As the world faces unprecedented environmental crisis, those who shape our cities are having to implement new, innovative, sustainable approaches. But what if the forward-thinking solutions we need lie not in new technologies, but in a symbiotic relationship with nature—a relationship that has been modeled by indigenous communities around the world for millennia? Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, a new book from TASCHEN authored by designer, activist, and academic Julia Watson, explores this concept.
"Lo–TEK is innovation born of humans living in symbiosis with natural systems," says Watson. "We commonly think of sustainability as bringing plants and trees onto buildings, but what if our most sustainable innovations were rooted in cultures who figured it out a millennia ago? There are hundreds of nature-based technologies that have been constructed by indigenous cultures across the globe that need to be considered as potential climate-resilient infrastructures. It is possible to weave ancient knowledge on how to live symbiotically with nature into how we shape the cities of the future before this wisdom is lost forever."
Below are four case studies from the book—from living bridges to artificial islands—that showcase innovative indigenous approaches and how these can be applied to the challenges faced today.
Jingkieng Dieng Jri Living Root Bridges
One of the world’s most innovative examples of an indigenous infrastructure is the living root bridges of the Khasi tribe of Northern India. The Khasis are an indigenous hill tribe from the state of Meghalaya, and their forested lands are in a monsoonal rain shadow with the highest levels of precipitation found on earth.
During the monsoon, travel between villages is cut off by floodwaters that transform the landscape into isolated forest islands. The Khasi have developed the only bridges able to withstand the force of the monsoonal rains.
These living bridges, which have been trained to grow across rivers, continue to get stronger as the bridge grows older. "We did some studies with BuroHappold Engineering on the efficiency of the structural loading of the bridge, and the results where incredible," says Watson. "As they age they are able to carry more load, better withstand the high level of erosion caused by continuous rain, and provide habitat for different species."
Watson proposes that living bridges such as these could be grown in cities to reduce the urban heat island effect by increasing canopy cover along streets. In cities where flooding and sea level rise is inevitable, they could even retain their original use as living bridges over water during seasonal floods.
Kihamba Forest Gardens
In Tanzania, in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, an innovative agroforestry system has sustained the area’s dramatic population growth over the past 100 years. Here, in the ancient forests surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro, the Chagga, one of the wealthiest and most educated tribes in East Africa, cultivate many varieties of banana alongside over 400 other plants. These Kihamba forest gardens—which are the size of Los Angeles and take two-and-a-half hours to drive through—replaced the natural forest canopy along the mountain’s lower southern slopes long ago.
In contrast to industrialized treatment of forests, where clear cut logging gives way to monoculture farming, this ancient agricultural system simultaneously supports forest biodiversity and human population growth.
"The Chagga have managed to figure out a way to retain the complexity of the natural rainforest but also integrate a really complex agroforestry system that is incredibly productive," says Watson. "This has made them one of the most economically advanced communities in that region."
This kind of symbiotic approach, in which complex ecosystems are also agriculturally productive, could provide an invaluable life support system for fast-developing forest communities at risk of poverty or food insecurity. There is also the potential to introduce urban forests when designing streetscapes, or even create these kinds of ecosystems within atriums.
For thousands of years, indigenous cultures supported large populations in very dry desert climates with agricultural practices augmented by their ability to capture, store, and manipulate rainwater and runoff. A variety of techniques to capture rain were developed by the indigenous cultures of Southwest and Central America. Depending on soil type and topography, three forms of rainfall farming were practiced—runoff farming, floodwater farming, and waffle gardening.
Waffle gardens—sunken plots that catch and hold water—succeeded in these arid, dry climates, and are used by the Zuni people of Western New Mexico and the Hopi people of Northeastern Arizona.
In a world where life is limited by lack of water—a reality shared by a third of the global population—Watson believes there are important lessons to be learned from waffle gardens. "These agricultural systems are interdependent with water harvesting and ecosystem intercropping, as opposed to industrial irrigation and monocropping," she says. "I’ve always wanted to design a neighborhood-scale adobe tectonic system with waffle gardens integrated into a continuous roof. Breaking down those walls that separate architecture and nature is what Lo-TEK does."
Totora Reed Floating Islands
The 4,500-year-old Uros are one of the oldest and most unique tribes in South America—and one of few civilizations that live directly on Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountains, on the border of Bolivia and Peru.
The descendants of the original Altiplano settlers who arrived in the region 3,700 years ago, the Uros suffered oppression by the local population and the expanding Incan empire. To seek security from hostile neighboring tribes, they constructed reed houseboats, and then later islands and platforms on Lake Titicaca. Their pursuit of isolation led to the construction of a unique floating world built from totora reeds, a local, organic material.
"As floating cities begin to flourish, the technologies of aquatic civilizations who have been confronting the same crisis we now face for 6,500 years—such as the Uros in Peru, the Madan in Iraq, or the Kyoga, or the Intha, or the Abenaki—are still being overlooked," says Watson. "Today’s commercial floating islands are typically composed of potentially harmful and non-biodegradable materials. In contrast, the Uros technology is uniquely inhabitable and completely biodegradable."
"Lo-TEK is how humans have been dealing with the extremes we now face by harnessing the energy and intelligence of complex ecosystems," says Watson. "This book is calling attention to an entire body of unexplored nature-based technology. Lo-TEK is not just a book, it’s a global design movement."
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