Galapagos in the city

In a not completely arbitrary effort (I had a hunch), I watched a dvd on the Galapagos islands recently. As could be expected it was not difficult to draw some inspiration from it. But it does require a bit of skill to translate such inspiration into usable notions in concrete cases. Here is an attempt.

There is increasing interest for the concept of biomimicry, and deservedly so: people looking at nature for inspiration on how to address our own challenges. “Nature” has been around for quite some time, and has had the luxury of experimenting for eons. A little longer than we have had the opportunity. So let’s see what we can learn, shall we?

As many know the Galapagos islands well off the Western coast of South America as an ecosystem is one of the most fascinating places to have a look at. And then turn that looking into really using it. Below I first briefly mention a few key concepts and then to let it come alive more will apply it to a specific and wonderfully unrelated topic, compact inner city development.

The keys to survival in the wild

Adaptation: one of the most obvious concepts to mention when you look at the Galapagos islands is adaptation. The biodiversity is as amazing as it is unlikely. Conditions are harsh from many perspectives , and the chance that species would end up there was slim to start with. Still, they managed to do that, and by necessity also managed to adapt to the specific circumstances. This can even go as far as shrinking the bone structure (Marine iguanas) in prolonged times of low availability of food.

Lesson: if you accept that you will face times that your ideal conditions are not met and are willing to move with the tide, you will thrive.

Age life cycles: the islands cover a range of life cycles in terms of geological development. From relatively young ones with volcanoes very visible, to middle aged ones where the landmass is starting to push down the island, to ones that are — geologically speaking — on the brink of moving under water permanently. Each age-group has their own pros and cons, but none is an immediate candidate for ecological oblivion.

Lesson: all ‘age groups’ have their value, just in different ways. Accept and use this, time is patient and will catch up with everyone.

External circumstances: the isolated nature of the islands, the weather, the confluence of warm and cold golf streams. All of these are circumstances ‘beyond control’. But the islands mustered all of this and did not give up, go barren just because the environment did not make it easy on them.

Lesson: when the going gets tough, the survivors surface and thrive. Alternatively: stop whining about not living in a fairy tale, deal with it.

Co-existence and diversity: the very different circumstances per island or even for the same island (e.g. warm and cold gulf stream alternating during the year) might be unpleasant if you cherish extreme stability like many species do. However, if this is the scenario that you are facing, you’d better work with it. One striking example is the co-existence of penguins (who like cold water) and corals (who need warm water). Normally unthinkable. But by making use of the window that is available that aligns with their respective comfort zones and accepting the less optimal situation at other times, everyone wins. It might not be stable year round, but predictable nevertheless, and thereby workable.

Lesson: you might not get all you want all of the time, and neither do your neighbours, but by being satisfied with what you do get you can certainly get by.

Appeal based on diversity: would the Galapagos be such a popular destination if it only featured one type of habitat, one or two dominant species? More importantly, would these species even survive? Ecosystems are complex for a reason. The myriad of unmanageable, unplanned and ever changing species is exactly what makes it appealing. Mono-cultures always die, get sick, wither.

Lesson: cherish diversity, in whatever way you see fit. Diversity is what makes life of earth tick, also for humans.

From a bio-diverse hot spot to a human one

Now, how might we use these observations and lessons to apply to a seemingly unrelated challenge like compact inner city development, This choice is not an arbitrary one, but I will spare you those details.

First, let’s list a few assumptions or starting points as they seem to drive many inner city development programmes:

· An overarching (inner) city plan is leading, allocating each area to specific function(s). This needs to be done first and governs all choices afterwards

· Compact inner city planning means working vertically. Vertical building above certain heights is more expensive so cannot accommodate low-income households. So there is no choice but to cater more for high income groups.

· Allocation of use-functions, as prescribed by an overarching plan, unfortunately prevents concepts that mix functions too much

· Space is the scarce resource so much attention regarding housing development revolves around square footage and what is still acceptable and affordable, per income bracket

· People have different needs in different life stages and these cannot all be accommodated. There is no choice but to focus on the groups that contribute most in economic sense.

· Green spots are important for the general livability but where to locate them?

The alternative

How might such a list of starting points change if we look at the examples and lessons from the Galapagos for well-needed inspiration?

· A living and vibrant city breathes, in all shapes and forms, so why not apply that to allocating functions? Why does any location only need to have one function, especially in time? Dominant use-types might vary during different times of the day, week or season. How many offices are empty more than half the time during a whole week? How many parks are underutilised during bad weather? And parking lots, well, don’t get me started…

· In short adapt to circumstances and design an inner city plan that allows adaptation. In particular, consider that multiple functions can co-exist on the same location if you play with time.

· Many (inner) cities struggle with attracting ‘the right’ audience to live and all things being equal prefer people that can afford more, so types of housing are optimised for that group. That;s also what municipalities and project developers earn more money with… But with time (years) passing by the situation of these people changes and suddenly the optimal isn’t that anymore so they move. Their place can financially only be taken by the next generation with the same profile, while preferences that even that group has are likely to shift during the years and decades. Simply said: short term optimisation for a specific group excludes other groups and even in time the same group. To address this, housing concepts may have to breathe as well. Use modular and flexible concepts that can be adjusted to new needs. That might keep these groups interested.

· And talking about diversity, once this flexibility is a common feature it suddenly does not become so difficult to envision how one location can immediately cover for a diverse range of needs. The same building can thus harbour people of a much higher diversity in the first place. This seems a very valid alternative for one-size-fits-one or one-size-fits all.

· Cities are vibrant, and generally more innovative, because they facilitate more connections. And while this should not be over-planned, long live serendipity, “unplanned relevance” can be facilitated. Again, by not thinking too simplistically who is ‘supposed’ to meet whom where.

· Use the right metrics. If you centre the discussion around square footage than anything coming out of that discussion will be about square footage and soon enough you are talking about centimetres. Not the most energising type of discussion. Instead focus on what one might want to do with that surface. Then you talk about utility and that has a very different dynamic, which ironically is less static as well and fully in line with the first points.

· The overarching city plan, I suppose a legal requirement in many cases is fine, but why not let something like adaptability be a core aspect of such a plan? It is hard to see 5–10 years into the future let alone decades. Once the principle of adaptability governs allocation and planning you open the door to a whole range of new concepts. It is supposed to be a principle nowadays but I hardly see it in practice.

Reality check?

So, is all of this juggling with space, time and functions just a nice illusion or might it become reality? I think the second scenario is certainly conceivable but of course a different mindset is needed first. One that goes beyond thinking differently within the existing box. As a side note, thinking ‘inside the box’ can in some cases in fact have positive effects on innovation, but that is for another time. Here the box, or wall, may need to be shattered a bit first.