Urban Infrastructure: What Would Nature Do?

January 29, 2013
When urban infrastructure meets nature’s designers, amazing things can happen

We humans are problem solvers. We’re doers. We encounter challenges and complicated situations and we find ways to surmount them—crafting tools, erecting bridges, programming computers. We’ve innovated and designed our way out of countless predicaments and, dammit, we will forevermore.

We are also hopelessly arrogant.

See, we humans sometimes forget that we are not the only innovators and designers out there. We’re not the only ones able to creatively adapt our way through tricky or threatening conditions. We forget about nature.

Long before we showed up on the scene, there were wetlands that made dirty water clean, prairies that grew sustainable food crops and termites that built living spaces capable of maintaining a nearly steady internal temperature year round. These and other natural systems, developed over thousands or millions of years, are amazingly adept at dealing with the sort of logistical concerns humans face every day—whereas many of the workarounds we’ve found for the problems of our lives are inefficient or overly expensive or carry on the oh-so-human tradition of causing more problems than they solve.

Luckily, we’ve also managed to learn that sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to borrow somebody else’s good idea.

Enter biomimicry—the idea of emulating strategies nature has perfected. By looking closely at natural processes and organisms, we can identify and learn from some of the ways nature solves the problems that challenge us. And the closer we look, the more of these solutions we find. Many of these nature-inspired solutions have implications for that most human of habitats: the city. From stronger building materials to more intuitive water systems, biomimicry has applications in urban infrastructure that can dramatically improve the way we live in cities.