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5.1.1 Seaweed as a catalyst of urban transformation in the age of the Capitalocene-Anthropocene

There is a paradoxical aspect to the aesthetics of seaweed. On the one hand, I have spoken to several marine biologists in Denmark who pursued their careers specialising in seaweed primarily due to their beauty (Krause-Jensen, 2022) (see the Victorian women’s dry pressing of seaweed, as shown in Figure 19). On the other hand, there is this negative public perception of macroalgae as a weed – i.e. something that is ugly, smelly and slimy that you want to avoid while swimming (Krause-Jensen, 2022). It is hard to be enchanted by something that seems worthless, uninteresting, unknown, invisible and even disgusting. For the (Danish) public, there is generally a lack of interest and awareness in seaweed (Hedrup, 2021; Krause-Jensen, 2022), but also, in practice and research in the LUDP disciplines (unlike marine biology), seaweed is seldomly mentioned as a marine “nature” that could be implemented as a part of waterfront/harbourfront development and coastal adaptation (i.e. nature-based solutions) in Denmark and abroad. However, this is changing among groups that are aware and collaborating more with the themes of blue biodiversity with marine biologists (Larsen et al., 2021).

     Conceptions of nature since the Golden Age period of Danish history favoured a particular aesthetic of nature – the sublime, “untouched” nature in the wilderness or the neat, manicured visions of the well-kept terrestrial pastoral landscape. These ideal visions of nature have persisted in current times, as, for instance, is reflected in the negative reaction to “nature” that looks unkept and unmanaged, such as the reaction towards beach wrack, the smelly and rotting beach matter that also plays an important ecological function for the insects and biodiversity and even has a role in mitigating coastal erosion (Innocenti, Feagin and Huff, 2018; Robbe et al., 2021). The learnings from this research indicated the difficulty in departing from the influential romantic aesthetic ideals of nature and how it could be a barrier to accepting the need for alternative aesthetics or even “unkept” marine nature in coastal urban areas (which is more difficult to control). For instance, in correspondence with various marine biologists, certain people found the floating buoys on Vejle fjord (which hosts mussels and seaweed for cultivation) ugly and an eyesore to the “unspoiled” view of the water. The irony here is that Vejle’s fjord has been subject to ocean sprawl due to urban development and environmental degradation due to agriculture, which does not seem to cause the same kind of resistance. It highlights people’s preoccupation with the sea merely as a view only for recreational pleasure, which is currently a marketable and profitable commodity.

    Furthermore, there is also resistance to accepting this “new type of marine nature” at the waterfront due to the dominant imagery of hard-edged concrete bulkheads in most coastal cities as the norm, indicated by the remarks from some of the judges during the Kanten/The Edge design competition deliberation; “there is too much [marine] nature; it looks like some nature park” (in reference to the first place winning project).

     There are also other resistances to cultivating seaweed at a larger scale, for instance, economic factors, where manual labour of harvesting seaweed is expensive in Denmark, and the market demand is too small (Hornbek Nielsen, 2020; Boderskov, 2021). It is also difficult to attain municipal permission to have large-scale interventions on the water in Denmark (Boderskov 2021). These regulatory and economic hurdles to cultivating seaweed on a larger scale are beyond the Kanten/The Edge scale and outside the domains of the LUDP disciplines. Furthermore, the research indicated that there seem to be biases in the distribution of funds towards large grey infrastructure, which consumes large amounts of energy, time and resources. Some examples of grey infrastructural projects covered in this research were hyper large-scale land reclamation projects and additional transport projects costing billions of kroners, while projects to revive Vejle fjord, a “blue infrastructure”, get meagre short-term funding in comparison. It may sound simplistic, but there is still a tendency to prioritise and value more economic growth-inducing initiatives despite the need to radically reduce emissions (or increase carbon-sequestering initiatives). However, how many more billions, if not trillions of Kroners, would the coastal cities need to spend on coastal defence, infrastructural upgrades and property damage in the future due to climate change-related issues? How expensive is a “point of no return” in the degradation of coastal waters? Perhaps, there may be beneficial potential in assigning the fjord with a utilitarian value in the Capitalocene, as a “blue infrastructure”, as a source for meeting some of the carbon sequestration targets, a source for sustainable forms of food, feed and even fuel while providing levels of coastal protection for storm surge and mitigating coastal erosion.

      So, the question remains, are these “barriers” too big for Urban Seascaping with seaweed? These barriers do not seem so big in light of global, national and regional deadlines and goals such as the Paris Climate goals, IPCC targets, the EU directives on improving biodiversity and Vejle Municipality’s goal of increasing wetlands in the future. Therefore, I explored in this research one of the steps towards bridging the gap between city and sea, human and nonhuman, from a spatial intervention as one of the many steps toward enabling a different way of thinking about seaweed and marine life forms – by including them into the everyday experience of living in a coastal city. Projects like Kanten/The Edge could contribute towards the beginning of what constitutes an urban coastal “landscape/seascape” (urban ecology), as these projects are still in the early stages of acceptance and implementation[254]. Thus, the implementation of Kanten/The Edge in the next few years would open more possibilities for research that uncover insights about how the public and marine life forms will accept them[255] and understand the true potentials and shortfalls of these initiatives, which can then be scaled up (however, it is not a straightforward task of being able to “measure” the actual impacts – be it perceptual or physiological).

Moreover, there are many other ways to address the integration of seaweed as a key actor in future ecologies in urban development that needs to run parallel to a spatial design approach. For instance, to help change the current negative and illiterate understanding of (urban) seaweed, educational and community-based initiatives that help create a culture around seaweed, raise awareness and influence policy change are paramount (such as the continuing efforts by Vejle Municipality/Sund Vejle Fjord, Havhøst, Marine Education Centres, etc.). Much of the research and educational initiatives by organisations like these indicate the importance of direct exposure to the marine world to aid in better ocean literacy, interest and care. Therefore, how these educational and cultural “services” are better integrated and hosted in the waterfront areas in transformation (as part of the blue urban commons) is also a task that the spatial design disciplines can also assist with.  

     Finally, my approach throughout the research has been to use seaweed as a representative – as a point of departure and a lens to address the immense transdisciplinary complexities. Focussing on seaweed gave me a specific lens to navigate through this research that otherwise could have ended in another direction. For instance, working with seaweed allowed the site of intervention to go upstream (to tackle the sources of pollution) to the deeper sea (mid-outer fjords for the implementation of floating kelps). That being said, I am, of course, not proposing that seaweed is the most important representative/actor, as seaweed is only a small part of the puzzle in this myriad of complex entities that make up the coastal ecosystem, nor is it the saving grace to climate protection/adaptation. There are bigger systemic issues that need to be addressed, and thus seaweeds should not be used as a way to detract attention from the real sources of the issues. Moreover, by romanticising them, they can also become subjects of greenwashing. Nevertheless, seaweed is unique from other coastal vegetation because of its potential to impact various parts of culture and presents an original contribution to research by consciously integrating them through a spatial design.

[254] Many of these blue projects are unrealised and remain as beautiful speculative drawings and illustrations. For instance, the speculative works for the “Rising Current” in NYC, Coastal Bight, EDIT studios in Norway, and some of the Realdania pilot projects, to name a few.

[255] For “unkept” and “uncontrolled” marine aesthetics currently, to be accepted as part of the waterfront identity, it might take time to be accepted by the public as the new “normal” on the waterfront.



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