Biomimicry based Urban Eco-community Design

One of the big realizations that designers have when they play with biomimicry is that it’s not a tool, it’s a mindset shift

- Dayna Baumeister, co-founder the Biomimicry Guild

Biomimicry is fast becoming an integral part of sustainable design. Nature-inspired decisions can add tremendous value to a project.  A biologist working in biomimetic design is known as a Biologist at the Design Table( BaDT). There are currently only a handful of BaDTs in the world today but eventually, the goal is to have a BaDT in every design firm.

In 2010, Fast Company organized the What Would You Ask Nature? biomimcry challenge which drew dozens of real-world business problems submitted by companies from all over the world. Fast Company assigned three challenges to three firms and paired them each with a biologist.

One of the selected cases was Portland-based Brightworks, a sustainable development company. Brightworks has been helping neighborhoods create long-term plans so that they can qualify for funding from the City of Portland’s EcoDistricts Initiative, a new program designed to accelerate sustainable neighborhood development throughout the city. Brightworks studied  a proposed ecodistrict is a 35-block study area for the Lloyd District, in northeast Portland, Oregon, United States.

Mithun Architects+Designers+Planners and a team of specialists were part of this project and recommended ideas such as:

  • water independence (using water immediately available from rain or ground)
  • greenways for natural animal habitats
  • a high-rise district in the center of the neighborhood that featured green buildings

Brightworks was interested to see how such practices could spread into neighborhoods around an ecodistrict. The challenge that Brightworks submitted to the What Would You Ask Nature? biomimicry challenge was this:

How can we understand how these layered, systemic sustainability issues–clean water, efficient transit, green building–could be more effectively addressed throughout each district to encourage green, sustainable growth that spread beyond its borders?

Mexico City-based architectural firm Taller de Operaciones Ambientales was chosen to explore a biomimicry-based solution.

Brightworks’ Erin Leitch flew to Mexico City to introduce the challenge to the TOA team. The most important question Erin wanted the team to explore was how best to exchange information through neighbourhood boundaries. The designers began to explore how borders actually function in nature and how independent beings come together to form a bigger entity.

TOA’s resident biologist Juan Rovalo and his team worked to reframe the idea of ecodistricts using nature’s parameters. The team questioned the idea of funding for ecodistricts being allocated on a square-foot or per-foot denomination because that’s not how nature works. By taking a nature-inspired approach, the team was led to remove this constraint adn ultimately led to an innovative solution for expending energy and denoting funding.

The team embedded themselves in a natural site south of Mexico City to inspire a solution. “Most of the elements that we talked about were actually in front of them,” said Rovalo. “We were looking at shrubs, the border of the forest and grasslands, looking at roots, and mushrooms. We were talking about what we were looking at.” The visit to nature proved critical to looking at the solutions nature would provide.

The wild behavior of mycelium or fungi, as well as their more common relatives, mushrooms proved to be the critical insight.  Their complex network of relations between organisms while maintaining very specific boundaries bore much ressemblance to an ecodistrict.

TOA envisioned a new kind of ecodistrict that founded on 3 key observations drawn from mycelium communities:

  1. the easy exchange of nutrients across more open borders
  2. the use of empty space within communities that can be used as needed
  3. the seed and spore propagation that allows smaller communities to sprout up outside the established group

These insights are shown in the diagram below

Rovalo noted the “fairy ring” that occurs in nature – rings or arcs of mushrooms that sometimes appear around trees or in fields of grass, where the richest nutrients are found in the center of the circle. Flows of energy, materials, nutrients, and information beneath are all very complex. The mycelium forms intimate symbiotic relations with all of them. This is very analogous to the interconnected systems of water, transit, energy, food that interconnect a neighbourhood.

Focus on the borders, not the center

Using the ring-like mushroom communities, as well as other natural examples, the designers were able to recommend that an overwhelming amount of funding–50%–should be focused on the borders of the ecodistricts. This biologically-inspired strategy runs counter to that of most urban design sensibilities that would hold that Main Street would be the most vital part of a neighborhood. However, this is not what the team observed in nature. They observed that the most radical strategies happen in their border.

Besides the focus on borders, the designers made another critical observation concerning the distribution of that border. Borders in nature are not abrupt but occur in gradients – slow and gradual physical transition between inside and outside,allowing a lot of exchange between levels and creating different dynamics. This is far different from the abrupt transition that most cities have created between regions.

Leave some spaces within an ecodistrict empty, so a neighborhood can decide later what is needed and fill it in
Team member Rodríguez noted that nature provides for empty spaces. “These are empty spaces that don’t necessarily have a function, but they are left there for someone else to take over.” she says.  Empty spaces occur in obvious places like trees, of course, but Rovalo told a very interesting story about saguaro cactuses in the Sonoran Desert. Woodpeckers create holes in the giant cacti to make a home, but then will abandon it after three years. At that time, however, owls will move in, which rearranges the ecosystem because mice and other smaller animals will have to adjust to the new predator. This seemingly random occupation of empty spaces actually regulates and balances the flow of nutrients and energy throughout the desert.
Inspired by nature, the team made a decision to provide 20% funding to empty spaces; a decision that runs completely counter to mainstream city planning.  The rational, Rodríguez argues, is that this gives residents more say in building their own communities as they debate the future use of that empty space.

Satellite nodes of sustainable development that occur outside the ecodistrict

The team observed that mushrooms and fungi launch spores far outside of their own community to start new communities. This suggested an analogous situation in the eco-district. Sustainable actions could occur outside the ecodistrict. Small group initiatives outside the eco-district would effectively be the spores. These new seed nodes would spur new development that would eventually spread to infill the areas in between.

TOA proposed that 10% of funding be allocated to these projects.