, Biomimicry in Environmental Design, Ryan Carriere

Biomimicry is an approach to design that imitates natural patterns, strategies and efficiencies to inspire and solve human challenges. The idea is based on the assumption that the process of natural selection has been improving and evolving organisms, systems and processes for billions of years, and all we need to do is learn from the successes found in nature.

According to the Smithsonian Science Education Center, Biomimicry is not a new idea. Ancient Greek mythology tells a tale of an inventor named Daedalus and his son Icarus who were trapped on the Island of Crete. To get off the island, the inventor created makeshift wings from feathers, wax and twine. This was one of the earliest tales of people finding inspiration and innovation from nature and trying to apply it. Of course, as the legend goes, he flies to close to the Sun and falls to his death, but the important thing is that he looked, and found inspiration from nature!

Later on, other inventors and scientists also looked to nature for inspiration. The ‘flying machine’ that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) conceptualized was based on observations and sketches of bird anatomy and flight. He looked at how birds fly, how their wings work and their bone structure.

Today researches and developers are constantly looking to nature for inspiration. Sharkskin-inspired swimsuits gained a lot of attention at the 2008 Summer Olympics and now some office buildings are using termite den inspired cooling chimneys and tunnels to heat and cool the buildings. Compared to traditional buildings, some of these termite inspired designs are using up to ninety percent less energy.

So what does Biomimicry have to do with park design? First, we have to look at what park design is and what purpose they serve in the community. The main purpose of a city park is to provide a refuge for people who live in that city. A park can serve many functions and has many layers built on its base, they provide a place to recreate, a place to meet friends and socialize, they provide environmental and economic benefits. They provide learning opportunities and also contribute to public health and community engagement.

One of the best examples of Biomimicry in parks is storm pond design. Historically, the main concern regarding storm ponds was from an engineering perspective that was based on quantitative data like estimation of peak flows, runoff volumes and storage capacities. The storm pond designs resembled a large, deep square bathtub that were fenced off with no community access and provided little to no water quality, habitat or community benefits. Issues like water quality and nutrient control, shoreline treatments, riparian areas and habitat creation were not considered.

The problem is that storm ponds are a major part of community design and having large fenced off areas within a community plus 10% dedicated MR alongside that space creates the perfect conditions for urban sprawl. Another problem is water quality, some of these ponds in the late summer months would have algae blooms and other water quality issues, leading to odors, turbidity and potential health and safety issues.

Pond ecology is the interaction of the life in the pond and the environment that exists there. All ponds age, and over time the pond accumulates nutrients, this process is called eutrophication. Nutrients are needed but if too many accumulate this leads to low levels of oxygen which is not good for life in the pond. Some natural mechanisms to take care of this are a buffer zone or riparian area, an aquatic bench which is an area for aquatic vegetation to grow, the benthic profile, or how deep the pond is at the middle verses how deep it is at the shoreline and water circulation.

A shallow, nutrient rich pond, exposed to sunlight with little water flowing through it will teem with algae.

Using some performance objectives as a base standard like water clarity, odor and nutrient control I could adjust the designs of our storm pond standard to mimic natural water bodies. Some design considerations were; pond configuration including shape, orientation and size, including a natural riparian vegetation zone surrounding the pond, aquatic bench depth, width and structure, pond aeration and turnover and some other shoreline treatments.

A buffer zone or riparian area is the surrounding area between land and the water body and has several functions. The main function is that is traps nutrients from runoff that never make it to the pond. This area also acts as an excess water storage area during flood conditions and provides habitat to birds, insects and other animals. Riparian areas are one of the fifteen terrestrial biomes of earth.

The aquatic bench is the area that extends from the shoreline into the water body two to four meters and is sloped to a maximum depth of two feet from the surface of the water. This area will provide the habitat needed for aquatic plants like cattails and reeds to grow. Aquatic plants not only filter the nutrients out of the water they can also provide nesting habitat for blackbirds and some duck species and helping to prevent shoreline erosion.

Pond circulation and aeration are one of the most important aspects to controlling clarity, odor and nutrients within a pond. Most storm ponds have an inlet and an outlet where the storm flows in and out of the ponds moving water and oxygenating. In a city environment, some ponds do need some extra help so we use mechanical aerators to help circulate and aerate the water.

Erin Rovalo, a senior principal of design at the consulting firm Biomimicry 3.8 says that, “The natural world and ecological system are maybe the best picture for what a sustainable world looks and performs like and if our built environment can function like these ecosystems, maybe that is the pinnacle of what sustainable design can be.”

The future of Biomimicry is as bright as long as we are willing to keep looking to nature for inspiration!

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