As coastal cities try to figure out how to cope with the fact that sea levels are rising much faster than expected, here’s one alternative to floating buildings and seawalls: A neighborhood built directly inside a forest of mangrove trees. As the water rises, the trees rise too, bringing the neighborhood along.
“Mangroves grow on coasts, and are uniquely resistant to rising sea levels,” says UK architecture student Tom Glover, who is creating a conceptual design for a low-lying London neighborhood. “As the water rises, they keep growing and creating new ground under themselves.”
Inspired by bridges built from live mangrove roots in places like India, Glover realized that the trees could be manipulated to make livable spaces. Unlike levees or seawalls, the mangroves could provide flood protection without dividing a city. The structure could also naturally repair itself.
“I was considering materials synthetically engineered to repair themselves, and then I realized nature does it already,” Glover says. “I’m also interested in architecture that can change over time. You build something now, and in 50 years you may want to use it for something else. This can adapt and change.”
The mangroves would be trained to grow over a network of small, biodegradable nodes set in place by drones. “There are millions of nodes in the scaffold,” says Glover. “You don’t need to manually position them–you can just say, ‘This is the shape I want,’ and then the drones can work out the scaffold over time.”
As the vines grow over the scaffold, they would slowly harden and become walls enclosing inhabitable spaces. “There’s a very long building process,” Glover explains. “It would start now, and continue with sea level rise–in 100 years, it’s going to be a very serious problem. This is a very slow building process, but it would be ready in time.”
In the current iteration of Glover’s concept, inflatable greenhouses would protect the growing mangroves from cool London temperatures. Over time, as climate change warms the area, the greenhouses could eventually be removed. (The design could also be used in tropical cities, like Singapore, where mangroves already naturally grow).
Glover is developing the concept for his masters’ thesis at Royal College of Art in London. Though the idea might sound fanciful, Glover believes that it could be a viable option with some modifications. “I do think it’s possible to build something that’s inhabitable,” he says. “It could happen, but not in its current form. It probably becomes possible when you start to bioengineer the plants, and genetically modify them to get the exact properties you need.”