Biodynamic Built Environments

Biodynamic is term that is used to describe a spirit, a life force, of working with the cycle of nature within a closed nutrient, self-regulating system that I will argue has important lessons for way humans think about cities. A cherry tree serves rich and eclectic purposes, providing fruit for birds, humans and other animals, beautiful flowers for insects, and materials that break down and decompose into nutrients that nourish micro organisms, insects, plants, and animals. A cherry tree is a Biodynamic species that enhances the ecology around it despite the mess it may make in the process. Biodynamism is a term that draws parallels between real estate/architecture’s heavy dependence on locational attributes and naturally occurring processes, like the cherry tree, in a way that highlights interesting questions about the way we design and build in cities today.  How does building standardization effect a projects character, and what does it mean for the essence of a place? Are economic goals, an early industrialist mentality of mass production, and the emphasis on cost saving being placed before other major components of a building project that effect its Biodynamism?

William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle state “the single minded cultivation of our species drastically reduces the rich network of ‘services’ and side effects in which the entire ecosystem originally engaged.” They highlight an issue in agriculture that could relate to cities in the same way I will try to relate wine to buildings. Biodynamic is most readily associated with viticulture, the cultivation of grapes, and the idea of terroir.  Based on the locational attributes of climate, sunlight, topography, geology, and hydrology, a holistic combination of all of these is held to give each site its own unique terroir.  For wine, this means retaining a taste, texture, and aroma that cannot be precisely replicated elsewhere.  While technology can unify standards by improving quality, paradoxically these same improvement can serve to unmask genuine differences due to terroir.  The essential notion of biodynamism is that components are natural, and they cannot be significantly influenced by management.  But by observing, anticipating, and maintaining a personal connection to the land, humans can participate in the process of Biodynamism, even enriching and being enriched by the process.  Like wine, buildings are location specific, and can either have characteristics of somewhereness or nowhereness.  When a city begins to simplify its built environment ecosystem, replacing complex natural communities with relatively simple forms based on a few strains, Biodynamism is compromised.

In Rio de Janeiro, the informal settlements are nothing to be glorified, but they do conjure a form of organic complexity that sits in stark contrast to the controlled and limited building typology in Seattle’s neighborhood commercial zones or the formal parts of Rio like Botafogo, Copacabana, or Ipanema.  In a regulated built environment, you know exactly what to expect, things are comfortable. Is architecture a reflection of a type of ‘market terroir’? Or is it a reflection of culture? Can Biodynamism be present in a formal urban setting?

Resourceful Dysfunction: Commuting in Rio

Stepping out of the airport into a wall of hot air, my senses sharpened as I walked towards the car and prepared myself to journey through Rio de Janeiro for the first time.  What I didn’t realize was that I was about to witness an idiosyncratic form of resourcefulness through the way people commute. The main highway from the international airport to the city center was packed with sluggish traffic that seemed oddly fluid and meandering as drivers totally ignored the lane markers on the road to maneuver seamlessly in order to gain position. Every inch of space was being harnessed in a chaotic ballet where awareness and vigilance kept cars from colliding with one another as they hastened their way along the freeway.

Among the cars were motorcycles, daringly weaving in between cars at perilous speeds, and waiting patiently for the flow to cease were merchants, strapped with snacks and beverages, who would go window to window capitalizing on the hundreds of passing customers.  The scene made traffic seem as complicated as it possibly could have been while still maintaining functionality. It was ironic how well something as clumsy and stressful as traffic could be so gracious. Later in the week I found this smooth yet maximum stress was echoed in the bus system as well.

The busses ran through the tangle of roads with intensity, and without designated lanes like the bus rapid transportation in Curitiba, a city 100 km south of Rio, they has to in order to be efficient enough for people to ride them.  People stand at designated bus zones that border busy road and flag down the bus they wanted, sometimes nearly jumping in front of the bus to stop it. Loading and unloading is as swift as it possible with busses decelerating with a skid and accelerating at full throttle as passengers simultaneously boarded and disembarked.  In between stops busses traveled swift, I mean blistering for such large vehicles. Going around turns it looked like these busses were about to tip over. Google maps would indicate a 45 minute journey, the bus got there in 25. Payment was made to a separate attendant sitting behind the driver who would tender change, allowing the bus to take off as soon as passengers got on. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that the urgent driving is a result of the bus drivers being specifically trained to drive aggressive because they have a quota for the number of passengers they pick up during the course of a day. A Carioca (local) told me that in 2011 there were 126 accidents which caused death or injury and in 2012 there were 84.

What all of this fluid chaos showed is that a larger systematic change is needed in the way people traveled around the city, and it might be possible if there was the will to improve, but with the way these actors were hacking the current system, it seems unlikely that any will participate in that change.  Instead people are choosing to work as efficiently as possible within the existing system, and with impressive albeit aggressive results. Perhaps there is a theme emerging about Brazilian society, resourcefulness. Doing the most with what they have.

Informal Entrepreneurs in Brazil

Informalities are common in Brazil.  Perhaps the most famous of them are the favelas, or informal settlements, that present a striking image of self-made structures sitting on impossible terrain, sometimes in stark contrast to clean high-rises in close proximity. These images are often used to describe the inequality that is rampant in parts of the developing world, and to a great effect! But what is not described are the opportunities for people coming from lower class communities to create their own jobs that fill odd demands, and due to an unusually high level of greater social acceptance and legal lackadaisicalness, these jobs are possible. A deregulated, informal environment in Brazil has made the barrier of entry low for individuals to generate income by providing a service that has social value.

The moment I recognize this was when I was with a friend going to see live music at a samba club nearby where we are staying. We decided to drive because there was no good metro connection, an unusual situation in a city that is very well serviced by public transportation.  When we pulled up there were a couple guys running up and down the block assuming the role of self-proclaimed street parking attendant! They would signal to see if you were looking to park, and if you nodded yes, they had a system to identify an open parking spot in the vicinity, direct you to that spot, and do what our friends usually do if we are not good at parallel parking: keep an eye on how close you came to the cars in font of and behind your vehicle as you maneuver into place. Once parked, they demand whatever change one could spare for their assistance, essentially creating an informal “parking assistant” job for themselves.  Socially, the ‘customer’ in the vehicle is totally okay with tipping because, however menial, the informal parking assistant made the parking task easier and more convenient. I was intrigued at their ability to just create a job for themselves out of this air and make it work! I started to see this everywhere.

There are the people who sell things on the beach, the people who take out and sort your waste, the corner carts that sell produce, or the household laborers who bike around pulling a cart of tools, shouting the specific household repair services they specialize in like the hot dog guy at a ball game. Anything that you can think of that makes life more convenient, there is a person who created an income generating job from it. Furthermore, Accepting food as payment is also a common practice here and for how unglorified these jobs may seem, at the very least the people working them have the opportunity to make a living wage being their own boss. A rarity in the USA. The difference between here and the US is people do not judge them like they do the guy in New York who washes car windows at a red light.  You don’t need a permit for any of these activities in Brazil, or at least the police are not enforcing the laws that say you do.  Socially, the middle class areas find value in the convenience and competitive price, and legally, it detours them from selling illicit goods.

One might describe this economic awareness to identify a demand, whether people know is or not, and make a living from it as a crude form of entrepreneurship where the goal is not to build an empire, but instead to make a living wage.  The argument against informal economic activity usually hovers around threats to public safety, but the other side of the equation is that tacking inequality also means creating opportunities for people to take control of their own future. Informal opportunities bypass bureaucratic barriers and make it socially acceptable to use these services. What happens is organic, and in this socioeconomic environment, it allows people to always have the opportunity for employment, despite how unfair the realities of the situation might be.