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by Charles Howe

Patterns in natural environments are much more complex than the buildings and streets where we spend most of our time. The tiles, bricks, and shingles that form our cities are copies made from the same template and we don’t notice a difference between one brick and another. In nature there are no exact copies. We’ve all heard the adage that no two snowflakes are the same, well, this goes well beyond snowflakes. Plant species differ vastly in size and form each grows best under certain conditions and provides unique benefits to other organisms that share the same space. There is also variation within individuals which helps to shape the character of the species over time. This diversity even extends to the abiotic conditions where plants grow. Climate, micro-climate, geology, soil, water, vary in a few square yards and across a region.

Despite the complexity, natural environments have a sense of order.  For example, spacing between trees is determined by access to moisture, light, and nutrients. Without adequate spacing, new saplings cannot grow. Conversely when gaps form new growth quickly fills in. These ‘rules’ of forest ecosystems determine the seemingly complex layout and design of the ecosystem.

It’s not just ecologists who study these rules of nature. As long as humans have entered into the creative process we have looked to nature for inspiration. We study nature for examples of proportion, variation, and repetition which we incorporate in our art. In recent decades, advances in design software employing mathematical algorithms allow us to create patterns that gradually change and adapt to different variables, just as we might see in natural ecosystems. What’s more, digital fabrication provides a way to produce these patterns and create physical objects with a level of precision that is much greater than we can achieve by hand.   Although these products are “man-made” and completely artificial, the subtle variation in these patterns appears as complex as those found in nature.

This computational aesthetic has added visual complexity to our built environment and can be seen in items as diverse as tennis shoes and wallpaper. However, patterns in nature describe relationships in the ecosystem since everything is linked to a physical property. For example, a shift from trees to herbaceous vegetation in a forest might indicate shallow groundwater or a perched wetland. While you can understand and see these relationships and patterns in nature, studying computer generated patterns is often a dead end because variables were randomly generated or input arbitrarily by the designer. When these parametric designs incorporate a pattern that respond to actual physical conditions then they have the potential to create a truly notable product.

One such example in urban planning is the winning entry for the 2008 International Planning Competition in Longgang, China. Even without an explanation from the designers, Groundlab, we can see that the design adapts to the existing city fabric, the Longgang River, and connections with adjacent transportation infrastructure. Groundlab’s Longgang proposal demonstrates the possibility of using a detailed study of our natural environment to create a more interesting and diverse built environment.