Within The Surface

by Eleonora Rombolà

Designing for urban contexts as a viable habitat for biodiversity: researching strategies for integrating the growth of lichen on architectural surfaces in Milan.


habitat conservation


air pollution


About the project

55% of the world’s population live in urban areas and this is projected to rise to 68% by 2050. Their density and the way these contexts function have dramatic consequences on our health and the whole urban biodiversity. Globally, biodiversity in urban environments is 50 % lower than in natural habitats, making the ecosystem less resilient and unable to regenerate itself. This project addresses the issue of habitat conservation and air pollution in urban contexts, locating itself within climate adaptation strategies for the urban environment. It does so from a different angle, placing its design focus on an organism that is usually ignored and overlooked, although it plays an essential role in ecological cycles and the conservation of biodiversity: lichen.

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Living organism

Lichen are a symbiotic partnership between fungi and algae. They are extremely long-living and slow-growing, and they are amongst the most ancient pioneering organisms on the planet, being some of the first living things to grow after extreme events such as a landslide. 6 to 8% of Earth's land surface is covered by lichen, which play an essential role in ecological balances and geochemical cycles: they capture carbon and fix nitrogen to the soil, they are a source of habitat, food and shelter for many organisms, they prevent soil erosion, and they are great environmental biomonitors as they are very sensitive to air pollution and changes in the environment. However, their presence and role is frequently overlooked and ignored. Especially in the urban environment, they are often removed and seen as contaminants on artificial surfaces, instead of being considered a valuable collaborator for design opportunities.

Lichen Xanthoria parietina on tree bark

Milan, Italy.


Field work: inspecting local lichens in Milan, Italy.

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Microscopic image of lichen Xanthoria parietina.

Lens: E500X500, Grow Lab CSM.



The researched approach consists of facilitating the lichen growth by guiding their pattern on the urban surfaces, through painting a growth media directly onto the substrate material in the intended shapes. This process involved both scientific research and practical experimentation in order to understand the growth mechanisms of lichen. Patterned growth of lichen was achieved by optimizing the growth media composition, material substrate, and contextual variables. The design development consisted of an exploration of existing surfaces observing and optimizing the integration of this living organism with non-living structures. The cultural perception of lichen-rich architectures was a focus, of which future steps could be taken to expand and further develop this social-environmental research.

Setting up experiments on recipes.

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Painting growth media on ceramic brick sample, to facilitate the lichens growth into the designed patterns.

Painting growth media on urban brick wall.

Grown pattern on ceramic brick sample

Milan, Italy

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Grown pattern on stone sample

Milan, Italy

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Grow pattern on cement sample

Milan, Italy

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The resulting lichen patterns grown on urban surfaces would have effects on different levels: contribute to remediating air pollutants; expand the lichen population in the local area and support the many organisms that rely on lichen for survival, through habitat conservation. The project also promotes a perspective shift and acceptance of the aesthetics of lichen, from a living organism that is seen as undesirable and to be removed, to one of great visual appeal and creative potential.


Digital visualization of application on urban brick wall.

Darsena, Milan, Italy.

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Eleonora Rombolà

My creative practice combines product design and biodesign, with an interdisciplinary and systems-thinking approach. After studying industrial product design at Politecnico di Milano with an Erasmus experience at TU/Eindhoven, I wanted my design practice to become aimed at designing for shifting current patterns of consumption towards sustainable ways of living. This is what brought me to the biodesign world, through which I became passionate about circular and regenerative design, and learned the value of closely observing even the most inconspicuous forms of life around us across different scales, to extrapolate sustainable design opportunities.