It all started about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. It might have been a Thursday. A bit of cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae, began converting sunlight into food for survival.
Organisms have historically addressed challenges by adapting, cooperating, competing, and forming communities of ever greater genius and diversity up through our habitats today. Neighborhoods could be considered one of the most recent types of biological communities, and they encounter a range of challenges just like those first microorganisms—challenges like gentrification.
Restoration and revitalization of older neighborhoods can increase resiliency in a community. It is a sprawl-reduction tool that makes use of preexisting materials and infrastructure. It helps property values, and increases economic opportunity. This is a good thing—right up until it’s a bad thing—as it often results in the reduction of green space, higher property taxes and rental prices so that wealthier new residents are able to stay; but original occupants are sometimes pushed out or marginalized. With their departure, human biodiversity decreases in communities.
Within our neighborhoods, a variety of living things flourish and adapt to an array of physical, chemical, biological and social challenges. Non-human organisms have an advantage in creating efficient, effective solutions. They optimize for life—seldom collecting or consuming far more than they need, or using materials outside their immediate home range, for example. We humans tend toward maximizing: for financial gain, happiness, size, ease and the ability to cram more activities into our days. Humans seldom optimize for life. So, when faced with the challenges of urban renewal we tend to think in terms of maximization of new units, profit, and time saved for commutes. Because people also generally look for insights from other human endeavors, we tend toward prodigious redevelopment that mimics what’s worked in other towns. But since bacteria, fungi, plants, and other animals also lend shape to our neighborhoods, what if we tried learning from them? What would happen if we looked at the experience gained by organisms with a track record of over 3.8 billion years instead of those who have existed less than 3 million?
Enter the tool of biomimicry—the practice of imitating other organisms found in nature to solve our problems. What can we learn from the ants navigating our vacant lots or the oak tree shading our front yard? Can we emulate the productive community relationships we find in honeybees to yield solutions? This problem of gentrification was presented to me by the Nashville Civic Design Center in Nashville, Tennessee, as I was seeking examples for participants to work on at a biomimicry conference where I was speaking. One generally thinks of biomimicry as a way to build a better product or business process. But could it be used to enhance cultural resiliency?
The first step in biomimicry is to define a problem “functionally.” If our problem is gentrification—what are we trying to do?
- Maintain stasis?
- Stop species invasion?
- Support species diversity?
Since nature is in a constant state of dynamic disequilibrium, stasis is a myth. Even species like koalas or sloths with very particular requirements, exist in ecosystems in a constant state of flux. “Flux” works like an orange rolling around in a bowl. There is a finite operating space but an endless variety of directions the orange can roll. So, it is with neighborhood “ecosystems.” They change—whether they are redeveloped or because neighbors die or move away. Whether current residents are unable or unwilling to adjust to this state of flux, change will still happen. Maintaining stasis is not a tenable route.
If gentrification is likened to species invasions, the incoming residents play a starring role. In any ecosystem, when an invasive first enters the area it increases overall diversity. It then out-competes other plants/animals for resources, either denying or diminishing them for original inhabitants. The ecosystem can persist, but often operates with reduced vigor. Similarly, with gentrification this large number of new neighbors can monopolize or alter resources. This higher income homogeneity alters the affordability and physical resources (be they housing types or the reduction of forgotten or informal green space) available to original residents. In nature, invasives are only stopped by drastic measures—yanking privet out by the roots, introducing goats to eat kudzu, cutting and poisoning the roots of bush honeysuckle. Clearly, destructive options are not ones we would want to pursue here!
Finally, let us consider the functional problem definition through the lens of nature encouraging biodiversity. Each creature exists in the niche to which it is best suited. Birds hunt at different times of day. Plants fix nitrogen better at different times of year. Deer graze while possums munch on delicacies from crickets to carrion. Much like an orchestra, these organisms all play different roles within their symphonic ecosystems. This biodiversity is only possible because the ecosystem offers food, water, shelter, and space in the proper arrangement for multiple species.
Every plant, every animal, each microorganism and slime mold has a role to play in a healthy ecosystem. Remembering this, we engage biomimicry’s second step by defining the context for enhancing biodiversity in our neighborhoods. Just like other animals, humans play roles within their neighborhoods that we should define and accommodate. What functional roles do residential and business owners play in these areas? Since we tend toward homogeneity, what does healthy biodiversity look like in our human communities? How can we define and commit to “optimization” over “maximization” when adapting our neighborhoods to mimic nature’s operating systems. Given the changes our cities are experiencing, what does an optimized older, urban neighborhood look like? What is required to build and maintain a climax neighborhood that integrates into the larger biome of the city and surrounding region?
Once we have answers to these questions, which will be as individualized as the neighborhoods themselves, our biomimetic third step will be to select specific “model” organisms or ecosystems as mentors to emulate in an intentional way. Bees and ants gain optimal housing through self-organizing behaviors. Oak trees and other native trees provide a plethora of housing choices for birds, insects and small mammals. Bracket fungi receive food from the aging oak while creating new spaces in which a squirrel family can live.
We examine the strategies of these organisms and mimic their genius. We can make neighborhood decisions and work together with stigmergic collaboration like bees and ants—each new accomplishment shaping the decisions that follow. We can create different layers and types of housing like the oak to accommodate people of different ages, abilities and incomes. We can plant new gardens, creating multiple solutions like the bracket fungi, to yield food, clean air, shelter, and privacy. And with a humble nod to the organisms who taught us, the city creatures who call this home, we can protect and enhance green corridors throughout the neighborhood, providing to nature what nature needs—with thanks.
Images (from top to bottom): Margo Farnsworth, acacia tree; Jim Pascoe, orange mushrooms; Margo Farnsworth, bee on penstemon; Jim Pascoe, dickcissel; Jim Pascoe, ladybug on twig