According to figures published by the United Nations, over 50% of the world’s population now live in urban areas and this percentage is se to rise to 70% by 2050. In France, close to 80% of the population already live in cities (defined by the UN as agglomerations with 100,000+ inhabitants), which draw in energy, food and consumer goods from hundreds of kilometres around. These octopus-like cities are frequently built without due regard for their environment, i.e. many are highly destructive of biodiversity and have a heavy environmental footprint. In addition, they are increasingly vulnerable to variations in climate. With ever-growing urbanisation on the one hand and the effects of climate change on the other, many people argue that we now need to rethink the way our cities are designed and built. “It’s time to change the paradigm and draw inspiration from nature so as to reconnect our cities to the environment,” says Olivier Floch, the joint organiser, together with the Centre Européen d'Excellence en Biomimétisme de Senlis (The Senlis European Centre of Excellence in Biomimicry) Ceebios, of the Biomim'Expo scheduled to take place on 29 and 30 June at Senlis, north of Paris. “We need to bring back vegetation to our cities, because the closer people are to nature, the healthier they are!" insists Floch. Experts in what is known as biomimicry believe that we need to copy, or at least draw inspiration from nature in order to design cities that are more pleasant for residents to live in and have a lower impact on the environment.
Biomimicry now back in the news
Biomimicry is an approach that has been around for a long time. With his Flying Machine inspired by bird flight, Leonardo da Vinci is
Lavasa village in India, designed by HOK
Following the floods which
Guillaume Porcheron, an expert in sustainable management in urban business districts who is project manager for the Versailles Grand Parc area west of Paris, is convinced that this nature-inspired approach can be applied everywhere in the world: “You need to study the local biotope thoroughly. At the moment, more and more cities are being designed in a way that is out of sync with their natural environment. A traditional village in an oasis is built to adapt to its environment, unlike a city like Dubai which is nothing other than a Manhattan dropped into the desert. Today the Dubai approach is being reproduced everywhere in the world, with the result that we’re creating energy-hungry cities which age badly when confronted with the elements. I believe that the ideal city must be convenient for everything there: human residents, plants and animals,” he argues.
'I believe that the ideal city must be convenient for everything there: human residents, plants and animals' Guillaume Porcheron
Not only is it perfectly feasible to apply the principles of biomimicry to eco-districts and new cities, following these principles can also help to improve existing urban areas. Those responsible for (re)designing cities are now starting to deal with the hot spots that form in areas devoid of vegetation, planting trees which help lower the temperature during heat waves and so enhance the well-being of the local inhabitants. It is also possible to reintroduce some biodiversity into urban areas, for example by trying to develop biological corridors in cities. Linking these corridors encourages biodiversity at the city level. In the same way, in contrast to the cement cities where reinforced concrete was the order of the day, environmentalists are now pushing for earth corridors that can absorb rainwater. This approach is supported by Marc Barra, an ecologist at the Greater Paris region’s agency for nature and biodiversity, Natureparif. “Cities increase the impact on nature from urbanisation, soil impermeability, pollution, fragmentation. Apart from just concluding that nature is not in particularly good health right now, all this has a direct impact on our health, well-being, overall quality of life, and there is an economic side as well. Incorporating nature into urban design could prove much less costly than the traditional approach. Concrete costs more than vegetation.," Marc Barra points out. Natureparif is carrying out a study in a number of areas where biomimicry can be applied and Barra believes it can be demonstrated than in addition to the purely environmental aspects or concern for the well-being of a city’s residents, there is a real economic reason for introducing alternative approaches.
Architects and builders stepping up to the plate
Meanwhile the building sector and the architecture profession are becoming increasingly interested in designs that incorporate biomimicry principles. The famous ‘Bosco verticale’ (Vertical Forest) in Milan designed by Studio Boeri inspired the M6B2 Biodiversity Tower in Paris’ 13th district. However, stresses Marc Barra, “when you look closely at these projects, you realise that the plants and trees that populate the Bosco verticale have to be watered drop by drop. Taking the life-cycle of the building as a whole, it still has a heavy environmental footprint. These projects are useful for demonstration purposes but other approaches are actually more effective. I have a lot more faith in the ‘Verde 25’ project in Turin, designed by Italian architect Luciano Pia. His approach requires far less watering and maintenance. His vision is more human in terms of the life of the area.”
In fact an increasing number of architects are starting to incorporate biomimicry principles into their work, among them Nicolas Vernoux-Thélot, a qualified architect working at Paris-based firm In Situ Architecture. He underlines: “As an architect, this initiative speaks to me directly, as it encourages innovation with an environmental and ecological dimension. My awakening to biomimicry goes back to a meeting with Teva Vernoux, a researcher in plant biology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Fully ten years ago we observed that a home and a plant had several things in common: they are both immobile, they both need natural light, they need water and are subject to external climate factors – wind, heat, cold, etc. The parallel between plants and buildings has provided particularly fertile, promising ground for architecture.” In Situ Architecture and the Plant Reproduction and Development Lab at CNRS are now partners in R&D. "We have implemented a nature-inspired digital model that enables us to project in the densest way possible one or several buildings and their various constituent parts on to a website so as to optimise its layout and capitalise on opportunities for passive energy. Immediate gains have been made in terms of building energy efficiency and the health of the occupants,” he reveals. Vernoux-Thélot also argues that putting bio-inspired principles into practice should not stop with major works commissioned by public authorities or large company campuses: "Even with a standard design and known construction costs, you can still arrange a building and its different parts in such a way that the occupants can obtain more sunlight and see their spending on energy diminish significantly through passive solar building design. Plants are brilliant at doing this so why can’t a building do it too?”
'Plants are brilliant at doing this so why can’t a building do it too?' - Nicolas Vernoux-Thélot
Not only pioneering architects, but also construction giants such as French civil engineering construction company Eiffage, a Ceebios member, are now getting interested in biomimicry. Iswann Ali Benali, who works in the Sustainable Development and Transversal Innovation department at Eiffage, tells us: “At Eiffage we regard biomimicry as a driver for innovation in our search for the sustainable city. In 2007, we created a laboratory for the future, called Phosphore, with the aim of designing the city of tomorrow. This R&D project has brought together a hundred or so Group staff. The lab has meanwhile generated a series of conceptual and technical innovations which we’re trying to implement today in our ongoing ventures, for example for eco-districts and new local authority installations. One example is the ‘Euroméditerranée 2’ eco-district that Eiffage is building in Marseilles, which demonstrates the designs created at Phosphore."
Another area in which Eiffage is interested is urban agriculture. "This is a rather more mature field and one that we can encourage in our eco-district ventures," explains Iswann Ali Benali, adding: "We worked together with the Inspire Institute here in France on its design for the La Marcotte urban farm, an educational project whose aim is to explain how to incorporate urban agriculture, with its short-term closed-circuit processes, so as to get the best out of in-situ production." Last but not least, Eiffage is also interested in new manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing, which can enable the production of forms inspired by nature, a difficult feat using current manufacturing methods. In addition, new bio-sourced materials such as straw and wood could be more widely used in building construction so as to reduce the environmental footprint of new buildings. Among the research projects that have attracted the attention of Eiffage are initiatives by Paris-based architecture practice XTU. Architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières have developed the idea of covering buildings with facades containing micro-algae. Iswann Ali Benali hopes that "their concept of algae-covered facades could shortly be incorporated into one of our projects in the Greater Paris region. Bioreactors installed on the building’s facades are able to generate biomass which can be harvested to generate power, while at the same time providing thermal insulation, but we still need to assess some maintenance issues. This project makes use of the latest innovations and we’re making gradual progress. We’ll create a demonstration model to test the solution out before thinking about going into production at scale.”
FermentAlg’s columns generate CO2
FermentAlg is another French startup that is working with micro-algae, but here the aim is to clean up city centres. The company is working with French water treatment and waste management firm Suez on new-style ‘Morris columns’ – the original columns of this name being advertising spaces erected on city pavements. FermentAlg’s ‘Morris columns’, which look like glass lamps, can be placed in the most polluted spots in cities to trap the CO2 and generate oxygen. "This approach is doubly useful as the micro-algae used on the one hand trap pollution and on the other generate biomass which, if handled correctly, will produce methane to power homes with gas or provide district heating,” explains Olivier Floch, adding:: "We’re at last beginning to see waste as a resource, for urban agriculture for instance. So we’re now entering a virtuous circle, starting out towards, if not totally self-powering cities, then at least limiting their tendency to eat up the planet’s resources."
Meanwhile startups such as bio-lighting company Glowee and Marseilles-based Tangram Architectes are exploring another direction, not actually producing energy but lighting up the cities of the future in a different way. Inspired by bio-luminescence in plancton, their systems could well one day illuminate our streets with soft lighting which is less obtrusive than the lighting currently in use, whose harmful effects on biodiversity are well known.
The technological challenge of the energy-self-sufficient city
Ecologists dream of one day creating self-sufficient cities, and energy is a key aspect of reducing a city’s environmental footprint. “An ecosystem is a self-sufficient system, which only requires solar energy and water,” Olivier Floch reminds us. The energy issue is still of major concern, because making cities self-sufficient when they currently suck up fully 40% of all the energy consumed on the planet is a complex challenge to overcome. Researchers and architects have studied a number of ways to do this and many advocate covering buildings with solar panels and wind turbines. Some tests along these lines have been carried out in the Emirates, incorporating large wind turbines into towers, but at the moment this approach seems unrealistic. Given the disadvantages of wind turbines that are known today, researchers are looking at mimicking whale skin in order to eliminate the noise caused by the blades, while Tunis-based Tyer Wind is trying to copy the hummingbird’s wings. An even more original idea is that of New York design lab Atelier DNA, which has designed the Windstalk, an artificial reed capable of generating electricity by swaying in the wind. These quieter wind turbines could perhaps be used one day in cities, but the initial investment is very high and the commercial failure of biomimetic wind turbine company Newwind, whose urban turbine design was inspired by trees, demonstrates how difficult it can be to find a viable business model.
Last but not least, nature’s intelligence could even be used in the algorithms running the millions of drones and autonomous cars that will be travelling on the roads of these cities of the future. Here researchers developing algorithms for regulating urban traffic are drawing inspiration from the behaviour of shoals of fish and the flight of starlings. When you know that a flock of starlings – officially known to ornithologists as a ‘murmuration’ – may often number many million birds able to fly around at high speed without bumping into one another, you are left in little doubt that nature still has a lot to teach us human beings.