These Synthetic Landscapes Respond To Nature In Real Time To Protect Us–And The Planet

A landscape architect imagines a world where levees react automatically to floods and tiny robots keep water clean from pollution.


Massive infrastructure doesn’t usually change until it’s falling apart and has to be rebuilt. If there are unintended consequences for the environment–for example, if a dam stops fish from migrating or a levee causes loss of land–that makes it difficult to adapt.


Future infrastructure and human-built landscapes may be able to change in real time. Using a network of sensors to monitor an area, measuring everything from the health of plants and animals to air and water quality or things like aesthetics, new systems may be able to continuously respond to the environment.

Bradley Cantrell, a landscape architect and TED fellow who will speak at the upcoming TEDGlobal2014 conference, is one of the pioneers exploring how the human-built world may begin relating differently to the natural world.

“The goal is to embed computation, but with this kind of conservationist viewpoint,” says Cantrell. “Instead of just engineering for human goals, we’re beginning to be a bit more articulate about what goals are, and we’re taking on a whole range of things–different animals, plant species, different physiological aspects of these landscapes, as well as human needs. Computation can allow all of those things to exist with competing and overlapping goals.”

In the Mississippi River Delta, for example, levees built in the 1930s helped protect land from flooding, but they’ve also stopped the natural process of land-building as sediment flows down the river. Nearly 2,000 square miles of land have been lost in Louisiana. Now, new projects plan to reopen the gates to help build land. Cantrell suggests that computers could be used to do that in more sophisticated ways.

“Some of my work has looked at the gate systems, and how we might control them and engineer them so we could in a sense ‘print’ land,” he explains. “Instead of huge floodgates, they would become more like print heads. We would sense what’s happening in the bayou, and then respond to that.”

In other parts of bayou, Cantrell has investigated how small robots might be able to sense areas of low oxygen–a problem that kills fish–and respond in real time to change the process.


In Oakland, Cantrell worked with a team of students to look at how similar technology might be used in an urban setting. One concept, called Metabolic Forest, considers how an infrastructure of poles next to a freeway could monitor air quality, and then mist the air to help a small buffer of nearby trees better absorb the pollution. The mist would alter the density of air, causing particles to fall into the trees instead of surrounding neighborhoods.

“The students looked at how we might use sensors to build landscapes that might serve as an ecological infrastructure,” he explains. “Some looked at how you might mitigate things like the heat island effect, or help mitigate diesel exhaust. All of the landscapes have a small footprint–so they can take up a sliver of land or an abandoned space–but have the cleansing quality of a landscape with a bigger footprint.”

Similar technology could also be used in a place like a city park, where robots could monitor different factors like the habitat of animals and plants and then respond to change the system, while using computation to balance competing needs.

While other sensor systems are in place in other projects, they tend to focus on single issues like a particular species or a particular phenomenon, like flooding. Cantrell believes that the technology can be used to build landscapes that consider the whole system.

“There’s very little of it that’s happening from an ecological point of view, where everything’s connected and functioning together,” he says.

Though his work is theoretical, and his prototypes so far have only been tested in the lab, Cantrell thinks it has a place in the real world.


“I believe that it’s something that could very easily scale up,” he says. “The work I’m doing now, my belief is that it will eventually lead to changes in the way we build infrastructure, and the way we manage ecosystems.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."