Tuesday, July 29, 2014

(Re)Connecting with Nature: Exploring Biomimicry in Our Local Ecosystems

Whenever I talk about biomimicry, I am usually asked a question along the lines of “how do I get started?” And the answer is remarkably simple - you start by going outside. Going for a walk through your local ecosystem, setting aside all that you need to do, reawakening your natural curiosity, and experiencing nature’s genius is a powerful act that will change your perspective on nature, your place in it, and forever alter the path of your career and life.

I recently had the opportunity to lead a biomimicry walk through the tallgrass prairie reconstruction at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, and I want to share some of the stories I tell when walking through the local ecosystems with a biomimicry lens. This article is the first in a series that explores the importance of reconnecting with nature, and how that simple act can have multiple benefits for the humans species to lead more sustainable, resilient, and connected lives.

Fostering Connections

The practice of biomimicry is all about making connections. As biomimics, our purpose is to build bridges between biologists and designers. We create connections between the language of biology to the language of design by looking at function so that we can design more sustainable and resilient products and environments.

Perhaps more importantly, however, we are also rebuilding bridges between humans and the entity we call “nature.” By calling on our innate “biophilia,” or love of nature, we are fostering connections between all creatures of the world with whom we are inextricably connected and interdependent.

A Changing Landscape: Urbanization and the Need for (Re)Connection

A strong connection with nature used to be something that we as a species depended upon. We needed to know where to find food, which areas to avoid, and how to get home after a long hunting expedition. As we have moved to more urban “hive” centers and constructed walls to protect us from the elements and predators, we have largely lost this connection to place.

We now have structures to protect us from wind, rain, and snow; fixed windows that block out the breeze in favor of “efficiency;” and food and water that shows up at the local market or in our home with little to no connection to where these essential elements originated. As human populations rapidly urbanize, we need to consciously consider the actions we take in the design of our buildings and cities to foster connections with nature that encourage healthy, productive lives.

Nature in Place

Few of us have jobs that allow us unimpeded access to the outdoors, and many of us are scheduled so tightly that it is hard to find time to eat and sleep, much less walk through and observe natural habitats. So given these constraints, how can we go about fostering connections with nature?

In my work as a biomimic focused on embedding nature’s resilience into human systems, a deep pattern emerges throughout most of life on this planet: if you want something to be resilient (i.e. stick around for the long haul through many disturbances), you need options and backup at multiple scales. So if you want to reconnect with nature and have this be a part of your life, you need to find many different ways to do it. Let's look a little deeper at what this could mean.

  • At the individual scale, do you and your family have visual and/or walkable access to the outdoors every day? For example, every occupied room in your home and office should have a window that looks to a natural space. And don't worry, city dwellers! A natural space could be a tree, a park, a water body, or a balcony with potted plants. It's amazing what you will see when you plant a few native plants outside your window. Or inside! Every day, spend a few minutes just observing what you see around you and try to find patterns in what you see. For those of you who live in less populated centers, spend time in your backyard or in your garden. Put out bird feeders to encourage wildlife to visit, and have your morning coffee while listening to the birds. Find ways to exercise outside instead at the gym, whether it be a bike ride, a run, or stroll. In a nutshell, find ways to do the things you will do anyway, but consciously observing the world around you at the same time.
  • At a community scale, many larger metropolitan areas have larger natural areas where inhabitants can spend a day on the weekend just being outside in a natural setting. Local parks, forest preserves, arboretums, botanical gardens, rivers, lakes, and other recreational areas are great ways to get outside, especially when combined with some background knowledge on the ecosystem you are exploring. Locate local nature preserves and spend afternoons biking through a prairie or picnicking in the woods. In the winter, local natural history museums, aquariums, and snow covered woods are great ways to experience the beauty and resilience of nature on a regular basis. Take natural history classes through local nature organizations and read nature guides to understand local ecosystems. And for those who live in areas that lack these kind of natural spaces, join local governance boards that work to encourage the formation of nature preserves. Nature starts small and builds from the bottom up, so emulate this in your community activism.
  • At a regional scale, find ways to incorporate experiences in nature into your longer excursions and vacations. Are there national parks or other points of interest that you can vacation to? If you enjoy camping, are there natural areas that you can spend a few days to a week exploring nature at a deeper level? Even if camping isn’t your thing (no shame in that!), staying at an inn and going on day hikes or excursions is a great way to go “back to nature.”

Fostering Connections

The practice of fostering connections with nature is integral to our survival as a species. The systemic disconnection from nature that we have experienced in the last 200 years has hurt us both physically and spiritually. If the walls we construct, both literally and figuratively, have served a disconnection that has hurt our chances of survival as a species, the process of reconnecting ourselves with nature will be our salvation. By starting to reconnect ourselves with the rhythms and flows of the ecosystems we inhabit, we can begin to make smarter, more environmentally responsible decisions - ones that will allow us to fit in with the natural environment again.

This article is first in a series exploring how we can connect with the genius of our place every day. Future entries will focus on what we can learn from nature, particularly Chicago's native tallgrass prairie ecosystem, to transform how we design, from buildings to business systems.

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