Creating Balanced Cities with Biomimicry

This article by Michael Figura was first published in the New Life Journal.

Biomimicry is the emulation of nature and its ecosystems to create sustainable human systems.

Using Biomimicry, we can learn a lot from a forest to inform the design of a city.

A forest’s systems are in balance.   A forest receives energy from the sun.  The flora and fauna in the forest have symbiotic relationships with one another- one species using the byproducts of other species for energy and protection.  Different species are mixed together in close proximity to one another to allow an efficient exchange of nutrients.  The flora and fauna in the forest reuse and recycle nutrients in a closed loop system so that the forest does not have to continually extract nutrients from the earth and dedicate land and energy to retiring spent resources.  Because a forest’s systems are in balance with one another, the concept of waste is not present in its ecosystem.

Our cities’ systems are not in balance.  Our cities currently function by getting energy from burning fossil resources, simultaneously creating pollution and destroying the environment from where the fossil resources came.  Our cities’ uses are separated from one another so that large amounts of energy are needed to transfer people, raw materials, finished goods and wasted resources from one area to another.  Our industries and our personal consumption patterns waste resources by extracting fresh materials from the earth, using them for a finite number of times, and then disposing of those resources in landfills.  In many instances, the byproducts of an industry are so toxic that they cannot be used for any other purpose and have to be disposed of in a specially designated landfill.  Frequently, the very products that we create for use are toxic and cannot be recycled back into our industrial metabolism.

Although the challenge to model a city after a forest is daunting, advances are being made on all fronts.  Mass acceptance of carbon dioxide’s impact on climate change is preventing world leaders and multinational corporations from further ignoring renewable energy.  Green building and low impact site development are going mainstream.  The New Urbanism movement has helped revitalize existing cities and has helped develop new town centers throughout the Country by creating an awareness of the benefits of living in urban places (for more information- Congress of New Urbanism- www.cnu.org).

Significant progress in the way that our society uses materials is being made by pioneers such as William McDonough and Michael Braungart, who have championed the Cradle-to-Cradle approach.  Cradle-to-Cradle calls for a second industrial revolution whereby toxins are designed out of products so that materials can have infinite uses.  The approach entails separating materials into the categories of Technical Nutrients and Biological Nutrients.  Technical Nutrients are resources that have been mined from the earth and Biological Nutrients are resources that cycle within the ecosystem.   Technical Nutrients flow in an industrial cycle of use and reuse, analogous to the way an ecosystem cycles Biological Nutrients.  By designing our products to be made of materials that can either be infinitely reused in an industrial cycle or that can be discarded into the larger ecosystem without causing harm, we can continue consumption without wasting resources and damaging the environment (for more information- Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things- William McDonough and Michael Braungart).

As the saying goes, “Think Global-Act Local.”

It is up to each of us to support these positive advancements that are helping our cities function like forests.  To aid in this effort, here are a few lifestyle choices that you can strive to implement:

  • Reduce your energy consumption as much as possible and consume energy that was produced from renewable resources.  The latter can be done by investing in your own renewable energy systems or by purchasing renewable energy from NC Green Power (www.ncgreenpower.org).
  • Try to eliminate waste by purchasing products that are made of Technical Nutrients that can be reused an infinite number of times or that are made of Biological Nutrients that can be incorporated harmlessly back into the larger ecosystem.  Recycle and reuse the Technical Nutrients and compost the Biological Nutrients.
  • If you live and work in a city, live in a pedestrian and/or transit oriented community within that city.
  • If you do not travel much within a city and you prefer to live in the countryside, purchase as much land as possible to place in a conservation easement (10 acres is usually the minimum a land trust will accept).
  • Purchase as many locally grown organic foods and locally made goods as possible.