Nature as Model

 

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Principles.html
Nature is the model and context of design. Designing with nature as a model is a strategy for reducing harmful impacts to cells, organisms, ecosystems, bioregions and the biosphere. A design that allows man-controlled and natural processes to work hand-in-hand has a better chance at survival, will cost less to maintain, and will use fewer outside inputs of energy and time than a design that goes against natural processes. Diversity in numbers of elements and useful connections, edges to create productive interfaces between areas and stacking of plants in three dimensional space and time are natural models that may be used to advantage. 

Designing to mimic natural succession provides nature with the opportunity to assist with changes in the design and provides for an evolutionary process to take place. This is a relatively new concept in Western design approaches. Most of the landscape we see around us is highly controlled, being 'maintained' at a juvenile level of development. The cost in energy and time is enormous as grass is mowed weekly and non-native plants are trained, pruned and sprayed to keep them under control, or even living. In some regions, water for irrigation becomes a major resource user and cost. Using natural forces rather than trying to overcome them is a sound design approach. 

We might look around us at natural landscapes in choosing elements for a design. The elements in these natural landscapes are there because they are adapted to the region and because there is a niche for them to fill. A design may reflect nature in its 'composition' -- the elements that are in the design; 'structure' -- the arrangement of elements; and 'function' -- what the elements do in the design. 

An example landscape: 
Tunica Hills, Louisiana, landscape components include flat surfaces dissected by steep sided, but plant covered, ravines; trees, vines, shrubs and herbaceous plants; and small mammals, birds and insects. There are always dead trees or snags in these landscapes. Water is normally intermittent but does collect in small depressions and pools along a water course. 

Landscape structure is how the parts go together. The Tunica Hills forest usually has about seven layers of plants from ground surface to canopy. Through observation we find that the distribution of elements is not random and the composition of plants is in patterns. Patterns are related to soil, moisture, solar orientation, wind exposure or other factors. 

Understanding function , or what things do in the landscape, may be somewhat more difficult. Besides observation, detailed study of elements may be necessary. In the example landscape, it is easy to see that the pools provide collection and slow release of water back to the areas around them, that the snags are providing a home for insects and decomposers, that the leaf layer on the ground is serving as a mulch and composter and that the small borrowing animals are serving to mix and aerate the soil. Further study might show us which plants are companions, nitrogen fixing, attracting birds and beneficial insects, or serving other roles.

There is little chance of our being able to pattern our design on natural systems unless we take the time to observe and study landscapes in our region. Through an understanding of our bioregion we can accelerate succession and change by "using what is already growing to build soil fertility," "introducing plants that will easily survive on the site and which will help build soil fertility," "raising organic levels artificially by using mulch, green manure crops, compost and fertilizer to change the soil environment," and "substituting our own herb, pioneer, and climax species which are of more use to us than the existing natural or disturbed vegetation." (Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay, Introduction to Permaculture, pg. 24)