March 16, 2022 - From the March, 2022 issue

Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature; Excerpts from A City Age Event

Like the call to return the LA River to a more natural state, the idea of recreating more natural cities, called “biomimicry”, is a hot topic in contemporary planning and climate change resilience. In this event put on by City Age, what follows are excerpts by TPR of three different conversations on how cities might better coexist with nature. First, is a presentation from Nicole Miller, the Managing Director of Biomimicry 3.8 on what biomimicry is. Then a panel with Priya Zachariah from the City of Houston and Katie Hagemann from Miami-Dade County on how jurisdictions are using this theme to make policy. Lastly this ends with a presentation from James Moore at Jacobs discussing how cities can further strengthen their relationship with nature. Despite the speakers covering a wide range of topic, there is clearly a common thread of using nature and the solutions it provides to make smarter, more resilient, more beautiful climate change and urban policy.

James Moore

“The world, as we have created it, is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” - James Moore (Jacobs Engineering)

Excerpt from City Age Presentation: Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature to Create a Positive Impact for People, the Economy, and the Ecosystem

Zahra Alani: Our next guest is the Managing Director of Biomimicry 3.8: a social enterprise dedicated to helping changemakers create a more sustainable world by emulating nature's designs and core principles. (Nicole Miller) is here to tell us about how biomimicry can transform cities and their relationship to nature to create a positive impact for people, the economy, and our natural ecosystem.

Nicole Miller: Based on the trends that we are seeing globally for nature-based and nature-positive solutions, the interest and need for this kind of design likely exists in the cities or communities in which you live. We're going to talk a little bit about what that looks like.

Today I'd really like to share three things with you. One, how we can learn from nature to create communities that thrive environmentally, socially and economically? Two, why emulating nature is one of our most effective strategies for adapting to climate change and building resiliency in our communities. Third, examples of communities that have integrated nature inspired and nature positive practices, and the benefits that that has delivered.

I don't want to focus too much on why a natural city and nature-positive is important. I think this audience gets that, but I wanted to set a little bit of context. Today, over half the world's population lives in cities, and this is expected to rise by 68 percent, or nearly 7 billion people, by 2050. Currently, cities take up 2 percent of the Earth's land base, yet account for anywhere from 70 to 75 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Urban expansion is responsible for the loss of almost a third of the species globally. Most recently, the COVID 19 pandemic has put a spotlight on research linking urbanization and the destruction of forests and natural habitat to an increased risk of pandemic diseases. These statistics really illustrate how important it is in this very moment to rethink how we design and build and grow our cities. Currently, there are several initiatives and efforts in place to raise awareness around these issues and provide a platform for collaboration and information sharing, along with an abundance of tools and resources designed to help cities and community leaders advance towards nature positive.

What I want to talk about today is what does it mean to be nature positive? How do we know when we get there? What will it look like when we arrive? To answer that question, looking to nature is probably our best answer.

To give a little history, the first single-celled organism appeared on this planet approximately 3.8 billion years ago. Since then, life has successfully been adapting and evolving to changing conditions. 99 percent of the 4 billion species that have evolved on Earth are now gone. What that means is that everything we see in nature today, everything that's around us, is the 1 percent that has survived. What this tells us is that there's an abundance of information, intelligence, and wisdom that we can learn from these organisms and ecosystems on how to effectively adapt to changing conditions. By understanding the mechanisms, the patterns, the strategies found, and the nature, we can create place-based designs that are time tested, resilient, and beneficial not only to the environment, but to the people who live in those communities and are dependent upon those ecosystems.

That's precisely what biomimicry is. It's looking to nature. It's digging into those 3.8 billion years of research and development in nature to find and remember these ideas, these strategies, and these patterns and effectively emulate those to solve the challenges we face today. There's an abundance of ecological knowledge that can be leveraged and integrated to create nature-inspired and nature-based solutions. Solutions that are inherently regenerative, creating social and ecological benefits with positive impact to the community, the region, and the planet. If we're aiming to create cities that are truly regenerative and creating the conditions to benefit all stakeholders, nature is really the best, if not only, model of success.

We're shifting the lens a little bit. Rather than looking to nature as a resource that we can extract or that we need to protect, we are looking to nature as a partner. The ecological knowledge of place becomes a model and a mentor and measure to both understand what is resilient and regenerative and also how we achieve it. By looking to nature as this model, mentor, measure, we empower decisionmakers with 3.8 billion years of intelligence that enable them to take a holistic approach to creating and applying and integrating multifunctional solutions that benefit all life.

You might be wondering, how does the city or its leadership look to nature as a model, mentor, and measure to build a positive relationship with nature? I'm going to start with nature as a measure and kind of ladder up to nature as a model and mentor. In 2015, Janine Benyus, author and co-founder of B38, eloquently said that, “When our forests and cities are functionally indistinguishable, then we'll know that we've reached true sustainability”.

What does it mean to be functionally indistinguishable? What Janine is describing is that the forests or ecosystems that surround us provide functional benefits that enable organisms or the entire system to survive and thrive. These benefits such as clean water, clean air, soil retention, infiltration, carbon storage, food, and many more are known as ecosystem services. If the forest and wetlands around us produce the necessary ecological benefits that enable life to thrive, shouldn't that be the goal of our cities and our communities and facilities? Having buildings and infrastructure that create ecosystem services and generate positive impacts on the environment, and therefore people, versus having liabilities that we must mitigate against.

What makes this vision so exciting to have cities that function like forests? What makes it exciting and possible is that ecosystem services are quantifiable. This gives us an opportunity to actually measure these benefits that are being produced around us and the services and our surrounding intact ecosystems to understand how much carbon is being stored, how much biodiversity is being generated, and so on.

Using these as performance targets, what does it actually mean to be nature positive? What are these ecosystem services producing? What does that mean for our communities? Once we understand what intact ecosystems are producing those benefits and where our current operating conditions are, we can start to solve for that performance gap. Once we understand these performance targets for what a community can and should be performing like, we can look to nature as a model and mentor to inform design solutions that are locally relevant and generate the essential ecosystem services unique to that community's environmental, social, and economic needs.

This came from a current research paper produced by the World Economic Forum around BiodiverCities by 2030. In that report, what they identified is that nature-based solutions for infrastructure are 50% cheaper than gray alternatives and deliver 28% greater added value in terms of the direct environmental benefits, yet only a fraction of spending is allocated toward nature-based solutions. This reinforces why looking to and learning from nature is one of the most effective strategies when designing communities that are future fit. Nature gives us the blueprint.

How to Build A Natural City- Panel Excerpt

Marina Ruta: What are your priority areas (in Houston) for climate and resilience action? How are these nature inspired and nature-based solutions helping (your City to) achieve them?

Priya Zachariah (City of Houston): Before I answer your question, I just want to start with the broader context and give everyone a sense of the bigger, broader context of what we're doing from a climate planning and a resilience perspective in Houston. Houston has two plans that we are currently working on. We have the Climate Action Plan and we have the Resilient Houston Plan. We in Houston have been thinking about sustainability and climate action as well as resilience for quite a few years now. This is one of the few offices in the country that has a combined office of resilience and sustainability, which means that we are looking at both mitigation and adaptation together.

In terms of priority action areas, this being a combined office, we work under the assumption and the acknowledgement that climate change mitigation and adaptation are two faces of the same coin, with the overarching lens of equity over and above that. Something I want to point to in terms of priorities for nature-inspired and nature-based solutions is a lot of work, especially because we are at risk, on urban stormwater flooding, given our bio system and proximity to the coast.

A big push within our plans is green stormwater infrastructure. Catching water, holding water where it falls, integrating Green stormwater designs and intentions into our buildings, our landscape, and our streets, reducing the amount of hard paved surfaces, really mimicking how nature handles water. We have tried to put measures in place so this can be more central in how we build and think about the built environment.

Katie Hagemann (Miami-Dade County) : I work in Miami Dade County. Just like Houston, our umbrella guiding plan is our broader resilience strategy. Within that umbrella is our sea level rise strategy, which is my team's job to implement. Within the sea level rise strategy, we lay out five approaches for how we can deal with sea level rise.

As you map out our path to adapt to that rising sea level, two of the five approaches that we talk about are centered on green and blue infrastructure. One is looking within our city to find more space for green and blue infrastructure. That can be at a variety of scales in our parks, in our driveways, in our yards, or in our streetscapes. Trying to find more places to hold, store, and manage the water.


At a larger scale, our second major approach is to expand our green and blueways. These include our trails and setbacks along our canals and waterways, as well as linear parks along our waterfront and our beach and dune system.

In addition to being the foundation of our regional economy, our beach and dune system is also our first line of defense against hurricanes. It's a very effective barrier to dampen the strength of the waves and the energy that comes with the hurricane. One of the things that has been a real success of recent is that by replanting the dunes, the dune grasses have grown the dunes vertically several feet just over the last few years. By putting those plants in place, they've helped the dune system grow stronger, wider, taller, and more robust when we do have hurricanes.

We definitely say often that, for us, our environment is the economy. The reason that people live here and visit here is to be on the water, be around the water, and be out in the sunshine. It's a very clear link that in order to thrive as a community, we have to protect our environment. Fortunately, we have many instances where doing so obviously helps us in the short term in creating a more beautiful and livable city, but also long term in adapting to sea level rise and other climate change.

Marina Ruta: Katie, any strategies that Miami is implementing that could be replicated by Houston? It's very nice to have cross pollination in that sense. 

Katie Hagemann (Houston): We have been fortunate this year that the state has allocated over $500 million to support resilience projects. The state was very clear that they wanted those resilience projects, which is competitive funding, to protect critical facilities. We were really heartened to see that in the actual awards, in addition to grants we applied for to protect our fire stations, we also applied for grants to acquire large areas of wetlands and coastal habitat that help protect our drinking water sources.

One of the challenges that we have with sea level rise is saltwater intrusion. Salt water pushes further inland and can contaminate some of our coastal drinking water resources. Certainly the cheapest, but I would say the best, way for us to help protect those drinking water resources is to invest in the natural protection to help recharge the aquifer through infiltration and to buffer the salt water through rehydration.

We're really heartened to see that at the state level, they also agree that these types of projects are critical. We definitely will continue in that vein. That's one of the main approaches that we have long-term for managing our resiliency of our drinking water, which is obviously so essential to life.


Presentation: James Moore, Jacobs

Zahra Alani: Our next guest is an architect, planner, and urban designer with over 30 years of professional experience helping lead and expand the Jacobs Cities and Places practice worldwide with an emphasis on regeneration, resilience, sustainability and smart cities. Please welcome James Moore, Global Solutions Director of Cities and Places at Jacobs.

James Moore (Jacobs Engineering): I'd like to start with a quote from a person generally recognized as being pretty astute. “The world, as we have created it, is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” We're here today to talk about ways we can change our thinking about cities. As we know thinking can change.

Cities are essential to our welfare. They create benefits for us as humans, but they also impose costs, and in some cases, these are extremely high costs. The goal is to maintain the benefits while reducing the costs. The challenge is to continue to think about our cities, to continue to urbanize, to reap the benefits of cities for increasing numbers of people, while reducing, if not eliminating, the downsides.

While there may not be total clarity as to the best ways to proceed and approaches will vary from one city or country to another, there is an emerging consensus that the current situation is not really viable. Business as usual is not an option. How are we to go forward? I put together themes that I think will inform the development of the future city, many of which refer to or are derived from our thinking about natural systems.

We need to start by recognizing that cities or urban environments can and must be viewed as integrated systems of systems, just as one might approach a natural environment. In fact, nature and natural systems are amongst the best guides for thinking about how to structure urban systems. Now, a key distinction here of course, is that urban environments were always nested within a natural setting.

Nature and cities are both extremely complex systems of systems. Both adhere to certain overarching rules: scale and organization, for example. In addition, both are fractal. This means that strategies and approaches need to be applied across all the scales of the city. We have to acknowledge, study, and understand these rules and characteristics, both from nature and from existing cities, to learn how best to apply them to future urbanization.

We need to start at the scale of the region. When we say cities, we're really not talking about political units. We're talking about regions. Many natural systems, microclimates for example, are also regional in scale.

We need to protect and preserve key environmental systems. Every city exists within a natural setting. The setting provides innumerable ecosystem services. Our developments generally intervene with these services and often eradicate them. We need to start by identifying these positive attributes and then do our best to protect them. Key areas include riparian corridors, wildlife habitat, primary agricultural lands, floodplain, steep slopes, old growth forests, etc. They provide incredibly valuable ecological services to the region and development should not harm them.

This is not just about rural areas. It also applies to densely built cities. Without Central Park, Manhattan simply does not work. Given the fractal nature of cities, every part of the city, including those with the most significant socio-economic challenges, needs to have access to similar systems.

We need to reduce the amount of impervious surface within our cities. Cities tend to be built out of impervious surfaces, streets, parking lots, roofs, etc. These surfaces disrupt the natural hydrological Society of cycles, often to our detriment. One can go from a situation where there's almost 100% permeable ground cover to almost 100% impervious surface, and these are two dramatically different conditions. We need to figure out how to design dense, vibrant, mixed-use cities that are less than 50% impervious.

Now above the ground, we need to design cities that includes substantial contiguous tree canopy. Canopies provide shade. They create habitat. Trees sequester carbon. Contiguous tree canopy can capture up to 1/3 of rainfall so that it never actually touches the ground. They add character and delight to our cities. Yet we find that many cities are removing rather than adding to the supply. 

There are other reasons why we want to reduce impervious surfaces and preserve tree canopy. The average city in America is anywhere from five to ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer than nearby undeveloped areas. This is known as the urban heat island effect. It’s a serious and increasing source of global of concern, much more so in the Global South, but it's emerging as an issue here in the United States as well. Heat will be a key urban challenge going forward. Nature has examples for us to follow in addressing this challenge.


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