Genius of Place: Concept Definition

Genius of Place, or the horribly political sounding GofP, is a concept in biomimicry of learning from “nature’s genius” in a specific location. It can be used in reference to the exploration of integrating nature back into a location, habitat restoration, understanding what nature would want to naturally do if humans were not in the way and then removing those barriers and assisting in natural growth.

Or it can be used, within a design process, to identify natural principles of an location that can be replicated in design. Architecture and urban planning, disciplines that are directly associated with a specific location, are the most obvious examples of where this has value.

Why is Genius of Place Important?

Human innovation has been spoiled by access to energy and materials that have allowed us to reshape place according to our needs. Instead of adapting to place, as all organisms in nature do, we have adapted the place to us. This has allowed the architecture of Melbourne, Toronto, London and Dubai to all look and behave similarly, despite the incredible diversity of habitat conditions.

There is no bioregional history trained to designers. Even landscape architects, unless they specialize in indigenous plants and ecological restoration are unlikely to have an understanding of “place”.

The book in all it's glory and a few little sticky tabs to show I've even read it.

In David Orr’s book “Ecological Literature” the fundamental premise is that without an understanding of place, and a respect for it’s wisdom there can be no sustainability. As an example, he reprints a checklist of bioregional knowledge. I challenge anyone to be able to answer more than 5 from that list. I wonder how many naturalists would even be able to navigate their way down this list?

  • What soil series are you standing on?
  • When was the last time a fire burned your area?
  • Name five edible plants in your region and their seasons of availability.
  • From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?
  • Where does your garbage go?
  • How long is the growing season where you live?
  • Name five grasses in your area. Are any of them native?
  • Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.
  • What primary geological event or processes influenced the land from where you live?
  • What species have become extinct in your area?
  • What are the major plant associations of your region?

Where now with Genius of Place?

There are many people developing tools of Ecosystems Performance Specifications, that are the tangible outcomes of the understanding of place. These specifications can be used as metrics, and guidelines, within a design process. By introducing this insight early, it has a strategic effect on how the design is executed. The more of these that can be introduced early into design process, the more likely an impact is likely to occur.

I will use the category “Genius of Place” to track ideas and discoveries, tools and applications that emerge from place based thinking. I will also begin to explore how this concept might apply to other design disciplines that are not explicitly tied to place. Does industrial design factor into this discussion? What is the GofP influence of an iPhone?


6 Comments on “Genius of Place: Concept Definition”

  1. Genius of place intrigues me. It is such an important core idea in biomimicry, and your blog entries are helping reveal layers of meaning that i think are relevant to many audiences, not just those interested in biomimicry. As a biologist i am struck by the apparent source(s) of the concept…natural selection, adaptation and plasticity. Genius of place reflects the idea that organisms in a particular location in time can reveal much about successful strategies for that context (environment). Such strategies are sources for discovering principles that are part of the basis for design insights.

    There are some interesting dimensions of the concept from biology that probably don’t typically make it into biomimicry practice. For example, an organism in a place in time reflects not only the genius of the ‘current place’ but also a history of responses captured in its geneology (short term history) and phylogeny (long term history). That means that some of what we see and discover through the genius of place may actually reveal strategies about environmental contexts quite different from the current one. There is a whole enterprise in evolutionary biology (comparative methods) associated with trying to sort out and understand such differences. Embedded in this is a deeper layer about adaptation and our understanding about how organisms are ‘matched’ to their environments. At its most extreme, this adaptationist perspective (or paradigm) can and does mislead us (biologists). What are the ramifications for biomimicry?

    I am not offering this as a critique of genius of place, but rather as a reminder that the concept has many layers (some that might not be obvious or even intuitive) that can inform biomimicry as a practice and theory. For instance, what can an invasive species tell us about the characteristics that ‘breed’ success? Moreover, it is a general principle of community ecology and theories of community change that most organisms change their environments in ways that suit their success in the short term, but may lead to their demise in the long term (species turnover). What is the difference between how we do that as a species and how other species do that…is it a matter of scale, or is it a matter of the type of changes, or both?

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hi Peter,
      This is a juicy comment, and not sure if I am able to understand all of it just yet…
      Do you have any good biological examples that might make some of the concepts more accessible? I know standard case studies of organisms matched to their habitat – but not of the scientific debate behind these observations. When has this misled biologists?
      I think I have an idea for a post from this comment…
      A friend asked me a while ago, when does an invasive species no longer become invasive? Rabbits in Australia are never going to disappear, will they still be invasive in fifty years?

      • scelop says:

        I love it when you say “juicy comment.” It is my personal goal to see how often i can get you to say it!

        I have mentioned this before, and maybe you have read it already, if so, think about it in the context of genius of place. If not, you must read “The spandrels of San Marco and the panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme.” Even if you are not a biologist, you will be able to read the first half of the paper and take some funny and important messages away that are relevant not only to biologists, but also, I suspect…biomimicry and concepts like the genius of place. Do a google scholar search and you will find accessible copies to read (authors: SJ Gould and RC Lewontin, Proceedings of the Royal Society….don’t let the title of the publication scare you!).

        My thesis here is not about criticizing ‘genius of place’ as a concept, principle or driver in biomimicry. It is rather to ask the question about how the concept as it exists might be explored in its fullest potential. To me, genius of place has embedded in it (mostly implicitly) the idea of biological adaptation. Organisms are adapted to the places they live. This is what we note and often describe and potentially use in or as inspirations for design. The rationale is that for a particular location, those characteristics or processes are best suited for emulation. But what if those characteristics or processes in fact arose in the focal organism in response to other factors (adaptation to other, different environments, or factors unrelated to a matching of the organism to its environment)? Then we may not have captured what we want in transducing a strategy into a successful biomimetic application. I am less worried that biomimics will be misled leading to catastrophic results, than I am about the potential for missed opportunities. In other words….does the working definition of genius of place incorporate all or most of the important dimensions that could maximize its success in the Biomimicry process? There are at least two contexts this could manifest itself. First in the model/measure paradigm, we may not be able to develop metrics or fail in testing our designs based on the expected performance if the characteristics or strategies we used are not really those that are particularly closely associated with the success of the organism in the environmental context of interest. Second, but just as important, we may have a small ‘innovation space’ to work with in generating biomimetic solutions if our definition (principle) is not a broad as the biological reality….that is, we are not including all of the possible areas from where ideas may spring.
        You asked for some examples…I think you will find some in the paper I suggested but here is another in case you don’t go to the paper. I would ask you to make the translation into the biomimetic space more accessible if it does not come across clearly.
        The roofing of the human skull is not a single bone, but rather a series of boney plates that are joined together at borders called sutures. Some have/will explain this as an adaptive trait that allows human fetuses to be born with a relatively large head that passes through a narrow birth canal…the sutures allow the bones to move relative to one another so the head can squeeze through. This makes perfect sense and allows humans to be large brained. Nice story. Until you realize that lizards (one example) that hatch from eggs also have multiple skull roofing bones connected by sutures that cover the brain. Turns out the architecture is what we call ancestral…it arose in a species that was in the lineage that gave rise to mammals and lizards. What that means is that if we conclude this is a characteristic that evolved to enable mammals to have large brains at birth, we might be imagining a fit between organism and environment that is not really there. Moreover, we might be missing something more or less interesting about the function or possible function of the sutured bones in the broader context in which they are observed. For example, what other features might they allow or make possible? Or what if they are just an artifact of some interesting developmental process in the growth of skull bones among vertebrates (animals with backbones) that really has some interesting ramifications for Biomimicry? Would that get explored if we were blinded or sidetracked by the first interpretation? It turns out that the more likely interpretation is that malleability of the human skull at birth is not a direct result of the sutures, per se, but that birth happens at a relatively immature stage of development, before the sutures have a chance to fuse and harden the whole structure. So it is the stage of development that is the characteristic that has responded to the environmental context, not the fact that the skull is composed of multiple bones that can move relative to one another.

        ….you have to read the paper. I promise you will find it interesting and sufficiently accessible to understand the message if not the full application of the idea to genius of place (that is something I am sure there is much to learn about and discuss, especially across disciplines!)

  2. […] “genius of place” mapping for the Bay Area […]

  3. Pius Leuba says:

    Dear Carl,

    Where can I find information of how a GofP analysis is done for a specific place? Did somebody develop a methodology already?
    Thanks, cheers, Pius

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