Can the arts and sciences work together to prepare a city for climate change?

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Ever since meeting at a Virginia Commonwealth University Office of Sustainability retreat last fall, professors Stephen Fong, Ph.D., and Jon Sheridan have been sharing ideas about how they could collaborate. While Fong teaches chemical and life science engineering and Sheridan teaches photography, they believe art and science complement each other.

After consulting with Christopher Gough, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology and carbon cycle expert whom Sheridan knew from another project, they decided to focus on carbon sequestration — natural processes which suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

The group, which also includes Meghan Gough, Ph.D., associate professor of urban planning, received $5,000 through the VCU UROP Research Exposure Program to integrate undergraduate research into the ARTS 491: Special Topics — The Green Walls Class.

The course will focus on urban challenges and students will participate in developing detailed designs for green walls — vertical structures with living plants — to add aesthetics and function, i.e., carbon sequestration, to urban settings. The end goal is to implement green walls throughout Richmond.

One solution is to implement green walls where plants can be grown at higher densities in an urban setting.

“Without getting into debates about global warming, we are trying to address the fact that due to the higher population density in urban areas, there is a higher production of carbon dioxide and other waste gases due to a higher concentration of people, cars, businesses, etc.,” Fong said. “The goal is to develop solutions to counteract the higher generation of waste gases. Since plants naturally consume carbon dioxide, one solution is to implement green walls where plants can be grown at higher densities in an urban setting.”

The interdisciplinary, team approach emulates real world approaches to tackling urban environmental challenges, and stimulates discussion among disciplines that are traditionally separated in the classroom, Christopher Gough said.

“All of the instructors share a common philosophy,” he said. “Art, science, engineering and urban planning are essential ingredients to educating and resolving complex urban environmental challenges, and we need to do a better job communicating with one another across disciplines.”

As a global change researcher, Gough recognizes the challenge and importance of communicating science in a nontechnical and accessible way.

“Art offers a creative approach to communicating complex science to an audience that might not otherwise tune in or be inclined to approach the technical aspects of global change science,” he said. “Maybe I’m being overly ambitious, but this joint endeavor, I hope, will transform the way Richmonders, including our students, think about climate change problems and solutions in urban environments, providing an artful approach to stimulating action within and across disciplines.”

The project, which launches a pilot class in the spring, comprises three concurring one-credit courses in art, biology and engineering. Classes will come together every two weeks to share their discoveries and learn from the other disciplines’ perspectives.

The students will build test structures and experiment to see which plants work best. Equally important, Sheridan said, is that the project will get artists out of the studio and scientists out of the lab and into the community collaborating with each other.

“At the most basic level, the climate is changing because of the unintended consequence of cultural production, right?” Sheridan said. “Global warming is like an index of culture: lots of cultural activity, lots of greenhouse gas emissions. So you can’t really address the issue without engaging in an exploration of the different forms of culture.”

The atmosphere contains so much extra carbon dioxide that every little thing we can do helps, Sheridan said. And while the project highlights the carbon cycle, other ecosystem services are achieved by “greening the grey” that will reduce energy consumption.

For instance, plants in cities reduce the urban heat island effect, filter air pollution, and provide habitats for critters. And providing more green space reduces human stress.  

“That being said, improving the carbon content of soil in the urban environment will be a great thing for ecosystem health,” Sheridan said. “The more carbon you get into your soil, the healthier it is. … I really hope that this inspires copycats, and that the students will go out into the world and spread these ideas.”


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