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Nature Notes From New York City

Nature Notes From New York City

Nature notes from New York City: paws, claws and more! Jennifer Scarlott writes from The Big Apple.

Dear Cub kids,

Do you think it’s possible for cities to behave like forests? Hmm. There’s a really wonderful woman named Janine Benyus, who is positive that cities can do just that.

Photo: Pundalik Dhuri.

Why would you want a city to behave like a forest? You already have the answer in your heads and hearts! How do forests behave? They create life and conditions for life! Forests are… restorative, regenerative, sustainable, and life-giving. How do cities behave? Well… not like forests. As wonderful as cities can be, they are also, in some ways, like vast sinkholes into which the nature’s resources are poured, while giving nothing back but – air pollution, water pollution and more.

Biologist Janine Benyus, who lives in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana, in the United States, but whose family comes from Slovakia, has been asking herself whether cities could behave more like forests. She gathered a team of scientists to study what forests do. As she studied, Janine learned that forests are hugely productive! They perform all sorts of ‘ecosystem services’ for our planet.

Here are just a few of the services ecosystems provide – they moderate weather extremes and their impacts, purify the air and water, pollinate crops and natural vegetation, generate and preserve soils and renew their fertility, cycle and move nutrients, detoxify and decompose wastes, maintain biodiversity, disperse seeds and contribute to climate stability.

Life, says Janine, creates conditions for life. Life is generous. And that understanding has led her to ask, “Since human beings are part of nature too, why can’t people and the things we make create conditions for life, too? Can cities be generous, in some of the ways that nature is?” Those questions in turn, led Janine to a strong belief that human beings should “put nature’s rule sets in every single thing we design.”

Have you ever heard the term “biomimicry?” If you haven’t, can you guess what it might mean? Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. According to Janine, the goal of biomimicry “… is to create products, processes, and policies – new ways of living – that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”

Benyus and other biologists have figured out that though human beings pride themselves on their astonishing abilities to create and to engineer, it is nature – in the form of animals, plants, and microbes – that is the best engineer of all. Why? Because nature is all about the continuity of life! Human beings create huge sustainability problems for future generations, while nature solves those problems every day, creating conditions that are just right for life to thrive far into the future.

So if you’re an engineer, Benyus urges you to “ask nature” for her suggestions about designing, say, a building or an airplane that does not undermine our planet. To do this, you study how nature has designed living organisms, seeking ways to mimic ideas that have evolved to thrive in balance with Earth’s complex living systems.

Some examples of successful biomimicry? Mechanical engineers, hoping to design fans that are not horrendously noisy, have studied the specialised feather shapes that allow owls to fly without creating turbulence or noise, and have put the same design features into their fans. Researchers hoping to conserve energy have studied how schools of fish save energy by swimming in tight formations. They’re using what they’re learning from fish to figure out how to place wind turbines so that they interact with each other in ways that save energy too. Architects and engineers have learned that the blood vessels in jackrabbits’ long ears widen and constrict to regulate internal temperature. They’ve used similar strategies to design more energy-efficient buildings!

Janine dreams of far more than buildings, wind turbines, and fans. She and others are doing cutting-edge research around the world to figure out how entire cities can ‘give back’ to nature – how, by mimicking nature, cities can be truly part of nature – to be life-giving, rather than life-destroying!It sounds like science fiction, I know. But nature has so much to teach us. We CAN be one with her. And someday, when we have finally found ways to be human in and of the natural world, what a beautiful world it will be!

Biomimicry – study it! Let’s ask nature how our species can be generous, creating conditions for life for our children’s grandchildren.

P.S. Check out Janine Benyus’s AskNature.org. You won’t believe how much there is to learn!

Your friend,


Author: Jennifer Scarlott First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXV, No. 9, September 2015.


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