by Erin Leitch
Brightworks Sustainability Advisor
+ First generation Biomimicry Certificate candidate
In response to the What Would You Ask Nature? Fast Company/ Designers Accord Challenge, I submitted a design challenge currently being addressed by the Portland EcoDistricts Initiative. EcoDistricts attempt to synthesize broad sustainability issues, including air quality and carbon, energy, mobility, water, habitat/ecosystem function and vital communities through targeted funding resulting in the delineation of neighborhood scale boundaries. The challenge is that the sustainability issues that the districts address are systemic and exist beyond the funding boundaries.
So, the question became “How does nature deal with boundaries?”
Taller de Operaciones Ambientales (TOA), a Mexico City based architectural firm that is well versed in the tenets of biomimicry, took on the challenge. I met with the team in Mexico City to discuss the concept and intention of eco‐districts as well as the function of the district boundaries. You can read all about their exciting process and impressive outcomes here. Video of the charrette process show the TOA team engaged in a very dynamic dialogue about borders in nature – most interesting to me is that edges in nature are often woven together resulting in environments that are more blended than abrupt and often the most bio-diverse and active.
When using biomimicry to emulate nature’s penchant for systems thinking, it seems to all come down to mycelium. Mycelium inspired much of TOA’s thinking around the interconnected sustainability systems that the eco‐districts plan embodies and how they could form more intimate symbiotic relationships. Among TOA’s inspiring conclusions was equating district funding to nutrient and energy flows found in natural systems. Nature does not assign equal funding to each square foot of an ecosystem – it optimizes the allocation of funding. To emulate this natural strategy, TOA proposes that 50% of the district funding should be allocated to the district borders. By focusing funding at the borders, the districts can negate some of the typical consequences of borders, specifically polarity and stifled cooperation.
This financial encouragement of activity at the edges would instigate a counterintuitive urban development pattern and all of a sudden the eco‐district is defined by the communities’ ability to successfully navigate through the energy and nutrient ‘membrane’, or district border, to achieve their local sustainability goals ‐ not by whether the community is inside or outside of the boundary. The Portland EcoDistricts Initiative is really a framework to encourage communities to self‐start local initiatives. As such, the framework should be designed to reward those communities that have the most initiative and ambition to act on the unique funding opportunity that the Eco‐Districts Initiative offers. The membrane‐type border would attract exactly those types of communities relieving pressure on P+OSI to further incentivize and relentlessly encourage a community that may not be as responsive.
Originally, I thought that the outcome of the process would be to find a way of getting rid of the borders, but actually TOA has demonstrated that it’s all about the borders – leverage the vibrancy only possible along the edges!