By Tamsin Woolley-Barker, Ph.D
At the end of June, over 350 bio-inspired teachers, designers, architects, biologists, industrialists, and policy-makers gathered at the University of Massachusetts in Boston to ask, "How can humans create conditions conducive to Life?" Not just sustainable economies, cities, and production systems, but a regenerative way of life that creates biodiversity instead of destroying it.
At the 7th Annual Biomimicry Education Summit, and the first ever Biomimicry 3.8 Global Conference, a heady mix of dreamers and doers were trying to build our future the way nature would do it.
On the conference's second day, a panel of notable architects and city planners asked "How would nature design buildings and cities that fulfill the ecosystem services of the original habitats they replaced?" This is the promise of "Generous Cities," places where our buildings actually regenerate and improve our environment, much like other richly productive ecosystems we find in nature. Complex living systems like coral reefs and rain forests have been around for millions of years, shaped by natural selection into collaborative webs that are much more than the sum of their parts. Thomas Knittel of HOK and Chris Garvin of Terrapin Bright Green spoke of the need to engineer analogous ecosystems in our urban cores.
In New York, this vision is actually beginning to guide urban planning and architecture, thanks to the Wildlife Conservation Society's ambitious Mannahatta Project, which reconstructed Manhattan's environment at the time of European arrival. We now know that the biodiversity per acre on the island once rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains, with over 55 ecological communities, including forests, meadows, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, beaches, springs, ponds, and streams, and a rich and abundant community of wildlife.
Knittel spoke of his early training as an architect. Building designers, he said, are taught to get water "off the building, away from it, and keep away." Everything outside a five foot radius "is a civil engineer's problem." Instead, he suggested we look at the way nature manages resources. Nature's way with water, for instance, is to "slow it, sink it, store it." In the Amazon rain forest, clouds form in the dry season, despite the shallow soils and lack of rain. Scientists have long asked, "Where does the water come from?" It turns out that some keystone tree species sink and store water in deep taproots. When conditions are dry, the water draws up passively, through transpiration, to the benefit of all species in the ecosystem. Knittel asked whether someday we could "design a building that creates a raincloud?"
Similarly, can our cities become carbon sinks, absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide the way coral reefs do? Can they run on energy from the sun, wind, water, and heat of the earth, like rain forests and deep-water thermal vent communities? Can our buildings provide food and habitat for ourselves and other species (and not just cockroaches, pigeons, and rats)?
It's an inspirational vision, and one whose time has come. The Bank of America building, for instance, emits air three times cleaner than the air it brings in. The newly planned Google building, also in NYC, will tap an underground stream for its water needs, while producing a surplus of energy to be fed into the city electricity grid. Green roofs will absorb water and carbon dioxide, while cooling the air.
Thad Pawlowski, an urban designer at New York City Department of City Planning Urban Design Division, then described New York City's urgent search for ways to rebuild for resilience in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. New flood maps show that the city is dramatically more vulnerable than previously thought, and city planners know that flooding can and will get much worse. Suggestions have mostly been along the lines of "build walls to keep water out." But nature doesn't generally rely on such energetically and materially expensive solutions. How would nature rebuild?
Janine Benyus, Biomimicry 3.8 co-founder and author of the book Biomimicry, which launched the movement and gave it a name, took the mic and spoke with eloquence. "If you want to know how to rebuild," she said, "Go to the shoreline. Ask what survived there, and why. Look for the survivors and replicate their strategies." She painted a compelling image of humble grasses rebuilding dunes, and oyster beds acting as reefs, sheltering the land from impact.
Later, a member of the audience stood and asked Pawlowski (representing a city government that many might assume to be the antithesis of progressive innovation), what he would take away from the day's conversation. His delightful response captured the palpable sense of excitement and hope in the room. "I have just one pressing question on my mind right now. How does nature survive storms? And I want to go outside and see what nature is doing. Right now."
Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker is an evolutionary biologist, writer, and Biomimicry 3.8-trained sustainability and biomimicry consultant. She blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums' Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation and resilience inspired by living systems.