The Genius of Biome: Nature’s Resilient Design Lessons

Learning to be resilient by getting familiar with nature’s tool-kit of innovation

What three 2013 climate-related events have left us with $53 billion in damages? In addition to the enormous dollar amounts they racked up, the Tasmanian bushfires, Hurricane Sandy, and the EF5 Oklahoma tornado, together, left thousands homeless. Lives and the economy were disrupted. And that’s just the beginning of the droughts, heat waves, and super-storms that experts predict for the near future.

Our species has survived on Earth for 200,000 years. Yet, we are babies compared to 3.8 billion years’ experience of other living organisms. So as we struggle to be resilient, why not ask the species that, for eons, have been able to manage the same challenges? Let’s ask ourselves this: “What would nature do?”

The Genius of Biome report starts this conversation. How does nature design resilient forests to manage windstorms? What does nature do when faced with catastrophic disruption?

One example of amazing resilience in nature is the story of the American chestnut tree. The species once formed 25-50% of the temperate broadleaf forest canopy in the northeastern U.S.  A major source of food for hundreds of species, the chestnut disappeared from this ecosystem 40 years after a new fungus, imported on non-native trees, arrived on the continent.

In the 1940s, when the chestnut trees died, the forest canopy opened up, the food web deteriorated, and soil erosion ensued. However, many tree species in those forests were not susceptible to the fungus and were also abundant food producers and soil stabilizers. Oak trees, sugar maples, serviceberry, and black cherry have now replaced the American chestnut and serve as primary food sources for forest creatures. A dense understory took over, assisting in soil stability. This catastrophic biological event was resolved because of the redundant functional roles existing in the community of species in the ecosystem.

How can we emulate this redundancy principle? We, too, experience catastrophic events that destroy our built environments; what could we do to foster resilience?

All Rights Reserved © 2011, Biomimicry Group and HOK Group, Inc.

In the cities we build, redundant services would be able to handle system disruptions. Multiple modes of transportation would make a city more resilient to destruction. If a river becomes un-passable, the rail takes over. Bringing together diverse modes of transportation and connecting them in ways they could disconnect and reconnect would help cities better manage flooding and hurricane events.

All Rights Reserved © 2011, Biomimicry Group and HOK Group, Inc.

Designing a well-functioning system is a different way to think about building a city. In nature, ecotones are transitional areas between two biological communities. In the temperate forest, an ecotone might be the transition between a wetland and a forest. This is where a tremendous diversity and interaction of species occurs–an abundance of food, communication, shelter, and materials. Ecotones create robust systems capable of buffering disturbance. A wet meadow, for example, can buffer flood damage or resource depletion resulting from prolonged drought.

For the built environment, transition zones represent opportunities to optimize diversity and connectivity. These are spaces where information can flow. Think of entrances, corridors, parking areas. Each of these structures is an opportunity to direct flows of energy, materials, and information in ways that increase connections among the users of a building. Creating opportunities for more interaction may change human behaviors for better communication and group activities. An ecotone in the built environment would connect a public space and a private space to form an informal gathering area such as a lobby, laundry, or shipping area.

All Rights Reserved © 2011, Biomimicry Group and HOK Group, Inc.

The sketches illustrate how these design principles can be translated to the environments humans inhabit and generate new ways of solving challenges for cities.

Biomimicry offers a unique strategy for designing human habitat to create conditions conducive to life. It’s simple, but requires collaboration and innovation. Luckily, we have the blueprints. Nature has been doing it for 3.8 billion years.

A Plenary Session on the Genius of Biome and Genius of Place will be presented at the Biomimicry Education Summit and Global Conference in Boston, MA. Generous Cities: Using the “Genius of Place” to Design Resilient Cities

View the Genius of Biome report here.

Robyn Klein is an Investigative Scientific and Technology Researcher for Biomimicry 3.8. She translates biological strategies and systems at the design table with engineers, designers, chemists and architects.

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