Category: Ecology

Part 3: Biomimicry for coastal protection

About 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of a coast and that number continues to increase. We all know too well the challenges and hazards associated with this trend.

As described in Part 1 however, we exacerbate the coastline’s natural resilience to storm surges, high wind and waves as we continue the ‘domino effect’ of erosion and shoreline armoring. We build harbors, marinas and other public access points to the water as well as protective structures to calm the waters near those access points, but that causes adjacent downdrift shoreline erosion. That affected shoreline, in turn, then requires armoring to mitigate the wave energy directly breaking on its shoreline.

How do we break this cycle? What is the balance between human activities in and along Lake Erie and natural processes? Do human activities directly oppose natural processes or can we find a synergistic and regenerative relationship?

Much of this topic was covered in Biohabitats’ Summer Solstice 2017 issue of Leaf Litter. The theme was Restoring Ecology Along the Urban Waterfront. I encourage you to check out the issue here. I even contributed an article entitled “Ecological Restoration Toolkit for the Urban Waterfront.” Many of the current solutions that Chris Streb mentioned in his presentation at the Biomimicry Open Innovation Session were covered in that article.

I’ll touch on a few solutions today, but I encourage you to check out the included links for more information.


Visualization of a natural, industrialized and reimagined shoreline by Biohabitats – featured in their Summer Solstice issue of Leaf Litter


I love the above visualization from Biohabitats. This image shows the potential of balance between the natural and industrialized coastline. Try to find all the additional green space in the reimagined photo!

The reimagined photo shows a couple of elements. One element is the floating wetland in the waterfront channel. Floating wetlands (FWs), an ecologically engineered technology, represent an effort to mimic the wetlands and marshes that existed long ago along our freshwater and marine shorelines. FWs hold the promise of returning ecological services like pollutant uptake and transformation, water quality improvement, wave attenuation, habitat, and aesthetic beautification. Biohabitats has deployed or studied floating wetlands in locations such as Jamaica Bay, NY, Potomac Yards in Washington, DC, and Orleans, MA.

Floating wetlands

Floating wetland – provided by Chris Streb, ecological engineer at Biohabitats

Floating wetlands work best in calmer waters however, generally near bays, marinas and harbors.

Higher energy environments are tougher, but wave energies are significantly reduced by underwater structures. These structures can be natural like sandbars or created elements such as living breakwaters constructed from oyster shells and spat, ECOncrete armoring units or Biohut breakwater units by Ecocean.


Spat set on oyster ball ready to be deployed at Gerritsen Creek- originally featured in Biohabitats’ Summer Solstice issue of Leaf Litter

Another element shown in the reimagined photo above is a submerged structure attached to the seawall. This structure is related to a project I mentioned yesterday in Part 2: the “greening” of the bulkheads along the Cuyahoga River shipping channel. Biohabitats completed a project with the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission (CCPC) designing, installing and evaluating hexagonal steel casing structures attached to existing bulkheads (or seawalls) filled with various habitat-supporting materials such as bioballs, sticks and brushes. Six-month testing showed that all designs accumulated a biomass layer and small organism attachment and proved durable within the channel.


Securing bioball baskets – originally featured in Biohabitats’ Summer Solstice issue of Leaf Litter

Green bulkheads

Successful installation of hexagonal structures along the bulkheads – provided by Chris Streb, Biohabitats

Many of these solutions use natural materials and attach to existing protection structures or exist as separate elements. If we look back at the potential areas of focus explored during the Biomimicry Open Innovation Session, one focus was materials. What if instead of natural material (woody debris and vegetation) versus built material (rock, cement and steel), we considered a third category of material? Alternative, biologically compatible materials that offer both functional and ecological benefits? What would that look like?

What if we used the principles of wave dissipation from a kelp forest or freshwater marsh or the principles of connectivity, hierarchy and material composites in a coral reef to design our coastal protection structures?

These questions and more will be the focus of my PhD research, and I will continue to share updates with you in future blog posts! Have more ideas? Comment below and I hope you enjoyed this three part introductory series!

Additional References:

The featured image is a wetland restoration at Freshkills Park in New York City. More information about the restoration project can be found here:


Part 2: Biomimicry for coastal protection

Yesterday, I ended the blog post with a question: How does the disconnection of the land-water interface by hard coastal protection structures and other shoreline disruptions affect ecological processes and biological life cycles?

I will just touch on some information regarding how altered shorelines of both rivers and lakes affect fish populations as an indicator of water quality and health for aquatic ecosystems. This topic was the focus of our second introductory presentation at the Biomimicry Open Innovation Session described in Part 1. I recognize that fish are just one aspect of a healthy aquatic habitat. There is also aquatic vegetation, benthic macroinvertebrates, phytoplankton & zooplankton communities and algae populations to consider. All these populations are linked and comprise the complex food web of Lake Erie, although the food web is much less complex with the presence of invasive species disrupting various points in the food web.

Before summarizing our second presentation given by Scott Winkler with the Division of Surface Waters of the Ohio EPA in Northeast Ohio, I’d like to show an image depicting the life cycle of freshwater fish species.

Freshwater fish life cycle

Life cycle for freshwater lake species in Europe

This image comes from a final project report on “greening” bulkheads in the shipping channel of the Cuyahoga River that my sponsor, Biohabitats, led a few years back. At the time though many local area fish biologists were consulted for the project, there was not a life cycle diagram for freshwater fish in the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie.

It is known that larval and juvenile fish experience high attrition rates within the channel during spawning and development, especially the last five miles of the Cuyahoga River from the ArcelorMittal steel mill to the mouth of the river. Jane Goodman, Executive Director of the Cuyahoga River Restoration, referred to this part of the river as a “23-foot deep, steel-walled bathtub” in a September 2015 article posted on

The availability and diversity of food for fish within the channel is very limited as well as natural microhabitats that provide shelter and cover like the interstices of rocks, dendritic roots and overhang nooks. Because of the depth and width of the shipping channel created for the shipping industry, the dissolved oxygen levels are a low because of the slow flow of the water to the open lake. In the September 2015 article, it was noted that it took young fish 14 days to swim from the top of the channel to the mouth of the river because of the stagnant water.

I mention the conditions of the last few miles of the Cuyahoga River before the open lake because it is important to consider habitat requirements of all aspects of an aquatic species’ life cycle in restoration practices.

Scott’s presentation during our Open Innovation Session just focused on the makeup of the nearshore fish population along different points of the Ohio Lake Erie shoreline. What did he find?

What are our nearshore fish populations?

Scott described the fish sampling locations along the nearshore all along Ohio Lake Erie’s coastline and the type of fish sampled. He showed the below chart, which shows five distinct fish assemblages that emerge when fish sampling data from 1982-2015 is compared for similarities of species by weight.

Five groupings of fish

Five groups emerged when fish samples from 1982-2015 were compared to each other for species similarity by weight – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

Group 1 is a diverse assemblage with many fish that require different habitats, which includes rock bass, brown bullhead, bluegill, round goby, largemouth bass, common carp, white perch, rainbow trout, walleye, golden redhorse, gizzard shad and emerald shiner. Group 2 is also diverse, but contains species that are more tolerant of water quality and site conditions, such as turbid or muddy waters. These tolerant fish include smallmouth buffalo, yellow bullhead, orangespotted sunfish, bigmouth buffalo and white crappie. Group 3 consists of species ubiquitous to Lake Erie and are likely to be found in any sample anywhere. Those fish are emerald shiner, white perch and gizzard shad. Group 3 also consists of species that are generalists and are tolerant of pollution and environmental factors such as, common carp, largemouth bass, freshwater drum, and bluegill.

Freshwater drum

Freshwater drum (a less desirable species) – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

This fish group is only slightly better than Group 4. Group 4 is just those species found anywhere in Lake Erie. These species do little to explain the conditions of the sampling location. Group 5 is a combination of Groups 3 and 4, but with additional complexity by the presence of benthic insectivores (i.e. bottom-feeding insect-eaters) such as, golden, black, and shorthead redhorse. The following images show which groups of fish are present along the fish sampling locations along the coastline.

Western shoreline ecological groupings

Western Ohio Lake Erie shoreline – ecological groupings of fish species – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

Ignore the numbers on the map and only focus on the color coding for each fish group 1-5. On the western half of the shoreline, Group 1 is found primarily around the Lake Erie Islands off Sandusky and the Black River Harbor of Lorain. These areas often have clear water and submerged aquatic vegetation. Group 2 is found only in Sandusky Bay, Maumee Bay, and the Portage River: areas that are often turbid.  The samples on the open lake shore are only Groups 3, 4, and 5.  Higher energy shorelines have higher energy fish populations- i.e. Groups 3, 4, 5. On the eastern half of the shoreline, Group 1 is confined to the harbors. Group 2 is found in the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland Harbor and found once in the Grand River at Fairport Harbor. Groups 1 and 2 are found in calmer waters even without the presence of vegetation.

Eastern shore ecological groupings

Eastern Ohio Lake Erie shoreline  – ecological groupings of fish species – provided by Scott Winkler, Ohio EPA

Keep in mind that these fish assemblages include invasive species and that the groupings do not take weight into account as they are plotted on the map. Common Carp makes up one third of the weight of all the samples.  The top five species (common carp, freshwater drum, largemouth bass, quillback and small mouth buffalo) make up two thirds of the total weight of all fish in the dataset, indicating that these groups really aren’t all that diverse. To learn more about the different fish and minnow species in Ohio waters, ODNR’s Division of Wildlife Species Guide Index is a great resource. I also came across Fish Base. Just type in the common name of your fish, click USA or other relevant location, and you can find information about this species’ environment, distribution, suitable habitat, life cycle and many other details, including a list of tools, special reports, Internet sources and a list of various ecological indicators based on models.

Scott concluded his talk with two main points. The first was that turbid or murky waters affect fish populations the most. Murky waters also affect the persistence of submerged aquatic vegetation – both a food source and resting place for many fish – as the sediment in the water disrupts the depth in which light can penetrate through the water column. Stormwater and upland runoff from heavy storm events contribute to the murky waters of our nearshore, often found in our bays and harbors – where both human agricultural and urban (think: impervious surfaces) activities are most present.

His second point was that no one wants to swim in a washing machine. Which means, fish don’t like to hang out in high energy waters! While we can’t calm the waters of our entire shoreline, we can create pockets of calmer waters for both fish and to reduce erosion of our shorelines, if we design our shore protection structures from a systems ecology perspective rather than just a structural or functional engineering perspective.

My last and final part, Part 3, will focus on our last presentation from our Open Biomimicry Innovation Session, by Chris Streb – ecological engineer at Biohabitats. He focuses on current practices and solutions for coastal restoration that balance both traditional protection requirements of erosion control and human activities along the shoreline (recreation, shipping, residential) with the provision of aquatic habitat for all species in Lake Erie.


Plant Biomimicry: Response

Plant Biomimicry: Thigmotropism
Rebecca Eagle, November 13, 2017

Over the past three years in our program, I’ve had many opportunities to converse with interested folks about the wonders of plants. Plants do some pretty miraculous things, no doubt. At the very core of their existence, they are required to survive ‘in place’. How many other living organisms on Earth can claim this feat? Very, very few things can accumulate life’s requirements (reproduction and resource acquisition), without movement. Not to mention, plants also must adapt to local conditions: contamination, weather, drought/flooding events, and more. While animals, insects, and birds can move when their environment gets unfavorable, plants must shelter in place and utilize strategies that they’ve evolved over the millennia of time they’ve been on this planet.

A favorite plant of many inquisitors of plant biomimicry is the Venus Fly Trap (Dioneae muscipula). Why wouldn’t someone

Carnivorous "Venus Flytrap" plant in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Its Latin name is Dionaea Muscipula (Syn Dionaea Crinita), native to Carolina, USA.

Wild Venus flytrap. Photo by Adobe Stock, RukiMedia

admire this plant?! It eats meat, but cannot move from place because it lacks musculature and because it needs to stay rooted in the ground to obtain water, minerals, and necessary stability to stay erect. Many are surprised to learn that this insectivore is native to our own United States, found chiefly in wetlands of the Carolinas. Let’s discuss the biology of the Venus flytrap, and then talk about its inspiration for design applications.


Natural History
The Venus Fly Trap lives in nutrient-poor wetland soils, particularly low in nitrogen and phosphorus. Plants require these elements and all plants have strategies that allow them to acquire them from their environments—sometimes in very unique ways! Remember, though, that plants can’t move. They rely on things that are accessibly near them. Soil and the atmosphere being the mediums for most plants, cannot be relied on by the Venus flytrap. This constraint doesn’t faze it! Other organisms come to plants, right? Aphids, pollinators, nectarivores, and other critters visit plants for meals of all cuisines (vegetation and nectar), and this carnivorous plant evolved to capture the nutrients and energy from these insects to ensure its survival throughout time! (The first written documentation of the Venus Fly Trap was noted in 1760 in North Carolina, by North Carolina Colonial Governor Arthur Dobbs [1]). A question I am frequently asked is whether the plant does photosynthesis. Yes, the Venus flytrap does have the same anatomy and physiology required to be in the Kingdom Plantae. It is not uncommon to hear that they rely solely on insects for nutrients, but this is not true. Insects are merely the back-up mechanism for the minerals that a play would obtain from the soil, not the CO2 or sunlight energy obtained above ground.

Capturing Mechanism
We get it, the Venus flytrap eats insects for nutrients… but how? (Video: 4-minute YouTube video of Venus flytrap in action). When a larger-sized insect (flies, ants, spiders, grasshoppers, i.e.), lands on the inside of the leaf blade, the weight of it will eventually trigger minute hairs. These trigger hairs will respond (0.1 second response time), by closing the trap. Ideally, the prey will be inside, but, as you can see in the suggested video, this mechanism is not fail-safe. As is in nature and life, sometimes we lose the game.

Notice the trigger hairs on the inside of the leaf blades. Photo by Noah Elhardt.

The response of the trigger hairs is an example of a nastic movement and thigmotropism. Thigmotropism is the act of responding to the direct stimulus of touch, such as a fly landing on the inner leaf blade and bumping into one of the two or three trigger hairs. Nastic movements are controlled by hormones, more so than by a direct stimulus. Once the direct stimulus causes the thigmotrophic response, auxin (a plant hormone) stimulates cell expansion as a rapid growth response. In short, the cells inside the leaf of the Venus flytrap are told to swell up quickly, which causes the leaf blades to close. This is the same physiological response and movement that is witnessed when a flower of an angiosperm plant opens and closes in response to light! (As an aside, auxin does some pretty rad things in plants that I encourage you all to read about in your down time!).

Bio-inspiration from the Venus Flytrap
How could we not be inspired by this amazing plant?! I’ve talked in previous posts about some possible applications for designs based on the mechanisms of the Venus flytrap: baby gates, pet gates, sensors for factories, sensors for home safety, etc. I won’t rehash that conversation. The general idea involved here is the passive sensing with quick response that uses only clean energy.

While the response mechanism is certainly worthy of investigating, I would add in the importance of Life’s Principles as an additional means of bio-inspiration from the Venus flytrap. If we consider the rationale involved in utilizing insects for survival, we witness the ability of this natural organism to obtain its needs from the local environment in absence of the preferred mechanism for sequestration. As far as I know, the Venus flytrap isn’t shipping in her flies and spiders from the west coast. She has found a way to survive and thrive with what is near to and available to her. She is substituting a necessary product for another locally obtained product. She carefully considered her choices and chose to adapt and evolve, rather than die.

Of course I am getting a bit anthropomorphic here, but my goal is to encourage companies to look at the bigger picture of what is important to the planet, to its business, and to its customers. The amount of money and natural resources that are invested in product development could, perhaps, be re-evaluated to better meet the needs of the business by responsibly utilizing local supplies, rather than shipping them into the area. The re-evaluation might discover that the location of the business itself is better suited to be near the customers it most services—avoiding the strain of shipping far distances.

As I leave you, to spend more time preparing for my upcoming comprehensive exams, I would like to mention this quote I read in Botany for Gardeners (Capon, 1990). The preface of the quote describes the means by which antifreeze was developed, inspired by ‘leaf antifreeze’ (increasing the concentration of sugars in the protoplasm to lower the freezing point inside the cells). “Plants have been ahead of human invention by several million years[2].” Consider this as coming from a 1990’s book for gardeners, not for engineers, designers, or biomimicry-enthusiasts. This is written by someone who just appreciates plants for the value they bring to all of us in such a variety of ways. I encourage all of you to continue to read about the wonders of plants and be inspired by all the great things they do… all without leaving home!


The tiny section of the world that houses Venus flytrap. 

The habitat of the Venus flytrap is limited to a small area of the Carolinas. Modern development threatens this already minuscule area with increasing take-over. Consider visiting the website of The Nature Conservancy to learn more about the plant that Charles Darwin has called “the most wonderful plant in the world.”1

Venus flytrap

Venus flytrap in the wild. Photo by Adobe Stock, Simona

[1] The Nature Conservancy, accessed November 13, 2017.

[2] Capon, Brian. (1990). Botany for Gardeners: An Introduction and Guide. Portland, OR: Timber Press. pp. 86.

Who doesn’t love going to a FAB conference!?

Last week was Spring break and we had this great opportunity of going and presenting in digiFAB conference in Boston about Biomimicry through one of my Sponsors TIES! Lots happened and I was excited to meet some great people in the field and had butterflies about my own talk. My excitement was doubled and butterflies gone with keynote speaker, Sherry Lassiter director of Fab Foundation, You can see her in picture below talking about different movements within Fab Foundation as well as the Fab network. IMG_8663

Dale Dougherty, then talked about Maker movements, I have been following Dale’s maker group (he runs the Make: which you can subscribe to) and was thrilled when he talked about  “Autonomous Boat [that] Went from California to Hawaii and Beyond”. I read about this project when first published in Make: and was happy that the boat had been picked up by a ship in New Zealand and was in display there.

The 2 day conference was packed by amazing talks, I like to shortly go through few of them.

FAB City A 40 year goal from Barcelona to empower citizens to be creators of their own city; “locally self-sufficient and globally connected”. For me, it seemed as a society that doesn’t need a centralized governing body, but where citizens create materials based on their needs, recycle when possible and are connected to many more cities around the globe.

FAB Cities

Tomas Diaz from FABCity also talked about the model and plans they have to reach this goal in Barcelona. he talked about POBLENOU where its supported by local and international community to become a FAB city.


Rachel Ignotofsky; Women in Science , and the importance of design and arts in our life, how arts influences our perceptions and why is it important to use it in our learning kits.

3D printes, bluedragon made with business in mind, where you can print 4 colors in one product, you can mix different colors into one or just use one at a time: FIREPRINT. If anyone wants to put money together to get one, I am in! Check out their case studies, from combating Zika to cosplay, you can do all!

Second day  was nothing short of amazing talks as well, we first heard from Neil Gershenfeld, Director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, of his work on developing tools/processes for FABLAB, I did not see it coming where he talked about Nature! In below picture he was explaining how creating modules is similar to protein formation in our body. Neil

He also talked about how we are moving to Ubiquitous and with these changes, how his lab is working on developing the tools, materials, to functional part.


And one of my favorites; Global Humanitarian Lab, talk by David Ott, Co-founder, Where they aim to bring FABKits (costing around < $10k) to refugee camps. David talked about what would be in the FABKits and how everything needs to be packed into container that could be transferred by 1 or 2 person. He talked about limitations, needs and potentials of these labs. He talked about makers/ people who need the opportunities we easily can access in our cities.


There was many more talks which I highly recommend attending. This year, there was an addition of having workshops and we had ours on Biomimicry in Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville. Another place to put in your places to go!

So What did we talk about! We talked on first day about Spiders and Ornilux, Tardigrades, Spikemoss and Stabilitech/Biomateria and How they relate to maker group! As we grow in FAB network and as we move toward FAB cities, Can we benefit from nature’s stories? Can we learn from 3.8 billion years of lessons? Our hope is to learn and make more sustainable decisions. Either in creating new FAB equipments, or materials used. We see a movement that will grow potentially in years to come and we want to instill biomimicry thinking in its foundation!

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A Meadow of Inspiration

“Plants are amazing!” This is something I hear a lot from non-botanists. Of course, I know plants are awesome, but every time I turn around, I learn something new and exciting. This semester was no exception. Tasked with a project in my Biomimetic Design class, led by Dr. Petra Gruber, I walked into the meadow to find inspiration– literally.

On a very wet, cold, rainy day in October, I walked to a meadow within our field station property (Bath Nature Preserve, Bath Twp., Akron, Ohio) and found a section to investigate. Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) towering over my head, I decided to stop at 20 steps and set up a 1m x 1m plot to sample. October in a meadow doesn’t give you very much to identify, but goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Indian grass (S. nutans) were plentiful among a few baby asters, Galium spp. (aka ‘Cleavers’ or ‘Bedstraw’), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana),clumps of unidentifiable grass and moss. I measured heights of stems and area covered,  took the percent coverage to determine how much each species covered the plot,and took several picture views for record. After returning to campus, I created a hand-drawn schematic of the plot.


Hand-drawn schematic of 1m x 1m meadow plot in Bath Nature Preserve. Oct. 2016

A few weeks later, I returned to the same plot. Apparently my methods of counting and direction are spot-on because my last step landed on a pen I had dropped on that rainy day a few weeks earlier! If you’ve ever done field work, you understand how amazing it is that I found a PEN in the middle of a meadow over 2 meters high! This time I was there to measure the ability of the meadow to hold a load. I admit, I didn’t think the stems would hold up… being so late in the year and being dried out. As usual, though, plants are amazing and surprised me yet again!

I decided to test the load by creating a 1m x 1m foam board that was sturdy, yet lightweight. I placed the board directly over the plot, placing flags on each corner. The flags allowed for a visual cue to observe movement of bot


My husband and daughter gave me a hand in the field at Bath Nature Preserve. Three books really impacted the system. Notice how far the stems are bending, yet still not breaking! Amazing.

h plants and the board, as well as giving a reference point at which to measure the height of the board after each addition of weight. After the foam board was placed on top of the plants, I measured the height at each corner (flag) for the “initial” height. I added one heavy book and measured the height at each corner. Subsequently, I added increasing weight and measured the heights. At 3 books (6.7kg), the system (the meadow plot) could no longer hold the weight. Because this was the same plants were used over the entire experiment, I believe more weight can be held by the plants in true form.


So how does this happen? Plants are amazing. IMeadow roots.pngn the meadow, plants grow up to 10 feet below ground (roots) and above ground. You can imagine how secure this makes these cantilever beams! Here, the Indian grass and Goldenrod grew 1.5m to 2.5m above ground. The stems reached diameters of 2-5mm. You may wonder how the stems did not break when the weight was added. Galileo was the first to record these observations, noting that bending is resisted in the outer layers, not the inner stem as some might think. Several studies have investigated this design, including F.O. Bower (1930) who compared plant stems to concrete, saying, “Ordinary herbaceous plants are constructed on the same principle. The sclerotic strands correspond to the metal straps, the surroundin


g parenchyma with its turgescent cells corresponds mechanically to the concrete.” Equisetum (Horsetail) is another champion plant for many reasons, but here, in this context, it’s a biomechanic superstar.  “The hollow stem of Equisetum giganteum owes its mechanical stability to an outer ring of strengthening tissue, which provides stiffness and strength in the longitudinal direction, but also to an inner lining of turgid parenchyma, which lends resistance to local buckling. With a height >2.5 m isolated stems are mechanically unstable. However, in dense stands individual stems support each other by interlacing with their side branches, the typical growth habit of semi-self-supporters.” (Spatz, Kohler, Speck 1998). Again, plants are amazing.


After doing some mathematical calculations (very much estimated


The Lone Bloomer. The best-looking Goldenrod in the whole place puts out a flower for us!

in this case because of the imprecise nature of this ‘experiment’), it is expected that a single Goldenrod stem can support >118% of its biomass! Now, we’re not talking about the strength of steel or lead, but we can see that plants offer us new possibilities when we are designing or constructing new things! Imagine a support feature that is hollow inside and allows for storage in the “stem” as well has having the strength to support weight. Think on a smaller scale: imagine a space in which a stiff, lightweight outer covering is needed to secure something. Imagine the many possibilities that plants offer us to grow using Life’s Principles.




Graphical representation of the meadow plot using InDesign. I’m still learning how to use this new software and have also created a “worm’s eye view” to show a different perspective. Yellow stems are the goldenrod, the purple and lavender stems are Indian grass (single stems and clumps).


Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure

Hi all, Thanks again for tuning in. I recently had the opportunity to speak at the first annual national biomimicry forum and education summit. The following is a transcript of the talk I gave including some of the associated imagery. Hope you all enjoy Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure: Continue reading

Plants Inspire Urban Design

Over the course of hundreds of millions of years our forest has evolved to become an intricate design of function and self-support. After researching anything and everything of plant evolution this week, I have become even more in love with these photosynthetic critters. There is much biomimicry to be learned from plants: urban design, architecture, engineering, and cooperation among individuals. Now, let’s talk plants!

First, the importance of community: herbaceous, shrub, and canopy levels are put in place to create a sustainable environment for each individual and the community as a whole. (For the sake of clarity, herbaceous layers are typically knee-high and below, shrub layers are knee high to five meters, and canopy layers are anything above five meters). Within each layer, there are different sizes, shapes, and colors that allow efficient flow of resources.

The colors of plants hamper the effects of sunlight, dependent on location of the plant. Dark leaves absorb more light than light-colored leaves. Consider the dark needles of the conifer. Known to be in areas where sunlight can be limited, the dark needles allow them to take full advantage of any sunlight they receive. The cactus, on the other hand, has no shortage of sunlight in the open desert. Typically light-colored, cactus stems reflect light, preventing them from scorching in the direct sunlight. Leaf size and shape differ among species, as well. Leaves with a higher surface area are directly related to increased cooling effects. Surface area is increased by features like prickles and hairs: cactus spines, roughness of an Ulmus leaf. Research has indicated that in urban shaded areas, there is an air temperature decrease of up to 2.5℃ and a surface-soil temperature decrease of up to 8℃ (1). Leaf and plant shapes are important in much the same way as color. Larger leaves are designed to absorb more light, but what is particularly interesting to this midwestern girl is the efficient shape of the cactus. The star shape, specifically, is linked to a more energy-efficient building design in architecture. There is less surface area to receive sunlight, this buildings require less air conditioning (less energy) to cool the building.

Biomimicry is using the plant communities for inspiration. Designing urban areas with community structure in mind seems to be on the mind of some city planners. In a forest, every ‘layer’ is utilized for the benefit of both the individual and the community as a whole. Waste is reduced because there is no waste. Every material is used in some way. This is just the structural level of urban design. There is a much deeper level that is being inspired by plant communities. The ecosystem services that they offer abound. quotes Janine Benyus herself as saying, “The city would provide the same level of services as the forest next door.” In the interview, she also describes the ability of a city to “build fertile soil, filter air, clean water, sequester carbon, cool the surrounding temperature, provide biodiversity and produce food.” By city planners, engineers, and architects designing infrastructure in the same way and having a conscious use of materials, we may be able to reduce energy costs and limit heat islands. The prospect of inner cities being as aesthetically pleasing as a forest is an added bonus!

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