Robot Dogs and Other Weird Creatures Bring Nature to the City
How to create a world where people fly, salamanders text, and trash is useful.
Natalie Jeremijenko wants you to feed the animals. She encourages you to text the fish—and makes sure they’ll text you back. She turns moths into movie stars and believes the next big thing in urban transportation is human flight.
The visionary artist and engineer creates public art projects that aim to change the way people feel about science and their surroundings. Working primarily in cities, she wants to highlight the thriving natural systems beneath the pavement so we can work with them to improve our shared environmental health.
“Cities are already islands of biodiversity, critical islands of biodiversity that most people don’t understand,” says Jeremijenko, 45, who is currently on sabbatical from New York University, where she runs the Environmental Health Clinic. “The very idea that nature is somewhere out there, somewhere else, or we keep it in little boxes we call parks, is weird.”
So Jeremijenko’s art installations reveal the natural world hidden within cities—while also actively addressing environmental problems.
In “Moth Cinema,” on display this summer, Jeremijenko brought the quiet nightly dramas of moths to the big screen: She planted a habitat for moths and then shone a beam of light though it at dusk, projecting their giant shadows onto a screen.
For her “Amphibious Architecture” project, Jeremijenko created networks of sensors and lighted tubes in the East and Bronx Rivers. The tubes lit up to reflect water quality, the presence of fish, and how many people were interacting with the installation via text message (observers were encouraged to send texts to the fish in the rivers, and would receive responses about current conditions). “Instead of treating the water as a reflective surface to mirror our own image and our own architecture, the project establishes a two-way interface between environments of land and water,” the artist’s statement reads.
The “Salamander Superhighway,” a tiny, above-ground tunnel, allows mating salamanders to safely cross the road into a city sculpture park without being smooshed. But that bump—and a lot of cautionary signs—also remind humans in vehicles above that we are not alone. (And a Twitter account allows them to keep up with the comings and goings of salamanders in the tunnel).
And feeding the animals? Jeremijenko developed a fishing lure that’s designed to feed, not hook, fish. The food contains a chemical that binds to mercury, helping to detoxify the fish.
Jeremijenko’s goal is to reimagine cities in ways that promote “pleasure and wonder and environmental health”—to help people think of themselves as agents of creativity and positive change, neither removed from the environment nor a burden upon it.
Jeremijenko says she has seen too many of her students relate to the environment with guilt and shame. “They say, ‘I print on both sides of the paper. I catch public transport. I’m a vegetarian. … I’m doing what I can, but isn’t suicide the best thing that I can do as an environmentalist? Then I’ll use less gas and eat less food.’ That’s the logical extension of our current [mindset]—use less paper, turn off the lights—what you can do less of to reduce your footprint.”
That’s not a useful or healthy perspective, says Jeremijenko. Instead, she tells students, “focus on what you can do that’s productive and important to you, how you can use your unique positions, resources, and concerns to effect positive change and measurable improvements in environmental health.”
1. Jeremijenko mixed biochar into the soil of Socrates Sculpture Park forming a giant “X” where grass grows noticeably greener. 2. Moth Cinema brings nightly moth drama to the big screen. 3. Robotic dogs were equipped with sensors allowing them to sniff out urban pollutants. 4. and 5. Agbags offer city dwellers a way to grow specially chosen crops—high in alpha-carotenes polyphenols and micronutrients—to help their bodies resist urban pollutants. 6. The NoPark project returns no parking zones—mostly those associated with fire hydrant placement—to mosses and grasses to prevent stormwater run off.
Jeremijenko is a prolific artist, making it impossible to share even a fraction of her projects. But just hearing bits about them is intriguing: a choir of mussels to translate water quality into music (the mussels are fitted with sensors—when their shells are open, they “sing”); ice cream made from water-buffalo milk to promote construction of wetlands, where water buffalo thrive; robotic dogs that sniff out common urban pollutants.
The latter project may be Jeremijenko’s most well known. She taught students to equip toy robotic dogs with sensors that allow them to “sniff” out VOCs, ozone, and other pollutants. The students then release the dogs in parks, schools, or industrial areas.
Sometimes the dogs converge on a hot spot and start barking the national anthem. Sometimes they roll over and play dead when they enter an area contaminated above EPA safety thresholds.
“Most often, we found the dogs turned off sites and started chasing cars,” Jeremijenko says. “We demonstrated over and over again that the biggest environmental issue [in the city] is traffic.”
Choosing a favorite project, Jeremijenko says, would be like choosing a favorite child, but she’s currently most excited about a project she calls Biochar-Cha.
Biochar is created by baking cellulosic waste in the absence of oxygen, a process called pyrolysis that turns organic waste into a carbon-rich soil amendment. Jeremijenko realized biochar would be a way to transform all the junk mail that flows through New York City. People who want to participate in the project bring their mail to Socrates Sculpture Park, in Long Island City, to have it burned in the “Biochar BBQ.”
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“It’s a convivial social event in the park,” says Jeremijenko. “You can take the biochar home and, if you work it into soil, it augments the soil.” Biochar sequesters carbon for 5,000 years or more, Jeremijenko says, “and that’s the timeframe we need to be working with when it comes to carbon.”
Jeremijenko has mixed biochar into the soil of Socrates Park, forming a giant “X” where grass grows noticeably greener. After a heat wave this summer browned the park’s grass, it was the biochar X that bounced back the fastest.
One of Jeremijenko’s most innovative ideas is personal travel and product transport by zip lines. “We can get beyond bike lanes,” she says, “which are necessary but radically insufficient for reimagining our urban mobility.”
Zip lines, she says, are “very, very inexpensive, reliable, and wondrous.” Those who travel on Jeremijenko’s zip lines, like the one she had installed in Toronto, also wear biomimetic wings so the ride feels almost like flying.
“It’s a public experiment to explore what is possible,” she says. “A spectacle like hundreds of people flying over the main square in Toronto creates a shared memory of a possible future. People who have flown or witnessed the zip line are much more inclined to consider it a feasible option for emissionless mobility.”
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Now working to establish a zip line in the Bronx—the borough that struggles with the worst air quality, and consequent health problems, in the city—Jeremijenko doesn’t see the idea as outlandish.
She points to a well-known commercial bakery in nearby Long Island City that is serviced by 76 diesel trucks every morning, vehicles that then spread out—and spew diesel fumes—throughout the region. If the bakery, only a few blocks from the water, used zip lines to transport products to the river and then shipped by boat, all those trucks would no longer be necessary.
“If we ask ourselves why we distribute food in such a way that it gives our children asthma and compromises the cardiovascular health of every one of us, then the urgent cultural challenge becomes how might we reimagine urban mobility,” says Jeremijenko. “The zip line is a tremendous opportunity to address this. Look—no emissions.”
“Art is as much about making change happen as it is about making the things themselves,” she said. “We all need to be experimenting with what works to produce a healthy, desirable future.”
In Jeremijenko’s world, people fly, salamanders text, and trash is useful. It is, by design, a place of wonder and surprise, a place where removing the artificial barriers between the urban and the natural creates an endless sense of possibility.
“The challenge for the 21st century is how to make urban spaces livable, desirable, productive, healthy,” says Jeremijenko. “The best tools we have—ones that are ubiquitous, inexpensive, and demonstrated to work—are natural systems.”
- Every flush of a standard toilet creates a several-gallon problem. Instead of wasting water, plants and animals can transform human waste into water rated pure enough to drink.
- Aquaponics takes advantage of nature’s processes to fill Americans’ growing appetite for fish—without overfishing or destructive farming.
- Species like green crabs, feral pigs, snakeheads, and zebra mussels cost $120 billion a year in damage. For a cheaper alternative, try eating them.