Our planet is losing species at rates never before seen in human history. A report from the United Nations says that 1 million animal and plant species are on the verge of extinction, many within decades.
This tragedy is caused by humans: As the world has become increasingly industrialized, natural habitats have been destroyed to build cities that are inhospitable to wildlife. But a pair of European designers—architect René Hougaard and product designer Alexander Qual—believe there are ways to encourage cities to coexist with nature. They’ve created outdoor furniture for the Scandinavian brand Vestre that’s designed to encourage wildflowers, birds, and insects to thrive, nurturing biodiversity in cities and rewilding urban spaces.
Bug Hotels At A Larger Scale
The natural world tends to appear messy and chaotic to the human eye, with plants and animals interacting symbiotically with one another. Fungi, plants, and insects thrive in decomposing logs. Birds and bees create homes in dead, hollow tree trunks. Weeds and flowers grow in wild patches of grass. “Nature is imperfect according to our aesthetic sensibilities,” Qual says. “We perceive this as messy and dirty, so we try to get rid of them in our gardens and our cities.”
Over the past few years, as architects and city planners have confronted the environmental disasters our planet is facing, many have started designing more greenery into urban areas. But Hougaard finds it problematic that these green spaces don’t actually encourage wildlife to grow. “They create tidy plots of grass with non-native flowers,” he says. “These natural elements don’t actually increase biodiversity.”
To counter that, the designers created outdoor furniture that would be beautiful to look at, but also allow bugs, birds, and wildflowers to thrive. Qual says he was inspired by everyday people who build “insect hotels” in their backyards and balconies that are hospitable to ants, beetles, and ladybugs. The goal was to create products at a larger scale that landscape architects and real estate developers would be able to incorporate into their designs.
They brought their ideas to Vestre, an outdoor furniture maker that’s known for its sustainability. Jan Christian Vestre, the CEO and third-generation owner of the company, worked with them to launch the collection, called Vestre Habitats. The six initial products will be available for purchase online in early 2022. (Prices have not yet been released.)
Embracing The Mess
To create furniture that would actually entice birds and insects to set up homes, the designers partnered with two well-known biologists, Lene Liebe Delsett, who specializes in paleontology, and Katrine Turner, who studies landscape ecology. These experts noted that even though wildlife appears chaotic, there is often method in the madness. Many creatures have very specific needs that nature provides. Bees, for instance, need small holes in trees that are 150 millimeters deep. If the hole is too small, they will lay only female eggs, not the final male egg; this prevents that particular colony from perpetuating itself.
Qual had this in mind when he created a large, yellow, leaf-shaped insect hotel that’s designed to be placed on a flower bed, in a park, or on a rooftop terrace. The structure contains wooden blocks with holes that are 6, 7, and 8 millimeters in diameter, since different insect species prefer holes of different sizes. There are also holes that are deep enough for the bees to lay their eggs. Inside the structure, there are various materials that protect bees from birds, while also providing ventilation.
In all the structures, the designers played with the concepts of order and messiness. Hougaard created a metal log bench with an empty space in the middle specifically designed to hold a decomposition log that can provide a habitat for insects, lichens, moss, and plants, along with birds and bats. While humans often shy away from decomposition, Hougaard imagines a place where people can sit down and observe the slow process in which bacteria and fungi break down the wood, creating food for insects, birds, and other animals. “This is a process that could take years, so people could come back to this spot again and again and see how nature has transformed it,” Hougaard says.
Hougaard also created a set of compost and planting containers called Decay Edge. Unlike regular planters, these containers don’t have a base, so they can be placed right on top of the soil. The idea is to fill the container with different materials, including stone, wood, soil, and plants, to provide a place for insects, reptiles, and small animals to hide and find food. They can also interact with earthworms and other creatures in the soil underneath, creating a thriving ecosystem.
Will people actually want to be so close to bugs, snakes, and nesting birds? The designers acknowledge that modern humans have been trained to stay away from such creatures. But he says these structures keep animals contained, while allowing people to observe and appreciate them safely. And ultimately, if we want to maintain crucial biodiversity, humans need to become much more comfortable living alongside wildlife, rather than feeling the need to destroy it.
“People tend to be afraid of things they don’t know and don’t understand,” Hougaard says. “It’s so easy to fall into that with wildlife—so we try to fight nature by cutting everything down. But this doesn’t work because we need nature to survive.”