Biomimicry Challenge: TOA Uses Fungi to Reimagine Sustainable Neighborhoods

Our biomimicry challenge What Would You Ask Nature? drew dozens of real-world business problems submitted by companies from all over the world. We assigned three challenges to three firms and paired them each with a biologist. For the next three weeks, each team will be reporting their bio-inspired solutions.

Designers Accord

As cities redevelop to provide greener, more efficient living and working environments for their residents, the greatest innovation happens in ecodistricts, small pockets of a city where planners can experiment with more sustainable practices. Portland-based Brightworks, a sustainable development company, has been helping neighborhoods create long-term plans so that they can receive funding under the City of Portland's EcoDistricts Initiative, a new program that hopes to accelerate sustainable neighborhood development throughout the city.

An example of a proposed ecodistrict is this 35-block study area for the Lloyd District, in northeast Portland, where Mithun Architects+Designers+Planners, along with a team of specialists, recommended ideas like water independence (using water immediately available from rain or ground), designing greenways for natural animal habitats, as well as a "catalyst project," a high-rise district in the center of the neighborhood that featured green buildings. But Brightworks became interested in seeing how these practices, if implemented, could start to spread into the neighborhood around an ecodistrict. The challenge that Brightworks submitted to the What Would You Ask Nature? biomimicry challenge was to understand how these layered, systemic sustainability issues--clean water, efficient transit, green building--could be more effectively addressed throughout each district to encourage green, sustainable growth that spread beyond its borders.

This problem was given to Mexico City-based architectural firm Taller de Operaciones Ambientales. Brightworks' Erin Leitch was able to come to Mexico City to introduce the challenge to the team, and in this video you can see her introduce what the designers would come to see as the most important area of focus for their problem-solving: The concept of neighborhood boundaries and how information is easily exchanged through those borders. The designers quickly realized the real challenge was to examine how to create connections between many ecodistricts. How do borders actually function in nature? How do independent beings come together to form a bigger entity?

TOA was the most unique of the three firms we chose to participate in the biomimicry challenge because, unlike most design firms, TOA already has a biologist, Juan Rovalo, working with their firm. Under Rovalo's guidance, the designers worked to distill the challenge, reframing the idea of ecodistricts within nature's parameters. One early discussion proved critical to their solution: The team questioned the idea of funding for ecodistricts being allocated on a square-foot or per-foot denomination--that's not how nature works. Removing this constraint from the process allowed them to come up with more innovative ways for expending energy and denoting funding.

By way of inspiration, the team ventured out to a natural site south of Mexico City to immerse themselves in natural solutions. "Most of the elements that we talked about were actually in front of them," says Rovalo. "We were looking at shrubs, the border of the forest and grasslands, looking at roots, and mushrooms. We were talking about what we were looking at." This outing, removed from the office, says Rodriguez, helped them to explore options in a more thoughtful way. "We tried not to jump to any conclusions," she says. "All solutions had to come from the site."

The solutions that proved most insightful came from mycelium or fungi, as well as their more common relatives, mushrooms. Mycelium present in forest and grasslands create a complex network of relations between organisms while maintaining very specific boundaries, just like an ecodistrict. Rovalo pointed out the "fairy ring" that occurs in nature, those rings or arcs of mushrooms that you sometimes see around trees or in fields of grass, where the richest nutrients are found in the center of the circle. The flow of energy, materials, nutrients, and information beneath are all very complex, and the mycelium forms intimate symbiotic relations with all of them--just like the interconnected systems of water, transit, energy, food that crisscross a neighborhood.

While it seems surprising to look at nature for issues of funding, this exchange of natural resources, energy, materials and nutrients easily translated to "money" and became an economic model for the designers. That's how the team came up with a very specific percentage for how ecodistricts should appropriate their funds. Using the ring-like mushroom communities, as well as other natural examples, the designers were able to recommend that an overwhelming amount of funding--50%--should be focused on the borders of the ecodistricts. This strategy might go counter to that of most urban designers, who would say that a town square or Main Street would be the most vital part of a neighborhood. But the team didn't see that pattern in nature. "If you think about the trees at the edge of the forest, or animal skin, or plants, they have edges that are made to be so colorful and attractive," says Rodríguez. "Even without knowing the exact percentage, you know that their most radical strategies happen in their border."

Besides the focus on borders, the designers saw something even more notable in the distribution of that border--it shouldn't be the abrupt transition that most cities have created between areas. Borders in nature happen in gradients, in a very slow physical transition between inside and outside, says Rodríguez. "They can allow a lot of exchange between levels and create different dynamics."

A second concept was the idea to leave some spaces within an ecodistrict empty, so a neighborhood can decide later what is needed and fill it in. "Nature allows for empty spaces," says Rodríguez. "These are empty spaces that don't necessarily have a function, but they are left there for someone else to take over." Empty spaces occur in obvious places like trees, of course, but Rovalo told a very interesting story about saguaro cactuses in the Sonoran Desert. Woodpeckers create holes in the giant cacti to make a home, but then will abandon it after three years. At that time, however, owls will move in, which rearranges the ecosystem because mice and other smaller animals will have to adjust to the new predator. This seemingly random occupation of empty spaces actually regulates and balances the flow of nutrients and energy throughout the desert.

The team was extremely inspired by this idea, denoting 20% of resources to such spaces, which again goes completely counterintuitively to methods of city planners, who often believe that empty space creates the illusion of economic distress. But this way, Rodríguez says, the plan would include a very social component as residents would have more of a say about building their own communities. "People could appropriate it themselves, and discuss what groups are appropriating it and why, and for how long, sparking discussion," says Rodríguez.

Finally, the designers recommended another element: Satellite nodes of sustainable development that occur outside the ecodistrict. This idea was culled from the way mushrooms and fungi launch spores far outside of their own community to start new communities. This would mean sustainable actions could occur outside the ecodistrict, as small group initiatives, which would also allow groups to self-organize and participate in the same way as inside the district. These nodes, like seeds, would spur new development that would eventually spread to the areas in between. TOA proposed that 10% of funding be allocated to these projects.

TOA envisioned a new kind of ecodistrict that uses three fascinating concepts from mycelium communities: the easy exchange of nutrients across more open borders, the use of empty space within communities that can be used as needed, and the seed and spore propagation that allows smaller communities to sprout up outside the established group. In this illustration, you can see how these ideas could be implemented in a real-world scenario.

Click the image to view a larger version of this illustration

Building sustainable neighborhoods using TOA's methodology would give communities new tools with which to green their environment. More flexible systems around resources, like food, water and energy production, could be clustered around the border to encourage adoption outside the ecodistrict. The colonization of empty spaces would give residents a sense of self-organization and autonomy to regulate the needs of their neighborhood. And the nodes of activity outside the ecodistrict would help launch visible, sustainable development out into the community. These ideas, if implemented, would radically transform the traditional way that developers and designers look at cities.

In the end, the biomimicry challenge also transformed the way the team worked, especially the part that removed them from their physical anchor. "It's a different approach when you're talking about solutions in the office," says Rodríguez. "The environment was really leading our discussion. You can refer to different things and point to them--that doesn't happen in the office. It's a creative way of exploring and it was really an exploration." Rovalo saw another transformation occur when the architects stopped looking in design books for inspiration and started looking outside. "For me it was really interesting to see how designers and architects have references of other architects or other designers. Even though they propose and create new things, they're always looking at previous references," he says. "Now having a reference of a mushroom--it's like jumping to another world."

Special thanks to the Biomimicry Institute and the Biomimicry Guild for partnering with the Designers Accord on this challenge.

See more solutions from the What Would You Ask Nature? Biomimicry Challenge

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1 Comments

  • lateafternoon

    Cool social and resource conscious concepts here.
    But the quote, "the solutions that proved most insightful came from mycelium or fungi, as well as their more common relatives, mushrooms" is not quite on the ball. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of the fungi and mycelium is the body of the fungi, more or less. They are not two or even three different things.
    And the comment about more nutrients in the middle of the fairy ring of mushrooms is backwards, there are more nutrients in the out ring, not the middle.
    I know the folks from BrightWorks know this, it would seem the journalist just wasn't paying much attention in science class!
    Peace out.