Nature and the Hopeful City by Biomimicry Institute

By Kathy Zarsky, founder, BiomimicryTX network

Our wonder and appreciation of nature has been exceedingly dulled, if not replaced, however, with pressing societal objectives, the celebration of urban architectonic forms, our consumptive addictions, and a gradual but fundamental disconnect of humans as a part of nature. Our loss of awe and wonder stems in large part from a dismantling of the natural world in the places we inhabit. The very qualities of place that led to our first settlements have been substituted with designs for human comfort and operational efficiency. We are a unique species in that we have become the top generalist, able to make use of virtually all the components found in Earth’s ecosystems. As a result, we are less dependent on biodiversity, using our knowledge to substitute the services of one species for those of another while using technology to attempt greater control over our environments.

Whether we can all agree that we have become estranged from nature or not, we can all sense and even measure the detrimental results of many of our design decisions on our health and well-being, the quality of our air and water, resource depletion, and disaster preparedness among other things.

At a time when what we need most is hope, cities must rethink designs and decision-making to create conditions conducive to all of life by looking to nature as model, mentor and measure (Janine Benyus). Nature’s role and our connection to it are explored in five broad areas. What does it mean for Austin and cities across the globe to be resilient, regenerative, livable, just and inspiring? These brief seeds of ideas are intended to generate discourse, give hope to the individual and to organizations, and to draw constructive feedback.

Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact known as civilization…the shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage to the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important.
~Professor Aldo Leopold, 1948


Nature deals with change through robust interactions that can be leveraged to maintain and rebound critical functions that are unique to place. The degree of complexity and diversity within ecosystems varies based upon the regulating pressures found there. For any given place, there are a multitude of ecological services at work, including cleansing air and water, providing edible and otherwise useful biomass, self-replicating behaviors, producing raw materials, regulating pests and diseases, and so forth. While these free services can vary year to year, compelling people throughout history to try to control them, the inherent redundancy and ability to reorganize in nature is worth emulating. The ecological system does not have to return to its original state in order to be resilient. The most important factor of note is the system’s ability to perform its core function with comparable form and behavior patterns intact. People have often thought of change as impending loss, but what nature has taught us is that change and disturbance can be the mechanisms for new possibilities.

The level of risk that organizations and communities face is growing in the face of climate change, population growth, biodiversity loss and resource scarcity. Our ability to accurately identify looming threats is limited, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t reduce risk and uncertainty while still maintaining critical functioning.

So what are nature’s resilient mechanisms and how can we apply them in Austin? At the core of ecological resiliency is its ability to have multiple stable states. If designers and decision makers can create the conditions conducive to multiple successful states rather than reductionist planning that identifies the “best” plan, chances are the right strategies will emerge. Some of the mechanisms important to transformative capacity include:

  • Feedback loops: using past experience to inform future decisions, saving material, time, and energy
  • Decoupling: reducing system failure caused by component level failure
  • Modularity and simplicity: using like parts, progressively building from simplicity to complexity
  • Variation, redundancy, and decentralization: incorporating a variety of duplicate forms, processes or systems that are not located exclusively together
  • Diversity: using multiple forms, processes or systems to meet a functional need
  • Reshuffle information & embrace the unexpected: exchange and alter information to create new options; incorporate mistakes that can lead to new forms/functions

There is a movement growing to start to develop more resilient cities, powered largely by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge. This collaboration will be developing a framework and outreach based on nature’s resilience strategies. The 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.


Regenerative cities maintain mutually beneficial relationships with their immediate and surrounding environments. This means that they go beyond trying to minimize environmental impact, and instead, strive to improve and regenerate the productive capacity of the ecosystems from which they depend.

Imagine early settlements with concentric rings depicting inputs and outputs required to sustain their inhabitants. The rings, for the most part, overlap at the boundary of the settlement, as these places are totally dependent upon local resources and the necessity of managing outputs locally. As time, growth, and innovation march forward, however, inputs begin to be sourced from farther away and outputs, whether intended or not, begin to disperse across greater distances as well. The radii of concentric rings now travel up and out to such great distances that they intersect with rings in other countries, far surpassing local sourcing and sinking capacities. The carrying capacity of local environments is no longer a limiting factor to growth, and the unseen and unsensed disbursements have led to blind spots in how we plan and design cities with rather ubiquitous qualities and patterns today.