighbourhood is going to enhance its own identity and that there will always be this desire to get moving. And public transport will be the expected response to link things up. Today, for example, for our office building project in the Port du Rhin, in Strasbourg, we’re trying to develop soft transport with river shuttles. I’m convinced that all this public transport, be it underground, aerial, or on rivers, is going to be increasingly developed.


“For cities that are 100% compatible with the Paris Agreement.”

Since 2018, the heat produced by the metro line 11 tunnel is recovered and fed to a heat pump installed in a building in the 4th arrondissement. This innovative system offers very encouraging results, as it covers on average 35% of the building’s heating needs. As a signatory to the Paris Climate Plan Charter, RATP has joined forces with Paris Habitat, which manages this 20-unit building, to roll out this first project. “This illustrates our capacity for innovation in the service of the sustainable city. It means inventing new models so that cities and regions can become low-carbon. The solutions will be varied, and this experience is an example. We are convinced that the time to act is now to make cities that are 100% compatible with the Paris Agreement.”


Tomorrow, we’ll all live in farmscrapers !

In 1999, Dickson Despommier theorised about the vertical farm. This professor in environmental health and microbiology at the University of Columbia, New York, proposed using the vertical surfaces of towers for growing significant quantities of fruits and vegetables on a small ground surface area. The advantage is to considerably reduce the distances between where they are grown and where they are consumed.

This path for reintroducing sustenance-providing nature to cities is taking shape all over the world: the first vertical farm was unveiled in Singapore in 2012, the AeroFarms site was opened in New Jersey in 2016, the “tour vivante” (living tower) project in Rennes, etc. It’s an appealing idea and seems to be a win-win situation: responding to the lack of arable land, and on the upswing, reducing the impacts of intensive agriculture, reducing the ecological footprint of a neighbourhood, improving the air in cities, bringing about organic and local agriculture, reducing the impacts of transporting food to urban centres, etc. And the list is far from complete.

Vincent Callebaut is integrating this urban farm concept into his projects. According to him, it’s about “emphasising spaces that have been neglected up until now: roofs and façades. Through permaculture, aquaponics, greenhouses, and vegetable balconies. This creates new jobs and promotes conviviality. Urban farmers will assure production and invite co-owners to get involved with the harvest. We’ve calculated that a building with 100 housing units can aim to produce 1 kilogram of fruits and vegetables per resident per week, which is far from negligible!”