Natalie Jeremijenko's Urban Space Station (Part One)

Jeremijenko: Exactly. And most people don't know that, so it's a good exercise. And then, after you've hopefully successfully raised your tadpole, you can introduce it to his or her namesake and discuss what you've observed over this timeframe of cohabiting with this biosensor, this companion animal, this biological organism that's experiencing the same environmental stressors that you, yourself, are experiencing.

And that makes sense in a biological and in a very empirical, but very real way. This complex set of interactions that are implicated in the breast cancer epidemic, the obesity epidemic, the significant drop in the average age of onset of young women's first menarche (first period), and all these other hormone effects that are happening, you have some empirical data with which to share and participate in the political processes around re-imagining our relationships with natural systems.

So then, you have something you can understand. But with these prescription products, what can you do? And I think, one of the really interesting things about the crisis we face now, in terms of strategy is that the biggest polluter in our local waterways is no longer, in many cases, the traditional bad guys, the big corporations and manufacturing.

Certainly in the New York/New Jersey harbor, the biggest pollution burden on that whole estuary system is actually that extensive, impervious network of roads that collects every single urban neuro-toxin and oily, hydrocarbon waste. And every grain of it washes it very efficiently straight into the estuary system.

And using legal strategies to go after, for instance, GE polluting PCBs--the traditional way environmentalism has been done--it's now a much more diffuse and difficult problem. There's nobody with deep pockets to go after. And how do you fix it anyway?

So a prescription, if you decided you wanted to do something about that, might be the 'no-park' prescription, which is taking in a no-parking zone (like those associated with the fire hydrant), removing the asphalt, and creating an engineered micro-landscape that can infiltrate that road-borne pollution.

You plant it with any planting strategy you like--maybe use a butterfly truck-stop, a habitat provisioning for your local species of butterflies--but you take back some of the road. It can still continue to function as emergency vehicle parking space, but now you're using it as an environmental health emergency, not so much for fire trucks (though it doesn't interfere with them; they can still use it. They might run over a few plants, but they'll regenerate).

But again, certainly, in Manhattan, if we converted all the fire hydrants (there's about a couple of those per block) into these 'no parks,' these small parking spaces that are actually vegetated, we could infiltrate all the road-borne pollution in all of Manhattan.

It's a small intervention, but aggregated, it can have tremendous effect. And that's what we're really trying to do at the Environmental Health Clinic. It's really taking things that individuals and small groups can implement that are locally-optimized and that really work there where they are.

When you go to a clinic, they say stop smoking, eat well, or exercise regularly, etc. It's your responsibility to implement or to fill your prescription, and to draw on that expertise.

And so that's what I like about the clinical model. It's not about developing a top-down solution on your block. If you can get some buy-in from your block association where you live, then you can implement it.

TreeHugger: There's a project of yours that I love. It looks like something out of a Ray Bradbury story. Would the urban space station possibly be a prescription for somebody with a very severe case of environmental anxiety?

Jeremijenko: Absolutely. The urban space station is another prescription developed particularly for those of us who think that changing light bulbs, driving the speed limit, or buying local lettuce is just not sufficient. And if you look at something like bomb shelters, I think they're an interesting precedent.

They went up in a matter of months, put up by individuals, by schools, by church groups, and by local organizations everywhere. And in many places, they remain as this icon of civic mobilization in the face of shared, uncertain, collective threat.

And what do we have that's similar to that? I would suggest that the urban space station is sort of like a fallout shelter for the climate crisis, something that, again, small groups of people can do. And it's actually an intensive, urban agricultural facility that lands on rooftops.

And there are a lot of people interested in urban agriculture and looking at roofs as this new territory to colonize. But the problem with roofs--which are certainly full of potential for significantly improving the environmental performance of our urban infrastructure--is that, if they're up to code, they can really take about an inch, an inch-and-a-half of soil.

TreeHugger: Because of what soil weighs when it's wet, is that right?

Jeremijenko: Exactly. They're designed for span loading. And putting all that soil and plant material up there, that's not what roofs were designed for. But the urban space station actually takes advantage of the columns and the masonry walls, where you've got effectively infinite loading. So it's on legs, it looks like something, well, from space; that's why it's called the urban space station.

So it focuses the load, and it plugs into the building in a mutualistic relationship. In commercial agriculture, greenhouses manufacture CO2 to get an increase in the yield, about a 40% increase in the yield. In our urban environment, we have a lot of CO2. Actually, in Manhattan, many people are surprised to learn that 80% of the CO2 emissions are building-related, not transportation or industrial. So we, of course, breathe a lot of CO2 from our boilers, our machines; our activities generate CO2.

So what we do is we take the CO2 that comes from a building and force it through the urban space station, where of course, plants eat it up, sequestering CO2 and improving the air quality. And then we return oxygen-enriched air back to the building, and we do the same with the gray water. And locally, we use the urban waste stream, diverting that from other areas. And of course the waste product from the urban space station poops out tomatoes and other things.

So you have a closed and controlled urban space station, which is designed not only to look like a space station, but it takes advantage of many of the technologies and closed-systems- engineering used in space station design.

Natalie Jeremijenko's Urban Space Station (Part One)
Photo: Mark Mahaney If I were in Manhattan, my visit to the Environmental Health Clinic might involve a session afloat Dr. Jeremijenko's raft/office on the East River. Under the circumstances, she treated me over Skype, checking my toxics and

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