Innovation inspired by nature

The cycle between man-made and nature-formed processes is never-ending.  Below are examples of some back-and-forth inspirations.

Nature processes translated to Human processes.  

A.  [NATURAL WETLANDS]  I was (un)fortunate enough to live in New Jersey for a year, commuting to Manhattan every day, and ironically enough, the drive through this prototype of a polluted, urban, smelly landscape also became my exposure to beautiful, natural wetlands. There are amazing and quite lovely moments along Route 3 as you pass though the Meadowlands, that despite years of dumping, landfill, shopping centers, and sports arenas still retains its natural beauty.  Clearly, there has been major damage done to the multiple ecosystems, and much work to be done, but for me, those trips exposed a truer and more beautiful side of New Jersey

.Wetlands are defined as areas that are saturated by ground and/or surface water which support extensive plant life, ultimately providing habitat for hundreds of reptiles, birds, and animals.  Perhaps more essential for humans, though,  is the natural process of water absorption and water purification.   Acting like a sponge, wetlands soak up excess rainwater that would otherwise flood our dense urban hardscapes. Working together, the plants, roots and soil remove contaminants from the water, thus keeping our water sources clean.

Philadelphia architecture firm Kieren Timberlake‘s Sidwell Middle School in Washington DC is a particularly wonderful example of biomimicry.  The School features an on-site constructed wetland which cleans wastewater and filters rainwater.  Assisted by green roofs and sewage settlement tanks, the building has enabled an incredibly efficient and sustainable building that is an integral part of the student’s education. [More details here


These images are photos I took on the way back from my SEPTA subway stop to my apartment.  Living in the city, I am continually inspired by nature’s ability to fight back, in an overtly hostile environment.  Despite smog, pollution, acid raid, concrete, steel, paint, manholes, buses, humans…, somehow there are thousands of instances in every city where plant life triumphs over the man-made.

For architects and landscape designers,  the lesson should be blatant: architecture that ignores the natural processes of the landscape will never triumph.  The fight between man-built and nature-made is a losing battle, on many levels.  Landscape Urbanism is a new-ish discipline (coined by Charles Waldheim) that (rather non-specifically) argues that urban planners would be better off understanding cities as a natural landscape, in its continually evolving nature, than as a collection of everlasting buildings.


The High Line in Manhattan and Fresh Kills Park in Staten Island are both projects by James Corner, a passionate advocate of Landscape Urbanism.

Human processes translated back to nature.

A. [PHILADELPHIA’S SEPTA TUNNELS’]    My daily commute to Temple on SEPTA’S subway is usually uneventful, although always fascinating.  Mostly this is because Philadelphia has the most bizarre collection of people on a subway I’ve ever seen.  The built environment is just as compelling and um, weird.  Disregarding the guys who ignore the fact that smoking in a subway tunnel is a bad idea, as well as the (typically) Philadelphian SEPTA workers who won’t tell them to stop smoking, the tunnels themselves are longer and more extensive than most people realize.  There is a huge network of tunnels underground City Hall that are blocked off and never used, mostly for security and safety reasons.

Of particular interest is the unofficial homeless shelter that is located underneath Broad Street between Locust and Chestnut Streets.  This particular tunnel is quite large, and used daily for commuters, but after nightfall, SEPTA (unofficially) permits 20-50 of Philadelphia’s homeless use of the tunnel for shelter, as long as they disappear in the early morning when SEPTA opens.

Human-made tunnels have a direct correlation to tunnels made by our animal world co-residents.  Animals who tunnel include worms and gophers and moles and mice and of course, rats (who, of course, feel right at home in human-formed subway tunnels. There are numerous advantages to this tunneling skill, including the ability to create climate-protected environments, warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  Space is sprawling and cheap, plus (and this is not to be relied on in most human subways) tunnels provide extra protection from predators.

Some amazing human-created underground structures.

This just released proposed underground park in Manhattan is fantastic.

And then there’s what happened to Hobbiton.

Situations like the small disaster of Boston’s Big Dig present some of the harsh realities of pretending we are moles.  Architecture critic Witold Rybczynski discusses some of the issues here.

So we have lots to learn from animal architects.


The Elevators in the Engineering Building at Temple are a source of frustration to students on all nine floors.  It rattles and shakes, is not particularly well-ventilated, occasionally gets stuck between floors, and can take a ridiculously long time to arrive and depart.  Worse, it will often catch its passengers between its doors as it closes.  Somehow the sensors that are supposed to catch the doors before they close on a person are faulty.  And yet, those of us on the 9th floor feel like we have no chance, because no matter how incompetent, it is generally perceived to be more efficient to use the elevator than walking up 9 flights of steps.

Skyscrapers of course, could not have been built without the elevator.  The invention of the modern elevator is credited with Elisha Otis, who invented the safety catch that prevents the elevator from plummeting to the ground if a cable breaks. File:ElevatorPatentOtis1861.jpgT

There must be a few ways in which biology can help design more efficient, cleaner, and sustainable elevators.  Ideas about natural ventilation are key here, but I also found a reference to the frog’s ability to store energy in its legs pre-leap to be released during the leap.  This lesson of energy efficiency has great potential specifically for elevator design, but can be applied to any number of man-made inventions.

1 comment
  1. sthsieh said:

    Fascinating post! You cover an incredible amount of ground here. I particularly enjoyed your characterization of the SEPTA subway stations (and the people, in particular!), as well as your observation that plants always seem to win out in the end (so true!!). It would be really exciting if there were a way to build a habitable structure that actually got better (however defined) with gradual plant in-growth and “decay” of its framework, allowing the human-construct to eventually become one with its environment while maintaining its utility to its human counterparts. Does that make sense, or is it just late? 🙂

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