5 December, 2018

Dust to Dust: Redesigning Urban Life in Healthy Soils

Since the autumn of 2017, STARS PhD Researcher Dan Evans (Lancaster University) has co-led an international sustainable urban design ideas competition, charrette and exhibition called: ‘Dust to Dust: Redesigning Urban Life in Healthy Soils’.

Dust to Dust began as an urban design ideas competition. Multidisciplinary and multi-sectorial teams were encouraged to develop solutions about how the future design and configuration of cities can promote greater sustainability in the conditions of urban life. Solutions that looked to entwine the relationships between settled life, land, cultivation and soil ecosystem services – analogous of ancient Maya practices – were encouraged, as were those that demonstrated a potential for effective and realistic implementation.

A number of outline design ideas were received from around the world, which were subsequently scrutinised by a multidisciplinary panel of experts. A shortlist of six multisectorial teams with members from countries including Mexico, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Oregon USA, Ecuador and Brazil were then selected to take part in a three day, intensive workshop at The Prince’s Foundation, London with the objective being that this collaborative, progressive and visionary environment would help each team develop their original ideas. The charrette began with a series of expert-led presentations and discussions into the core themes of Dust to Dust, including the issues of waste management, food in urban development, Maya urbanism and a talk Dan gave on the formation of healthy soils. These talks, and their respective themes, helped to steer teams throughout the charrette. The Dust to Dust charrette succeeded in delivering not only local and region specific solutions to the challenges of sustainable urban design but a broader, coherent narrative into the ways that urban life could be redesigned in healthy soil around the world.

With the competition and charrette complete, each team spent four months refining and finalizing their sustainable urban design ideas for a three month exhibition at the world-renowned Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. The Dust to Dust exhibition comprises panels, videographics, physical models and products. In addition to co-curating the exhibition, Dan commissioned the construction of two bespoke acrylic display boxes to exhibit a range of soil samples extracted from beneath a suite of urban surfaces. Each sample’s overall health is assessed  using three classic soil property indicators and adopting a traffic-light scheme, Dan demonstrates how soils ‘out of sight and out of mind’, such as those beneath concrete pavements and tarmac roads, have the least favourable soil properties.

For Dan, this 15 month project has provided a valuable experience in co-ordinating an international workshop, collaborating with industrial partners and curating a museum exhibition. Dan’s involvement in Dust to Dust arose from being part of an AHRC-funded international research network called ‘Pre-Columbian Tropical Urban Life’ led by Dr Benjamin Vis (University of Kent) and Dr Christian Isendahl (University of Gothenburg) of which the exhibition forms part of its public engagement agenda. Since April 2016, TruLife has brought together 26 researchers from 9 different countries and over 21 different institutions representing fields such as urban design, architecture, Maya archaeology, ecology, soil science and industrial engineering. In addition to the curation of this exhibition, Dan is working with the network on a number of papers and a book chapter.

The Dust to Dust exhibition is now on public display for three months at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art. More information can be found here: