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Sustainable Cities Ideas

Building the bionic city

The idea of creating a city that mimics nature isn’t new, but is gaining currency. As we seek to combat the impacts of climate change the world’s ecosystems could offer some guidance, says Melissa Sterry

lbert Einstein once said, “The only thing that interferes with my learn- ing is my education.” Leonardo da Vinci exemplifies the pertinence of Einstein’s comment, for as an illegitimate child da Vinci was exempt from receiving a formal educa- tion and thus self-taught; learning much of what he knew from his personal observa- tions of the natural world. The archetypal Renaissance man, while primarily renown as a painter, da Vinci was the forerunner of modern science and the most prolific inventor the world has ever seen. We will never know how much more advanced our society would be today had the greater majority of da Vinci’s prolific body of scientific observations and inventions been preserved and distributed for the benefit of humankind. However,

A 492 years

after his passing, some of da Vinci’s most ambitious ideas are having a new lease of life. Documented in the Codex

Atlanticus, which

collates da Vinci’s inven- tions from 1478 to 1519, one such idea is that of a city that embeds the principles of a natural ecosystem. While several pioneering architects of the 20th century con- ceived similar such ideas, including among others the American Glenn Small, it is only in the past decade that the concept of creating a city that mimics nature has started to take hold.

10 | Sustainable Business | Sustainable Cities | February 2011 Perceptions of the living city paradigm vary

greatly, but common principles expressed across the various schools of thought include adaptability, interconnectivity and resilience, each of which are key factors within any natu- ral ecosystem. While an increasing number of firms, including IBM, HOK, Buro Happold and Arup, are looking to nature for answers to some of our toughest built environment prob- lems, the sustainability movement has not acknowledged the fact that, to quote Einstein, “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”.

Rather than challenge the core principles that have underpinned town and city plan- ning for several generations, we see built environment professionals tweak the modus operandi, often claiming that the task of overhauling the system as whole is beyond our collective ability. Climate change is one of sever- al sustainability challenges often positioned as being a relatively, if not entirely new, concern for humans. The truth could not be further removed.

Extreme events

Since our earliest ancestors first walked the Earth, extreme meteoro- logical and geological events have persistently blighted us. While the predominant perception of our spe- cies’ evolution is essentially pro- gressive and ordered, an increasing body of scientific evidence suggests that our origins are nothing if not chaotic. The dots may not all be joined, but as more data is col- lated and compared it appears that

not one, but several previous advanced civi- lizations collapsed as a direct result of rapid climate change, including the Egyptian Old Kingdom and the Maya, whom several aca- demics hypothesise befell to severe drought. Whatever fate engulfed the Egyptians and the Mayan, we can be in no doubt that climate change has forced our species to migrate and adapt over millennia; our ancestral territories expanding and retreating as the Earth heated and cooled. Having reached nearly 7B in number and colonized most of the habitable places, mass migration is not an option for modern man. Many of our towns and cities only survive because of the global infrastruc- ture we are presently able to support, wherein local disasters are met with an international response. As the impacts of anthropogenic climate change take hold, each of the world’s cities will become increasingly exposed to extreme meteorological and geological events. While the sustainability focus is on the threat of flooding and severe storm systems, these aren’t the only events we ought to con- sider. Shifting weight-loads on the Earth’s crust, caused by melting glaciers and rising seas, could trigger seismic and volcanic activ- ity. Our cities are built for a steady world, but as climate change takes hold a myriad of indi- cators suggest our future will be anything but. The Bionic City is a model I’m developing as an alternative to the current built environ- ment paradigm. Theoretical in approach and conceived within the context of humankind’s needs, not our constraints, the model, like that of da Vinci, is born of observations of the natural world. Why? It all comes down to resilience. Whereas natural ecosystems adapt to comfortably accommodate the environ- mental changes brought about by the planet’s

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