Statement 1: Micro rewilding with Lichen is a promising strategy to develop resilient cities

How might we learn to live with nature in our cities? Where can we find ways to collaborate with nature in the development of prosperous future cities? Australian artist Penelope Cain responded to these questions with a vision to explore the idea of micro rewilding cities with lichen.

Why do we need to learn to live and collaborate with nature in cities in the first place? Over the course of recent history cities have evolved from relative uncluttered, uncomplicated towns of varying sizes to a non-ending list of larger than large cities inhabiting millions within their metropolitan areas. These cities have been build in a response to the growing needs for spaces to live, to work, to leisure within city boundaries, trading nature for concrete in the process. This makes cities vulnerable in many ways; weakening climate change adaptation preparedness, losing life enabling biodiversity or estranging inhabitants from their natural environments. In the project Repairing with Lichen, Penelope Cain set out to identify the least natural place of the city of The Hague. That place which can be considered furthest from nature. Engineers from W+B and Penelope sat down to analyse the data available on patterns of unnaturalness. What they found was that many places in the city have pushed out nature largely, with one location having become a real concrete jungle. A place with no green, no soil, no sunlight, nothing that reminds us of the natural world. It is a place full of concrete, bricks and asphalt and it is grey. The least natural place in the city of The Hague.

How could a place like this become a place of human nature collaboration? Repairing with Lichen explores the idea of controlled loss of control over the own living environment through micro rewilding. When the people of The Hague were asked what they find most important for their future city in 2022, they indicated that more space for green and nature within walking distance of their homes was number one for them (87% strongly agrees). Rewilding is a strategy we know from forestry, (leaving dead trees lying because they are a place to live and feed for other species) but it has not yet been translated into the city. The idea of micro is to grant people agency to increase and shape nature in their own direct environment, thus within walking distance of their homes.

The ideas of introducing nature once more into the least natural places of the city combined with micro rewilding as a strategy for human agency to increase nature in their own environment come together in the beautiful species Lichen. Lichen, also called the coral of the land, is a symbiosis between algae and fungi. There are thousands of varieties and because they don’t have roots, they can grow on anything; tree trunks, pavements or building facades. They are small, grow slow, resilient, enrich biodiversity and are aesthetically beautiful. But not only that, they also clean the air and, through changing colour or shape, give detailed feedback on air pollution. To better understand this species and what it is capable of Penelope Cain collaborated with scientists and engineers from the high performance computing centre Stuttgart – HLRS – to get inside lichen. Microscopical images were translated into 3D VR models which, for the first time, allow for exploring the inside of lichen. A magical world of symbiotic processes unfolds which can inform science in many ways to learn more about this species.

The first tool that is being developed to allow for micro rewilding in far from nature parts of cities, in particular the city of The Hague, is a growth tile. This tile, which can be added to facades and supporting structures, invites algae and fungi to merge and create lichen. These invitation tiles are meant to give the 87% of the population who wants more space for nature in their immediate living environment a first tool in what will become a toolbox of citizen initiated rewilding of the city.

The S+T+ARTS Residency project will end soon, with the exhibition in Rome, but the project has only just started. The exhibition will show the art and innovation outcomes of the residency; finding least natural city places, exploring the inside of lichen, and showcasing the first prototypes of the lichen rewilding growth tiles. But we are not done until we have demonstrated micro rewilding with lichen as strategy for resilient city development.

The project will be shown during the second chapter of the S+T+ARTS Repairing the Present exhibition triptych called :REWORLD :REWILD :RETOOL at MAXXI Museum in Rome from October 14th until November 13th 2022.