May 16, 2012
Infrastructure is a major issue of out time, stretching across towns, cities, states, regions, and countries. Our current methodology of building and maintaining it is too expensive, too inflexible, and too ecologically damaging. If we hope to solve the numerous problems we face with energy, water, transportation, healthcare, and urbanized areas, we must completely reinvent […]
Infrastructure is a major issue of out time, stretching across towns, cities, states, regions, and countries. Our current methodology of building and maintaining it is too expensive, too inflexible, and too ecologically damaging. If we hope to solve the numerous problems we face with energy, water, transportation, healthcare, and urbanized areas, we must completely reinvent our infrastructure. We can’t “efficient” our way out of problems like energy consumption or ecological decay. It will take a paradigm shift and a complete overhaul of careers from architecture to engineering to ecology to urban design.
An alternative to the conventional approach to public infrastructure work is emerging: Ecomimicry.
Ecomimicry conceives and constructs infrastructure that aligns the needs of society with the needs of nature. It is based on the concept of taking the knowledge we have gained as an industrious society and applying it to create a global culture more in harmony with nature. When I say “nature”, I’m not talking about a vague idyllic notion of the natural world. I mean the nature that science has discovered over the past 150 years.
In this series, I (and a host of co-writers from fields as diverse as conservation biology, re-wilding, architecture, healthcare, academia, design, wildlife conservation, urban planning, and business) will discuss how infrastructure needs to change in fundamental ways.
We will have to re-imagine the very things that have given us our modern day comforts. Don’t worry, none of the ideas discussed within this series will advocate going back into the wild to live as cavemen and cavewomen. Instead, the conversation will focus on new methods of infrastructure. For example, the practice of oyster-tecture uses oysters to help improve water quality, protect shorelines, eliminate erosion, re-generate fish stocks, and shield local coastal economies from collapse. Oyster-tecture, if done correctly, costs less to build and to maintain than standard storm water management techniques. Oysters have indirect benefits that include carbon sequestration, habitat restoration, and increased tourism. Oyster-tecture is just one example of this new model.
Photo from NOAA Habitat Conservation
Rather than attempting to make the energy grid smarter or appliances more efficient, ecomimicry aims to eliminate the need for energy all together. It asks questions like “Why don’t birds use heating oil?” and “Why don’t buffalo build coal plants?” At first these questions may seem silly– but their answers point us toward a way of thinking that outsmarts the accepted practices of dealing with infrastructural systems. We begin to imagine that de-engineering our world could be an option for improving our lifestyles, safety, and financial systems.
The people and political institutions of the United States have lost their taste for billion dollar fixes for necessary services. China is having a bonanza building new infrastructure such as cities, wind turbines, coal plants, and gigantic dams. They are depending solely on out-of-date ideas about urban design, infrastructure, energy, and architecture – and will find that the cost of replacing and repairing these systems in 30 to 50 years is too high, just like Americans are finding today.
Photo by Le Grand Portage
If we intend to live in a world of perpetual growth, we have to depend on services that are deeply integrated into the systems that provide life on this planet. We will have to stop asking only architects, planners, and engineers how to rethink the built environment and start asking conservation biologists and ecologists. Ecomimicry is working to replace pumps, pipes, conduits, steel, and concrete with ecological intelligence such as wetlands, old growth forests, riparian and riverine habitats.
Unlike technologies with a track record of mere decades or centuries, ecosystem services are proven systems with millions of years of success. We evolved in these places and have a deep biophilic love for them. Though ancient, we have only realized the empirical truth of ecology in the last hundred years – and the majority of professional fields have yet to apply this new knowledge.
Photo by J. N. Stuart
As farfetched as all this may sound, projects small and large are already practicing this new way of providing the public with needed services. In this series, I will dig deep into these topics to reveal that a future of ecomimicry is more futuristic and more effective than anything yet imagined.
Our society has a problem. It’s called infrastructure–it’s time to replace it.
Neil Chambers, LEED-AP is the CEO and founder of Chambers Design, a research-based, contemporary design company, focused on next generation architectural and technological solutions based in DUMBO Brooklyn. He is the author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future. Neil’s work includes urban design, green building design, energy assessment, master planning, and habitat restoration. He is interested in the relationship between ecosystems, ecological services, buildings and infrastructure. He has taught at NYU and FIT as well as spoken throughout the United States and around the world.
This post is part of the Re-imagining Infrastructure blog series