The Meaning of Water in the City

Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain—Leonardo daVinci


biomimetic building

I’m a science fiction author.

The Eosian alien race in my “Splintered Universe” trilogy live 100% sustainably in a cooperative and synergistic partnership with their environment on the planet Eos. This includes intelligent organic houses with self-cleaning floors and walls, heated, fueled and lit by organisms in a commensal relationship. Everything works on a natural cycle of harmonious renewal and natural evolution.

Science fiction? Think again. Science fiction is turning into fact.

“Living” Buildings

green school stockholm

Green school in Stockholm

Architects Bob Berkebile and Jason McLennan wrote, “In the future, the houses we live in and the offices we work in will be designed to function like living organisms, specifically adapted to place and able to draw all of their requirements for energy and water from the surrounding sun, wind and rain.  The architecture of the future will draw inspiration, not from the machines of the 20th century, but from the beautiful flowers that grow in the landscape that surrounds them.”(The Living Building: Biomimicry in Architecture, Integrating Technology with Nature).

Humans have been getting ideas from other animals and plants since long before Leonardo DaVinci wrote the quote at the top of my article. Application of these ideas has been haphazard, and not particularly aimed at green design. Janine Benyus, leading proponent of nature-based design, first proposed in her book “Biomimicry” that learning from nature would be the perfect tool for eco-design. Engineering inspired by nature can be “functionally indistinguishable from the elegant designs we see in the natural world,” says Benyus, who founded the Biomimicry Institute to research and educate the world on sustainable biomimetic design.

Biomimicry & Nature-Based Design

Promises abound: glass that “breathes” like gills. Solar cells that imitate photosynthesizing leaves. Ceramics with the tough strength of abalone shells. Self-assembling computer chips that form in ways similar to how tooth enamel grows, adhesives that mimic the glue that mussels use to anchor themselves in place, and self-cleaning plastics based on a lotus leaf.

Sustainable architecture will take “its cue from the original green: Nature,” says Blaine Brownell in the March 2009 issue of Discover Magazine. It makes sense when you look at Nature’s proven track record.biomimicry-technology

Biomimicry is already being applied in large-scale challenges.

Brownell reports that the Kyoto-based company Kyosemi developed a power-harvesting solar cell that imitates the way trees collect sunlight. Called Sphelar, the product is made up of little spherical cells that can be incorporated into a building’s windows. Unlike standard photovoltaic panels, Sphelar absorbs light from many directions, providing more consistent power generation as the sun moves across the sky. Similarly, Osaka University used the example of the forest canopy to cool buildings (e.g., the Frontier Research Center).

The think tank The Living is developing a product called Kinetic Glass, based on animal respiratory systems and made with a slit silicone surface that lets air pass through. Its tiny sensors detect levels of certain gases and opens or closes its “gills” accordingly.

photocatalytic cement

Scientists are taking their cue from the air-purifying ability of plants and fungi to create barriers that not only reduce noise but remove harmful substances. Imagine, for instance, concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide, highway barriers that break down smog, and paint that eliminates odors in the room. Architects Douglas Hecker and Martha Skinner of the design studio Fieldoffice created the SuperAbsorber highway barrier that reduces local airborne pollution through a process known as photocatalyzation. Italcementi, an Italian maker of photo­catalytic cement, claims that the airborne pollution of a large city could be cut in half if pollution-reducing cement were to cover just 15 percent of urban surfaces.

There are two things missing in this scenario of “sustainable architecture”. In their absence, the longevity of our continued existence will be threatened and the success of green design will falter. One is the concept of synergy and the other is the role humanity—particularly our communities—will play in this partnership. In my book, Collision with Paradise, the alien race discovered by my hero had formed a true synergistic relationship with nature. They had not just copied some of her tricks or mimicked her cool attributes. They had formed a natural and respectful synergistic partnership with Nature. This is not the same as using Nature’s tools, per se, to improve on old designs. Because, in truth, it is not so much tools like biomimicry that is required; what is needed is a true paradigm shift in how we relate to our environments, from our bedrooms to our communities. I am referring to “symbiotic design”, a living design that incorporates all aspects of a community.

Ecology-Based Symbiotic Design

eastgate zimbabwe-termite mound

Eastgate, Zimbabwe & termite mound

Researchers at the University of Melbourne, John R.J. French and Berhan M. Ahmed, respectfully touch upon this concept when they discuss a human-termite design partnership. They explore the termite model, which meets all nutrition, energy, waste, disposal needs, shelter, and food sources in a true symbiotic relationship; and they are applying it to how we design our buildings. The Eastgate Centre building in Harare Zimbabwe, already mimics the way tower-building termites construct their mounds to maintain a constant temperature. Engineers copied the way the insects constantly open and close vents in the mound to manage convection currents of air and the building consumes less than 10% of the energy used in a similar sized conventional building. “We need to emulate the symbiotic abilities of termites to survive over time, for we all live on this symbiotic planet, and symbiosis is natural and common,” French and Ahmed remind us.

The term “sustainable architecture” describes environmentally-conscious architectural design, framed by the larger concept of environmental and economic responsibility. This implies responsible leadership and strong partnership with community tied to respect for Nature. Without educated citizens embracing the concept of “symbiotic design” and personal involvement, we simply continue the same cycle of unhealthy consumerism and the irresponsible concept of a user society taped together by piecemeal, disconnected and ultimately failed “green technology”. This is why designs like pollution-cleaning concrete suggest a limited solution to a larger challenge. For instance, this technology could be construed by some as permission to keep polluting—something or someone else will take care of it, after all. It reminds me of one of my pet peeves: littering. At its root is the lack of partnership and respect of the community and individual for his or her environment from his own back yard to some foreign city being visited abroad.

eden-project-2-UKTo succeed, green concepts need to be fully embraced by the community in which they are applied. This is best accomplished through the larger framework of green city planning and community education. Educating the public and promoting community responsibility and involvement is key. It isn’t enough to know the how; we need to know why to make it work.

The best “green” community initiatives are ultimately “water” initiatives. Green rooftops, rain gardens, community and curbside gardens, green streets have in common that they encompass communities—fueled, energized and connected by larger ecosystem processes: nutrient cycles and water cycles.

All of these majorly involve the hydrological cycle—coupled to vegetation. Vegetation provides a buffer stage in the water cycle, diffusing intense precipitation through temporary retention. Evapotranspiration through leaves increases moisture in the air, acting as a cooling agent during hot weather.

The Forest-Water Engine

green roof cityTrees are highly evolved water management specialists, writes Jim Robbins, author of The Man Who Plants Trees. “A forest is a soft carpet on the landscape that allows a downpour to reach the ground gently rather than in a torrent… They are natural reservoirs—as much as a hundred gallons of water can be stored in the crown of a large tree. The water they release is part of a largely unrecognized water cycle.”

Trees are the lungs and air conditioners of our biosphere. Scientists in Germany and the UK demonstrated that trees create and release atmospheric aerosols—biogenic volatile organic compounds such as alcohols, esters, ethers, carbonyl, terpenes, acids and other compounds—that essentially filter the sun’s radiation; and they do other things we still don’t understand. Terpene aerosols help create clouds and produce an albedo effect, one that reflects more sunlight back into space. One large tree, for instance, produces the cooling effect of ten room-sized air conditioners operating 24 hours a day.

Russian physicists Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov argued in 2007 that forests make rain. Their meteorological theory states that forests function as biotic pumps; they not only function as carbon sinks or havens of biodiversity, but also provide an essential role in the hydrological cycle and climate.

Green Roof Bylaw in Toronto

Roofs make up a significant portion of a city’s surface area (14% in NYC; 21% in Toronto)—raising the temperature of the urban environment and pushing up demand for electricity in the summer.

greenroofIn May 2009 the City of Toronto, Canada, issued a bylaw and supplementary construction standards requiring all new developments greater than 2,000 square meters in gross floor area to install a green roof. The bylaw was the first of its kind in North America and plays a pivotal role in the development and construction industry in Toronto. The city introduced the bylaw to reduce costs associated with processing storm water runoff and to gain energy savings from the cooling potential of vegetation cover and to improve air quality from the reduction in carbon dioxide and increased production of ozone.

Major benefits of green roofs include:

  • improved storm water retention (by intercepting rain, absorbing and retaining storm water)
  • reduced urban “heat island effect” through evaporative cooling
  • insulated buildings, moderating hot and cold temperatures and reducing energy use
  • release of oxygen, countering of excess carbon dioxide and generating healthy air
  • extended life-span of roof from 15 to 30 years

Green roof of Esri, Toronto

There are currently about 135 green roofs in Toronto and as many under construction. “If even just five percent of the roofs in the city were green, you’d get a one-percent drop in city temperature,” said Alex Miller, executive with Esri Canada, a GIS software company in Toronto that has a green roof, housing over 53 types of trees, grasses, sedums, shrubs, herbs and flowers).


Esri’s roof cost $200,000, or about $270 a square foot, to build. “Some law firms spend that much on their lobby,” said Miller. The largest benefits for Esri come from the enriched and calming experience employees enjoy by having access to the living natural world from their workstations. “There are some cost savings but the main benefit is the aesthetics,” said Miller. “It makes a difference in the way people work together.”

green roof-toronto city hall

Green roof, Toronto City Hall

Steven Peck, president of Toronto-based Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, tells us that it is the water contained in the growing medium, not the vegetation, that provides the main cooling effect of a green roof.


The Green Roof Innovation Testing (GRIT) Lab at the University of Toronto headed by Liat Margolis (director) are investigating the environmental performance of green and clean technologies such as green roofs, green walls and photovoltaic arrays. Located in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at UofT, GRITLab aims to elucidate the complex living architectures in the city. Their Green Roof Research is currently evaluating Toronto’s Green Roof Construction Standard through four performance criteria: 1) storm water retention; 2) evaporative cooling; 3) biodiversity; and 3) life cycle cost. 35 test beds compare and manipulate four parameters (e.g., growth media; depth; vegetation; and irrigation) instrumented with thermal and moisture sensors, a rain gauge and infrared radiometer, where data is analyzed against base-climate data from an onsite weather station.

Things to consider when building a green roof:

  • Growing medium to a depth of at least 10 cm or more: even though seven cm is the accepted minimum for plant life, the City of Toronto’s green roof bylaw calls for a minimum depth of 10 cm. Deeper growing medium allows more types of plants to grow and it significantly increases the cooling effect. But it adds disproportionately more weight that must be supported by the building’s structure, which adds to the cost. “When you get to six inches [15 centimetres] you can increase the plant diversity and at 12 inches [30 centimetres] you can plant small shrubs,” says landscape architect Scott Torrance.
  • A three-week source of water supply with irrigation: a source of water is necessary to help establish and sustain plants during extended dry periods.
  • An ecosystem that helps control the growth of weeds: by providing a variety of plant types that will vie with each other to adapt to each roof’s microclimates.
  • Biodiversity to create a sustainable garden: a rare bee has been discovered on the York University computer science building’s large green roof. Torrance is pleased that spiders have established themselves in some of his gardens.
  • Good design to overcome challenges: on the Esri roof, landscape architect Scott Torrance used growing medium in different depths. Over the main support pillars of the building, a greater depth allowed trees such as Scotch pines to be planted.

Chicago ranks number 1 of North American cities for square footage of green roofs installed.


Banting, Doug Hitesh Doshi, James li, Paul missios, angela au, Beth Anne Currie, and Michael Verrati. 2005. “report on the Environmental Benefits and Costs of Green roof Technology for the City of Toronto.” City of Toronto and Ontario Centres of Excellence – Earth and Environmental Technologies (OCE-ETech).

Bartholomew, Alick. 2010. “The Spiritual Life of Water”. Park Street Press, Rochester Vermont. 338 pp.

BCiT Centre for architectural Ecology. 2012. “What is the History of Green Roofs?” British Columbia Institute of Technology. accessed 23 September 2014. greenroof/faq/what-is-the-history- of-green-roofs/.

Benyus, Janine. 2002. “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”. William Morrow Paperbacks. 320 pp.

Berndtsson, Justyna Czemiel. 2009. “Green roof Performance Towards management of runoff Water Quantity and Quality: a review.” Ecological Engineering 36, no. 4: 351-60.

Brownell, Blaine. 2009. “title”. Discover Magazine, March Issue.

Green roof Technology: Form and Function. 2014. “History of Green Roofs.” Green Roof Technology. Ac- cessed September 10, 2014. http:// tory-of-green-roofs.

Liu, Karen K.Y. 2002. “Energy Efficiency and Environmental Benefits of rooftop Gardens.” national research Council Canada – institute for Research in Construction. Ottawa, Ontario.

Munteanu, Nina. 2011-2013. “The Splintered Universe Trilogy. Starfire World Syndicate / Pixl Press.

Perkins, Tara. 2012. “Toronto leads north american High-rise Construction.” The Globe and Mail, October 2012. accessed August 24, 2014. http:// on-business/economy/housing/ toronto-leads-north-american-high- rise-construction/article4629888/.

Robbins, Jim. 2012. “The Man Who Plants Trees”. Spiegel & Grau, New York. 256 pp.

Spracklen, Dominick V., Boris Bonn, and Kenneth S. Carslaw. 2008. “Boreal Forests, Aerosols and the Impacts on Clouds and Climate”. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 366: 4613–4626.


Green roof, Norway

A portion of this article is an excerpt from Water Is…The Meaning of Water (Pixl Press) on sale worldwide May 10, 2016

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books.

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