|Lurie Gardens. Photo by @amycoffman|
It’s time to start thinking differently.
Sustainable and Resilient by Nature: The Tallgrass PrairieThe Chicago region sits on an ecosystem that was forged by disturbances. From the deconstructive power of fire to the intermittent resource constraints of drought and cold, organisms of the prairie ecosystem have adapted themselves to be sustainable and resilient, naturally. What may look like a simple grassland is hotbed of diversity, adaptability, resource efficiency, and collaboration.
Incorporate DiversityWhile some may think of fostering cultural diversity as an altruistic virtue, in nature fostering diversity is critical for survival because it gives the ecosystem options when it needs them.
A single prairie can nurture over 100 different species of plant and animal on a relatively small plot, each performing critical functions for the ecosystem, such as water management, food production, and energy generation. Species that thrive in times of drought will not be the same as those that thrive after a flood, but no matter which growing conditions or disturbances are expressed in a given season, species diversity allows these critical functions to be maintained. This rich diversity, stored in the soil seed bank, is the cultural heritage of the prairie.
What if our businesses and communities could learn to embed diversity into their organizational structures and its cultural seed bank in order to enhance resilience?
- Supply chains that regularly utilize multiple vendors could be potentially less efficient, but they would have options that allow for production to continue through different types of disturbances.
- Cross-disciplinary teams and open innovation protocols allow for a diversity of opinions and viewpoints to be heard when making critical decisions and designing new products and services.
- Employing a variety of ways to perform critical functions in your community, such as fostering diversity in food infrastructure by supporting community supported agriculture and farmers markets in addition to industrial agriculture, build resilience into the critical infrastructure we need for survival.
Build Adaptable, Resilient InfrastructureTraditional “bricks and mortar” buildings are static and do not change with changing seasons. Prairie grasses, on the other hand, are a model of adaptability, forming a strong, interconnected foundation with flexible structure that sacrifices layers as conditions require:
- Individually, each plant is fragile, but collectively they intertwine themselves to form a dense mat, collectively supporting the deciduous plants above while forming a spongy humus that stores the vast majority of water that falls on site.
- Prairie grasses are famous for their deep root structures, but equally of interest is its adaptable, flexible above ground infrastructure with high torsional flexibility, which allows stems and leaves to be "whipped around" by the wind, not blown over and broken. And by growing in large densities, they offer each other a shared windbreak.
- Organisms adapted to cold climates are also prepared to make sacrifices. Plants sense changes in the environment and respond by sacrificing a portion of themselves in the form of deciduous leaves and stems.
- Our buildings could harness the free insulation and protection of the earth and interconnect themselves below grade, forming vast networks of reciprocal exchange - from energy bought and sold at the building scale to neighborhood water storage and treatment plants.
- Structures could dynamically adapt to high wind conditions by folding, moving, or incorporating flexible wind breaks to divert wind over and around the core of the structure.
- Our building envelopes can be designed to “shed” parts of their skin to allow cross-ventilating breezes when comfortable and increase insulation levels and solar access during in colder months.
Be Resource EfficientOur civilization's rampant exploitation of ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels has lead us to thoroughly alter the climate in which we live and ecosystems on which we depend. But organisms in nature do not operate this way. In order to survive, they must optimize their energy and water use by harnessing and leveraging abundant resources and energy flows while finding passive or low energy ways of performing vital functions.There are so many examples to share, but here are a few highlights:
- Hibernating animals, such as ground squirrels, lower their energy and water requirements to minimal needs in order to protect vital life functions and survive when resources such as food and water are scarce.
- Spiders continually rebuild and renew their webs by consuming and then using these same materials, reconstituted in their stomachs, as the building blocks for a new portion of the web. Even cooler - the bits of flies and gnats that stick to the web as they are consumed are the fuel that powers the reconstruction!
- Dog ticks harness water from humid air in order to survive for months in prairie fields without access to water or a blood meal. They secrete a salt solution from their mouths which absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere before being reabsorbed through the mouth.
- Beyond the ubiquitous setback mode for mechanical systems, all systems could embed the ability to “go dormant” when not in use, from electrical outlets that minimize plug loads to entire portions of a building that shut down when not in use.
- Structures designed for deconstruction could be continually renewed and rebuilt as needed on site as needed, using energy generated on site.
- Buildings could be more passively dehumidified prior to entering a building, saving energy costs. Additionally, water absorbed as humidity could be used to supplement water demand uses, such as sinks and toilets. Check out HOK's Genius of the Biome report for more great ideas such as this!
Foster Collaborative RelationshipsWe think of nature - and ourselves - as being inherently competitive. But while competition is prevalent and a driver of species differentiation and innovation, innumerable examples of collaboration exist alongside. In community ecology, decentralized networks of nutrient exchange, guilds for resource partitioning, and decomposers tell the story.
- Mycorrhizal fungi, which live in and among the roots of most plants, cultivate decentralized, multi-scaler networks of connections to exchange nutrients not only between themselves and the plant but between different plants as well.
- To minimize competition for resources, pollinators, such as bees, birds, bats, and insects form guilds that partition their use of common resources and stagger their availability across geographic locations and time of day. For example, some will forage only in the morning, while others in the afternoon or at night. Some will travel large distances while others only in the immediate area.
- From the waste of their leftover food to the decay of their death, all producers and consumers produce waste, but this waste is broken down as food for an entirely different category of organism: the decomposer. Earthworms, fungi, and billions of bacteria take what could be waste and break it down as food for themselves. In nature, waste truly equals food, so maybe waste isn't such a bad thing if you know someone will benefit from it!
- Form reciprocal networks to exchange data, water, energy, and ideas.
- Phase growth and development to create resilience to changing resource availability.
- Form collaborative relationships with third parties to form district energy and urban agriculture coops. Buildings and services co-locate so that the waste of one becomes food for another, incorporating these functions at many different scales.