Biomorphic Urbanism: A Guide for Sustainable Cities

Why ecology should be the foundation of urban development.

8 min readApr 18, 2019
Located along a formerly industrialized stretch of the Chicago River, the Wild Mile is a proposed 17-acre, floating eco-park that will create new opportunities for habitat restoration, education, and recreation. Image © SOM

By Peter J. Kindel

What will the world look like in 2050? Among many unknowns, one fact is certain: the future will be increasingly urban. According to a United Nations study, 70 percent of the world’s growing population, projected to reach 9.8 billion people by the middle of this century, will be living in urban areas. Accommodating this growth would require constructing the equivalent of nine cities the size of New York every year for the next 30 years — a staggering amount of buildings and infrastructure, built at a staggering pace. Architects and urban designers urgently need a framework to accommodate this growth, while protecting the ecological systems that sustain us. In light of these pressing challenges, designers must seize this moment to redefine the form of the 21st-century city.

Our patterns of urbanization must strengthen and restore natural systems, rather than diminish them.

Biomorphic urbanism offers a theoretical foundation for how we can design and build cities to meet these challenges, while also enhancing the human experience of cities. Our patterns of urbanization must strengthen and restore natural systems, rather than diminish them. If cities and regions can adopt this approach, then we could accommodate a growing global population, while protecting local ecosystems and building strong, supportive communities.

SOM’s design for India Basin in San Francisco aims to transform one of the city’s former industrial areas into an active waterfront. Image © SOM | Steelblue

What exactly do we mean when we say “biomorphic urbanism”? Derived from the root words bio, meaning life, and morph, meaning form, biomorphic urbanism can be defined as cities formed by life. It is closely related to the concept of biophilia, introduced in the late 20th century by psychologist Erich Fromm and later developed by biologist E.O. Wilson. This theory posits that humans have an inherent attraction to nature, based on a deep biological need for a physical connection to the natural world.

Since the late 1990s, biophilia has experienced a resurgence as a behavioral theory, driven by the perception that people are becoming ever more separated from nature — both physically and psychologically — in this era of technological saturation. This idea, in turn, has spawned “biophilic design,” an approach to architecture and urban planning that merges natural and man-made elements.

This rendering of the Seagull Island Master Plan, located in China’s Pearl River Delta, shows restored hydrological zones (darker green and blue areas) alongside agricultural and development sites. Image © SOM

However, if not implemented holistically, biophilic design can produce superficially “green” buildings that fall short of achieving a deeper environmental benefit. It is not enough for the built environment to look sustainable, through the addition of individual elements such as green roofs and walls. We need a more meaningful and comprehensive approach to the design of our cities — an approach that will protect ecological systems and regenerate the environment.

We can define “biomorphic urbanism” by a few core ideas:

  • All cities comprise two systems: ecological (including topography, vegetation, and water) and anthropogenic — that is, made by humans (including buildings, infrastructure, and culture).
  • Anthropogenic systems should be complementary to ecological systems.
  • For too long, anthropogenic systems have been dominant in how we plan cities. We must now retroactively shape our cities based on ecological systems.
  • Every city has unique ecologies and cultures. These should be expressed through the city’s architecture and urban form.
An aerial view of SOM’s master plan for Jigna Eco-community outside of Abuja, Nigeria. The urban design preserves ecosystems within and surrounding the development. Image © SOM | PixelFlakes

How should these ideas be put into action? Four simple principles can guide designers, planners, and policy makers in creating the sustainable cities of the future:

1. Restore Natural Systems

The preservation of ecological systems should determine where we choose to build.

2. Densify Urban Districts

We must build efficiently, compactly, and sometimes at higher densities, in order to efficiently use infrastructure and to preserve sensitive natural areas.

3. Diversify Land Uses

To support a multi-generational and mixed-income population, cities must provide a diverse mix of land uses and economic opportunities.

4. Connect Communities

We must create strong connections within and between communities, to support varied populations. These connections should be physical as well as digital.

Diagrams highlighting ecological and cultural assets in the Parkmerced Vision Plan, a neighborhood revitalization project in San Francisco. Image © SOM

From theory to practice

Building on these principles, we can begin to frame a method to apply the concept of biomorphic urbanism to new and existing cities. The biomorphic city should be developed in stages, with the natural environment as the first consideration.

Stage 1: Document ecological systems

Ecological systems include all natural features of a place, including water systems, animal habitats, topography, and climate. These systems must be carefully mapped according to scientific principles of biology, hydrology, and other fields of environmental study.

Stage 2: Create an ecological vision plan

Once mapped, these ecological systems must be organized into a network of conservation areas. This would typically include several distinct ecosystems, from upland watersheds which supply drinking water, to stream corridors that create ecological connections, to coastal estuaries that filter pollutants and provide food. The biological network should define where we choose to urbanize — and in turn, which natural areas to protect. If conceived and mapped carefully, the plan will not only protect sustainable natural resources, but also help us to avoid building in unsuitable areas, such as flood plains, wetlands, and areas of high fire risk.

Left: Preliminary sketch of river systems in the downtown core of Guiyang, China. SOM recommended restoring 28 kilometers of riverfront to create a green framework for the city. Right: Rendering of the Guiyang Nanming Riverfront Culture CBD Master Plan. Images © SOM

Stage 3: Define appropriate areas of urbanization

Following the ecological vision plan, we can define areas that are suitable for human habitation or other non-conservation purposes. This important step defines the form and the footprint of our cities and towns. In fact, the area required to sustain a growing population is fairly modest compared to all available land: building at the density of London’s metropolitan area, we could accommodate the entire world’s population of two billion new people in the land area equivalent of two United Kingdoms. This fact allows us to pursue aggressive global conservation measures. We can look to E.O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” concept for an appropriate rule-of-thumb: approximately 50 percent of a given locale should be set aside for ecological conservation, and the remaining 50 percent made available for urban development.

Stage 4: Define density and mix of land uses

We should clearly define the types of density and mix of land uses desired for a particular area. This does not mean that all urbanized areas must be high density. It means rather that the relative density of a place can increase to make the best use of infrastructure, such as roads and transit connections.

Stage 5: Create multiple mobility connections

Once development districts and zones of urbanization have been established, we must connect them via sustainable modes of transportation. The simplest and most conventional means of connection are roads. However, we must also invest in high-capacity rail connections — subway, light rail, or high-speed rail. Finally, bicycle and pedestrian connections must be elevated to a status equivalent to the car for transportation to be truly equitable moving forward.

Rendering of SOM’s proposal for a redesigned India Basin on the San Francisco Bay. Image © SOM

Stage 6: Preserve and enhance cultural character

All cities must preserve elements of their cultural heritage, and also foster the kind of vibrancy that allows culture to change and grow. It is the unique palimpsest of people, history, and traditions that gives each city its unique cultural signature. This in turn can inform how and what we build.

Stage 7: Create technological connections

“Smart city” concepts can provide an important overlay onto a good urban plan. But they are not a replacement for a well-crafted vision of place, based on unique local characteristics. Rather than applying technology as a digital panacea for all cities, technology must be customized to enhance the tactile qualities of each city and community. Technology augments culture; it does not replace it.

Stage 8: Implement sustainable infrastructure

The final stage of the planning process includes looking at new types of sustainable infrastructure. These could range from low-impact development strategies for stormwater, to new power systems and distribution networks. Given the pace of technological change, there are myriad opportunities for innovation in this area.

Good for people, good for the planet

The Kallang River channel running through Singapore’s Bishan Ang Mo Kio Park has been transformed in recent years from a concrete drainage canal into a restored river ecosystem. Led by Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl, this effort has allowed for the reintroduction of numerous native species, and has recast the park as a beloved public space. Photo by Wirbel1980, CC-BY-SA 3.0

If projections are accurate, the amount of development needed to sustain a growing population poses a daunting challenge. The imperatives of climate change only make the task more complex. But it is far from impossible. Biomorphic urbanism gives us a framework for reimagining our cities at multiple scales — from the everyday life of the individual, to the health of entire regions and ecosystems. These concepts can be applied to communities of any size, from small towns and villages to major metropolitan regions and emerging megacities.

Just as importantly, biomorphic urbanism proposes ways to reconsider quality of life. As we reconnect people with the places they inhabit, we might rediscover a basic but often overlooked fact: that ecological health and human well-being are not mutually exclusive, but instead fundamentally connected.

Peter J. Kindel is a Director of SOM’s City Design Practice based in San Francisco. His work is focused on the design of cities and their complementary relationship to transportation and environmental systems. Follow Peter on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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