Is Urban Sprawl a Bad Thing?

Is it possible to compare a groundhog's burrow to our suburbs?

Continuing on from the my thoughts yesterday, how do you explore design research and biology research in parallel?

Using nature to prove your idea

It is very tempting to look to nature to find “proof” that justifies your pre-existing idea. Often it is easy to find a connection between natural systems and the theoretical best-practices within the fields of urban planning, architecture and industrial design. But if you  are already aware of these ideas, has the biology research really helped you? And if these best-practices remain theoretical and mostly unachieved, are you even asking the right questions?

Perhaps in some cases this is all the heart desires, confirmation that you’re exploration is heading in the right direction, and new stories to help convey the thinking to your often unwilling audience.

But biomimicry should be about making “new” insights and observations that shift, challenge and expand how we approach design, business and engineering challenges. In order to achieve this level of insight a completely different mindset is required. The investigation requires ego to be set aside and preconceived wisdom to be parked on the back shelf and  freedom to explore some rabbit holes whose end destinations may be unclear.

Is urban sprawl a bad thing?

One group I am playing with has done all the right things of a biomimicry design process. While their project has enormous, ambitious scope, with a wish list of creating change to all the deepest and darkest challenges within urban planning, they also have an enormous array of biological research, with brilliant spreadsheets and emerging diagrams outlining insights after insights and layers of strategies, functions and mechanisms that could inspire an architect for a life time.

But which insight to pursue? There are so many gorgeous biological models, some more provocative and applicable than others, but almost all with some lesson that could inform building technology and urban planning. Therefore the real challenge from this stage is unearthing the deep insights within the biology research that will have the greatest positive impact on the project. Perhaps the best way of framing this might be:

Where are the biggest contradictions between nature and design? Why?

What do we do that nature doesn’t? Why?

What don’t we do that occurs repeatedly in nature? Why?

Plaster cast of an ant's nest.

In our group one member started talking about the issues of urban sprawl, when another began to challenge the preconceived negativity around the concept. Nature does in fact “sprawl”, depending on your definition you’ll see it in groundhog burrows that stretch out beneath the prairies, ant colonies that reach alarming depths and forests that would happily “sprawl” back into the nearby farming land if the silly humans would get out the way. Almost all examples from nature highlight that these sprawls do not reduce biodiversity, pollute groundwater or reduce nutrient production, which are all current connotations of human sprawl.

Can we therefore find a way to answer a deeper question;

What are the fundamental differences between “our” sprawl, and “their” sprawl?

Suddenly you have a more targeted question for both your design and biology research, and more importantly, is likely to foster questions and insights that would not have been apparent at the beginning of the project.

Continuing down this path encourages unlikely connections. By thinking of suburban developers as “ecosystem engineers”, which in nature include groundhogs, beavers and cottonwood trees, might foster new business models and design strategies that would impact the shape of future cities.

Successful biomimicry

The criteria of success does not need to be the explicit application of a biological model. In many of my previous posts I’ve even suggested that this form of biomimicry leads to unsustainable technology development that questions the value of biomimicry as a methodology. I believe that the  definition of successful biomimicry involves a design process that would not previously have occurred, triggered by insights that challenge preconceived norms. The design process itself, including how and what is researched, needs to be fundamentally informed by the biology. This creates an iterative and complex process as your team is likely to return to the drawing board several times during the course of a project as new insights generated during a conversation with a biologist triggers ripples of questions through your previous ideas.

In order to achieve this, deep reflection and abstraction is necessary, but conceptual flexibility and time to explore is critical. The results of almost all good design is forehead slappingly obvious, and yet remarkably difficult to unearth.


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