During the last century and a half, humans have created cities that ignore natural cycles such as the weather and surrounding conditions, and have developed urban areas that have little to do with life in the natural world. The control of resources and mastery of energy sources has allowed us to become carelessly independent from our natural environment—which has led to a downward unsustainable path, currently incapable of supporting the massive population growth predicted for the world’s biggest cities.
How do we reverse this grim trajectory? How are we going to allocate the amount of resources necessary to feed and house a predicted 2050 world population of over 9 billion people? What can we observe and copy that engages, adapts, and consumes resources not only sustainably, but also replenishes them after use?
Nature is holding sustainable solutions to numerous city design and development problems we are currently facing—we just have to look deeper to see where the solutions are already being applied in the natural world.
Biomimicry is the art and science of observing nature, and applying the particular function you are observing to human design. Whether you’re looking at a beetle’s outer shell, or the swimming pattern of a school of fish, there are design solutions to be obtained nearly anywhere. Urban planners and designers are starting to use biomimicry to find out how nature allocates resources within a system effectively, eliminates the idea of “waste,” and completely bounces back from disturbances.
How can a city be more like an ecosystem?
Cities as urban ecosystems
Urban areas behave a lot like complex natural systems: they have interconnected components such as buildings, streets, and sewer systems—like birds, plants, and insects all living within the same tree. The difference is, nature’s interconnected parts all exist harmoniously with one another. Ilaria Mazzoleni, a biomimicry architect at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, says, “Nature is really a master example of making different things work one to the other and eliminating things that don’t fit with the picture.” By observing how each puzzle piece in nature fits to the larger picture (or system), designers can get an idea of what is or isn’t necessary in a city’s development.
Janine Benyus, pioneer and author of the book Biomimicry 3.8, has said that cities can function like nature’s communities—where she argues mutualism is the driving force. Building mutually beneficial relationships in cities would result in a surplus of resources. For example, in nature, the monsoon forest’s plants store water in their deepest roots during the rainy season, and push it back up through shallow roots during the dry season to benefit all the other plants and organisms in the surrounding area.
If a city ultimately provided the same level of services as the forest next door, it could build fertile soil, clean water, filter out pollution, produce food, and keep the temperature cool. One small example of a component in a city providing these kinds of services can be seen at the Bank of America building in New York. This skyscraper has air-filtering technology that allows air to leave the building three times cleaner than when it entered. How much better would the air quality be in Beijing if the majority of their buildings were required to have this type of air filtration system?
How else do you think a city might be redesigned to function more like a forest? Where else in the world are we seeing designers, engineers, and biologists teaming up to tackle urban design problems?
Biomimicry being implemented into urban design
The city of Lavasa, located about 60 miles southeast of Mumbai, India, is being developed with biomimicry in mind. Janine Benyus teamed up with the architecture firm HOK to study the area’s ecosystem and give a set of design recommendations that the city’s developers can use.
Since the area is essentially a monsoon hotspot, pavement here is designed to allow water to permeate back into the ground, building foundations grip the hillsides like the roots of trees, and roofs function to help re-release some of the monsoonal water back into the air as water vapor. Even the roads here are planned to mimic the local anthills, which remain structurally intact during the areas heaviest rains.
Mary Ann Lazarus, HOK’s director of sustainable design, says that in Benyus’s ideal design solution, “your new built environment would perform as if it were a moist deciduous forest.”
Lavasa is a great example of how designers (with the help of biologists) can piece together a forest’s interconnected components with their associated functions, and then use this knowledge to develop a sustainable city.
Where else, on a much smaller scale this time, can we look to nature for smart design clues?
Researchers studying urban transport have recently found an organism that has the potential to provide efficient transport routes between cities, and mimic regularly occurring events, such as rush hour. This single-celled organism—a type of slime mold—grows outward from a single point, searching for food sources. Once the mold locates the food source, most of the slime branches that it has sent out to find the food die off, leaving only the most efficient route between food source nodes.
By rearranging pieces of oat flakes (food source) on top of a country’s major cities, researchers can watch the mold create the most efficient transport routes between each city. A team of researchers, led by Professor Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England, did this experiment by creating models of 14 countries and placing each in a petri dish. The results showed that cities in Belgium, Canada, and China had existing transport networks similar to the model the slime produced, and thus were already efficient, while networks in the US and Africa were indicated to be least efficient.
Since the slime mold is also a living “supercell,” meaning it has multiple nuclei, it can be used as a dynamic modeling tool. This means that the mold can bounce back from disturbances and create new routes around affected areas. Problems in the system such as flooding or a car accident can be simulated in the experiment by adding salt to a point on the map. Since salt is toxic to the mold, it will retract its branches from this spot and create new routes across the network, which can provide information for traffic planning contingencies.
Examples like the slime mold and development in Lavasa prove that biomimicry can play a major role in future urban design and planning. The technology and tools for implementing nature’s strategies are all there. As Janine Benyus puts it, “now we need pilot cities.”