Why cities should learn from nature : The case for biomimicry | FUTURE CAPE TOWN

“We’re stuck in a paradigm of not even realising we’re part of nature”

BM Workshop Silvermine 004

Can cities learn from nature? Shannon Royden-Turner unpacks the principles of biomimicry as a way to effectively and sustainably move cities forward.







“We’re stuck in a paradigm of not even realizing we’re part of nature” states Shannon Royden Turner, director at Actuality (formally know as in/formal south) during an interview in her Cape Town office on Long Street. With over 15 years of experience, Shannon’s works with local & provincial government, community members, community leaders, NGOs and corporate organisations to uncover solutions that consider the interrelationship between complex components of cities.

Biomimicry (life mimicking),  the principle which underlies Shannon’s work, achieves understandings and solutions through focusing on what society can learn and implement from nature’s 3.8 billion year old systems which have been evolving to optimize life on the planet in the most sustainable way.

Today, with the sustainability crisis faced in cities around the world, it is increasingly important for society and urban centres to shift its historical model of overpowering and controlling nature, to a model that is more integrated and knowledgeable of natural systems to bring cities forward.

Actuality applies the philosophies of biomimicry to solve complex urban challenges across a wide range of projects.

For Shannon, biomimicry is able to interpret cities as ecosystems with interconnected complexities and evolutionary cycles of growth. “Imagine the city is an ecosystem, moving from a pioneering system towards maturity – similar to how a burnt-out field changes and grows to become a lush forest. A pioneering system in nature responds to the context with a set of strategies, which is exactly the same set of strategies that cities have used. The key is to recognize that the context has shifted, and in nature when the context shifts the strategies also shift. An ecosystem shifts from a pioneering system to a mature system because of a shift in context. For humans to continue to survive and thrive we need to shift strategies to that of a mature system.”

Applying natural solutions to urban problems

In 2013, Actuality in partnership with biomimicrySA started working with the Western Cape Government to help facilitate the Berg River Improvement Plan (BRIP) and specifically focus on the Langrug informal settlement, – located 3km northwest of the centre of Franschhoek with a population of 4000 inhabitants. The aim of the project is to deal with the wastewater, stormwater and solid waste issues faced due to a lack of infrastructure. The Berg River is being polluted to the extent that it is threatening health standard requirements of exported agricultural, while also having significant negative health effects on residents and surrounding ecology. Informal Settlements, alongside agricultural practices, waste water treatment works and the destruction of the riparian zone, all contributed to the current state of water quality.

shannon 5Stages of tasks in Langrug project

“It’s was about a whole systems approach, which included extensive social processes. Capacity building towards organizing forums, structuring a solid waste committee and a water committee. For the community, this was part of developing capacity for the community to ultimately be able to take ownership of the project” explains  Shannon

community engagement community engagement 1 community engagement 3Langrug and Mbekweni community engagement

In collaboration with the expertise of John Todd Ecological Design, and the local communities, they collaborated todesign a solution which ensured water flows were managed holistically and following biomimicry principles so that water will be directed, treated and filtered into constructed ecosystems called living / eco machines. Rather than exporting the water to faraway sewage treatment centre, these ‘living gutters’ created local, natural systems that contribute towards the development of community as well as ecosystems building soil, providing shade, managing erosion and managing water.

Understanding nature’s thresholds in an urban sphere

In 2015, Actuality and biomimicrySA were commissioned by a partnership between the eThekwini municipality, Tongaat Hullett and Dube Trade Port in Durban, to develop a Resilience Framework for the Northern Spatial Area eThekweni.

Development in the future growth area had reached a stalemate over the conflict between development and ecology. The challenge at hand was to define a sustainable threshold of development while ensuring the ecological resilience, while also integrating environmental opportunities and considerations into design of the wetlands with a resilience framework for urban planning and design.

“We had to ask: how should they define where the green line is?”


The project consisted of three phases:

Phase 1: Understanding of the resilience-building priorities and conducting relevant research to understand the role of ecological systems and the built environment in reducing risk and enhancing urban resilience. They developed ecological performance criteria as a sustainability benchmark. Using investment modeling they calculated the metrics that a mature ecosystem would achieve in terms of ecological function and services, specifically around nitrogen and phosphorus flows, carbon storage and the hydrological cycle. The principles for resilient development within this context were also developed during this phase. A critical component of this phase included conflict resolution with a view to facilitating the development of co-operative relationships. There was also capacity building for the client partnership to understand the principles of biomimicry.

Phase 2: Developing a policy for delineating ecological infrastructure to ensure future resilience. The area was broken down into three core categories. The highest order of ecological infrastructure was delineated as areas of nurturing. This would traditionally have been referred to as conservation. Then there were areas of restoration where ecological infrastructure could be used as part of the urban infrastructure systems, such as restoring wetlands that could perform a function as part of the stormwater management system. Lastly there was an area for mimicking. This is the area of development that would mimic nature using life’s principles as a guide.

Phase 3: Develop land-use, storm-water and ecological infrastructure management guidelines using the resilience principles set out in phase 1.

shannon 1What the future of cities could be if we applied the principles of resilience.

 “We are facing a sustainability crisis because our context has shifted, but we haven’t shifted our strategies. In a complex system you need to figure out how things relate, it’s no longer sufficient to think about each component of the system on its own. Obviously a key component in our cities is infrastructure, but I don’t think the challenge is in how we redesign infrastructure systems, that is easy… the challenge is how we get people to evolve to be able to see, understand and enable a future vision based on what nature teaches us because it’s a different view of the world”.

Join the biomimicry movement:

Read more about sustainable upgrading:

Media Credits:

  1. (Shannon Royden-Turner doing field work): Actuality
  2. (Shannon Royden-Turner’s Ted Talk): TED Talks
  3. (Stages of tasks in Langrug project): Actuality
  4. (The Genious of Space video): biomimicrySA
  5. (Phase 1 and 2 to understand and propose solutions to the Northern Spatial Development plan): biomimicrySA
  6. (What the future of cities could be if we applied the principles of resilience): Actuality

About Lisa Novacek

Elizabeth was born and raised in Vancouver. Graduating high school in 2010, she moved to Prague to complete her bachelor in International Relations. In 2014, she traded the European city life for an 8 month municipal internship in rural Alberta where she developed an interest in urban planning and design.