Every year, more than 46,000 square miles of arable land turns to desert. As deserts spread–a process that keeps moving faster thanks to climate change and practices like clear-cutting–the UN estimates that more than 1 billion people will be directly affected. Many of them, living in places like Northern Africa and rural China, are already struggling with poverty, so the loss of farmland would be especially hard to handle.
One potential answer: An enormous mobile oasis that roams over drylands planting seeds. The Green Machine, originally designed by Malka Architecture and Yachar Bouhaya Architecture for the Venice Biennale, may some day be rolling around the borders of the Sahara Desert holding back the dust and sand.
The huge platform is designed to mount on sixteen caterpillar treads that were originally made to move NASA rockets. Floating above the platform, giant balloons would capture water condensation. As the first treads roll over the soil, the machine uses a little water from the balloons to soften the ground. The last set of treads injects seeds, some fertilizer, and more water.
Everything would run on renewable power, using a combination of solar towers, wind turbines, and a generator that creates electricity by harnessing the stark differences in temperature between day and night in the desert. The machine could theoretically capture enough energy that it can self-support an entire small city onboard: Housing, schools, businesses, parks, and more farmland to grow produce for the local area.
The designers were inspired by Allan Savory, who has proposed a much lower-tech version of the same process–using cattle to naturally till and fertilize the soil. For the architects, building on this idea seemed like a natural extension of their work.
“For a long time, my studio has developed work around neglected spaces of the city,” says Stephane Malka, the founder of Malka Architecture. “Deserts are the biggest neglected space on Earth, as they represent more than 40% of the terrestrial surface.”
If the machine went into action at desert borders, the designers say it could help formerly barren soil produce 20 million tons of crops each year. “Building the Green Machine units would be able to re-green half of the desert borders and the meadows of the world, while feeding all of humanity,” says Malka.
It could even help slow climate change, he says, by capturing carbon in soil. Over time, biodiversity could also gradually return to the area.
The architects are currently working on developing the project on the Moroccan side of the Sahara Desert.
To those who ask if the machine has to be so gigantic, Malka says that the size fits the challenge. “For a worldwide problematic need, we need to answer with a large-scale machine.”