Emulating ecosystems for sustainable cities

Research and a new book by Dr Maibritt Pedersen Zari at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Architecture explores how the functions of ecosystems can be emulated to design more sustainable, regenerative cities.

The book, Regenerative Urban Design and Ecosystem Biomimicry, brings together a decade’s worth of research to propose methods that architectural and urban design can use to proactively respond to environmental challenges. Her focus is on biomimicry and its part in regenerative design.

Biomimicry is when humans imitate or draw inspiration from nature’s processes to solve problems. Regenerative design is an approach to developing the built environment to create cities that start to produce their own resources, rather than contribute to ongoing ecological degradation. It considers buildings not as individual objects but as parts of larger interconnected systems.

“The impacts of issues like climate change and ecosystem degradation are becoming more apparent, and demand urgent responses,” says Dr Pedersen Zari.

“Humans need to adapt to and mitigate the causes of climate change and loss of biodiversity. We’re also facing rapid global urbanisation and population growth, which means we need new ways of designing, retrofitting, and living in cities.

“Ecosystems remain the best example of effective organisation of life on the planet, so logically they are good models for reorganising how people live, particularly in urban environments.”

Dr Pedersen Zari’s research examines how ecosystems work and what they do, identifying seven key ‘services’ ecosystems provide which translate well to the built environment—provision of food, provision of energy, provision of water, purification, climate regulation, nutrient cycling, and the provision of habitat.

The research uses three existing cities as case studies—Wellington, Havana, and Curitiba. Despite their different climates, ecological development histories, and cultures, there were some striking similarities. These point towards common ways urban environments could support and work with natural systems and even begin to produce some ecosystem services themselves.

“Humans need ecosystems and the services they produce for wellbeing, but also for basic survival,” says Dr Pedersen Zari.

“Changing how our cities function is essential. Can cities produce their own food, energy, and water? Can they be designed to regulate climate, provide habitat, cycle nutrients, and purify water, air and soil? By using available strategies and technologies, along with some moderate behaviour change, it seems likely that significantly increased in-city ecosystem services could occur.”

She gives examples such as harvesting rainwater, purifying air, and using renewable energy sources.

With the release of her book, Dr Pedersen’s research has drawn international attention. She has been invited to speak about the work in the United States and Europe, including at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and School of Architecture in Copenhagen Denmark.

“My work reframes some of the issues people face with current city design and living,” she says. “It provides tangible, quantifiable ways to move forward with a focus on both human wellbeing and increased ecological health.”

Regenerative Urban Design and Ecosystem Biomimicry is published by Routledge, and can be accessed free online until mid-October.