Nature-inspired Urbanism seminar series:
How should cities build? This question has been the focus of an ongoing tension between rational planning by experts versus organic development ‘from the bottom up.’ This tension becomes acute in light of the global trend to urbanization. The fate of tens of millions depends upon cities that ‘work’, that is that meet the organic, emotional and other needs of its inhabitants.
Urbanization is not solely a human phenomenon, however. Many organisms assemble into social organizations that modify their environments for the benefit of the assemblage. This is what human cities ‘do.’ The dramatic constructions of the social insects are an emphatic expression of this tendency. In these assemblages, the fate of individual organisms depends upon ensuring the fates of other individual organisms. These constructed environments are built networks of information, energy and material flow that ensures the well-being of all members of the assemblage. They arise without central or rational planning. Can human cities therefore be explained as a form of sociobiology? And what lessons may be drawn from a study of animal cities? In short, what is ‘nature-inspired urbanism’ asking us to emulate?
Sociobiology draws its inspiration from a Darwinian outlook on social behavior. I will argue that Darwinism teaches the wrong lessons for nature-inspired urbanism. Modern Darwinism focuses on genes as specifiers of function. In this sense, modern Darwinism is cut from the same philosophical cloth as urban planning: specifiers of form and function to which inhabitants are expected to conform. The role of the individual is therefore to adapt to what is specified for them. However, cities, whether animal or human, are properly cognitive expressions of agents which turn the Darwinian credo on its head, adapting their environments to themselves, through an ongoing negotiation and mutual accommodation of those agents with one another.
Scott Turner is Professor of Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse, New York. His principal research focus is the emergence of superorganismal structure and function in the mound building termites of southern Africa, but this is motivated by a larger interest in the interface between physiology, evolution and design. He is the author of two acclaimed books: The Extended Organism. The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000) and The Tinkerer’s Accomplice. How Design Emerges from Life Itself (2007), both published by Harvard University Press. His new book, Purpose and Desire, will be published by HarperOne, set for release in September 2017.