Artist and interactive designer Marco Castro Cosio tells Wingscapes how the PlantCam has helped document urban greening and education on the BioBus.

Even the most crowded city has untapped space for green areas and gardens — it just might have to be a space that moves. That’s not stopping Marco Castro Cosio, a Brooklyn, N.Y., artist and interaction designer, from exploring the value of growing plants atop buses. His Cell Motion BioBus motors around New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and sometimes farther afield bringing hands-on science education to more than 20,000 students and adults each year. The BioBus has been running as a non-profit educational venture since 2007. It also serves as a trial for Cosio’s ideas, and he’s incorporated two Wingscapes Timelapse PlantCams and a solar panel into the movable garden.

Wingscapes recently caught up with Cosio to learn more about his nomadic plants.

Q: How did you get interested in mobile green spaces?
MC: I came to New York to study at a New York University master’s degree program called the Interactive Telecommunications Program, which is about figuring out how to use technology for creative purposes. Through my classes, one conclusion I came to was that people in cities really could use more green spaces. That would create better communities. So how do you add green spaces to a city where there is no space? Why not on top of city buses? That’s how I came up with the Bus Roots project for my master’s thesis and started working on gardens on top of buses to make that space more productive.

I began with a bunch of design constraints, like effective use of electricity and low environmental impact, and I wanted it to be as public and accessible as possible — to be an outdoor space, to be art you don’t have to go into a gallery to see. The BioBus is very green, and it has a science lab inside, so that seemed like a good fit. I talked to its owner, who said, “Yeah, let’s put the garden on top!” The living roof helps keep the bus cooler in the summer, and the bus has carried the garden as far west as New Mexico. It’s won a couple of awards, including first runner up in the Designwala Grand Idea Competition.

Since graduating in 2010, I’ve taken the project in different directions. It has given me a chance to explore the significance of plants that move, the whole idea of nomadic agriculture — what does it mean for plants to move? Can I create a nomadic habitat where insect and bird life can rest?

Q: And what does it mean for plants to move?
MC: When I was trying to get materials for the project, everybody said that if you put plants on the bus, they will die. That’s what everybody told me. I got green roof material and put it on the bus, and it’s been there for a year and a half now. And it will come back this spring. So not all plants have to die while traveling! That was the first experiment, and it’s doing well. For the second experiment, I want to have some sensors check how the temperature changes as the bus travels. But I’m still working on that.

Q: What have been students’ reactions to a garden on a bus?
MC: It’s been quite interesting. They’re usually with their parents or a teacher, and they’ll say, “Look! There’s a garden up there!” and sometimes their friends or the adults will say, “No, that’s fake, let’s go, keep walking.” They’re just assuming that it’s a fake garden because they don’t think you can grow plants up there. But the kids say, “No, look, it’s real!” They’re really excited and a little amazed. It starts an interesting conversation about how plants are involved in a city, how we can have a relationship with them, and how they can grow their own plants in their houses.

Usually at public events we set up a ladder so they can climb up and actually touch the plants and see them up close. When it’s flowering, it’s obviously more interesting, and they get more excited and ask more questions.

Q: Is it a challenge to tend plants atop a bus?
MC: I used the lowest maintenance plants. The green roof plants are what they use on high-rise buildings because there will be no human access afterward; it’d be too dangerous. Those plants are up there in windy conditions with a very simple watering system, and the plants are very, very sturdy; they’re super strong.

The first month, I watered the plants on the bus every week, but after that, they’ve been mostly dependent on rain. During the summer, when it gets dry, I do water it once in a while. In the winter, I add some compost or organic fertilizer, and then in the spring I add more compost, just to prepare it for the change of seasons.

We’re trying to get this idea implemented by the New York Metro Transportation Authority (MTA), so we couldn’t really tell them, “Oh, you have to water this every hour and take care of the garden.” They’d say, “No, thank you.” I designed it to be very low maintenance so they’d say yes. We’re still trying to convince the MTA. But they have a fleet of around 4,500 buses, so growing plants on the roof of every one would add about 35 acres of mobile green space in the city. And the benefits of more plant life include mitigation of the urban heat island effect, acoustical and thermal insulation, and carbon dioxide absorption.

Q: What prompted you to add a Wingscapes camera to the project?
MC: When the bus was about to travel to St. Louis, I thought I would love to see how the plants are traveling and how they’re doing during the trip. I was imagining the plants documenting their vacation and come back with pictures and videos! So I looked at different options for cameras. The camera had to be one that wouldn’t fly off the bus, would be protected, and wouldn’t look too tempting so it wouldn’t be stolen. When I found Wingscapes, I wrote them to ask for a camera, and when I got it, tested it to make sure it wouldn’t fly off. It has been great.

I just got a second camera and the solar panel, and the bus will be back in New York next week, so we’ll install those then.

Q: What sorts of things have you captured with the timelapse camera?
MC: It’s been interesting to see the kids’ reactions to the photos. Sometimes they’re coming up and staring at the photos, trying to figure out what’s going on. The photos have shown how the plants are moving during the day, responding to the sun.

I also have footage when the bus and the plants are moving. That’s what I’m really interested in. You see the plants going through traffic, the wind and the highways and the cars passing by. The wind is getting to them, but it’s not shaking them all over, as you would expect. And it’s quite interesting to see the contrast. When you see pictures of plants, they’re usually very static, very relaxing. And here it’s very vibrant, very active. You see all the movement around them, and the plants are growing there in the middle of it — a little bit of life.

Q: This might be a funny question, but do the plants like to move?
MC: They haven’t died, and that’s a huge accomplishment! Especially since everyone told me they would. But there’s another experiment I’d like to set up. Apparently there’s a theory that plants like vibration. You’ve probably heard of people who put music on for their plants. I think the conclusion that’s been drawn is not so much that the plants like classical music or they like rock music, but that it’s mostly the vibration they like. Well, the bus certainly vibrates. It’s vibrating all the time. Perhaps the plants are doing well because they really like that. That’s another experiment I’d like to make.

Q: What’s next for you and your traveling plants?
MC: One of the things I thought about at the start of this product was food — using food as an interaction and knowing where we get our food. So one of the ways I’d like to take the project further is to actually grow edible plants up there. We could take them to different places where food was scarce or even raise herbs that would smell.

A bus that smells like thyme or mint sounds great! Thanks for sharing your project with us, Marco — and we’ll see you at the next bus stop!