Could Insects Be the Best City Planners? 1

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Monday, January 4th, 2016
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No offence to all the city planners and urban designers out there, but there is a lot we could learn from the little creatures of the world when it comes to planning an efficient settlement.

After all, nature has had a pretty long time to put different ideas to the test and find out what works. Biomimicry, the practice of emulating patterns and strategies from nature to solve human challenges has already led to many ingenious product designs, but many more discoveries have been made recently that lend some lessons to the city scale. Here are a few lessons from the bugs on city planning:

Size your city to match your means

Like us, ants live and work together in a community. Known for their collective intelligence and a selfless work ethic, ants are experts in housing large populations and striking a balance between density, land use and resources. The ant version of a city, a nest, is carefully planned in relation to its surroundings. It too expands its boundaries as its population grows, but as if they have a bird’s eye view, ants know how big each settlement should be by taking account of the size and distance to neighbouring settlements and the availability of resources.

On a small scale, humans take a similar strategy on a daily basis – take for example our approach to finding a place to sit on a public lawn on a sunny day. Have you ever noticed how groups of people will carefully choose a spot that keeps a polite distance from the next group? And as the park becomes more crowded we become experts in triangulation, deftly finding the optimally spaced place to claim for our own.

Ants exercise this symmetric patterning on a settlement scale. A study of the distribution of ant nests in Arizona, Density- and size-dependent spacing of ant nests: evidence for intraspecific competition, showed that there was a predictable formula for ant nest size and spacing, relating to the diameter of the nests and the distance between them. This is done so that food and resources can be reached in a reasonable travelling distance, and that the nest population is not competing for those resources with a neighbouring nest.

For human populations, the benefits of global scale export-import systems mean that our cities are not just reliant on surrounding lands to provide food and materials, but as we move toward more self-sufficient models that support local food and production economies, it’s more and more relevant to be conscious of the demands of our populations on resources and the inter-relationships of our cities.

A spatial analysis of the size and distribution of cities in England which took an “ant’s perspective” showed the wide gap between population distribution and local resource availability. Titled Biomimicry: Ants as urban planners, the analysis showed that even if western consumption rates were reduced by two-thirds to an ecological footprint deemed sustainable, in ant terms every major city except Bristol would be very overpopulated in relation to the carrying capacity of its surrounding hinterland. The city which struck the best balance between its population and the size of its rural hinterland was Newcastle in the north of England.

insects

Major cities in England (500,000-plus population) and their associated production hinterlands as determined by the spacing equation observed in ant nest location. Labelled percentages indicate the required change in population to ensure the hinterland can support each city’s population based on a 1.8 global hectare per person ecological footprint.

Interweave and connect landscapes amongst the city

Bees can also give a bit of advice on spatial planning. Like other pollinators, a healthy network of vegetation is needed to ensure the bee can go about its day-to-day business and play its important role in keeping the landscape fertile and productive. Green infrastructure is equally essential for humans, improving physical health, mental health, air quality and general enjoyment of our surroundings.

Bees are facing a serious decline, and increased creation of pollinator habitat in cities could benefit both bees and urban landscapes. Taking a bee’s perspective of a city ensures that green space and vegetation is well-distributed across an urban environment. The City of Portland in Maine recently created a city Pollinator Vision Plan to re-plan green corridors and open spaces. The plan proposes green routes and a series of interventions in a grid across the city that will provide habitat and pollinating plants within flying distance for bees, butterflies and moths.

The proposals demonstrated ecological and social benefits in equal measures, creating a well-scaled mix of large parks and community gardens interspersed with connector streets with planters and rain gardens that provide a habitat network as well as improved amenity and community interaction.

Develop the next suburb creating active links with existing suburbs

The industrious ant is again the focus of the next lesson. Those carefully planned nests give insight into how to best plan a new community or suburb.

A recent study titled Local cost minimization in ant transport networks: from small-scale data to large-scale trade-off found that when establishing a new nest, ants connect a trail from the new nest to an existing settlement or a food source to provide support for the new community to grow. This gives the new nest access to existing resources and infrastructure.

Drawing parallels to urban planning, this “nodal” approach to new development ensures that infrastructure is well-planned to accommodate growing suburbs and that new areas are anchored to existing hubs to ensure they are well-supported by essential infrastructure. The principle applies to transport, social infrastructure and utilities: connect new communities to existing infrastructure until capacity is exceeded, before building new infrastructure when the new population grows to support it in its own right.

All of this is not to say that we have no need for planners. The lessons offered by insects in settlement planning ring true with some core principles of urban planning. But do we always follow those principles? Unfortunately not – we often lose sight of the grand plan and shrug off small discrepancies until they gradually become the norm. Taking a bug’s view and sticking to time-tested rules might just stand us in better stead for a sustainable future.

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  1. Karlos

    Brilliant work — unfortunately, most urban planners are merely pawns to developers and government departments, and those groups don't bend their will to 'simple' animals or 'mindless' insects (though in reality the human race is still playing catch up with bushmen and aborigines, on this topic). Developing formulae and software to explain and simplify these dynamics is probably only way for most humans to accept and embrace it.