how biology is helping humans reimagine our cities in trying times

Biological metaphors of the city abound on a daily basis. You may live near a “highway” or in the “heart” of a metropolis. You can work in one of the city’s “nerves” or exercise in a park described as the “lungs” of the city.

The easy use of such metaphors indicates an underlying naturalism in our reflection on the city. Naturalism is a belief that a single theory unites natural and social systems.

Historically, this way of thinking has helped us deal with complex urban challenges. Today, as cities around the world face new challenges, new urban visions are once again needed.

The effects of climate change, such as extreme heat, pose a direct challenge to cities. Additionally, climate change is causing people to move from rural areas to cities, putting pressure on urban infrastructure. So let’s see how organic ideas are useful in building cities that can withstand these challenges.

“The Fortified Man” – a 15th century city concept by Francesco Di Giorgio Martini.
Turin Royal Library.

The city as a body

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the understanding of blood circulation and other bodily functions crystallized. This knowledge could fuel an Enlightenment vision in which urban components reflect the functions of different parts of the body.

The image on the right shows the urban vision of Italian military engineer Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501).

He believed that cities should be planned with the center of government located at the “head” – the noblest part of the body. From an elevated position – metaphorically and sometimes physically – the governments could both be protected and watch over the rest of the city body.

According to the thought of di Giorgio Martini, a temple should be located in the “heart” of the city to guide his spirit. And the piazza should be located in the “belly”, guiding the instinct of the city and mixing the populace.

Countless medieval and Renaissance towns include a citadel on a hill. But this type of city thinking culminated in the 20th century when the Franco-Swiss urban planner known as Le Corbusier designed a city with a decision-making “head,” separate from the residential and industrial “innards.”

This inspired new capitals such as Brasilia (Brazil) and Chandigarh (capital of a northern Indian state).

Historically, planners have also drawn on the understanding of a single organ. As shown in the image below, architect Pierre Rousseau designed the French city of Nantes with a center that functioned as a “heart” and pumped goods and people through it.

But such biological and scientific thinking could also reinforce social divisions.

During the 17th century plagues in Florence and Rome, for example, the poor were seen as inferior organs that attracted and even engendered disease. As a result, they were locked up in hospitals far from the city – a move that medical experts at the time likened to the surgical removal of a weak body part.

Drawing of the city center in heart
Plan of Rousseau Pierre from 1760 for the city of Nantes with a heart in the center.
Municipal Archives of Nantes

City cells

The scientific discovery of the cell later produced a series of urban analogies in the 20th century.

The diagram below shows the vision for upstate New York drawn by city planner Henry Wright in 1926. He envisioned a “fabric” of urban development that fed on clusters of recreational woods, encouraging healthy activity and a good life for suburban residents.

Drawing of a city made up of cells
Henry Wright was inspired by the idea of ​​the city made up of “cells”.
Report of the New York State Housing and Regional Planning Commission (1926)

For Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen, healthy communities were analogous to healthy cells. But this thinking had a downside.

Saarinen believed that city slums could be treated in the same way as cancers – effectively “excised” by moving them out of the city center to “revitalise” the urban center. The poor and racial minorities have borne the brunt of this reflection.



Read more: Up on a roof: Why New Zealand’s move towards greater urban density should see a rooftop revolution


New Urban Naturalism

In a 2017 book, influential physicist Geoffrey West proposes that hidden laws govern the life cycle of everything from plants and animals to our cities.

Such reflection shows how relevant naturalism in urban planning remains in the 21st century.

For other examples, it suffices to refer to the concept of “smart city”, in which the performance of a city in areas such as public transport flows and energy consumption are carefully monitored. This data can be used to make the city “smarter” – improving government services and citizen well-being, and producing indices such as walk scores and quality of life.

The contemporary Belgian architect Luc Schuiten pushes the concept of living city to its extreme logic in his conception of a “green city”.

According to Schuiten, cities should not be built with materials but with the products of a viable local ecosystem. This may mean first growing a native tree, then constructing a building around it.

artist's impression of trees growing on buildings
Schuiten proposed the idea of ​​a “vegetable city”.

Schuiten’s idea reflects ancient approaches in cities such as the city of Sana’a in Yemen, where high-rise buildings are made from mud bricks – a durable material suited to the city’s hot climate. Schuiten goes further by abolishing the builders’ agency and handing it over to the factories.

Naturalistic thinking offers us a powerful set of visions for the good city of the future. But just as seventeenth-century naturalism was a double-edged sword, so it is today.

For example, the rise of the smart city promises a lot to citizens, but offers even more to large corporations and corporations.



Read more: Smart city or not? Now you can see how yours compares


And as with any application of science, naturalistic thinking in contemporary cities must ensure the protection and support of marginalized and disadvantaged groups.

COVID-19 provides another reason to apply a more naturalistic approach to urban planning. Perhaps seeing the city as a living organism would have left authorities better placed to deal with the spread of the pandemic in urban centers.

And among the general population, a more naturalistic understanding of our urbanized selves might have meant that the decisions of governments and chief medical officers were easier to accept.


Marco Amati is the author of the recent book The City and Superorganism: a history of naturalism in urban planning

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