We shape our world, and our world shapes us. As a biologist who works in the field of architecture and urban planning I find looking at our evolutionary past can provide a shortcut to creating places that not only feel good, but actually keep us healthy.
We know that taking a walk in the woods boosts your immune system, lowers blood pressure, relaxes your mind and allows you to be more creative, happier, and generally feel better. This is no accident, we evolved to be a species that enjoys walks in the woods. We literally are adapted to being outside every day!
What's more, some of the latest science actually tells us that we are a species that loves the interface between the forest and the grasslands. We evolved as an edge species, thriving at the interface between the forest and the prairie. This kind of mixed, dynamic, diverse environment has the catchy name in ecological circles - Ecotone.
When I imagine some of my favorite places on Earth, I often picture an ecotone. The blue waves of the ocean lap against the shore, the orange bark of the madrona trees delights your eyes while the light of the sun filters through the bright green leaves.
Ecotones are special places where ecosystems merge. This could be the beach, where the ocean meets the forest. It could be the edge of a dry scrubland where fire meets a rainforest. These places feel like home to us, and are some of the most endangered environments on earth (mostly because we love them so much). In these places we find a lot of dynamic activity. Our brains evolved to thrive on this constantly changing environment. We seek out both the security and dense refuge of the forest, as well as the perspective and thrill of the open prairie. For architecture this can translate to creating spaces that offer these attributes, and for urban planning I suggest we start asking question 'How can our cities perform like an ecosystem?'.
What is exciting about this type of design is that it asks us to bring in all of our senses, as well as all of our creativity to solving the complex and often systemic issues we find in cities. How can we make old crumbling infrastructure provide ecosystem services, inspire the local inhabitants, and be a functional part of a growing economy? How often does the parks department consider the role of scent and sound when creating a place for relaxation, or civic engagement? How could the salty air become an asset in the building, rather than just an engineering challenge? How can we incorporate more life into the life of our buildings?
At LikoLab we have been working to help architecture, urban planning, and development groups leverage insights from our own evolution and life itself to create a future that appeals to our senses, and makes sense. Our cities are going to continue to grow more dense, more connected, and more complex, but it doesn't mean we can't design to make them thrive. If you want to learn more please contact us.