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Building the Anthropocene

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Can Architectural Design Rescue Us from Climate Change? Nuala Felicity Burnett investigates the concept of sustainable architecture and its possibilities for the future of our cities.

“We are to be called architects of the future, not its victims.” R. Buckminster Fuller.

Over 68% of the world’s population is predicted to be living in cities by 2050. With an ever-increasing demand for resources, quality of life and space, such a growing population only adds to the immense pressure faced in 21st century urban environments.

Projects like Bosco Verticale offer a glimpse of future sustainable cities, in which greenery is integrated to not only improve the quality of life for those humans living there, but also to increase the efficiency of the built environment (for example through the prevention of the ‘urban heat island’ effect and rainwater filtration), and additionally to combat the future impacts of climate change.

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With temperatures predicted to rise by between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, it is paramount that spaces in which the vast majority of the world’s population live are able to adapt and grow with this change, preserving a sustainable way of life for future generations.

Is architecture the answer to a green future in the age of the Anthropocene?

In an age in which the anthropogenic impacts of climate change and pollution are leaving real, lasting impacts on the landscape, architecture offers a sustainable solution through which urban landscapes can be used to combat environmental damage.

Green walls and roofs combine with slick design to provide a modern renaissance antidote to the traditional concrete jungle; highly acclaimed buildings such as Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building in central London run the risk of becoming passé in the wake of new up-and-coming architectural offerings such as Lina Ghotmeh’s plans for a redevelopment of the Massena district in Paris. Here multi-functionality takes the lead, with an emphasis placed on the circular nature of the development, which plans to encompass food production, apartments and a cultural hub.

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Whilst art and architecture have historically drawn on the natural world for inspiration, as is the case of Fibonacci’s golden ratio, never before has there been such a culmination of the natural and the man-made as in recent 21st century architecture. 

Increasingly new ‘anthropogenic’ landforms that integrate the natural environment with its human influences act as design inspiration; buildings for the future will grow with not only people but also the nature around them. Modular designs and skyscrapers leave room for an expanding population, whilst the addition of green or vegetative elements integrates them further with the surrounding environment.

This is beneficial not only in the positivity it brings to the quality-of-life of residents, as it has been proved that the presence of urban green space correlates strongly to improved wellbeing, but also to the sustainability of the urban environment. 

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Creation of more green space throughout the city of London has resulted in a network of locations that animals and birds can treat as a biodiversity corridor, allowing them to more easily meet. This facilitates biodiversity alongside key ecosystem services, such as pollination, and further emphasises how important a joined-up approach is in tackling the task of future sustainable cities, especially as such connections are likely to become more fragmented and far between with increasing climate change.

The “Bosco effect”

Redesign of a small area of Milan led to the construction of Italy’s famed ‘vertical forest’- Bosco vertical: two 26-floor-high towers that are not only home to over 400 independent apartments but also 900 trees and over 1600 plants. Revolutionary in the discussion the project has sparked, ‘the Bosco effect’ has prompted increased dialogue surrounding greening and the idea of vertical greenery systems being retrofitted onto buildings across the world.

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The vegetation installed on the towers themselves not only acts to mitigate localised pollution in the form of smog, but is also estimated to convert 44,000 pounds worth of carbon every year. This both contributes to the mitigation of anthropogenically induced climatic warming, and provides a visually appealing element of urban design. ‘Copycat’ urban designs which have sprung up across Europe demonstrate just how well this project has increased awareness of how we can make our cities more sustainable without compromising on aesthetics.

Greening of urban spaces is also becoming an increasing priority for many governments. The latest iteration in UK policy (taking form in the shape of the Draft London plan) placing a strong emphasis on the importance of green walls, green roofs and green street furniture. Cityscapes are likely to become even more pressured in terms of resources, and the shift towards greening these spaces in policy will undoubtedly push a further change in terms of architectural design and a shift towards greener, vegetated buildings.

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What can we expect from the future? The green cities of 2050

The future of our urban spaces lies inthe development of environmental architecture; as climate change is a human-induced phenomenon, human action is again required to produce solutions to this. Whilst greener cities won’t solve our environmental problems, they will enable us to better cope with them, and to manage our future resources more sustainably. This is an integrated solution to current world issues; an anthropogenic age needs an anthropogenic approach to design, and we must grow with and adapt to the changing world around us.

About the author: Nuala studies Geography and is interested in sustainability, the future of our cities and human responses to climate change and global warming.

If this article has whet your appetite for knowledge on the future of sustainable urban architecture, check out this episode of the BBC World Service’s Discovery Program ‘Cooling the City,’ which looks at how we can prepare and adapt our cities for extreme weather conditions.

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