Expert urges following nature in urban design

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PORTLAND — To be friendly to the earth, cities like Portland can learn from it.

That was the message of a Nov. 15 lecture at the Public Library, sponsored by the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

There is “boundless opportunity to improve the quality of life for all of us” by designing urban spaces around the environment, said Bill Browning, an internationally known environmental designer whose clients have included the White House and the 2000 Olympic Village in Sydney, Australia.

Browning told an audience of more than 50 that those opportunities include biomimicry (designing in a way that mimics nature) and biophilia (using design to enhance human connection to the natural world).

In the process of learning from and connecting to her, humans may also end up being a little kinder to Mother Nature.

Browning cited the example of The EastGate Centre, a high-rise office and shopping complex in the southern African country of Zimbabwe. Despite the scorching climate, the building is cooled without the use of air conditioning. Instead, temperature is regulated through a maze of ducts that draw cool air in at the base of the building, then vent the air into floors before it exits through chimneys at the top.

EastGate, which uses less than 10 percent of the energy of a conventional building of its size, was inspired by the giant termite mounds that dot parts of Africa. The mounds, which often stand more than 10 feet tall, use a complex system of tunnels bored by the termites to maintain the interior of the structures at a comfortable 87 degrees – the temperature at which the termites’ food supply must be kept.

In an interview, Browning said there are many such opportunities to learn from nature.

“This is all about learning to solve human problems based on how nature solves problems,” he said. “Typically, nature has run into the problem before. With 3.8 billion years of experience, nature has a pretty good library of solutions.”

Like biomimicry, biophilia uses the natural world to solve man-made problems. But instead of imitating nature, this approach brings people closer to it by emphasizing natural light, materials and other elements in urban design.

Of course, the fact that people enjoy the view of a park isn’t surprising. But the results can be.

For example, Browning said, retail chain Wal-Mart has found that by incorporating more natural light into its stores, they not only saved energy, they increased sales.

Office buildings that have added plantings and other natural elements have found that their cost was more than offset by increases in employee productivity.

Hospitals patients have been shown to recover faster when they can view or spend time in natural “healing gardens.”

“We’ve been doing things like this intuitively for a long time,” Browning said. “The question now is how do we take things further.”

Browning added that it’s clear Portland already “celebrates” its connection to the environment through its design. But simply incorporating energy-saving or environmentally sustainable features in a building may not be enough.

“This is a whole other level of green design,” he said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.