Thursday, August 7, 2014

Seeing the City for the Trees

Janine Benyus at the 2014 Geodesign Conference

I always saw myself as a "big picture" person. But like in Wayne's World, I am not even close to worthy compared to Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomomicry Institute, especially so after watching her keynote at the Geodesign conference put on by ESRI, the global GIS (geographic information systems) leader, in January of 2014. Basically it's about applying biomimetic design principals at the scale of cities, not just Nike shoes, teapots, or garden hoses (not that doing so isn't also wonderful- it is). And combined with the data processing and visualizing power of GIS, biomimicry presents a blindingly complex yet thoroughly inspiring future of possibilities. Developing metrics, gathering data, choosing locations, crunching the data, analyzing interrelationships, integrating this into design tools that can be open source and enable shared visualization of urban design at large scales- that's about as big picture as anything we humans do.

Yet this is what Ms. Benyus is talking about here, and it's exciting and fascinating to see how biomimicry can apply to urban design, a field that is nothing if not big picture, dauntingly so because of the sheer scale and timelines of the projects. I recall a conversation I had several years ago with one of the founding fathers of New Urbanism, Stefanos Polyzoides of the urban planning and architecture firm Moule & Polyzoides, where he expressed some dismay at the results of his work on the strategic plan for downtown Los Angeles. To him at the time, as I recall, the effort was just too big and chaotic to see clear and positive results. But it's now a 30 year project, and I would expect that with the recent advent of cheap and powerful GIS tools, is beginning to show success.  

Before I read Ms. Benyus' groundbreaking work, Biomimicry, Innovation Inspired by Nature, I expected something rather metaphorical and tree huggerish. But I quickly apprehended the extent of her training and knowledge as a scientist, not just as a designer, and as a designer I was sold and immediately wanted to put biomimicry to use. The most surprising thing for me about the book was the utter breadth of the scope of the whole idea of learning from nature, and even more surprising was the idea of learning from other animals' social structures. The mindset I got from Biomimicry is invaluable, and helped me in my reading of things like E.O. Wilson's Social Conquest of Earth, which points out that we are one of only about 30 eusocial species on earth. I'm now looking at how other species make "architecture" in my ongoing exploration of the human built environment.

For most of us, it's relatively easy to understand biomimetic design concepts applied to things we can hold and touch- consumer products and artifacts like telephones or engine parts: I'm thinking of the lattice structures applied to bicycle frameworks, as demonstrated by Autodesk's Carl Bass in this cool talk. But few people on the planet have the vision that Janine Benyus does in applying these concepts to things as large as cities, which are both collections of artifacts (buildings and equipment and such) as well as ecosystems themselves. 

What's crucial to biomimicry is a concept of man as a part of nature, not separate or opposed to it. This conceptual leap is persistently quite difficult for most of us in Western culture, especially in the U.S., where "nature" had to take on adversarial status so we could "conquer" it in the process of building an imperial empire. It goes deeper than that and farther back to our Judeo-Christian roots, where the dominant narrative has Adam and Eve thrown out Eden (Nature) and hence eternally separate from it. We seem to have only two cognitive categories for spaces: Nature and Built Environment, and never the twain shall meet. This dualistic narrative is becoming irrelevant, and Ms. Benyus shows us the obvious with great eloquence, humility, and poetry. 

Urban design today is in an unprecedented state- not only are planners and designers dealing with ongoing redevelopment of established cities and towns, in places like Asia, whole cities are springing up fully formed-built rapidly all at once, without evolving over centuries or millenia. Will they suffer the fate of planned cities like Brasilia, or will we learn from our mistakes? With such rapid deployment there's little room for error, and many localities are sure to make grievous errors in copying architecture suited for one location but not for theirs. And GlassBoxitis, the relentless and ruinous trend in global architecture continues to exact its toll on the environment, with no signs yet of slowing down.

In thinking about the design of cities Ms Benyus proposes asking questions like "how can a city function like a forest?"; and "what is the genius of the place?" Rather than seeing the city as encroaching on "nature," she sees the very real possibility that cities can indeed provide environmental "services" as described by Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawkin in their landmark work Natural Capitalism. Human "infrastructure" and "ecostructure" can work together to be mutually beneficial.

Without a culture that instinctively values what we call the "services" performed by the environment, we capitalists must resort to the narrative device of monetizing resources and services, so that environmental assets and losses can be characterized in a way similar to financial assets and losses. This requires devising and implementing a system of metrics she calls Environmental Performance Standards: things like tons of carbon sequestered per building; gallons of water desalinated per square unit of wetlands; energy generated per square block. In the past, meeting the sheer computational load of gathering and managing all this data would have been unthinkable, but today we're awash in data and cheap computing, so we can do it. The new data-based design tools that are available are amazing. And so is cheap, widely available map-based data visualization. 

Her post keynote conversation with ESRI CEO Jack Dangermond explores the vision of merging what she calls BIS (biological information systems, which don't quite exist yet, although the Biomimicry Institute is working on it) with GIS. This would give designers tools that would allow them, on a software level, to draw upon the design strategies of local organisms for things like providing shelter, water conservation and purification, resilience to weather events, and replenishing nutrients into the soil, and to incorporate these into designs, prototypes, and models. And right onstage she makes a deal to collaborate with ESRI on Singapore's emerging smart building network to incorporate biomimetic design and data gathering. 

Nobody today is really asking the kinds of bold questions that Ms. Benyus does: "How do we become native to our places?" ""How would nature solve this?" "Can the city be generous?" These are, in a way, poetic questions, and I'm reminded of the use of poetry in describing quantum physics. You can arrive at descriptions of very complex phenomena or conclusions to deep questions by analytical, rational, and mathematical means, but there comes a point in which only poetry will do to elegantly contain the human reality and experience. If she stays the course, which by all indications she will indeed, Janine Benyous will help to make not only cities generous, but perhaps, someday, our culture.