Category Archives: Biology

LA+ Simulation

The latest issue of LA+ Journal, focuses on the theme of SIMULATION.  This edition, guest edited by Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys. includes “…a diverse list of contributors critically investigates the theme through a myriad of lenses including biology, computer sciences, engineering, environmental science, industrial design, philosophy, planning, among other fields.”

The summary from the site:

“Our epoch has been dubbed the Anthropocene Era to mark the significance of human activities as the greatest force of environmental change. The distinctions between biology/technology, organic/synthetic, and natural/artificial are increasingly impossible to maintain. Cloned sheep, climate models, digitally-printed tissue and lab-grown meat – this is not the nature of our predecessors. This issue of LA+ addresses the theme of SIMULATION in terms of how recent technologies have changed how we understand the nature of nature. From Plato’s Cave to Baudrillard’s “Simulacrum,” simulations were historically understood as counterfeits or facsimiles and were based on the distinction between a model and its copy. Simulations remain central to mediations between reality and its representation; however, the latest forms of simulation—whether genetic manipulation or computer modeling—are not seen as impediments to truth and knowledge but as tools to uncover the complexities of nature.”

I’ve gone in depth with other issues, in this case just going to show some images and recommend you read it.

Images via LA+ Website

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Hemp to the Rescue

We’ve heard of many plants that have phytoremediative qualities, that is, the properties that can absorb and neutralize toxic substances in soils.   For all the versatility of hemp, I hadn’t thought of it as possessing that ability until I read recent post on Roads and Kingdoms entitled Hemp and Change.  The crux of the story is one of pollution and the potential for Hemp as one of those plants that can aid in cleaning up our dirty messes.

The Italian town Taranto in Puglia, which like many areas had a rich agricultural and gastronomic history, specifically cheeses and other dairy products.  A large steel plant was constructed nearby in the 1960s, which was led to degradation of air and soil that led to conditions where animals were no longer fit for consumption.  There are also indications that the residents have and continue to suffer from ill effects of the plant.

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:: image via Roads & Kingdoms

The issue is that the plant serves as the major source of jobs, so it’s a double-edged sword where residents are both in need of the economic benefit but suffer from the ill effects.  The plant owners were later charged with a number of crimes for the health and environmental issues, but beyond the legal culpability, there still remains the need for a viable clean-up of the sites, which is often too expensive and long term.

Thus phytoremediation provides a viable strategy for clean up of the toxic sites, with the potential to restore Taranto back to it’s agricultural glory.  A group called CanaPuglia and their founder Claudio Natile, who describes hemp and its use as a continuation of an Italian tradition.

“Hemp was a major Italian agricultural crop for hundreds of years. In the 1950s, the country was the second-largest hemp producer in the world after the Soviet Union. Italian hemp seeds provided some of the most resistant fibers, which were turned into clothing. However, with industrialization and the advent of synthetic fibers such as nylon, hemp started to disappear.”

They’ve planted 300 hectares of low THC hemp, which is also harvested to make a range of products, further providing economic vitality and helping to pay for the cleanup.  In this case, the toxicity doesn’t persist in the fibers, so it can be used, however there could be toxicity in the seeds so the hemp is not sold for food consumption.  The article doesn’t get too far into how hemp is working for pollution reduction, but offered a few links to explore.

According to the Huffington Post, in addition to hemp being a low-input and easy to grow plant, it “…was used at Chernobyl to harmlessly extract toxins and pollutants from the soil and groundwater. Hemp actually absorbs CO2 while it grows through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative from the get-go.”

Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.
Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.

:: image via Huffington Post

The use a variety of plants for phytoremediation of toxic sites, including Brassicas, corn, tobacco, sunflowers and trees, to name a few, all are viable methods to uptake and capture pollutants.   The site explains that Phytoremediation is a process that takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. For example, some plants can grow in metal-laden soils, extract certain metals through their root systems, and accumulate them in their tissues without being damaged. In this way, pollutants are either removed from the soil and groundwater or rendered harmless.

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:: image via McGraw Hill – Botany Global Issues Map

The use of hemp is explained in a bit more detail “In 1998, Phytotech, along with Consolidated Growers and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine’s Institute of Bast Crops, planted industrial hemp, Cannabis sp., for the purpose of removing contaminants near the Chernobyl site.”  The uptake of pollutants at Chernobyl included cesium and strontium, which was bio-accumlated in root structures at high concentrations.  While some toxins are broken down in soil and plants, high-grade elements like radioactive waste are pulled from soils into plants, so there is obviously the issue of proper and safe removal of this biomass after this process has taken place.

One interesting link on the larger concept is from the United Nations Enviornment Programme, a site called “Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and Remediation. ” which does offer a primer on the topic.  Contrasting it with traditional remediation, the site explains: “Remediation of contaminated sites using conventional practices, such as ‘pump-and-treat’ and ‘dig-and-dump’ techniques, is often expensive, has limited potential, and is usually only applicable to small areas. Additionally, these conventional approaches to remediation often make the soil infertile and unsuitable for agriculture and other uses by destroying the microenvironment. Hence there is the need to develop and apply alternative, environmentally sound technologies (ESTs), taking into account the probable end use of the site once it has been remediated.”

The process happens in multiple ways, but essentially has two methods – the first is breaking down and degrading organic pollutants; the second is to trap  metals or non-organics so they cannot move to other animals or areas.  The roots are the main source of phytoremediation, being in contact with pollutants directly through the extensive below-grade surface area.  When areas of contamination are deeper, trees are often used where their more extensive rooting systems can go further down than herbacous plants and shrubs.   There are also cases where water can be pumped from below grade and then treated on the surface using plants.

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:: image via Intech

As the above graphic shows, there are many methods at work with the phytoremediation process, many of which are working on the ‘soil-root’ interface.  There are a number of compounds released by the plants, “root exudates” that activate microorganisms that can extract, stablilize, degrade and stimulate toxics.  This changes the bioavaiability of the toxins through, as the UNEP site states “changes in soil characteristcs, release of organic substances, changes in chemical composition, and /or increase in plant-assisted microbial activity.”

There are over 30,000 sites in the US that require hazardous waste treatment, and many more worldwide.  While many plants that are viable for phytoremediation are available, many of these cannot be used for consumption because of issues with possible contamination. Hemp is perhaps one to consider as the fiber used can still be processed into useful, saleable products,  that could potentially fund the cleanup as well.  As marijuana legality relaxes somewhat, it may be more possible to use this plant to make our world a cleaner place.

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Bio-inspired Design

The latest issue of Zygote Quarterly, an online journal with a focus covers Bio-inspired design, and offers another opportunity to explore this topic (and the back issues as well).  A really beautifully illustrated online magazine, ZG is worth delving into in depth, but also sitting back and and in this case, getting into a bit of depth on the topic.

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An essay that gets me excited about the concept is the opener from Tom McKeag, Case Study Auspicious Forms, which tracks the process of engineering a Japanese bullet train to attain high speeds with less noise on the track and when entering tunnels.  The breakdown of process looking both at the serrated wings of owls in creating ‘quiet’ air flow, to the specific beak orientation of a Kingfisher influencing nose shape to lessen sonic booms in tunnels is a fascinating exploration of how traditional engineering can look to nature for solutions.  The concept of natures patterns applied to the unnatural is the major benefit of bio-inspired design.

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The nature inspired engineering is relevant to Buckminster Fuller and the application synergistic patterns, and notably his calling card, the ultimately scalable and strong modular geodesic structure.  These geodesic structures area also found in nature, such as the eyes of insects (below) or the bones of birds – nested, scalable triangular structures that can be combined build infinite structures with stability and strength far greater than their perceived mass.  As mentioned, Fuller the biological provides not a pattern to mimic but the answer:

“Unlike many biologists, Bucky insisted that his “energetic-synergetic geometry” was ‘natural’ in the sense that it was there, all worked-out, as a mathematical principle employed by Nature to give optimum advantage to the system.”

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Fuller would be ones of the forerunners, obviously, of biomimicry, due to his understanding and application of natures rules and strategies.  This continued a long-line of thinkings throughout history who have looked to nature to inspire them, such as Leonardo da Vinci, or Antonio Gaudi, to name a couple.  The engineering/product angle is what i think is most applicable and successful biomimicry path, with the gecko-foot inspired fasteners (above) being perhaps the touchstone of that nature to useful product transition.

Outside of the realm of the mimic is the concept of blending of art and science, which is captured perfectly in the work of and featured prominently throughout ZG such as the biological art of David Goodsell, who captures scientific processes in beautiful and simple illustrations.

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The challenge then lies in the differentiation of the biological (ecological) from the biomimicry and the bio-inspired, all of which inform and apply to design but existing in gradations from actual nature to abstract nature.  The one essay that focuses more on the design side is an interview with Thomas Knittel from HOK, a firm that has been intimately nested in the Biomimicry world more than most firms.  His work on Project Haiti, below, is indicative of the bioinspired approach.  “Bio-inspiration is in the variable second skin forming a building boundary layer to reject heat and harness natural ventilation.  A wooden branching support structure facing the courtyard is based upon patterns in nature and observed by da Vinci and Fuller and, more
recently, Bejan’s constructal law. I will admit our solution is not pure, but it serves the building
functionally and metaphorically. What better place to display mother-daughter branching?”

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The other notable element that HOK has done is the Genius of Biome design resource, which desribes “…how lessons from the temperate broadleaf forest biome, which houses many of the world’s largest population centers, can inform the design of the built environment.”

Additional essays touch on topics such as Biomemetics, the connections between Engineering and Biology, and additional study on Bucky Fuller and his nature-inspired design strategies, but i will leave you to explore on your own.

Perhaps because these essays aren’t trying to over-reach and frame Biomimicry as a new approach to landscape ecological design and urbanism, they are more inspirational and less frustrating in this way.  Can biomimicry really truly be a methodology for landscape architecture and ecology?  I’m not sure, as the medium and the method are too closely aligned to make the jump to mimesis – so perhaps the concept of ‘bio-inspired’ is perhaps a better metaphor with less baggage, and a truer sense of the concept of design with nature.

Ecology & Landscape Architecture

A great post on the The Dirt from a couple of months back delves into a topic near and dear to my thoughts on landscape architecture and urbanism – particularly how do we blend science and design in meaningful ways.  The article “Teaching Ecological Restoration (Not Restoration Ecology) includes the new Temple University concentration in ecological restoration as part of their dialogue, namely that there must be application ‘on-the-ground’ of ecological principles.  As noted by Temple faculty John Munro, he’s concerned that the Society for Ecological Restoration “…is moving away from its focus on practical, on-the-ground, ecological restoration projects in favor of more passive, “academic research on restoration ecology.” and that, “many restoration ecologists can no longer “see the forest for the statistics.””.

The issue of relevant knowledge for practitioners is valid, as a typical undergraduate program is going to focus on the fundamental items that a student needs to gain a thorough and holistic understanding of the profession.  Further refinement and advancement (specialization) happens through on-the-job experience and continuing education, as well as more formally through masters and PhD studies, where advanced research methods, both quantitative and qualitative are added to the toolkit.  There is a limit in practical terms, as the education and specialist knowledge takes away from one’s general knowledge base, and is the preferred role of landscape architecture to be the experts or the synthesizers of information?

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The article quotes Emily McCoy from Andropogon, stating that: “landscape architects are finally beginning to take seriously the idea of measuring ecosystem function.” They are also beginning to “take the best scientific information and apply them to landscape design.” This is challenging because landscape architects are not trained in statistics so can’t truly understand landscape function. This means they need to work with restoration ecologists or environmental designers.”

Although i might take issue at the lack of statistics education equating to “can’t truly understand landscape function.” I get the intent, and this reference to statistics is a good one.  Many (most?) types of research rely on some sort of applied research methods, particularly sciences.  Statistics is often used, but very few landscape architects have this level of knowledge.  We may begin to integrate these methods in LA education, but it will still be a far cry from the amount of work (just in general hours of class time and training) required to perform and understand, as advanced level statistics is not for the faint of heart.

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Do we want that knowledge, or do we, as mentioned, look to work more with the appropriate scientists, in order to provide the right mix of art and science required for complex contemporary work.  If we need that level of expertise, where does the trade-off come in other things we are taught?  Probably a question for the CELA members, but I guess in the end, it comes down to the questions we are asking in our design processes those we lack answers for.  As McCoy mentions, they at Andropogon seek additional knowledge from experts for:

“…soils and soil biology (here, they are interested in “how what’s under the ground affects what’s above the ground”); habitat (“how do we define this?”); native plants (“can they succeed on green roofs?”); climate change; urban heat islands; assisted migration; and plant provenance and ecotypes.”

As a graduate of a State school with a very specific and finely honed technical basis, I had a concentration) in Natural Resource management (this was North Dakota State University where i graduated in 1997).  While it wasn’t as refined in terms of how the information related specifically back to design, and in modern terms wasn’t ecological restoration, it was a preliminary ‘ecological’ education that immersed us in systems, soils, plant ecology, biology, and other natural sciences.  And it was hard for non-scientists to jump in, as these classes were taught by science professionals, and they didn’t dumb down the content for us designers because they were teaching future scientists.  It was up to us to keep up, and many failed miserably.  I also had one introductory statistics class in undergraduate education, which was a good overview of how statistical methods work, what methods are out there, and what problems they can be applied to.  Did it make me able to perform complex statistical models?  No way, but it did give me general understanding of what is possible.

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Later, in my doctoral studies in Urban Studies we learned in much greater detail a number of research methods and tools, with quantitative and qualitative requirements, including statistics, part of the basic core knowledge.  It was assumed that we were all going to be researchers and scientists, and thus a fundamental skill to have to conduct and interpret research.  I gravitated, like many designers I imagine, to GIS based spatial statistics as preferred methodology, because they are both easily applicable at various scales (from the site to urban region), and more easily grasped. That said, there are a number of social- or biological-science specific methods that would be applicable to landscape architecture and ecological design that may not be spatially based.

One side of the equation is designers understanding the tools and methods (or applying these) relevant to the sciences.  In this case, the other side of the coin is the innate question of legibility and communication (or dare I say relevance) from scientists working on research and how this applies to research.  Ideas need to be able to inform practice, and be accessible to new audiences beyond the academic cycles.  This means certain types of research that stems from actual design questions, monitoring of projects through post-occupancy evaluation, etc.  One benefit of these higher level collaborations is the blending of creative communication and graphic knowledge with the sciences – which makes ideas and concepts more accessible to designers and clients.  Another is perhaps more access to the research (both intellectually and in terms of $$$) as it is often difficult and costly to be up on the latest trends and issues if you are not in academia.

As Patricia Kemper mentions, surveys of master’s level LA program students shows that “while landscape students are getting exposed to the concepts of ecological restoration, they are not typically being taught nuts and bolts of ecological restoration practice.”  What those nuts and bolts are is fundamental to an educated and relevant set of future professionals?  Err to the side of broad education w/ exposure to a wide array of subjects and we are marginalized for lack of technical specialist knowledge.  Err on the side of ecological specialization and we becomes very skilled at a few things, but suffer from lack of relevance to wider issues.

A dilemma for us all as we grapple with what to learn and to what degree, particularly in professions such as landscape architecture and urbanism that require on many levels a broad foundation of knowledge.  What you were required to know as a professional has changed much since i started school over 20 years ago, and will continue to do so.  The conversations of art versus science has quieted somewhat and there is now shared concept that both are important.  We’re still figuring out the integration (consilience) but that will continue to evolve.  Does the pendulum swing too far back towards science and causes us to lose the fundamental unique perspective we bring to projects? I hope not, as we definitely need additional knowledge to stay relevant, but we also do best as unifiers and synthesizers, big-picture thinkers, problem solvers, and visionaries.

A Bit on Biomimicry

Since reading Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry back in 1997, I’ve been simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by the conceptual positioning and posturing of the proponents of biomimicry. Don’t get me wrong, i think the idea of biomimicry has much potential in design, particularly product invention, industrial design, and architecture. What i have a hard time wrapping my brain around is how to differentiate biomimicry (emulating nature’s processes for application to objects – products, buildings, etc.) with the seemingly similar ecological design (emulating nature’s processes for application to the landscape).  The former is a new and exciting field or inquiry that can expand our thinking about solving problems.  The latter is an older and exciting field that continues to expand our thinking about solving problems.

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I often struggle with the inherent conflict in determining the specifics applications in a landscape setting.  Beyond the idea that ‘everything is nature’, we’re talking about a broader idea of applicability to the practice of landscape architect that includes context.  The goal of landscape architecture is broad, but the tools we use, and the products we create, are often so closely aligned as to blur the boundaries between agency and ecology.  The continuum of built work goes from the very natural (restoration) to the very urban (plazas), and means we construct everything from systems to objects, and often, much of both simulateously.

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It’s hard to separate process from product, and the use of living elements in designs (rather than static materials) complicates this further. It’s hard also to separate scope – as the milieu of landscape is vast and sometimes all-encompassing. This dilemma is perhaps less of an issue in the very urban, but as we expand sites to provide multiple overlapping functions of ecology and utility, it becomes harder to, particularly as we get into restoration.  The on-going discussions about the pastoral mimicry of Olmsted (and Picturesque English Gardens)  that was highly constructed, such as Central Park (below) or the Back Bay Fens (above) and is now mistaken for ‘nature’ as elaborated by Spirn (and covered in an old essay of mine here).

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This isn’t to say that biomimicry is not relevant to the profession and context of the landscape.  To me it’s a given, but the language to explain the connection is still escaping my grasp.   It is more of a stretch to say ‘I used biomimicry to determine the natural flow patterns of this site’ rather than ‘I used biomimicry to make glue inspired by the gooey outer layer of a slug’.  One to me is clearly biomimicry (nature process inspires biological approach to product design).  The difference i think is that the leap from natural precedent to ‘product’ is easier than from natural precedent to natural analog as landscape.  The natural flow patterns of the site are there for the revealing and part of good site context/analysis, and looking to historical origins for inspiration is just good design (or competent design i should say).  Restoration, if that is the goal of a site, uses other models and precedents of successful healthy waterways, functions, vegetation.  It is a form is mimicry in a sense, but isn’t that was all landscape architecture is?  Or is it not mimicking nature when your output IS that same nature?

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I’m also not saying that the proponents of biomimicry don’t willfully admit this nuance, but it’s often the case as someone positioning this ‘new’ and ‘improved’ process as some improved methodology, when in fact it’s not new or improved. I dug up some info that seems relevant for some context in furthering this understanding. Per the Biomimicry 3.8 website.

“Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”

The 3.8 stands for the “more than 3.8 billion years that life has been adapting and evolving to changing conditions on the planet since the very first life forms emerged.” The other informational website from Biomimicry 3.8 is AskNature, which, according to the site, is an “online inspiration source for the biomimicry community. Think of it as your home habitat—whether you’re a biologist who wants to share what you know about an amazing organism, or a designer, architect, engineer, or chemist looking for planet-friendly solutions. AskNature is where biology and design cross-pollinate, so bio-inspired breakthroughs can be born.”

biomimicry_primerThe looking to our long history for ideas and inspiration is great.  The difficulty for me is resolving the idea of looking to nature for process and patterns (which has been happening for milennia and is inherent in site observation, i.e. genius loci) to this ‘new’ science of emulation (which to me is what designers have also been doing for milennia using nature as model). The proponents of biomimicry have done a reasonably good job of communicating the concept and some of it’s limitations. They’ve also done a great job of marketing what are age-old concepts into a ‘new’ discipline or approach (or at least a money-making endeavor).

Benyus has a Primer on Biomimicry with some more concrete discussion and examples, as well as connections to other disciplines and movements.  The language of learning from nature and humility are good reminders to think outside our anthropocentric viewpoint.  As mentioned:

“The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with:  energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, collaboration, and more.”

As we look for inspiration and ‘new mentors’ to guide us, we can bring in other methodologies (such as Cradle to Cradle design or Living Building Challenge), and that all of the interwoven theories are complementary.  The difference in emulation vs. copying is mentioned as well by Benyus:  “Biomimics may study a spider to learn about sensing, fiber manufacturing, adhesion, or tensegrity, but we are not actually trying to recreate the spider.  What we’re trying to emulate are the design principles and living lessons of the spider.”  Again, this brings up context – as in landscape the system and materials are the product of the design – so it’s more difficult to reconcile this, because we are actually trying to recreate the spider in that case.

There are three levels that are mentioned as well, which is instructive.  The first is mimicking of natural form.  The second is to mimic natural process, or how something is made.  The final level is to mimic natural ecosystems, which brings in the larger context and connections with other systems. The end result is essentially a determination of fitness, where the outcome is more self-sustaining and regenerative that other options.

Other distinctions are made between biomimicry and the subjects of bio-utilization (harvesting and using biological products) and bio-assisted technologies (which “involve domesticating an organism to accomplish a function”).  Biomimicy is to consult, not to co-opt, and to contribute to, in the words of Wes Jackson, “a deepening conversation with the organism.”  The concept of precedent is vital as well, and acknowledged by Benyus in the primer.

“…biomimicry was not new to the human species; in fact there was a time when our very survival depended on noticing and mimicking successful organisms… this latest appearance of biomimicry is not an invention, it’s a remembering.”

There’s a history of this work past the indigenous, to include designers like da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frei Otto, Gaudi, Olmsted, and Bucky Fuller.  The lack of a coherent body of scholarship and study meant this was singular geniuses working in isolation, one-off cases rather than movements.  The goal and the desire now is consolidation of thought, framing biomimicry as a force and cultural meme.  It is also relevant and perhaps more appropriately interwoven into landscape architecture and urbanism because it deals with many of the same issues, namely the nature/culture dialogue.

Application

One specific element that i remember loving from the original book, is the concept of perennial agriculture (a la Wes Jackson), and the ability to ‘grow food like a prairie.’ This makes a lot of sense and is exciting as a biomimicry project – and perhaps has analogs in landscape architecture through outputs like permaculture that can be applied to provide productive sites and more self-sustaining plant palettes. vk_polycultureOther examples, such as the Nature’s Strategies for Managing Stormwater in the Willamette Valley: Genius of Place Project Report provide more context for this – but in execution don’t really capture (or at least only scratch the surface of) what the potential is.  I’m going to post separately on this report later, but it’s instructive on the gaps between determining ‘functions’ that exist in nature and translating them into solutions – rather than just employing them.

One case from the workshop was the function of downed wood,  and the function that it provides for water management.  If you study the function, as seen the diagram from the report below, you get a good sense of what’s happening in nature as a baseline.

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There was a perceptual disconnect between the idea of adapting this to a new thing (perhaps a in situ filter using the ideas of long-hollow cells) rather than just justifying why we would place or keep in place downed wood as part of a design.  there’s no need to mimic something when it’s possible to use the actual thing – which is again part of the issue of applicability in landscape settings.  The conversation spun around this (let’s place wood in cities) but was harded to get to new ideas generated from the discussion.  You probably won’t propose laying  dead wood laying around an urban plaza… but perhaps you could add the additional storage and transport potential into a bio-inspired piece of site furniture.

To say that we’re trying to mimick the function of the pre-development condition, in this case temperate rainforest.  If that’s the case, is it biomimicry to look to the function of a forest for evaporation, infiltration, etc. and try to capture this – much as is done in pre-/post- engineering calculations?   Would the concept of say, a green street bioretention facility be ‘biomimicry’ for using a wetland metaphor in an urban context?  Does a green wall mimic a vegetated cliff face to provide shading and cooling?

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I think the direct connection of biomimicry to landscape architecture is the next step – so finding case studies specific to the scale and context appropriate to our work.  The root of bios (life) and mimesis (imitation) is a simple analogy that can be integrated into a number of processes – so i think the issue is that the concept has now become the brand (as things will go).  So maybe it’s just semantics and we’re all, as landscape architects or bio-inspired designers, scientists, inventors and engineers, biomimics?

Moon Gardens

Spaced based gardening?  As a test of the harshest conditions for supporting life, NASA is planning on experiments to grow cress, turnips and basil on the moon.  The challenge – a temperature differential of +150° F on the sunny side and -150° F on the dark side of the moon.  Via NPR, quoting NASA plant scientist Bob Bowman: “This will be the very first life science experiment performed in deep space… Our goal is to show that the living organism can thrive in what really is a hostile environment.”  Experiments have already been conducted on the Space Station, as seen below:

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The ability to germinate (seeds on nutrient rich ‘paper’ media – plus air and water) and continue to grow, may give some indication of survivability on other worlds, while also potentially providing a diversion from freeze dried food for long-term stays.  The pods of contained terrariums will be lifted in the Moon Express lander, and monitored for the above germination, as well as phototropic qualities and a new term for me, circumnutation, which “shows that Earth-normal endogenous growth patterns and growth rates are expressed in lunar conditions”

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Check out a video here, a brief story from NPR here, and the official NASA statement. which explains they are:

…constructing a small technology demonstration unit to study germination of plants in lunar gravity and radiation on the Moon. The self-contained habitat will have a mass of about 1 kg and would be a payload on a commercial lunar lander – the Moon Express lander, part of the Google Lunar X-prize competition. After landing in late 2015, water will be added to the seeds in the module and their growth will be monitored for 5-10 days and compared to Earth based controls. Seeds will include Arabidopsis, basil, and turnips. This will be the first life sciences experiment on another world and an important first step in the utilization of plants for human life support. Follow up experiments will improve the technology in the growth module and allow for more extensive plant experiments.

 

Principles of Ecological Landscape Design

I’ve been busy reading through the new book ‘Principles of Ecological Landscape Design‘, an interesting addition to the growing literature blending science and design in a practical sense.  Author Travis Beck is a landscape architect and currently the Landscape and Gardens Project Manager at the New York Botanical Garden, and he has used his horticultural and design background to illuminate some of the connections, challenges, and opportunities from designing ‘ecologically’.principles_ecological_landscape_design

 

As seen on the web blurb:

“This groundbreaking work explains key ecological concepts and their application to the design and management of sustainable landscapes. It covers biogeography and plant selection, assembling plant communities, competition and coexistence, designing ecosystems, materials cycling and soil ecology, plant-animal interactions, biodiversity and stability, disturbance and succession, landscape ecology, and global change. Beck draws on real world cases where professionals have put ecological principles to use in the built landscape.”

It’s too much to cram into one post, so I’m going to be regularly updating on the information in bits and pieces, starting with this intro.  As mentioned by Carol Franklin in the Preface, the book builds on a small but important foundations of landscape ecology from Richard T.T. Forman in such books as Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions, and Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land Use Planning – both of which are more accessible in terms of ‘designer-friendly’ science.  Rather than take on the entire ecological spectrum, the focus of Beck on the horticultural, particularly the translation of plant ecology into planting design, is important, because the focus makes it a very useful resource for landscape architects and designers.

The Introduction offers some context for the book, with Beck outlining our complicated history with the concept of landscape and the roots in the pastoral and picturesque.  He mentions Olmsted and Vaux and their “Greensward” Plan for Central park, inspired by Capability Brown’s English countryside.  The hidden illusion of ‘nature’ and the massive human effort involved is a common theme in historical references to style that we’ve battled with for over 100 years.

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Now, we’ve evolved to a more nuanced idea of ‘urban’ nature, but still struggle with the idea of what the poster child of this new style being Field Operations’ High Line, the highly designed and maintained landscape atop the abandoned elevated rail corridor.  As Beck mentions, we evocation of ‘spontaneous’ vegetation required significant engineering and requires on-going maintenance to keep viable – not unlike the Central Park from a century and a half earlier.

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As urban landscapes, it is expected that we can’t perform pure ‘ecological’ restoration, but is there a more informed and ecologically appropriate approach?  This is the premise of ‘Principles’, as Beck asks “What if, instead of depicting nature, we allowed nature.” (3)  This is done through ecological landscapes, not the restorative but the actively design, “that are imagined and assembled by people.” (4)

The relevance to our better understanding of design and science can be framed in numerous ways.  One is the ecological view, that less input will be more ‘sustainable’ and a landscape that is more ‘fitted’ to it’s context would be more resilient and regenerative, or as Beck posits to be “flexible and adaptive and continually adjusts its patterns as conditions change and events unfold.” (5).  Second is a economic view, as it would be less expensive to build and maintain these sites, which allows for more green in cities, and better spaces.  Third is a professional view – one that imagines a true and relevant blending of design and science would free us from the art v. science battles and the criticism of create hollow, misinformed or ’boutique’ ecologies. It would also enable us to create landscapes to aid in larger scale assemblies (cities) or to combat global catastrophes (climate instability).

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apocalyptic landscape – image by Giacomo Costa

With the proper tools, designers are freed to have explore formal possibilities with real and testable constraints.  This greater understanding of where we plant, what we plant, and how they interact, gives us a solid foundation to justify new design modalities and forms of expression.  This, coupled with an understanding from clients and maintenance staff of the the long view of how sites will evolve and grow over time, expands the possibility of a new paradigm shift in our use of plants.

As Beck mentions:

“An ecological landscape knits itself into the biosphere so that it both is sustained by natural processes and sustains life within its boundaries and beyond.  It is not a duplicate of wild nature (that we must protect and restore where we can) but a complex system modeled after nature.” (5)

The underlying theme of ‘self-organization’ as an important aspect of this process, allowing for continuation without continual input and human agency.  This regenerative quality of establishing a self-sufficient landscape that meets all of it’s needs is important in ecological restoration to determine success.  It is more difficult to thing of this in terms of managed and urban landscapes which are extreme conditions that lack analogs in nature.

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apocalyptic landscape – image by Giacomo Costa

The range of landscape contexts and types, along with aesthetics, safety, financial, and other considerations will create a continuum of landscapes that will lend themselves to varying degrees of self-sufficiency.  Some will be able to thrive with little to no additional inputs, while others will need higher levels of care.  Our expanding set of tools driven by scientific knowledge, allows us to more directly engage in the ‘fitness’ of our materials to fill the roles we assign them, which is inherently different from our current approaches.  Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, it seems, may allow us to expand the toolbox in even more robust and novel ways.

More on initial chapters upcoming.

(RE)Building Coastal Dunes

The goal to stabilize coastal dunes impacted by development is not a new endeavor, but has been made visible recently with the recent impact of Superstorm Sandy on the Eastern Seaboard.  The dunes are vital to the overall integrity of coastal zones, elimination of vegetation is often the result of development and other disturbances, and is exacerbated by strong storms and surges that are the result of climate instability.  We’ve impacted these naturally resilient ecosystems to the degree where they can no longer self-heal, and thus require our conscious action to return this to functional integrity.

A slideshow in the Cape Cod Online shows a project by a group of professionals and students to use ‘biomimcry’ principles to help restore coast dunes.  As noted in the BEN Blog“Harwich High School Environmental Studies students learning about how natural vegetation stabilizes dunes, and how they can mimic natural vegetation’s structure and patterns by placing cedar shims in the sand.”

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The students are working with a group called Safe Harbor, which takes an interesting approach to dune restoration a “simple system mimics the matrix profile of native vegetation to collect and stabilize sand. Like native vegetation, this system demonstrates performance inversely proportional to it’s profile.” 

There’s a fair amount of research on the Safe Harbor site, including a PDF of of their Biomimcry work (30.9 MB PDF File) and in an interesting twist, they are offering the results in the public domain in the hope it will be used broadly for dune restoration.  A video of the approach is found below:

The original article was published on the BEN Blog (from Biomimicry 3.8) and it begs the question of dune stablilization and whether the establishment of plants is considered biomimicry?  Replanting the original species isn’t really mimicking anything, but is rather restoring the ecosystem to it’s reference state that is considered to be analogous to a natural, self-replicating system that would have been present pre-disturbance.  From late 1800s restoration of the Back Bay Fens by  Olmsted to 1960s dune restoration documented by McHarg in Design with Nature, to much restoration work today, the idea isn’t new.

Biomimicry, it seems, comes in with the intermediate ‘cedar shim’ installation that holds sands in place to allow berms to be shaped and re-established, prior to the planting of vegetation.  The BEN Blog takes up the question at the end.

Is habitat restoration considered to be biomimicry? This can be a tricky question. If we are learning from the local organisms and ecosystem and mimicking natural processes, structures, and patterns, then the answer is yes. We want to learn what functions different organisms play and how they provide those functions. Usually this is done by planting vegetation, preferably native vegetation if it’s available. Sometimes an intermediate step is needed. Use of cedar shims on this beach is a short-term effort to mimic the sand-holding function of the dune vegetation. According to Safe Harbors’ website, “Biomimicry uses the same storm wind energy which eroded the resource area to rebuild it.” If this works and they can stabilize the beach, then the vegetation should get a chance to grow back and resume its role in stabilizing the dunes and creating conditions for other dune inhabitants to thrive.”

For this to be biomimicry, we need to make the leap to insert this intermediate stage into the ecosystem to create berms through use of the shims and active management (configuration, adjustment of depths, demarcation of paths).  The question is, then, why not just skip the stage of cedar shims and use vegetation, which is the planned eventual end condition and the material that is being ‘mimicked’ rather that use an alternative material (such as this dune restoration in Louisiana, below)?

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One answer may be cost, as plantings would cost more and be prone to die-back in interim stages of dune development as sand aggregates.  The other may be time – as the plantings establishment and subsequent colonization may be accelerated through use of analog (cedar shims) along with strategic plantings, with greater survival and more vigorous dune establishment as a result.  As i mentioned, the thrusting of the idea into the public domain, and the monitoring of existing installations for viability will be interesting to see how they do, and compared to more traditional berms established by just planting, or perhaps landform manipulation (imported or graded sand) and plantings.

A continuing conversation on this to happen for sure, and more upcoming on Biomimicry later this week.  3.8 billion years of background is a lot to cover!

Cycles of Nature

An interesting post from Robert Krulwich at NPR that discusses the concept of an innate/ingrained cycle of life and death that governs many living creatures. The post ‘Nature Has A Formula That Tells Us When It’s Time To Die‘ discusses the work of physicist Geoffrey West:

Everything alive will eventually die, we know that, but now we can read the pattern and see death coming. We have recently learned its logic, which “You can put into mathematics,” says physicist Geoffrey West. It shows up with “extraordinary regularity,” not just in plants, but in all animals, from slugs to giraffes. Death, it seems, is intimately related to size.

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The post is pretty intriguing – and the ensuing discussion thread is an entertaining turn into the weeds of the messiness of biological sciences – and the difficultly of shared agreement – but worth perusing. As you dig through, you will inevitably be distracted with these vegetal images of death and rebirth.1waltz

Check the article for more – images are from Shanghai photographer & designer Yunfan Tan that show a hypnotic repetition of the cycle of life and death in slow motion. Try it to music – if you can find something at the same tempo – it’s sort of surreal.

(images via NPR – Krulwich Wonders)

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