Over recent decades, different research domains have focused on the use of green resources to address liveability, sustainability, climate change mitigation and adaptation in urban areas.
Since 2000, we have officially become an urban species. The urban population worldwide grew from just 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014, according to the United Nations Population Division. By 2050, 75% of the world’s projected 9 billion population will live in cities1,2. Urban areas around the world are increasingly investing in networks of urban forests, green roofs, gardens, and other forms of nature-based solutions for their benefits3. Meanwhile, there has been wide research on the use of natural components and their multiple functions to address liveability, sustainability, and climate change mitigation and adaptation in urban areas. The concepts of urban forests, ecosystem services (ESs), green infrastructures and nature-based solutions (NBSs) have populated the scientific literature in recent decades, evolving, diversifying, and gaining popularity depending on the period and country4.
Within the present manuscript, we will focus on the concept of NBSs, which is one of the most recent and widespread paradigms indicating “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural and modified ecosystems in ways that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, to provide both human well-being and biodiversity benefits” as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature5.
The theoretical framework of the paper, as depicted in Fig. 1, is also influenced by contemporary philosophy, political ecology and ecofeminist theories. The manuscript is based on assuming the end of the old dichotomy between nature and society and considers a complex collective of human and non-human entities6, “other-than-human critters”7 and “more-than-human” geographies8. These ideas align with the “one-health” holistic approach that is tightly linked to the epidemiology competency framework. This concept encourages and advocates for the interdependence, coexistence, and evolution of living beings and their environment, considering the health of mankind, animals, and ecosystems as an indissoluble whole9. The dichotomy between the concepts of nature and culture in the Western world has been instrumental to the objectification and exploitation of natural resources and colonisation of the global south10. Humans are nature taking conscious of themself11,12. The Nature/Culture approach13 or the natureculture perspective14 are more helpful in conceiving interrelationships between different forms of living beings and ecosystems. Considering the complexity of the interrelation within the ecosystem components, it is crucial to develop a post-anthropocentric view15 or better a more symbiotic and ecocentric approach16 based on kinships17 and an interspecies mutualism18. The project has been greatly impacted by philosophical theories from its conception. This includes the application of frameworks for ecological and regenerative art, as well as for green infrastructure and nature-based solutions.
The actual framework for nature-based solutions implementation strongly requires a transdisciplinary collaboration. To effectively address the challenges in implementing NBS, it is recommended the adoption of a learning-by-doing approach based on collaborative efforts across different disciplines19. This implies that scientists may need to undertake a new role, including developing frameworks and methods that facilitate cooperation and co-creation across diverse sectors, disciplines, and social practices20. Recent articles explored the incorporation of co-creation and participatory processes, along with the infusion of social and cultural activities, into the framework of NBS design to enhance their overall effectiveness. Nevertheless, these processes did not explore the potential integration of contemporary art practices. The use of artistic language fosters a more emotional interpretation of NBS, leading to the development of fresh perspectives in people’s minds and an enhanced connection with the other species and non-human entities. In this manuscript, we have explored the “Aula Verde” concept as a means to convey the scientific message of NBS and promote the processes of environmental co-creation and education. Our approach not only promotes ecosystem and cultural services but also serves to strengthen the reconnection between humans and non-humans through art practices.
This connection is essential in shifting from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric perspective, which is a crucial measure to curb the anthropic extractivist approach that causes most of the environmental challenges of our time.
The project described in this manuscript, which merges science and art, offers a unique way of communicating to citizens a sense of belonging to the ecosystem. This should foster the will of taking care of the common spaces and promoting the interspecies mutual aid which constitutes the foundation of political ecology.
The aimed ecological turn will not happen only as consequences of technical innovations but also through eco-social and cultural changes.
The manuscript, influenced by these theoretical backgrounds, aims to contribute to this important and necessary multidisciplinary research between environmental sciences, art and social sciences.
This section presents an overview on the state of the art of ES and NBS, exploring their intersections with art, science and social engagement. Section “Methods” outlines the project framework in which the Aula Verde has been conceived, and describes the methods used for its design, implementation, and ES assessment. This paragraph also outlines the public participation actions and communication activities undertaken as part of the project. Sections “Results” and “Discussion” will respectively present and discuss the findings of the project, including the delivery of cultural and regulatory ecosystem services by Aula Verde Aniene, the social impact of participatory activities, and artworks arising from the multidisciplinary research. The final section of the discussion endeavours to relativise the ES framework assessed for Aula Verde, going beyond the ES description in numerical terms and introducing the shinrin-yoku as a practice to reach a more complete people’s awareness on nature elements. The conclusion section summarises the project’s contribution, reflecting on its wider implications.
Nature-based solutions and the related ecosystem services in urban environments
To spread the use of NBSs and to guarantee social justice in terms of equal access to nature in cities, it is crucial to communicate the importance of NBSs to policy-makers and to the public. The concept of ecosystem services (ESs) has been developed for such purposes to assess the benefits that flow from nature to people. Following the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reports, ESs can be categorized into provisioning, regulating, life-supporting and cultural ESs. Natural ecosystems are multifunctional, and they can provide a wide range of services simultaneously. These benefits are intercorrelated and difficult to quantify and fully evaluate. The most recent European Union classification on nature-based solutions identified 12 societal challenges that could be addressed by NBSs, for each of which key performance indicators have been described. The indicators to be used for ES assessment remain a much-debated issue21. Furthermore, difficulties persist in balancing the relationship between ecosystem services and human needs21,22.
NBSs in urban ecosystems supply regulating services such as climate control and carbon sequestration, temperature regulation, purification of air, water and soil, flood control, and life supporting services such as oxygen production and nutrient cycles. A third category of ES, very relevant in urban environments and usually less evaluated than others, is represented by cultural ecosystem services (CESs)23. CESs are nonmaterial and/or socioecological benefits that people obtain from contact with ecosystems24. The general dependence of CESs on an individual’s value systems makes their assessments less quantitative than other services25,26, and the complex relationship existing among CESs often leads to overlapping and double counting27. The most frequently evaluated CESs are recreation, ecotourism, and aesthetic values, while spiritual, educational and research services are less frequently considered, as well as the contribution of green space to inspiration, social relations, cultural heritage, sense of place and cultural diversity22,25,27.
Although a high recognition is granted to the importance of NBSs for the physical and mental health of the population28, relatively little attention has been given in the field of ecosystem services to the ways in which natural experience directly affects human physical and mental health23. However, a growing body of empirical evidence is revealing the value of natural environments for the psychological and physiological health of citizens, and a new medical science called forest medicine has been established1,29,30.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, evidence has been reported on the significant improvement of urban residents’ health status by visiting urban green areas31.
As an exhaustive assessment and quantification of benefits that people gain from being in contact with nature cannot be achieved, it should be considered that the measurable benefits account only for a small fraction of the whole dependence of human existence on natural ecosystems, taking into account that humanity depends on a healthy environment26. However, part of the society seems to be still unaware of this correlation.
To raise public awareness of environmental issues and of the pivotal role of nature in facing them, it is very important that scientific concepts are made public and readily comprehensible. The lack of public awareness and support has been identified as one of the most influential barriers to NBS uptake and implementation32,33. The fact that this aspect is often neglected by the scientific community reduces the impact of scientific research itself.
In the present manuscript, the authors propose a pilot project linking art, science and socioecological themes in a participatory path of knowledge.
NBS, art and social engagement
The NBS seem to gain strengthen when coupled with participative processes. The theme of collaborative approaches to governing NBS has been theorized starting from 2019 and co-creation processes have been described in scientific literature reaching a pick of publications in 2021 (data based on the results obtained through the query on Scopus “nbs AND co-creation OR participative OR co-governance”). This relatively new concept offers a range of benefits for the implementation and effectiveness of NBS. First, by engaging more diverse actors, urban planning can enhance the pool of available competencies and benefit from wider perspectives in green spaces planning to more fully leverage the potentials of NBS34,35. Second, co-creation and genuine participation can be powerful tools to ensure the relevance and acceptance of NBS. As the acceptance of infrastructure developments is determined to a considerable extent by public attitudes, ignoring or mishandling public opinion could lead to significant criticism and may even lead to project abandonment33,36. A further benefit of the co governance of NBS is that such approach can contribute to social engagement and inclusion, also dampening the influence of powerful lobbyists interests37.
The nexus between art, NBS and social engagement, although neglected in past years, is getting strength thanks also to the New European Bauhaus initiative, proposed as a bridge between the world of science and technology, art and culture38.
One of the few case-study in which the art vision supported the NBS co-creation was described by Alméstar et al.35. In this project several NBS prototypes were developed by multi-stakeholder working groups led by different artists. The authors critically analysed the transfer knowledge among actors and systems involved in the co-creation sessions through conceptual maps. The artistic approach in this case-study allowed participants, coming from different social systems and diverse forms of knowledge, to collaboratively build unexpected results, making for proposals that would be difficult to obtain from a linear and purely scientific approach35. This study, even if it only presents the NBS design phase, opens interesting lines of research wondering what the required conditions for a successful co-creation process in the field of art/science are.
Another project carried-out in the city of Turin (Italy) and described by Dogan et al.39 combines art and nature in NBS design to improve the environmental and economic conditions of the place, stimulating art-related tourism. Furthermore, the authors stated that the regenerative art practices in shared spaces play a crucial role in community engagement.
Herrmann-Pillath et al.40, as already anticipated by Mel Chin and Andreco artworks41,42,43, surpass the notion that constructing NBS in an artful way entails applying aesthetic principles in its design to raise awareness and promote dissemination. Developing the notion of “biotic artworlds” by Richard Prum’s44 and of “more-than human art” inspired by Dewey45, the authors perceive art as the key medium of creative agency of humans interacting with nature. In this way, the functional requirement of NBS can be fulfilled by conceptualising NBS design as artwork40,43.
The Aula Verde put into practice these principles, it involves art not only as a means to raise awareness of NBS, but it is an artwork in itself. The combination of contemporary art practices with NBS is an innovative approach for both research fields. Artistic language provides a more poetic perspective on NBS, helping to build a new imaginary in the humans and to reconnect them with the non-human. At the same time, NBS gives more scientific strength to environmental art theories. The combination of these practices fosters the participation of the inhabitants that are more emotionally involved and reconnected the intervention space and the wider ecosystem.
Art, science, and socioecological themes in the climate crisis
Art, science, and socioecological themes have been interconnected in Europe since the rise of natural history study in the eighteenth century. At the dawn of modern science, the study of plants and geography was correlated by drawings with an artistic interpretation, as we can see in the illustrations of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the Dutch zoologist Albertus Seba and in the surveys of the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt. Science has elaborated its claims through the representation of geological formations, maps and organisms.
From the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, a romantic approach spread across the arts in literature, painting and sculpture. The poets of nature, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake, showed a more visionary and mystic nature. In painting, the representation of the sublime of nature as well as the “uncanny” (Unheimlich in German) of the wilderness presented a challenge to the order of the eighteenth century scientists. By the end of the nineteenth century, this approach to Nature became more political, a direct confrontation with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Intellectuals and artists started to underline the dichotomy between humanity and nature in influential novels such as “Walden or life in the woods”46, “L’homme et la terre”47 and “Fields, Factories and Workshops (Tomorrow)”48. Visual art was also influenced by those cultural debates.
By the 1960s and 1970s, another strong ecological movement arose. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”49, which was the first to demonstrate the dangers of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) for ecosystems and social systems alike, marks the beginning of a strong environmental movement. In the 1960s, the emergence of Land Art was a clear sign of the intertwinement of art and nature. The Art in Nature, the Nature in Art was the title of the Biennale of Venice of 1963. In the 1960s, the first site restoration projects, also known as “reclamation art”, took place50. The Arte Povera movement51 with artists such as Penone, Merz and Acconci in Italy and the social sculpture of Beuys52 in Germany also had a strong approach in the use of natural material.
At the beginning of the 2000s, another wave of ecological ideas spread with the rise of the “No global” movement, as people organised international solidarity with the Global South and against the neoliberal global economy. The movement criticised the exploitation of the persons and the natural resources of the south of the world for the interest of the occidental countries. Intensive agroindustry was radically criticised in the name of biodiversity preservation53,54. The need for an international environmental right was disseminated by the movement, the movement looked to indigenous cultures where the natural cosmogony orients political and social lives towards a consciousness of the planet, and the movement gathered strength. In the scene of visual art, nature and plants are again protagonists. The contemporary visual culture necessitates a “radical aesthetic reconfiguration to emerge along with new philosophical frameworks”55.
In recent decades, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, ecological debates have arisen once again. This time, the debate is ruled by strong scientific influences on art. The IPCC reports, climate movements and independent studies affect visual arts, which took part in the debate on global ecological, sanitary, and social crises.
In the field of art and ecology, Studio Andreco, in collaboration with the association Climate Art Project, cultural and scientific partners developed the Aula Verde concept. This initiative took place in the context of the Climate Art Project (CAP), an itinerant, multidisciplinary project between art, science and environmental activism, conceived by studio Andreco, inspired by the latest scientific and social research on climate change42.
As Serenella Iovino affirmed, Natureculture is at the core of Andreco’s works. At centre stage in his eco-artistic and scientific research we find the human impact on natural systems, the sustainability of our footprint given the planet’s limited carrying capacity, the way we shape the environment, and a host of symbols representing our relationship with the more than-human world56. The CAP project started in Paris in 2015 during the Cop21 conference on climate change, the Paris agreement and the global climate march. The Climate Art Project is composed of a series of interventions that took place in different cities worldwide. The aim of the project is to raise awareness of global warming and to disseminate NBSs as best practices for climate change adaptation and mitigation. The CAP involves actions for Climate Justice and Social Justice. CAP collaborated with institutions, local, national and international agencies, research centres, universities, cultural operators, museums, art galleries, foundations, environmental associations and groups of citizens, realising local intervention with an international perspective. Through visual artworks based on scientific studies and the active participation of the communities, CAP contributed to the debate on the environmental transition and ecocriticism56. At each site where CAP operated, it highlighted the different issues affecting those territories and the possible climate actions to be undertaken. In Portugal, the main themes were heat waves and wildfires, in Puglia, the main theme was the desertification caused by rising temperatures, in Venice, the main theme was sea level rise, and in Delhi, the main theme was air pollution and the condition of the Yamuna River. Visual art, environmental humanities and political ecology are disciplines that are discussing possible ways out from the ongoing climate and social crisis57.
Aula Verde has been conceived as a local project of CAP and comes from this cultural background. As described in the following section, and in the Fig. 2, Aula Verde has been theorised merging scientific, artistic, political and philosophical theories.