Recent literature in ecological urbanism shows that design strategies are increasingly combining infrastructural design with ecological interventions to address an imminent ecological crisis within the context of accelerating urbanization. Merging technological function with natural structures, the design of these ecological infrastructures centers on sophisticated data collecting, rather than responding to socio-political demands or taking inspiration from historical precedents. Political ecology, on the other hand, mainly focuses on the socio-political effects of technonatural intervention, or in-/exclusion of social actors in the planning process, while paying limited attention to the design of ecological infrastructure and the inscribed spatial motives.
By delving into 'historical precedents', in which ecological infrastructures were conceived as mode of urban design, the research will add a design perspective to political ecology as well as socio-political context to urban design discourse. Recent design culture will be analyzed vis-à-vis historical concepts that dealt with technology and environmental control within a context of uncertainty and rapid change – that is 19th century technonatural interventions that aspired to curb impending epidemics and social crises. We will focus on 1) water in the city – on vaulting rivers, sewers and water supply – and 2) the loss/development of the peri-urban green commons – including technological innovation of irrigation systems and vegetation schemes. For each theme, a case in 19th century Belgium is mirrored with current international theory and practice, focusing on opening-up urban water as well as on the re-gain of the (peri-)urban common – eg agricultural urban infrastructure and large-scale technonatural commons (re-planting and irrigation programs).
Besides the innovative methodology linking past, present and future projection in a way that contributes to both history and current urban theory, as well as to design practice, the project has a decidedly interdisciplinary focus. In addition to tying together the disciplines of ecological urbanism and political ecology in a timely bind breaking new ground, on a broader level, the project relates technology, space and society, and with that the domains of urban history, urbanism, planning, engineering, political geography and Science Technology and Society studies (STS) as it traces sociospatial motives inscribed in technonatural projects.