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October 29th 2013 print

John Muscat

It’s a bug’s life

Those pushing the latest fashionable theories in urban planning want open space reserved for birds, insects and vegetation, with unsustainable humans piled up in concrete boxes

A posse of academics, planning bureaucrats, apartment-block developers and politicians is doing its best to abolish the Australian suburb, that great stage-set of our prosperity and social mobility. As their censorious mantra goes, suburban life is ‘economically, socially and environmentally unsustainable’. Wasteful Australians must repent of their longing for two cars and the quarter acre block, for a litany of reasons from ‘social exclusion’ to climate Armageddon. In the more spaced out locales of academia, they have taken to making their case by analogy. That is, by analogy with the life of insects.

Yes, insects. Just as one academic discipline after another succumbed to Leftist faddism, so have fields like town planning and architecture joined the contemporary cult of nature-worship. Nowadays many if not most tertiary institutions group them together under a title brandishing the word environment, as in ‘faculty of the built environment’. No matter that they are products of human intelligence and creativity. The object of all knowledge is the ecosystem, of which cities, buildings and structures are a sub-category.

Beyond the public’s gaze, these professions are embracing arcane theories known variously as biomimicry, biomimetics or biophilia, which inspire the current preference for organic shapes and flowing lines over angular forms in building design. But they penetrate deeper, into how ‘the built environment’ uses space, energy and water.

The terms trace back to Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, the 1997 book by an obscure American resource manager, Janine Benyus. “She admits she had no idea it would galvanize an entire movement”, says the website of her Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, denoting 3.8 billion years of evolution. Today Benyus collaborates with hundreds of governments, universities and companies around the world, earning her admission to Time Magazine’s ‘Heroes of the Environment’, along with luminaries like Al Gore and our own Tim Flannery.

“Benyus draws her design inspiration from nature’s wisdom, not from people’s cleverness”, proclaims Time: “biotechnology is pure hubris; biomimicry is luminous humility.” Explaining herself, Benyus says “biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new science that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems … Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers.” Which is of a piece with her claim that “a robin building a nest and an architect building a building should have the same concern: how will the chicks fare here?”

Such notions are a perfect illustration of Dick Taverne’s definition of eco-fundamentalism in The March of Unreason, including “rejecting anthropocentricity” and “a belief in the unity of mankind and nature, which has been destroyed by science (at least the narrow ‘reductionist’, as opposed to ‘holistic’ science) and by the handmaiden of science, technology.” But demoting humans doesn’t play out so well in practice.

An influential Australian real estate industry website, The Fifth Estate, recently ran an enthusiastic take on biomimicry and its offshoot in the field of urban planning and design, ‘biophilic urbanism’. Accompanied by a photo of an imposing termite hill, the piece cites work by the architect Mick Pearce, whose Council House 2 building (CH2) in Melbourne has a “heating, ventilation and cooling system … designed with strategies taken from a termite mound”. Termites must love the dark, though, since a Wikipedia profile of CH2 says “occupant satisfaction for lighting is average to poor”.

More troubling are the article’s references to Peter Newman of Perth’s Curtin University, a radical critic of low-density, car-dependant suburbia. Newman is an advocate of confining residential development to apartment blocks around railway stations. Unfortunately, he’s not a marginal figure, having been appointed to the board of Infrastructure Australia by former minister Anthony Albanese. According to the article, Newman holds up Singapore’s Streetscape Greenery Master Plan as a model of good urbanism, carving out a ‘seamless green mantle’ of parkway, coastal, forest and rural landscapes. “The positive element of biophilic urbanism,” he explains, “is that dense cities with high-rise buildings can perhaps provide even more opportunities to build biophilic urban ecosystems than low-density suburbia”. Open space is for birds, insects and vegetation, while humans must be piled up in concrete boxes.

That this entails a high degree of central planning doesn’t seem to matter. “Government incentives and R&D are all part of the mix … political leadership drives everything,” writes Newman. Others are even more explicit on this point. A book currently doing the rounds, Made In Australia: The Future of Australian Cities, written and edited by two academics at the University of WA, contains a chapter pushing the concept of ‘urban metabolism’. This is “a technique that considers the flow of water, energy, and materials into and out of a city the way one might observe the biological functions of an organism”. While the authors bemoan the “many examples of how [a] lack of central authority and coordination impacts decision-making about water and energy”, they are oblivious to the inherent authoritarianism of their ideas or the implications for civil and economic liberties.

Peter Gordon of the University of Southern California, a prominent urban economist and libertarian, rightly points out that “whereas central planning at the national level is not as fashionable as it was in years between the end of World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is not so for the planning of cities.” Urban planning remains the last bastion of command economics, a real concern given that cities account for 80% of GDP. No wonder Australians fear for their dreams of home ownership and social mobility. What hope is there, after all, when they are looked on as so many bugs crawling around the insides of a mud-heap?