Velcro, Thorny Devils, and Placemaking

Last April, en route to a conference of the International Economic Development Council in Washington, D.C., I encountered a feature story in National Geographic and became lost in the journey.  The topic? The history of Velcro.

Among other things.

Velcro (photographed up close, at right) was invented in 1948 by Swiss chemist George de Mestral who, according to the article, was inspired by the effectiveness with which burrs would become entangled in his dog's coat.  De Mestral could be counted as a pioneer among modern biomimeticists, who seek to create innovation based on the aerodynamic design of a fish's body, the ability of a thorny devil to "drink" by wicking water up its legs from the ground, or the way a desert beetle collects fog for needed moisture.

The thorny devil, and biomimetics generally, is important to urban planning and development, too. Ecology and the benefits of biological diversity are reflected in modern portfolio theory, which suggests the importance of holding multiple assets whose values fluctuate independently of each other.  Some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the current wave of foreclosures are those communities with monolithic development patterns – very similar single-family homes with limited or no proximity to commercial or retail services or other assets.  Builders and homeowners alike witnessed the positive side of life without diversification during the real estate boom, with values marching upward.  Today, the same parties are experiencing the negative side of the same approach, because a decline in prices for one type of land use is not mitigated by a diverse mix.

The capabilities of today's biomimeticists to understand the functions of plants and animals inspired a response of marvel from me. Human understanding of the complexity of the relationships among the flora and fauna around us is similarly advancing.  Placemakers shaping our cities and metro areas have much to gain from imitating nature, extending from building healthy human habitat to applying the lessons of diversity to our urban economic thinking. 

Photo courtesy of American Museum of Natural History. Map courtesy of Donjek.

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