The CityTree structure is an amalgamation of sorts: a green, free-standing contraption that’s seemingly part tree sculpture, part park bench and part skate ramp. Its verdant wall stands about 13 feet high, and its square face stretches almost as wide. Yet despite its peculiar form, the installation has purpose. Its inventors claim it has the air-cleaning capacity of hundreds of trees.
“One CityTree is as effective in combating air pollution as 275 regular planted urban trees at 5 percent of the cost, and requires 99 percent less space,” said Dénes Honus, co-founder and CEO of Green City Solutions.
Honus, an urban architect, and his three fellow co-founders — Victor Splittgerber, a mechanical engineer; Liang Wu, an IT specialist; and Peter Sänger, a biologist with a knack for horticulture — hatched the idea after travels in Asia and South Europe. After witnessing the pervasive effects of air pollution and extreme heating in the region, the group asked if there wasn’t a biological response to be found in urban greening. The four combined their skill sets to invent the CityTree, a structure that inserts biologically engineered moss into urban benches. Within a 164-foot radius, each CityTree can reduce air pollution by up to 30 percent while naturally cooling the surrounding environment. Install a chain of them throughout a city and they can help act as a blanketing filter against pollutants like nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and fine dust particles.
“Our vision is to implement the green climate infrastructure to clean up polluted air and thus to create a closed man-made ecosystem for the one resource without alternative: clean air to breath,” Honus said.
And as infrastructure becomes increasingly connected, the structures can play a part in these initiatives. The CityTrees can be harnessed as Wi-Fi hot spots, generate revenue with digital advertising, be outfitted with security cameras or affixed to other forms of traditional infrastructure like streetlamps, pay phones and bus stops. In addition, they could house sensors for detecting air quality, weather, pedestrian traffic and noise.
Honus said the company is still strategizing on the most practical applications, but is developing adaptions for parking meters, sensor stations and hotspots for free public Wi-Fi. “We are already considering smaller versions of the CityTree — for example, without benches, with minimum space requirements or as a replacement of the street safety barriers,” he said.
The German company has placed permanent installations in Oslo, Norway, and the German cities of Dresden and Klingenthal. In May it's is slated to debut another CityTree in Hong Kong, and more are scheduled throughout 2016 with temporary CityTrees popping up across Europe and Asia.
Considering the momentum, it’s not unthinkable for U.S. cities to see one soon.
Alex Goryachev, Cisco’s director of innovation strategy and programs, is a believer in this, seeing global deployment as a tangible reality. As a judge at Cisco’s 2015 Innovation Grand Challenge startup competition in Dubai, Goryachev — along with an industry panel of judges outside Cisco — awarded Green City Solutions second place and $75,000 for its results.
"It's just a very cool product," Goryachev said.
Besting a few thousand applicants, Goryachev said the company earned its podium spot from the judges who unanimously approved. Adaptability, low-cost implementation and monetization tagged the startup as a venture that could be both impactful and financially sustainable — a key metric considering cities’ tight budgets.
"We see a lot of solutions where startups are saying, 'We have a cool product and cities should pay for it' but there is no route for monetization,” Goryachev said. “I think what they're offering is for cities to recover, or for operators to recover, some of the money back and actually turn this into a profit center."
Since the challenge event, Green City Solutions has partnered with Cisco on a potential installation for Paris. Yet the target consumers are most likely to come from Asia, where countries like China and India grapple with debilitating air pollution issues. In China alone, a study by the independent environmental research group Berkeley Earth found that air pollution is connected to the deaths of more than 4,000 people per day. In India, residents of some of its most populous cities are in similar jeopardy. A World Health Organization report on air quality analyzed data from more than 1,600 cities worldwide and found New Delhi, India’s capital, to have the highest concentration of particulate matter.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.