Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk

(Or: Can Cities Be Compared Usefully to Living Ecologic Structures)

Adam Pierce, UAkron Integrated Bioscience, Biomimicry Fellow

This July, the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico will be holding classes in a Summer School on Urban Sustainability. This intensive 2-week course pulls experts from around the globe: graduate students, scientists, policy makers, and business professionals. Their collaborative focus will be on cities, urbanization, and the urban connection to problems of global sustainability. The purpose of creating this collective is to try to address sustainable development in urban societies. Two of the many questions that I wonder about, and hope will be touched upon, are: “Can you compare cities to living ecologic structures?” and “Is there value to making such a comparison?”

Given this video, pulled from their site, I am not the only person who has been asking that question:

I find this video hopeful. If there were two questions I could toss to the gathering experts they would be:

  • Can societies function like healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems?

  • Are there benefits to developing an operational procedure that applies living ecosystem functioning to urban socioeconomics, physical infrastructure, and social programs?

I feel these are important questions because we are ecological structures. Our bodies are miracles of compact, balanced, harmonic-versus-antagonistic, miniature ecosystems, generally directed toward healthful living and continuation via information centers that function across disparate systems (nerves talk to the brain which regulate hormones, liver, and kidneys filter waste), and we grow, consume, produce waste, and die. As ourselves ecological systems, it would benefit us to apply an understanding of system interrelations to anything we create or operate. Systems which support living beings almost invariably consume, produce products and waste, and wear out.

Social services and physical structures that aid, prolong or limit the functioning, positively or negatively, of the systems to which they are applied can be considered filters (e.g., education as a filter within the larger human development systems, welfare within the larger system of human economic wellbeing, waste-water treatment within the system of water usage and bridges within the systems of transportation)1. For good or ill, filters fulfill their functions until they wear out. As filters wear, they function less to aid their given systems. As filters function less they become less successful at their jobs, sometimes to the point where they actually hinder adjacent systems and the systems they were meant to help.

Vasco de Gama bridge B&W

Vasco de Gama bridge, Lisbon, Portugal, B&W

The current ecology that we live and study is an altered one; it has been changed fundamentally. Incautious use of the original ecological model is no longer appropriate as a sustainable design template or a basis for thinking for the current systems we now have to deal with. The limits and maximums of the urban environment need broader reconsideration. An understanding of filters and their degradation needs to be incorporated into the prevailing view of urban ecologic planning so that design for growth and production in dynamic living systems can promote system health while accounting for inevitable deterioration, such that filter degradation itself promotes system health. (Like the joint replacement material that an MIT graduate student, Nisarg Shah2, helped to create after being faced at a young age with his grandmother’s chronic pain and loss of mobility. The material, which uses the body’s one growth factors to cement the intervention to the bone after the nanoscale films degrade, helps to improve joint replacement with wear, and is particularly useful for elderly or limited income patients.)

3d rendered illustration of a hip replacement

3d rendered illustration of a hip replacement

We can call this understanding of filter degradation a ‘living view’ for the purposes of this exploration. I believe a living view would offer a predictive ability to show urban biotic/socio-economic health when faced with both positive and negative filters (physical infrastructure and social service systems). A living view would allow for continued growth as filters fade and lose their ability to function.

The video also mentions that, like bodies, with their cardio-vascular and respiratory networks, cities have various systems, among them the social networks of interaction between people and groups of people. I would have to agree. Further, I am exploring the view that responsible, ecologically-inspired urban planning necessitates that processes of communication be built between the various parts of the urban community. This should be achievable by information brokers: people with the personal, direct, social experience of the community and with a holistic view of modern social/ecology design. Scale-crossing brokers (similar to, but different from, the brokers in Ernstson et al.’s Stockholm Case3) are the people or actor groups that close the gaps of information in the various ecological, urban, and social agencies. They do this through networking, social interaction, and education so that information, both large scale and small, is exchanged and there is less duplication of effort.

Systems Networks Transportation Cardiovascular Circulatory

If there is a valuable operational procedure to be gained from the comparison of urban centers as built environments that support human life, to ecologic structures (like human bodies) which support life, then I believe that value may lie in recognizing:

  • That an understanding of the behavior of networks (like the body’s anatomy) may help to predict urban functioning just as it helps to predict the body’s functioning;
  • That filters, as human interventions, like a hip replacement in a body, wear down or are damaged, in uncertain socio-economic conditions, and require end-of-life planning which accounts for uncertain socio-economic conditions, to promote further life.
  • And, that ecologic systems communicate internally through various mechanisms and urban centers might benefit from similar feedback behaviors.

I have hopes that these areas may be fruitful for my ongoing studies. The Santa Fe Institute’s Urban Sustainability Summer School promises to be informative and offer a great potential of possibilities. I look forward to following the event as it unfolds.



  1. In my use of the term, adapted from the presentation of urban ecological filters in Williams et al.’s 2009 Conceptual Flora Framework Williams, N. S. G., Schwartz, M. W., Vesk, P. A., McCarthy, M. A., Hahs, A. K., Clemants, S. E., et al. (2009). A conceptual framework for predicting the effects of urban environments on floras. Journal of Ecology, 97(1), 4-9. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2745.2008.01460.x
  2. http://news.mit.edu/2012/hip-implants-nanoscale-coating-0419
  3. Ernstson, H., Barthel, S., Andersson, E., & Borgstrom, S. T. (2010). Scale-crossing brokers and network governance of urban ecosystem services: The case of stockholm. Ecology and Society, 15(4), 28.
  4. Images courtesy of Great Lakes Biomimicry

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