We need more trees in our cities. But our cities also need to become more like trees.
The other day I posted on why environmentalists must think like pro-athletes, inspired in part by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on optimal experience. As I finish up his book, I was struck by another observation—namely that the task of finding meaning in an individual's life can be directly compared to the role of plants as "dissipative structures—organisms that collect diffuse energy from the sun and transform it into highly complex, dynamic structures.
It seems to me that the challenge of building community is very similar. We could, as a culture, do a lot worse than to learn from plants.
1. Collect Dispersed Energy
From New York's potential to collect solar energy to an incredible solar bridge, we know for a fact that our communities and our cities could do a better job of utilizing (and conserving) the physical energy that is all around them. But communities are, by definition, awash with psychic energy too.
Any collective of humans is literally buzzing with ideas, ideologies and emotions. That energy can either be harnessed for the good, or it can be left to fester—either going to waste or becoming a destructive force as witnessed by the London riots of last year. Let's learn to use the energy available to us.
2. Find a Sense of Purpose
Plants grow toward the light. It's what they do. It is literally in their genetic make-up to do so. Whether or not humans have a pre-ordained purpose is a question beyond this atheist's pay grade, but there is no doubt that we can find a collective purpose. And the quest for sustainability and resilience offers tremendous opportunities to do so. From Britain's first solar-powered town to a village reinventing itself after resilience and rock and roll, by expressing our objectives in terms of collective identity, we create a rallying point and we bring people together. But to do so we must value the input of everybody, including learning from marginalized people for whom resilience has always been a way of life.
3. Adapt and Move On
When the cotton growing communities of NC were hit by NAFTA, thousands lost their jobs. But some were not ready to go down without a fight, and the Cotton of the Carolina's program is currently reviving an entire industry and proving that organic cotton can perform as well as GMOs in a State where they said it was impossible.
Plants may grow toward the light, but that doesn't mean they push forward blindly. We have to learn to do the same.
4. Be Beautiful (Inside and Out)
Plants are amazing things, not least because of the stunning hues, textures, shapes and colors that they create. In our quest for sustainability and resilience, we must pursue a similar dedication to beauty—not as a nice add on or a useless frill—but as an embedded feature of our buildings, our streets, our artefacts and our communities at large. Form and function are one and the same.
5. Don't Shit Where You Eat
If plants polluted the soils in which they grow, or used up the water they rely on, they wouldn't last too long. Unfortunately our society is on a trajectory to do just that. But truly biomimetic cities and communities won't just reduce their impact on the environment around them, but actually contribute to the health of those resources. From filtering water to fostering biodiversity, it's time to stop thinking about ourselves and the communities we live in as a scourge on the planet, and start to think about how we can help it heal.