Combining the Built and Natural Environments to Create Generous Cities of the Future

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(This post on biomimicry by Thomas Knittel, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, senior principal – design in HOK’s Los Angeles studio, first appeared in Fast Co. Exist. This is the second post in a three-part series; click here to read the first post.)

Urban growth doesn’t have to destroy nature–it can work with it.

Our collective desire to live in cities has never been stronger. According to the World Health Organization, 60% of the world’s population will live in a city by 2030. As urban populations swell, what people demand from their cities is evolving.

In India and China, developers have embarked on ambitious projects aimed at promoting interactivity between people and the environment by creating “generous cities.” In generous cities, the natural setting guides designers as they integrate environmental, social and economic systems. The goal is for the built environment to function as efficiently as the local ecosystem.

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Created with Biomimicry 3.8, HOK’s Fully Integrated Thinking (FIT) tool enables designers to inform their decision-making by crunching data from 15 categories to determine a city’s characteristics. From transportation and commerce, to water and atmosphere, these categories reveal a setting’s strengths and weaknesses.

In Lavasa, India, and Meixi Lake, China, HOK planners, urban designers and architects worked with Biomimicry 3.8 biologists to recreate ecosystem services in the built environment. We wanted to move closer to achieving a city where biodiversity blossoms and living conditions promote well-being.

“We have to figure out what those ecosystem functions are, deem them important enough to replace and then determine how to do it in the built environment,” says Jamie Dwyer, a biologist and design strategist who worked on the Genius of Biome report created by HOK and Biomimicry 3.8.

In Lavasa, a deciduous forest ecosystem set on 12,500 acres of land southwest of Pune, the natural habitat had been annihilated by four centuries of slash-and-burn agriculture. The team set out to create a city where sustainable interactivity reigns. The plan calls for five urban villages, connected by footbridges and featuring nature-inspired buildings, to make up the city.

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The key for the designers was to identify the most important ecosystem services in Lavasa’s biome. Water collection, storage and filtration are crucial, as the city sees 30 feet of rainfall during monsoon season, followed by a period of drought.

Lavasa experiences limited runoff and erosion because its trees engage in hydraulic distribution, which is one strategy we explored. Wide, shallow roots collect water, driving the excess deep into the soil for storage. Our team worked with engineers at Buro Happold to develop a building foundation capable of hydraulic redistribution.

We planned green roofs designed to prevent soil erosion and to create wind turbulence to aid evaporation. Already, 20 to 30% of the monsoon season water evaporates due to Lavasa’s tree canopy. The design also restores 70% of deforested land, reviving a variety of ecosystem services.

We took a similar approach when master planning a new residential district around Meixi Lake in Wuhan, China. Inspired by the local ecosystem, we designed buildings of varying sizes and forms, arranging them like trees in a forest to permit at least two hours of daylight to penetrate into each dwelling. We left half the landscape open for parkland and to promote water movement, and designed pathways leading to public transportation options.

The design for Meixi Lake is generous in the sense that its connective qualities don’t need to exist. The city could easily have been designed as another monoculture of towers, occasional parks and car-dominated transport. Instead, thoughtful planning turned the city into a place where people can connect with each other and with nature.

Commerce plays a key role in the designing of cities. As Dwyer reminds us, generous cities create jobs and commodities by facilitating meaningful interactions. “Think of an ecosystem,” she says. “Through species’ interactions, soil and nutrients are created.”

Likewise, in a generous city full of humans, the urban ecosystem catalyzes connections that lead to healthy communities and economic prosperity.

One Comment
  1. October 28th, 2013 - 2:50 pm
    Bruce Pheneger said:

    This entire concept could be used to rebuild Detroit, Michigan. Reclaim the land where the housing is gone and create smaller more livable low density living spaces with integrated services and employment centers.

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