Feeding Cities: Learning Sustainable Design from Bees and Termites

Opening the Feeding Cities conference this morning, University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus Robert Giegengack noted that insects can teach us a thing or two about sustainable cities.

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As the 2013 Feeding Cities conference unfolds this week in Philadelphia, Next City, a media partner for the event, will feature regular updates from bloggers covering its talks and workshops.

“In my 25 years as an amateur bee keeper,” said Robert Giegengack, professor emeritus of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, as he opened the Feeding Cities conference this morning, “I’ve learned that other animals have addressed the issues of sustainable urban agriculture.”

It may sound strange, but there is a lot we can learn from how insects go about their business. As you probably already know, bees produce honey using the nectar from plants, storing it in their bee hive to eat then convert into energy. During the summer months, when nectar is plentiful, the bees go about their work, stockpiling honey for those months when they are less equipped to produce it.

However, food alone is not enough for bees to survive the cold winter months. Bees are furry and naturally well-insulated due to air settling in their coats, but when temperatures really plummet they huddle closely together, benefiting from the extra insulation offered by being in a large group.

Essentially, bees have built themselves a self-sufficient city, relying on density for survival. We may not need to huddle quite as closely as the bees do, but dense urban living brings us the same benefits as it does Giegengack’s bee hives.

The great ideas don’t stop there. Termite mounds inspired the design for the Eastgate Centre, a building in Harare, Zimbabwe. The termite community in Zimbabwe (and elsewhere) knows a thing or two about making the most of natural resources, building their mounds with flues in the top and sides for air flow, and building the mounds themselves to catch the breeze. The Eastgate Centre followed a similar approach, resulting in a series of chimneys and fans that allow air to passively cool the building and keep cooling costs at just 10 percent of that of a conventionally cooled building.

Insects probably don’t have the answers to all the challenges we face as we transition to sustainable urban living, but they’ve certainly got a few.

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Tags: urban designsustainable citiesanchor institutions

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