The Butterfly Effect
As part of the Our Energy Our Landscape design challenge, a multidisciplinary team comprised of VenhoevenCS, DS landschapsarchitecten, and Studio Solarix developed a unique and innovative proposal...
We started working on this design challenge with a distinctive vision on economy and infrastructure. We are convinced that investing in insect biotopes can bring more prosperity in all respects than by investing in infrastructural lane widening, for example. Not because it makes us feel good, but because it enriches us in the literal sense of the word. We need to redefine value and prosperity in order to explain this idea properly.
Our Western society is based on a profit-driven mindset, and it’s only recently that sustainability has entered into this way of thinking. Economic growth and our reliance on material needs still set the bar for new developments and investments. Even investments in sustainable energy projects are guided by making the highest possible return. Although Environmental Impact Assessment (MER/EIA) procedures give us results that are ‘as good as possible’ when it comes to fitting solar and wind projects into the landscape, we risk creating landscapes that are only ‘as good as possible’.
"Thinking about generating sustainable energy in a meaningful way first requires a new way of viewing the world."
We will use the Four Capitals Model to illustrate our four types of wealth.
Natural capital Soil, landscapes, and nature are the basis of our environment”. The collapse of natural wealth could mean that rich and highly educated people would have to live in a country without bees, butterflies, swallows, or black-tailed godwits. Our food security is tied into this. People need insects – 85% of our food is dependent on insect pollination.
Human capital Our second form of wealth comes from health and well-being, coupled with the ability to be productive sustainably. The value of this has been firmly underlined globally by the ongoing pandemic. Any development that weakens our mental and physical wellbeing, or affects our resilience, detracts from this wealth. Both the direct and indirect consequences of particulate matter, nitrogen, noise pollution, and CO2 around motorways play a major role in our Design Challenge.
Manufactured capital In a trading nation such as the Netherlands, there is a clear value in having efficient nodes, networks, data connections, ports, and airports. Despite the economic value, there are debates over the impact logistics centres, data centres, high-voltage cables, and lane widening have on landscapes. Infrastructure is a prerequisite for developments within both the real economy and the financial economy. It’s no wonder that this is usually the main starting point for politics and the market in the Netherlands.
Social capital A society in which people trust each other, interact with one another, and inspire each other is the fourth type of wealth. This wealth is the basis for achieving a favourable business climate and the foundation for joint developments within a society. The increasing resistance to sustainable energy projects being placed in the landscape shows that social capital and sustainable development do not automatically go hand in hand.
These four types of wealth combined form the ‘broad prosperity’ in the Netherlands. For the Design Challenge, we considered these different types of wealth in equal measure. We started off by thinking about natural wealth, but have also intentionally integrated all other forms of wealth into our design.
"The Alcon blue butterfly only crosses the motorway when there's a traffic jam."
– Jim van Oers
A web over the motorway
We are combining the search for space to generate solar energy with an ultra-lightweight overpass across the motorway: a ‘bridge’ connecting insects and other bugs to their biotopes. The white admiral butterfly and various beetle species – among others – will soon be able to cross the motorway using this insect crossing at the height of treetops. Crossing the motorway barrier is an urgent problem for many types of insects that migrate to different areas in order to reproduce. Insects live in symbiosis with other insects, plants, and animals – they are an important link in flourishing ecosystems.
The insect crossing forms an ultra-light canopy under which eddies of fine dust and nitrogen end up closer to the motorway and less far into the surrounding landscape. This will reduce the polluting effect of road transport in the broader surroundings. The nitrogen emitted can act as fertilizer for the soil right next to the road. The enriched soil is perfect for growing trees and supporting wild vegetation. Along motorway A67, this kind of ‘tree zone’ can provide a natural protection for the nearby Strabrechtse Heide nature reserve. A tree zone spanning a few hundred metres adds natural sound insulation for the heath landscape nearby, and the area alongside the motorway can perhaps serve as the kind of production forest currently in short supply in the Netherlands.
The ‘web over the motorway’ can become an icon to the way we treat nature in our densely populated country. The insect crossing can function as an educational ‘web’ for testing new techniques, technologies, and designs. With support from educational institutions in the region like the Design Academy and the Eindhoven University of Technology, the landscape of the A67 motorway can evolve into a gateway and signboard for Brainport Eindhoven. By approaching this new technology as an aesthetic design task, we prevent the crossing from just becoming a technical piece of infrastructure. It will become a cultural symbol of the type of energy generation that will have to be given a prominent place in certain parts of our landscape.
Our proposal is an especially smart way of doubling the use of space: by using the space above the motorway to generate energy, we free up technology-free spaces for wild vegetation. The design is also ideal for applications in other landscapes, like in urban environments and over railway routes. We can use this design as a blueprint in places where there is noise nuisance, a lot of particulate matter, or a high energy demand, or in all other places where a useful contribution can be made to improving natural capital.
Modular, adaptable, and scalable
In a densely populated country like the Netherlands, we must regard our infrastructure networks as an integral part of a complex ecosystem. We get a lot of our inspiration from nature for our designs. In countless examples, robustness is the result of resilience and adaptation. Flexible solutions are less heavy and can adapt to continuously changing circumstances.
Our proposal is based on a modular support structure on which lightweight materials can be secured, and it can last 100 years. The materials applied can evolve with developments in technology. A web of cables will be stretched between steel columns to connect with the landscape. The web is made up of honeycomb-shaped surfaces that are then subdivided into smaller triangles. This fine network is literally intertwined with the treetops on either side of the motorway, creating connecting routes for small animals.
The length of the insect crossing can vary from metres to kilometres, and can be linked together or divided into pieces along a certain route. Variation in height – as high as a blade of grass or the crown of a tree – ensures different links for different animals. Photovoltaic surfaces are installed in parts of the network. The first generation of these energy-generating surfaces will consist of translucent membranes that can evolve with technological developments. We expect that textiles can be stretched into the web in the future. The textile industry is quickly developing, and energy-generating fibres are already available.
We colour the surfaces in different natural shades to attract and tempt insects to move around the canopy. By not filling in the ‘web’ entirely, we assure the permeability of air, water, and insects. The changing shadow patterns also contribute to an exceptional driving experience for motorists. But aside from the being aesthetically pleasing, active participation from both residents and motorists is a key starting point. The system’s modular nature and extreme lightness makes it possible to let the web ‘expand’ over time. By starting small and ‘experiencing’ the system, a foundation can be laid for cooperative investment in the expansion of the web and the energy it generates.
The Butterfly Effect
You can usually only experience motorway landscapes from the road and a small area around it. Developing motorway landscapes is determined by factors on much larger – and smaller – scales than the motorway itself. When we view motorway landscapes of the future, we consider many factors at once: from micro-organisms in the soil and nanotechnology to international flows of people and goods, energy, and air quality. This means that our web over the motorway has an effect on factors that cannot be observed from the motorway alone.
Combining nature with energy-generation is a principle that can be applied globally. By improving animal habitats for species important to the conservation of biodiversity, we are able to contribute to the UN’s major Sustainable Development Goals with relatively small interventions. These goals include Climate Action, Affordable and Clean Energy, and Life on Land.
The global impact can easily be missed as you quickly drive under the web on the A67 motorway. But by helping the white admiral butterfly to cross the road using an energy-generating web that is created through participation, we want to strengthen the foundation of natural, human, infrastructural, and social wealth. That is the Butterfly Effect on the motorway landscapes of tomorrow!
VenhoevenCS architecture+urbanism| DS landschaparchitecten | Studio Solarix