An Evolving Understanding of Urban Ecology

Presentation for the Urban Ecologies Conference in Toronto

Presentation for the Urban Ecologies Conference in Toronto

At the Urban Ecologies conference in Toronto on June 20 – 21, I presented with Bruce Hinds and Ian Clarke on Information and Complexity in Urban Ecology.

Sponsored by Autodesk, our research has focussed on biology and ecology as sources of inspiration for building science. As software becomes increasingly sophisticated in gathering and processing data, there is tension on how this will influence the design and management of buildings. If any information can be collected, what should be collected, and what is the purpose?

In our short review presentation we outlined our own evolution of inspiration and how we see it impacting the built environment.

Learning from specific organisms has been the base line for most of the practices of sustainability and biomimicry.

Learning from specific organisms has been the base line for most of the practices of sustainability and biomimicry.

Organism – Barrel Cactus

Currently, the gold standard of sustainable architecture is to be completely off the grid. The barrel cactus, featured previously here, is an excellent model for surviving harsh conditions through physiology and being mostly independent from other organisms. In nature, this is more rare than common, as most organisms have increasing survival chances through relationships with other organisms. I have been experimenting with ways to make this thinking more accessible, because the truth is that it is “easy” to learn from a cactus where the ideas are so visible. Understanding relationships is much more difficult.

The next step is for the participation of occupants to extend to physiological systems.

The next step is for the participation of occupants to extend to physiological systems.

Colony – Termite Mound

Innovation in architecture and engineering has provoked biologists to investigate the termite mound very closely. As I explore elsewhere, the termite mound more closely resembles the physiology of the organism than the self balancing homeostatic structure it was initially made out to be. Each individual organism has tightly linked responses to sensitivities of CO2 and moisture, which makes the mound function like giant lungs. This level of distributed input and reaction between occupants and buildings has been mostly designed out by our current techno-optimized buildings that favour hermetically sealed envelopes. Our research suggests that increased awareness and response between occupants and the building system has huge potential.

Tools for exchanging information and resources are clearly missing from building development and management.

Tools for exchanging information and resources are clearly missing from building development and management.

Community – Coral Reef

I am just beginning to wrap my head around the complexities of ecosystems. It boggles my mind when a biologist can casually mention that coral reefs are “nutrient poor” when there is such visual density of life. But the reality is that this diversity and complexity builds up over time. It is through relationships that resources can be exchanged, transformed, re-used and constantly cycled. In human contexts the ability to sell or trade goods at micro scale through sites like kijiji and craigslist have scaled up actions that were limited within specific community groups. If future architecture becomes increasingly capable of data gathering and sharing, does this also open the path to resource exchange?

Applying the principles of ecology to buildings, this is what we see as the evolution of regenerative cities.

Applying the principles of ecology to buildings, this is what we see as the evolution of regenerative cities.

Closing thoughts

Anything that encourages increasingly complex relationships, that allows resources and information to flow in multiple directions, should be encouraged. To truly understand the urban landscape as ecology is to recognize that our current focus on control prevents desired properties to emerge.

We are working on synthesizing these ideas into something a little more digestible (pun intended), but I thought sharing this presentation while it was fresh in mind could trigger some thoughts. Please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts!

A huge thanks to Autodesk for the ongoing support in our research.

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