Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Learn from Nature: Activities for Exploring Nature's Genius

After reading last week's entry, you may be thinking - I've found time to get outside, but what do I do now? Last week, we focused on the importance of getting outside and exploring nature as a part if your regular routine. This week, we will focus on what to do when you get there.

Photo by www.jennifermariephotography.net for @amycoffman
One of my favorite memories of the Biomimicry Professional program was that time spent in nature was built into course requirements. We called them "iSites" and every term I had a dozen or so structured exercises to complete. Some are simple observational exercises while others are more specific studies of particular components of an ecosystem. I have documented my contributions on this blog, so please browse the archives for 2011 and 2012 to see for yourself!

When I first started this practice, I had no idea what I was doing. As an architect with little training in the sciences after graduating from high school, it was a daunting task to go out and observe something I felt I knew little about. That's why these exercises are so powerful - they give us a chance to quiet our minds and focus on one aspect of what we observe. With this focus, we are able to see things from a fresh pair of eyes and start to ask questions. And this is the practice of biomimicry - observing nature with an eye for how things work so that those lessons may be applied to our challenges.

Reconnecting with the Genius of Place

One of the most powerful things you can do when going outside is to try and understand the "genius of place" where you are. Alexander Pope, in his landscape treatise of 1731, coined the term “Genius Loci”, or genius and spirit of a place, as an important principle in landscape design, where designs should always be adapted to their local context. In a world of multi-national corporations and replicated portfolio buildings, however, many local differences are overlooked or even forcibly overcome in an effort to maximize efficiency, sacrificing the biodiversity of a region and causing a multitude of unintended consequences, from flash flooding and the heat island effect to global climate change.

Life in a particular ecosystem, however, has adapted to its environment and fits in seamlessly. Each ecosystem and biome is unique, so organisms in these areas face distinct challenges for resource availability due to climate constraints, local resource limits, and expected disturbances. By emulating how life has responded to these constraints, as well as the abundances found in the area, we can begin to design structures that do not interfere with local biodiversity, build energy generation systems that leverage free resources such as sun and wind, and optimize manufacturing processes to respond to environmental conditions without taxing the ecosystem services on which they depend.

Learning to Observe

There are many activities you can do to start observing the genius of your place, but one I like to use is a simple observational exercise. Go to your favorite spot in a natural environment, such as a forest or prairie. Bring your sketchbook and camera and find a comfortable place to sit, one where you think your could sit or slowly walk for about 20-30 minutes. Close your eyes for a moment and breathe. Calm your mind. When your are ready, open your eyes and observe.
  • Observe your context. Is the area hot or cold, humid or dry, or seasonally variable? What other climate conditions do you notice and how has life changed itself to adapt to life here? What are resources that are abundant and which are scarce? What are disturbances to which life has become adapted?
  • Now observe the diversity of organisms you see. What are the strategies and functions organisms use to responded to the climate conditions, resource availability, and disturbance? For example, what plants to you see? Why do you think they grow here? For example, do they have large, broad leaves to capture scarce light at the forest floor or small, thin ones to minimize drying on an open plane?
  • Are there any other patterns you see? As a rule of thumb, when most of life in a region uses similar strategies, it's a good bet that that strategy is well-adapted to the region, minimizing resources and energy required in the process!
Take notes, draw diagrams, list patterns - each of these observations can begin to help you draw insights to these larger questions:
  • How has life adapted to your climate? 
  • What resources does it depend upon and how are they acquired? 
  • How does life manage adversity, like freezing temperatures, drought and flooding?
  • Most importantly, what can we learn from nature to design and build in more regenerative and resilient ways?
No matter how you approach your outdoor observation, structured exercises give framework and focus with a tangible outcome to time spent observing nature. Knowing how nature has adapted to live here will give us insight into design more sustainable and restorative buildings, communities, and business systems.

Envisioning a Regenerative Future

What if everything we make, build or deliver in a region could perform just as well as the ecosystems they inhabit, cleaning air and water while using free energy? Imagine your city, rather than sitting on and dominating its natural environment, fitting in snugly within its ecosystems, one indistinguishable from the other. What if designers, when developing a property or improving a community, could use a tool to plug into their site assessment that provides an analysis of the energy flows and biodiversity of a site? They could leverage this information when making more locally-attuned siting, landscape, water and energy decisions for the project. What if companies looking to create or upgrade sustainable products and services could tailor not only their product selection but also their manufacturing processes to the needs and available resources of each region? This would allow for greater local market penetration and optimize energy and resource management.

This may sound like utopian dream, but it is achievable if we reframe our perspective by looking to the “genius of our place” through a biomimicry lens. Biomimicry networks across the world are undertaking and coordinating a series of Genius of Place initiatives to assist local industries in embedding nature’s strategies into their design guidelines, planning policies, and resource management protocols to name a few. The architecture firm HOK released an online Genius of the Biome as a reference for designers working in the temperate deciduous forest, which encompasses most of the east coast of the United States.

Biomimicry Chicago has initiated the Prairie Project with the following goals:
  • Collaborate with local individuals, companies, and institutions to share research, maps, information on energy flows, expertise, and resources;
  • Generate new, biomimicry specific tools, guidelines, and translations; and
  • Aggregate and share useful information and patterns into one simple interface, thereby making the “genius of our place” accessible and useful to the public at large.
Connect with us and join the movement! Anything is possible when we work together.

Next up:

What can the Chicagoland region learn from the tallgrass prairie?

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