As our societies become increasingly urbanised, wood-based products and solutions have enormous potential to help make cities around the world more liveable through ‘urban greening’.
A few years ago, I attended a conference on city design and became very interested in how modified wood products could be used to improve urban environments for city dwellers – particularly in hot climates where the use of wood is limited.
In the summer, cities and congested areas with little greenery, and large amounts of metal, glass and concrete, become significantly hotter than the surrounding countryside. This ‘urban heat island effect’ increases the energy used for air conditioning, and can make life very uncomfortable for city dwellers.
Taking the heat off cities
Inspired by this challenge, Stora Enso has been working on potential solutions that could reduce the urban heat island effect in cities. We began with a concept to use modified wood to create urban structures that could act as shading or man-made trees, which block UV and reduce temperatures at street level. Modified wood is durable yet light, and buffers rather than reflects heat, which lends itself to use in hot climates.
We have worked together with the AIDIMA Technology Institute in Spain and the Aalto University Wood Studio in Finland to further explore the potential opportunities. Extensive interviews with city planners and municipality representatives in Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and France, highlighted both the demand and opportunities for wood-based structures. Such renewable material alternatives to concrete and steel have huge potential to provide shelter, technological integration, and soften man-made urban environments. Several prototype designs and structures were prepared by the institute and shown as examples during the interviews.
The most interesting applications include street shading, walkways, bus shelters, street lighting, and building surfaces and structures to absorb heat at street level and prevent buildings from overheating in the summer through the natural cellular structure of wood. Instant street shading, for example, can be incorporated into new urban developments in the Middle East where smart city design is essential to create a liveable environment in the desert.
This is just the start. Stora Enso has also been developing bio composites, which can be used to create low-maintenance and impact resistant structures that would work well in demanding built environments where issues, such as graffiti, pollution and high amounts of foot traffic, are common challenges. Our range of modified wood products, including ThermoWood and resin treated products, has the potential to fuel a new rapidly growing market for wood-based materials used for numerous purposes in every day urban design.
Enhancing urban liveability
Progress has been made with some urban heat islands around the world, such as the man-made Supertrees in Singapore and an interesting innovation in France where man-made trees have been turned into mini wind farms. These trees are today made from steel, concrete and plastic, but could be made from modified wood and bio composites in the future.
Given population growth and urbanisation, the need for materials and structures for urban greening will no doubt increase in the coming years. I’d like to think we can really make a difference in the world by replicating the functionality of trees in urban environments with creative and highly functional wood-based structures – to enhance both urban liveability and the aesthetics of our city environments.