The global population surpassed 7 billion people in August 2012. If you think that is a big number, consider 10 trillion. That is the number of microbes every human being carries within its body at any given time! As Michael Pollan put it eloquently in a recent article, we are all "Superorganisms". And it turns out that our health is not just dependent on our own physiology, but is greatly affected by the health of these countless organisms that call our body home.
This recent discovery highlights a broader trend in science and problem solving. We are quickly moving away from an isolationist approach to broadening our lens as much as possible. Take any Big Data project, social media campaign or ecological restoration study conducted in the past 5 years. They all emphasize the power of connecting as many dots as possible. Urban planning as usual is a little slow to arrive to the party. However, our late arrival means we do not have to start from scratch. Looking at some of these recent studies, projects and ideas, we see some common threads that can be easily adapted to the design and planning of our neighborhoods, towns and cities:
1. Hyper-Diversity is a prerequisite:
For the past 50 years, we focused on the density of our communities. Everything from landuse to transportation and infrastructure was a projection of number of people per acre. This needs to change at a fundamental level. As we are finding out, neither high nor low density are always sustainable or deliver the desired quality of life. Two models: public housing projects and suburban tract housing both failed miserably at achieving their best intentions because they lacked diversity. The more variation we can accommodate in our communities whether in demographics, land use, building types or infrastructure, the better our chances of delivering long term resilience.
2. Embracing the Non-Self:
Just as we have discovered that our individual health is a function of the collective ecology of countless organisms that reside within us, we must acknowledge the role other species play in the well-being of our communities. A key step in this direction is to identify “mutualists” within our communities; plants and animals whose well-being has a direct impact on the overall livability of the community. Whether through enhancing our resilience towards climate change, making our communities attractive to a larger pool of flora and fauna or simply increasing natural beauty and property values, when these mututalists prosper, the entire community benefits.
3. Healthy Systems evolve over time:
A new born baby’s gut is mostly homogenous and it takes at least three years to cultivate the incredible diversity of its microbiome; that’s almost 5% of its lifecycle, taking an average age of 60 years. If we want to create places that stand the test of time and last hundreds of years, we must elongate the evolution of our systems. This can be done by implementing incrementally and revising frequently. Real estate development industry today is heading in the opposite direction, with our current regulations and financing mechanisms demanding larger, quicker turn-arounds. And when the system overloads with such fragility, we get recessions that decimate our economy for years to come.
4. Constant exposure to small risk:
A great way to build immunity is to expose oneself to potential pathogens in small quantities, essentially the concept behind vaccines. Our current regulations reward predictability and prefer a “what works” approach to planning. This seriously reduces our ability to adapt to changes. Why not minimize the scale and reward risk-taking instead? A great example is the recent Detroit Works Plan where many new and flexible zoning types have been created to adapt to today’s realities on the ground, accommodating previously illegal activities like urban agriculture, animal husbandry and clean industrial uses.
5. Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper:
With the best of intentions, we have arrived at a model of planning that simply cannot keep up with changing conditions on the ground. Most sector / comprehensive plans take years to craft and approve, making them irrelevant before they are implemented. This is largely due to the large scale of their undertakings and the complicated bureaucracy of governance. We need to plan at the scale of the neighborhood again to keep our plans relevant and flexible.
6. An additive approach:
We need to reverse our reductivist instincts. Add parameters to the equation, before eliminating "potential problems". A great example are the Woonerfs or shared streets that are adding more modes on the same surface to deliver higher safety standards, in stark contrast to the pedestrian bridges and underpasses we promoted in the past 50 years.
7. Gardening vs. Governing:
Implementing these connected, comprehensive solutions requires what Michael Pollan calls a “gardeners approach”. We do not need to nail down the exact science of everything. We simply need to know enough about what these “unruly” gardens of our communities need to flourish.