Welcome to Greenbelt Alliance’s new series, Bay Area Innovation Leaders, focusing on individuals and organizations doing transformative, innovative work at the intersection of conservation and smart growth. We are excited to learn from their work, potentially partner with them in achieving our shared goals, and generally educate our readers about the ways in which these leaders are transforming their areas of the world for the better.
To kick off our series, meet Richard Fisher—a Vallejo local who is applying the principles of biomimicry to community building. Richard’s background in engineering and education in biomimicry trained him to think at the systems level—to see how all of the interrelated and interconnected components of a city like Vallejo can be leveraged to create a cohesive sense of place and a thriving city. He has spent the last two years studying unique ecosystems—from the Canadian Rockies to the rainforests of Costa Rica—with an interdisciplinary team, seeking innovative solutions to the social challenges of our time.
Our Solano County Intern Agnes Lo and Solano County Regional Representative Amy Hartman interviewed Richard several weeks ago at the new Provisions cafe in downtown Vallejo.
Biomimicry, as Richard describes it, is the practice of emulating biological forms, processes, and systems to address human challenges. He is particularly keen on applying this innovation to enable cities to function like ecosystems. For example, parts of cities—including buildings, streets, parks, industry, community programs, etc.—can be induced to perform ecological functions that serve the larger whole. This includes filtering water, cycling nutrients, cleaning the air, fostering biodiversity, storing water, building healthy soil, and regulating local temperatures like local native ecosystems.
Companies have begun to understand the economic value of the services that ecosystems provide—“how much would it cost a company to purify water like a watershed would for free?” Puma and other future-facing companies are conducting environmental profit and loss (EP&L) reports on the impacts of doing business. The environmental loss is readily understood—Puma is measuring exactly how much clean water, a gift from the watershed, it uses or pollutes to create a shoe. Richard is working on how to enhance the environmental profit side of the equation—“How much clean water can a product, company or city create for its watershed?”
“By challenging cities to meet or exceed the ecological performance of local native ecosystems, cities can become generous contributors of conditions that foster a safer, healthier and more resilient world. Not only do our local native ecosystems provide metrics for resilience, they also provide a model for how to get there.
In addition to ecological performance, a city can set social performance standards based on community values like those of Vallejo’s recent General Plan Update Guiding Principles. Strategies for addressing these social aspirations can be sourced from native ecosystems as well as nature is teeming with models of anything from coordinating housing, to cycling resources, to cultivating community.”
With these social and ecological performance standards, cities can evaluate decisions based on the extent to which they positively or negatively affect progress toward their social and environmental goals. This degree of transparency would empower communities with tools to hold decision-makers accountable and gives them the information they need to push for policies that align with community values. Perhaps most exciting is that achieving ecological performance can provide a means for achieving social performance and vice versa. As an example, Richard ties the two together by asking, “How can filtering water, sequestering carbon, supporting biodiversity, etc. create meaningful jobs, increase access to healthy food, and lift people out of poverty?”
With this type of thinking, meeting these aspirational goals in Vallejo provides a pathway for social innovation, new jobs, and more social engagement. These benefits can also help promote more sustainable culture, lift people out of poverty, and enhance the community’s quality of life as a whole. Richard is currently working with Sustainable Solano on a resilient neighborhood project to pilot these concepts.
This work in biomimicry is closely related to Greenbelt Alliance’s work to create sustainable and resilient communities—“Cities that are conducive to life,” as Richard would say. Through biomimicry, he asks “How can we leverage the genius of native ecosystems to inspire socio-ecological standards in our city?”
As Greenbelt Alliance promotes sustainable infill development throughout the Bay Area, we can frame the creation of our cities and towns through this biomimicry-inspired lens. By turning them into sustainable ecosystems, we can help our cities and towns meet the demands of more individuals. Doing so also helps prevent the need to sprawl outward into suburban and rural areas where the lands simply aren’t equipped with the resources to create a thriving urban ecosystem.
Turning Potential into Action
From Richard’s perspective, one of Vallejo’s main challenges is that it has limited resources to address community needs. It is a city that is trying to stay afloat after bankruptcy with a backlog of basic services waiting to be met. Adding to the scarcity of resources is the lack of external funding for community non-profits—Solano County has by far the lowest per capita giving in the Bay Area, at about $3. Too often, this lack of resources results in Vallejo missing out on opportunities and applying band-aid solutions rather than solving problems at the roots.
“Vallejo has the capacity within it to solve its challenges but needs bold leadership to nurture a culture of possibility and resource innovation. Look at how ecosystems deal with scarce resources. By drawing upon biological inspiration for cycling nutrients in closed loops and cultivating cooperative relationships, we can identify more effective ways to leverage Vallejo’s existing talents and resources.
I am currently working with multiple organizations on initiatives to foster greater connectivity between community needs and assets. One of the community assets I believe is underutilized are Vallejo’s anchor institutions—the medical and educational institutions that are the largest employers in the city. The employment, purchasing, and investment power of these institutions, along with those of the city government, as potential assets that can be utilized multi-functionally to more effectively meet community needs.
I am currently organizing a summit to bring community leaders together to constellate community needs with these assets. The goal is to leverage the capacity of anchor institutions for local training, hiring, investment, and procurement to catalyze policies and programs that achieve shared community performance values. While adopting an Anchor Mission represents a huge lever for changing the way Vallejo thinks about its resources, I believe that tapping into human capital on a small scale can also have major impacts.”
The people of Vallejo are caring, friendly, and hold a lot of pride for their city. In Richard’s view, Vallejo’s residents should be empowered to use their talents and passions to improve their home. This belief led him to start a microgranting potluck dedicated to celebrating and empowering community projects in Vallejo.
Taking Stock of Vallejo SOUP
Richard’s love for his city is perhaps most visible in an event he brought to the city earlier this year, Vallejo SOUP. Originally held in Detroit, Michigan in 2010, SOUP events invite community members to gather together and crowdfund support for local projects, all while eating “soup,” which attendees bring for a large potluck community dinner. Recognizing his neighbors’ passionate desire to better their city, Fisher was confident Vallejo SOUP would be a success. But the results immediately exceeded his expectations.
Richard expected a crowd of around 30 for Vallejo SOUP’s first gathering back in April. Instead, he was thrilled to see 65 people show up, more than doubling his expectations. Over the course of the evening, the attendees watched as four project groups each presented a proposal to improve Vallejo. The crowd was treated to proposals on mental health, youth theater, homelessness, and a city bike plan.
“Vallejo’s greatest strength is its people, who care deeply about making their city a better place.”—Richard Fisher
During the evening, the generous and enthusiastic crowd donated $1,500, which was awarded to the four project groups as prize money. After this initial success, Fisher hopes to organize another event every few months. That way, he can keep nurturing residents’ interest in local activism and community participation.
Richard’s efforts are an excellent example of how just one resident can drastically improve his community by strengthening the social fabric to create greater resilience. One individual’s actions can be a catalyst for much-needed social change, especially when backed by other inspired community members. Greenbelt Alliance’s Development Endorsement Program functions similarly, but on an organizational level. It is a way to promote community health and environmental sustainability within cities and to inspire more smart growth by leading with individual examples.
Richard’s sustainability-focused efforts also remind us to look to nature for solutions to our modern problems. Here at Greenbelt Alliance, we are grateful for these types of leaders, and we aim to continue working with them and learning from them.
If you or someone you know is doing exciting and innovative smart growth or conservation work, please contact us today.
Cowritten by Agnes Lo
Photo: Jorge Goicochea via Flickr