Generous cities: biomimicry and urban design

biomimicry 3.8 talk
© Margaret Badore

This weekend, the University of Massachusetts Boston hosts the 7th annual Biomimicry 3.8 Education Summit and first ever Global Conference. The event truly lives up to its name, attracting guests from as far away as Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and Mexico.

One of the biggest questions asked yesterday was, "how can a city be more like an ecosystem?" The answer may lie in generosity.

Networks were a central theme to author Janine Benyus' keynote speech yesterday morning, not only the networks that are important to people and cities, but also networks as they exist in nature.

Benyus proposed a shift in thinking about how nature's communities function, arguing that mutualism, not competition, is the driving force in nature. "Together is better," she said, adding that building mutually beneficial relationships will ultimately result in surplus, not scarcity. She illustrated this idea with a monsoon forest: during the rainy season, plants will absorb water and push it to its deepest roots for storage. In the dry season, this moisture will be pulled back up and pushed out through shallow roots, benefiting all of the other plants and organisms around it.

Another example of generosity in nature is the redwood, which she explains in the video below:

She encouraged researchers and activists to think of each other in a similar light, particularly among groups that may feel they're competing for funding. "Don't think you're dividing up a pie," she said. "You're going to make more pie."

Cities can also be generous. "LEED challenged people to build the greenest buildings," Benyus said during a roundtable discussion with several architects and city planners. "But how can the city work like an ecosystem?"

I had the opportunity to ask Benyus about her favorite examples of how cities can be more generous. "The city would provide the same level of services as the forest next door," she said. That means a city could build fertile soil, filter air, clean water, sequester carbon, cool the surrounding temperature, provide biodiversity and produce food.

This seems like a long list of functions, but Benyus says there's "a nice pallet of technology" that's already available to builders and designers. It's just a question of putting them together. For example, the Bank of America building in New York already has air filtering technology that allows air to leave the building three times cleaner than what entered. "But that's just one building."

Benyus proposes that city-wide "metrics for ecological performance" could be a policy that would encourage collaborative goal-setting. She envisions a world where each new or retrofitted building would perform multiple ecological services, together working the benchmarks of the greater community. "Now we need pilot cities."

Generous cities: biomimicry and urban design
Biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus argues that generosity and not competition is the building block of nature.