Redesigning Cities with Nature’s Technology

Biomimicry is already an inspiration for product design — now it’s showing how to redesign ultra-sustainable cities and communities

Interview with Janine Benyus

Just as our own technologies hold the potential to bring people closer together in business and in life, the technologies of nature hold the similar promise — if we can simply understand and unlock its secrets. Experts in the burgeoning field of biomimicry are breaking new ground — quite literally — in the region of Pune, India, and showing how entire cities can be re-engineered according to the laws of nature and foster tighter and ultra-sustainable communities that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

Nearly 30 feet of rain pummels the steep terrain here during a three-month monsoon season. The introduction of traditional building foundations alone would trigger enough erosion and runoff to wash away buildings and turn nearby lakes the same deep red color as the soil. And yet, not only is construction of a thriving new city in this area possible, it’s happening today, through the wonders of biomimicry.

Janine Benyus and a team of architects are helping build the new community of Lavasa, a series of hillside cities in Pune that will not only survive but thrive in the harsh environment and will ultimately have restorative impacts on the ecosystem. A planned "hydrocanopy" of green roofs will collect monsoon rain and evaporate nearly a third of it back to the clouds. Roof shingles shaped like hydrodynamic Banyan tree leaves will dispatch water, and building foundations that look like root systems will keep erosion in check. Water diversion systems, inspired by the way that harvester ants drive water away from their nests, will channel water through the city. When Lavasa is complete, sometime around 2020, its developers expect 300,000 people to call this hill city home.

Benyus, founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and author of “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” has helped clients from Nike to General Mills to Boeing redesign products and manufacturing processes using patterns of nature as a primary blueprint. Biomimicry principles have similarly guided companies to develop swimsuits that mimic sharkskin, airplanes with movable wings à la seagulls and building façades that emulate skin cells to regulate temperature.

But Benyus doesn’t merely want to copy nature. She studies how it faces challenges like hot temperatures or self-repairs in hopes that people will adopt similar strategies to develop more sustainable products and processes. She’s considering how entire ecosystems function, hoping to emulate their resilience in human-constructed communities.

How did biomimicry influence how to design an entirely new urban development?

We went into the project knowing that the Lavasa area has been subject to more than 400 years of destructive practices like overgrazing. Our goal was to build a city that would function as well as the ecosystem next door.

What I mean by function is that most healthy forests, for instance, clean air. They clean water. They produce oxygen. They produce cool temperatures. They produce soil, biodiversity. They support pollinators. They do all these things that we call ecosystem services — and they do them for free.

Then you get to a city, and of course the city is not producing beneficial ecosystem services.

Lavasa's architectural design draws from the moist, deciduous ecosystem found in the surrounding mountain range.

Photo: Lavasa Corporation

We use massive amounts of energy and toxic chemicals to transform raw materials into products. It’s a process that often ends up polluting our environment, creating 96 percent waste and only 4 percent product. Organisms can’t afford that sort of waste. In the rest of the natural world, brute force manufacturing is not necessary to achieve impressive results. The mother of pearl lining of abalones is twice as tough as our high-tech ceramics, yet it forms out of seawater without the need for a kiln. Not only does abalone not pollute, it helps filter water and produce other beneficial effects in the ocean.

Our goal in planning Lavasa was to build a new kind of city that produces similar kinds of benefits — a city that matches the same level of ecosystem services as those found in the natural ecosystems near Lavasa.

The idea here is that Lavasa would produce ecosystem services at the same level as what are called Western Ghats — the forested mountain range next door.

What is the design process like using biomimicry?

As part of our process, we developed new ecological performance standards. We measured the surrounding environment — how the ecosystem next door stores this much carbon each year, cleans this much air, cleans this much water and has zero erosion. Then we figured out how the organisms are able to do that.

The biggest revelation we found in the ecological literature was that the moist deciduous forest of the Western Ghats functions as a “monsoonal engine.” When rain falls, the canopy is so dark and hot that it turns 30 percent of the rain into water vapor that’s kicked back up into the clouds. These clouds carry that water to inland India. Without that process, the country’s interior would run dry.

To create a built environment that would mimic this function, we suggested a “hydrocanopy” of green roofs angled to mimic the rolling shape of the nearby forests. The project challenged us to address erosion issues in a new way. We knew that if we used traditional building foundations, slicing L-shapes into the hilly lands, soil erosion would become a nightmare. So we suggested copying the root formations of trees to create pier foundations that would tie the buildings to the slope. We also used awnings and sinuous roadways to intercept and slow the water so that it would be less erosive.

How can architects and designers incorporate lessons from Lavasa to improve our lives in existing communities?

This idea of mimicking the functions of an ecosystem is starting to be picked up in cities now, because mimicking ecosystem function equals resilience. How do you make New York resilient against crazy weather? You make sure that it’s functioning like the salt marsh next door that just did fine during the storms.

Concrete is a good place to start. One of the key things for resilience is for the city to be able to store large amounts of water and then slowly release them during the year, so that water doesn’t back up. One of the big issues is that there is so much concrete and pavement that’s impermeable to water.

Cities need to get a plan on the books — and realistically it’s a 100-year plan — to implement Ecological Performance Standards. You say, block by block, the city of Manhattan has to clean this much air. Every time you renovate a building or tear up a parking lot, you use porous asphalt and porous pavement that holds more water and allows it to flow throughout the surface. And cumulatively all of these projects add up to a better functioning city.

Humans have looked to nature for answers throughout history. Why is now the moment for these biomimicry breakthroughs on a city scale?

Science has caught up with our ambitions, and every day we’re deepening our understanding — especially at the molecular level — of how life works.

With cities, the field of geodesign is particularly promising. This is where we add a layer to maps that shows what would happen if we put ecological performance standards in place. You can build a virtual city on a screen and say, ‘Based on where the sun is and how cold it is here, I can figure out how much energy we need to heat this whole city.’ And then you develop what-if scenarios: What if a third of these buildings had green roofs or rainwater harvesting? How much water would the city store?

We have the ability to simulate and experience these scenarios before they’re real. We’re getting to the point where an engineer, a designer, a planner all can map these ecosystem functions onto their GIS maps.

As we learn more and technology advances, I think people are going to come to biology more. Today, at the beginning of a project, innovators always ask: Has anyone else in the world done this? In the future, we’ll have a biologist at the table, and innovators will first ask: Has any organism in the world done this?

Janine Benyus is the author of six books, including “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” She founded The Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that educates people about conserving life’s genius to create a healthier, more sustainable planet, and Biomimicry 3.8, an innovation consultancy providing biological consulting and research. Benyus’ awards include a Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Environment award, Smithsonian National Design Mind Award, UNEP Champion of the Earth Award, the Heinz Award for the Environment, and the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development.

Interview with Marguerite McNeal, an editor at Original9 Media in San Francisco.