The City & Narrative by Nathan Hays
African acacias protect themselves from herbivores by producing a poison within their leaves when they are damaged. But these miraculous plants have a far more surprising strategy. They speak, and they listen, in a language that moves by us unnoticed. An ethylene compound fills the air around them and is carried by the breeze to nearby acacias. The neighbors of those first attacked receive the warning and immediately manufacture their own poison, and they pass on the message. (1)(2)
These signal-antennae-response pathways are everywhere in nature (3) – from the gradual changes in deciduous trees triggered by seasonal signals, to the shriek you let out when the photons-to-mental-constructs pathway reveals the snake in your kitchen. These information pathways work because they operate in coherent languages – in languages understood by the organisms for which the information matters. Information is received, decoded, and responded to. Information triggers fast actions in some instances and influences more subtle behaviors in others.
These are languages of the biome and we are part of the story. There are overlapping narratives all around us – we are surrounded by them. But we listen only to the narratives we tell ourselves. Most messages aren’t meant for us, but we are certainly missing some important ones.
The urban systems we construct convey narratives to their inhabitants and visitors. They tell us about who we are and what is important. They construct different meanings, shape different relationships, and tell stories about the way our world works. These narratives change through time and vary from individual to individual, but they are nevertheless profoundly important in shaping our understanding and influencing our actions.
James Graham explains this narrative as always beyond what designers predict or expect – complex interaction often assumed to be more straightforward than they are. Architects desire to see buildings “as objects that locate us meaningfully in time” but that “their time is immediately out of joint and their meanings are immediately unstable”. Arcosanti, as he describes it, embraces the nuances of narrative and with that it exists as “a kind of fiction, despite its being here in the world — ‘the desert city’” (4). Narrative is elevated in Arcosanti and from that we hear a richer story.
We can consider the narratives we absorb from our urban systems as ongoing dialogues. As our conceptions about ourselves change the systems we build reflect that change. Changes in urban environments reshape our narratives which reshape our environments. Today, the stories we tell are narrow in scope, and these narratives are reflected in the environments we inhabit. Priorities favoring minimal investment in initial thought and understanding, ease and speed associated familiarity and repetition, result in buildings that pop up static, callous and disconnected, and decay rapidly into unusable waste. This reinforces the perception of ourselves as extraordinarily efficient drains on resources, wholly independent from the living world around us. That latter isn’t true. The former doesn’t need to be. We have the potential to be explorers and to accumulate knowledge about, and meaningful connections to, the living systems that support us. We have the potential to accumulate wealth in well-being, rather than debt in social and environmental health.
The dialogues we are engaged in are not only with the systems we create. They are with the systems that created us and continue to support our existence. These dialogues are fundamental to our understanding of our reality and the consequences of our decisions, but we ignore the narratives coming from nature. These narratives hold valuable insights on how to exist in a complex and interconnected world. Nature is sending warning signals. Between the 1950s and today there have been more changes to ecosystems than during any other time in our history (5). Nature is also giving us success stories of enduring vitality with analogically relevant lessons for almost every conceivable scenario.
Arcosanti has embedded in its urban philosophy narratives of natural systems with the concept of Arcology. When we engage in a dialogue with nature, and when we create urban environments that are open to, and expressive of, the rhythms and patterns in living systems, we learn about ourselves and we learn how to best contribute to the conversation. These rhythms and patterns, these structural relationships and adaptations, have been finely-tuned through billions of years of evolution. We are a young species and our understanding of the complexities around us is in its infancy. But we are undeniably a part of this narrative – at present an unproportionally influential part – and we can redirect that influence toward symbiosis by being more observant, by listening, and by reflecting what we learn in the systems we build.
Biomimicry engages with this dialogue intellectually and narratively. This design methodology seeks to learn from and emulate the symbiotic relationships and patterns in nature that promote perpetual adaptations and improvements in living systems. Dr. Maibritt Pedersen Zari studies biomimetic design at the urban systems level. She writes, “Designing, evolving and analysing the urban built environment from the perspective of how ecosystems function (i.e. what they do) could work towards the creation of cities where positive integration with and restoration of local ecosystems could be realised”.5 Beyond this, urban systems that reflect the narratives of living systems deepen our understanding of the world around us and enrich the stories we tell ourselves. Living in urban systems that emulate the life-promoting strategies of ecosystems helps shape the narratives we recognize. We see beauty in nature and that beauty is an inherent quality of the strategies used to create symbiotic systems. An urban system that utilizes and describes interconnected strategies for construction, material selection, rainwater and fog harvesting, water movement, heating and cooling, reflectivity and diffraction, light absorption, acoustics, structural support, ventilation, and responsiveness, all derived from analogous relationships in nature, brings with them and projects that beauty. That urban system narratively conveys the elegance of those solutions and awakens its inhabitants to a mutually beneficial dialogue.
In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, as Marco Polo illustrates stories of cities to Kublai Khan, he observes: “I speak and speak . . . but the listener retains only the words he is expecting . . . It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”
If we want to change the story, we need to realign our awareness to notice the narratives around us.
- Tastiness protects seeds from beetles : Saman Tree – AskNature. https://asknature.org/strategy/tastiness-protects-seeds-from-beetles/.
- Attenborough, D. The Private Life of Plants. (Princeton University Press, 1995).
- Baumeister, D., Tocke, R., Dwyer, J., Ritter, S. & Benyus, J. M. Biomimicry Resource Handbook : a seed bank of best practices. (Biomimicry 3.8, 2014).
- Graham, J. Narrating Arcosanti, 1970. 94, (2000).
- Pedersen Zari, M. Regenerative Urban Design and Ecosystem Biomimicry. Regenerative Urban Design and Ecosystem Biomimicry (Taylor & Francis, 2018). doi:10.4324/9781315114330.
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