Future cities modeled on nature

United Nations figures predict that by 2050, more than 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities - up from about 50 per cent today. With the expansion of cities, challenges to feed, clothe and house a growing population even while resources are declining will preoccupy communities worldwide. Given the constraints, what will the cities of tomorrow look like?

Eco-Business speaks to Nigel Grier, design charrette facilitator of environment consultancy The Green Asia Group on the ‘biomimetic city of the future’ - a topic he spoke on at the International Green Building Conference held at Marina Bay Sands this week.

Mr Grier is an experienced Landscape Ecologist with a focus on Restoration Ecology & Biomimicry. He joined The GreenAsia Group last year from Zingspace, an ecological design and project management practice based in Australia, where he led many multidisciplinary design teams in the masterplanning for landscape, water and national resource projects.

Nigel Grier, design charrette facilitator of environment consultancy The GreenAsia Group.

EB: Can you explain what is this ‘biomimetic city of the future’ for the layman?

NG: The biomimetic city of the future is the preferred future for us - a city modeled on nature. The word ‘biomimetic’ comes from two words - ‘bios’ meaning life and ‘mimesis’ meaning to imitate and therefore, to imitate life or biology.

There is this great quote from Janine Benyus from her book Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature, which says: “Nature runs on sunlight, utilizes only the energy it needs, fits form to function, recycles everything, rewards cooperation, banks on diversity, demands local expertise, curbs excess from within, taps the power of limits”.  This aptly sums up how a biomimetic city will need to be planned, designed and operated.

Now imagine if cities were like rainforests; plenty of shade, diverse, rich in variety while offering abundant fresh air and daylight, with access to clean water, surrounded by living things - an integrated natural system in balance.

EB: What will it take for cities to get there, and what do you think are the biggest challenges and obstacles?

NG: It will take a total rethink of how we view cities and how they are planned. Future cities will need to be planned around energy and resource hubs, not infrastructure like highways. If we are to keep increasing our global population by a billion people every 15 years, cities will need to become fewer but denser - think megacities of populations a minimum 1 million per square kilometer. (Editor’s note: Singapore’s current density is 7,500 people per sq km.)

To achieve this, we will need to go up, vertical cities of 200 storeys or more. Think of cities traveling vertically, not dissimilar to ants on rainforest trees. Buildings will need to link like rainforest canopies or coral reef networks. The Pinnacle@Duxton is a great possible insight into this future - it features seven 50-storey buildings linked by sky bridges on the 26th & 50th floors with lots of outdoor green spaces.

The biggest challenge is human nature. The majority of people today are making decisions on a minute-by-minute basis, and not looking at the long-term implications of those decisions.

From a design industry perspective, the challenge will be learning to design from scratch again and putting a stop to the “cut and paste” practice inherent in the industry now. This method, unfortunately, leads to the same problem being replicated in the next building or project. I think the human psyche around change is also a major obstacle. At the community level, we all say we want change and environmental protection, but as an individual, we don’t want to pay for it.

EB: Concepts such as integrative design, systems thinking and biomimicry are starting to emerge, what are your thoughts on them?

NG: These concepts are the innovation wave or paradigm shift required of our design industry to get us to the next phase of our evolution. Biomimicry is about relooking at nature no longer as resource to exploit, but a resource to learn from.

EB: Although such concepts are growing in popularity, they remain at the fringe and are not mainstream yet - why do you think this is so?

NG: There are many vested interests in maintaining the status quo for short-term gain. We don’t fix it because we don’t consider it broken. Most people still don’t realise there is a problem or an alternative method.

Transformation is also achieved through experience - so it will be a slow process in the short-term. Many professionals are using the industry ‘rule of thumb’ for their designs and not considering where they came from or when they were developed.

For example, many design processes in the mechanical and electrical engineering industry were developed when oil was USD$7 a barrel. Now it’s close to USD$100, but have those designs been reviewed in light of the new cost?

EB: This year’s theme is ‘Green community, green action’ - how do you think the building industry can contribute to the growing movement here in Singapore and more broadly, in Asia?

NG: This is a fantastic theme. I love it! Action is the only thing that has ever made a difference. The building industry here is doing a great job and in many ways leading the world. At the same time, it should be looking at its projects more systemically and integrating the services better. For example, across the board there is three times more cooling capacity installed in Singapore buildings than what is required.

Today, you can ‘design out’ more than 50 per cent of the energy, water and resource consumption out of a building project if you start early enough and apply biomimicry and the integrative design process. This can be done for less investment - green buildings do not need to cost more. In fact, a true green building should cost less.

Eco-Business.com’s coverage of the International Green Building Conference 2012 is brought to you by City Developments Limited (CDL).

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