Below are the functions we believe cities need to perform. To accomplish these functions in a healthy way we need to look to to the natural world, as nature already does all of this in a healthy way. If you think about it, there is so much we can learn from the way the natural world works. Nature as a system already does many of the things we humans are trying to accomplish. It maintains temperature and energy balances, harvests within carrying capacity, creates strong, flexible, and natural building materials. It does all this while being powered by renewable energy and creating no waste through the entire process.
If we can mimic the way nature performs these functions, we will be on our way to designing within the limits of the world around us, and finding sustainable and beautiful design solutions. This method of learning from nature to inform human design is called biomimicry and it offers lots of potential for the ways in which we design our cities.
Through observational learning and play, animals are able to learn from others via trial and error and socialization. Studies have shown that rats and birds are capable of learning from others by observing actions and changing their behavior without having directly experienced the consequences themselves. Also, animals like lions and cheetahs chase and pounce each other as cubs to learn how to find and capture food.
Nature protects itself in two ways. The first is through compositional features, like scales on snakes which provide penetrative protection and the tetradecahedral-shape of cells in multiple organisms that allow for maximal packing space while also resisting compression. Nature also protects itself through social actions, for example penguins huddle to conserve energy and protect each other in the frigid arctic.
Nature builds community through fostering diversity and enhanced recovery strategies after disasters. In regards to diversity, genetic circuits in some bacteria help them survive in variable environments by introducing genetic diversity into the population. Colonies of ants build resilient communities by distributing food after famine and distributing work activities to optimize productivity.
Waste is food. In nature, there is no such thing as waste, as every product of nature is used to power another. Outputs become inputs and no space or resource is underutilized. Food material is produced local to the usage, and utilizes a 3-D space, as opposed to the relatively 2-D space characteristic of traditional human farm fields (Despomonnier, 2017). An estimated 50-90% of life in the rain forests exists in the trees, optimizing sun exposure, and providing habitat for unique combinations of species to interact at each level of the canopy (Butler, 2012).
Cooperation in natural systems is evident both within species and between species. For example, both bees and ants self-organize with individuals each completing tasks specific to them in order to maximize efficiency in reaching a collective goal. Humans and our gut bacteria are a prime example of cooperation between species. We feed bacteria through what we eat, and they perform functions we can not. Bacteria are essential for regulating our immune system functions, managing cell upregulation and barrier function, as well as a variety of other cell-related homeostatic functions.
Trees heal via using the mycorrhizal network in the soil to communicate when an individual is sick. Healthy trees send food and water to young or sick trees, and dying trees share their resources. In this way, no tree is an island isolated from other individuals. Jellyfish also employ networks to facilitate healing. Their brains are radially distributed nervous systems, i.e. networks of decision-makers that can react to local damages.
Nature powers itself using renewable resources and maximizes the power it does generate through creating energy efficient systems. Photosynthesis is the process by which nature produces its energy using sunlight (a renewable resource) and CO2 (an abundant gas in the atmosphere) to generate glucose (energy) and oxygen. The structure of nature’s energy systems also maximizes the amount of power generated. For example, thylakoid structures of plants and cyanobacteria are stacked and cross-linked to maximize their exposure to light.
Plants socialize and communicate information through the mycorrhiza – a symbiotic relationship that tree roots have with fungus in the soil. This network allows them to send nutrients to other trees in need, spread warning signs in the face of danger, and have dying trees give their nutrients back to the soil. Honeybees have also been shown to socialize through a dance in order to make decisions regarding a new hive location.
Forests, like all other natural ecosystems, have the capability of regeneration and are able to return to their pre-disturbance composition and structure through the presence of biological legacies, mobile links, and support areas. The Eucalyptus kochii plenissima tree is able to regenerate through a special feature called lignotubers (swellings in root system full of starch, sugar & nutrients) that enable it to grow again after attack. Nature is resilient.
Adapting to the elements of one’s surroundings is such a fundamental component of natural systems. The prairie dog, for instance, builds dykes to divert water, an adaptation measure that will protect it’s underground shelter when rain hits. A slightly more complex example of adaptation comes from the Namib desert beetle. This beetle lives in an extremely dry environment, the Namib Desert of southern Africa where only 1.4 centimetres of rain falls per year, and has adapted to it to generate water for itself by harvesting moisture from the air by first getting it to condense on its back and then storing this water.