What Can the Forest Teach Us About Community Resilience?

Lily Urmann
9 min readAug 20, 2021

Communities everywhere are facing immense challenges. Nature offers advice for how we can survive and adapt in the face of disaster.

Image courtesy Landon Parenteau via Unsplash.

Cities across the globe are experiencing an increase in frequency and intensity of disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, tsunamis, and even large-scale health crises. Response time and relief for communities affected by these disasters and emergencies is often limited and slow. Friction, or the processes and funding restrictions tied to relief efforts, impact the time and availability of resources that are available for people in places where a disaster occurs. A Forbes article elaborates: “At all phases of disaster preparation and response, friction plays a major part in how to effectively mitigate the impacts of these events. From the uncertainty and discomfort of emergency response decision making, which usually sees city and state leaders on camera exhorting their citizens to take heed. To the process of determining how scarce aid is disbursed after the fact, friction needlessly weighs down preparation and recovery efforts at a time when people are most vulnerable”.

We need new tools to respond to disasters and emergencies within our own communities and beyond.

What if the solutions for adapting to our climate emergencies already exist? We can look to successful strategies in the natural world — old-growth forest ecosystems — as guidance for how to best adapt and survive these local and global crises.

Enter NeighborNET. I began researching nature’s strategies for community resilience in my final semester of the ASU Biomimicry Master’s program. This sparked the idea for a tool that can help us better adapt to a changing climate.

Biomimicry is a methodology and approach to design and innovation that has incredible potential in every aspect of our lives. By tapping into the strategies that have been successful in the natural world for millions of years, humans can design more efficient and life-friendly technology. After all, 3.8 billion years of life on Earth is a lot of research and development that we can tap into. By observing, understanding, and translating how successful forests have survived in the face of disasters like flooding or fires, we can create better tools for organizing and resource sharing in our own communities during (and after) climate emergencies.

By asking “How would nature do this?”, biomimicry offers a new solution space for some of our toughest and most daunting challenges. The following sections diver deeper into a few specific strategies and mechanisms that address the primary functions: “How does nature share and distribute resources?” and “How does nature build resilience?”. NeighborNET focuses on looking to communication and resource sharing in forests* as inspiration for a technology that can enable humans to more effectively communicate and share resources in order to build resilience before, during, and after disasters. I include a short description in italics at the end of each section that explains how the NeighborNET technology will include lessons from these natural adaptations. One thing to note: this is just the beginning of integrating these lessons — we are further testing how we can develop and build the technology on the backend with deeper biomimetic principles. (If you are interested in joining the NeighborNET community to help us test our prototype and see these ideas in action, you can sign up through the website).

Much of my research began on AskNature: an incredible biomimicry database where one can search functions, strategies/mechanisms in nature, and human innovations that have been inspired and designed based on nature. If you want to learn more about our brilliant natural world, this is a great place to start.

*I have included a list of all sources (both publications and websites) at the bottom of this article for those interested in reading more.

HOW DOES NATURE… SHARE AND DISTRIBUTE RESOURCES?

Image courtesy Fredric Andersson via Unsplash.

COMMON MYCORRHIZAL NETWORK

All major terrestrial ecosystems around the world contain an underground network of fungi living in the soil, linking the roots of a variety of plants. There is a wide range of fungi species that can inhabit an area, and expand underground, attaching to the roots of different trees, shrubs, and other plants. These fungi play a crucial role in the ecosystem, enabling transfer of nutrients, water uptake, and defense signaling.

Mycorrhizal networks are very important to plant establishment and growth in an ecosystem. By linking plants to a common underground fungal network, they can share resources and also warn each other of pests or herbivory. The plants supply the fungi with carbon via source-sinks with other plants, and in exchange the fungi supply needed nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These communication pathways allow for the ecosystem to maintain resilience when there is a disturbance.

NeighborNET builds community connections between different nodes (organizations, local government leaders, etc.) and enables resource sharing to builds resilience through decentralization.

RHIZOMORPHS

Fungi are an important part of plant life and are major contributors to healthy ecosystems because they break down organic matter, build soil, and develop partnerships with plant roots. Many species of fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants, where they receive carbohydrates from the roots and in-turn provide the plant with additional water and nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium). Some species of fungi produce microscopic strings of cells called hyphae, which travel through the soil and colonize food sources. A rhizomorph is a rope-like structure that is the combination of many hyphal strands.

Rhizomorphs are on the growth tips of mycelium networks, and have a high surface area to volume ratio, enabling efficient nutrient uptake and distribution with plant neighbors. The rhizomorphs are able to increase growth and extend further into the soil, searching for and absorbing nutrients and water.

NeighborNET allows users and organizations to better reach the necessary resources through information and resource sharing (between individuals, community groups, non-profits, and local government), thus enabling organic and meaningful growth and development in a community.

NURSE SHRUBS

After a disturbance, it often takes a forest ecosystem many years, if not decades, to recover. Throughout each stage of succession, plants begin to regrow, stabilize soil, and make nutrients available again. Smaller plants colonize the landscape first, which pave the way for longer-lived shrubs and trees. There are reports that “nurse shrubs”, or plants (usually established shrubs) that support and provide resources for seedlings and saplings, are present in many ecosystems including: Mediterranean mountain, semiarid steppes, marches, tropical sub-humid forests, arid shrub- land, arid rangelands, and semiarid abandoned fields.

Established shrubs act as “nurses” to young seedlings or saplings that grow beneath them. The older and larger shrubs provide an ideal habitat for growth by creating shade and insulation from harsh weather. Additionally, the shrubs may share nutrients and water via their roots to the younger sapling, which ensures its survival and growth despite harsh conditions.

By showing which organizations in a community need additional supplies/ funding, NeighborNET will move resources from more established organizations with a surplus to those in need.

HOW DOES NATURE…. BUILD RESILIENCE?

Image courtesy Timothy Dykes via Unsplash.

MYCELIAL MATS

All forest ecosystems in the world, particularly in North America and southeastern Australia are impacted and shaped by wildfire. These areas have dry and hot summers, and regular lightning storms that can initiate fires with so much available flammable wood and shrub material available. Many fungi species play an important role in post-fire disturbance recovery for the soil stabilization and eventual plant species recolonization.

Fungi that are able to survive and colonize after a fire or disturbance help to stabilize the soil and make nutrients available, such as nitrogen, to other plant and animal species. Underground mycelial network mats also improve aeration and water infiltration in the soil, making it more hospitable to plant growth. Additionally, some fire-surviving fungi also act as important recovery mechanisms because they may have formed mycorrhizae with surviving trees before the fire and can facilitate regrowth. This early fungus involvement is a crucial component to the success and recovery of an ecosystem.

The NeighborNET app provides connection between users and organizations in their community, thus facilitating resource sharing before, during, and after emergencies and disasters.

MYCELIUM STRESS SIGNALING

Many regions of forests in North America are dominated by Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) and Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosae). Unfortunately, with a changing climate, longer hotter and dryer seasons are creating longer and more severe droughts; which creates conditions for the western spruce budworm to further effect the population. By sharing resources such as carbon, and warning other plants/trees around them with chemical signals, these two species can increase their survival rate in harsh conditions and after disturbances.

Trees have co-evolved with ectomycorrhizal fungi that are responsible for nutrient and water uptake in exchange for carbon; trees have also co-evolved with native insects and pathogens that enable them to respond to infections by producing an array of defense compounds. These underground fungal networks facilitate the exchange of phosphorus and nitrogen between species, and have been known to rapidly transmit nutrients from dying plants to healthy neighbors, providing a conduit for legacy transfer across generations. Additionally, mycorrhizal networks can broadcast biochemical messages of herbivore and pathogen-induced defense signaling compounds to warn neighbors of pest infestations.

After a disaster, NeighborNET can help move resources (through user engagement and interaction) from organizations with a surplus to those that need additional supplies/funding/etc.

Visit the NeighborNET site to learn more and join our community to see how we will fully integrate these lessons into the design.

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