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FIGHT urban heat island effect like a forest. Capture water, filter light, and evaporate to keep cool.



Cool Like a Forest

Step into a forest on a hot summer day and the relief is palpable. The air feels cooler, pleasant, and the dappled light delights our senses and brings us a sense of well-being. We are drawn to these ecosystem services and our cities can benefit from learning how a forest achieves this in a resilient and adaptable fashion.

Slowing Water

Forests slow down water, and so can we. Slowing water keeps nutrients from flushing away in the forest and also provides opportunities to use water for photosynthesis which cools the local environment. Our cities can also slow down water to prevent storm water damage and reduce urban heat island effect. Our proposal seeks to slow water by hanging Aerial Nets in strategic locations to act as an urban canopy that dramatically increases surface area and to integrate 'cliff tolerant' native species along trellis, net, and vertical structures to minimize maintenance yet increase water holding capacity.

Dappled Shade

A forest provides opportunities for shade and escape. Our city spaces too often are exposed to unrelenting elements. Not only is this unpleasant, it contributes to urban heat island effect. Our urban canopy nets, in collaboration with globally recognized artist Janet Echelman, can create a delightful urban canopy that provides shade during the day, escape from elements, and opportunities for creating adaptable and pleasing urban landscape.

Mixing Air

A forest canopy has evolved to optimally increase the mixing of air (1,2). We can also increase beneficial air turbulence over evaporative structures through changes in color and geometry. For example, building codes for green roofs often require access walkways. By painting a zebra pattern on the walkway we believe we can increase the evaporative transfer of water from the roof to the local atmosphere. Zebra or alternating albedo patterns can take advantage of physical characteristics evolved over millions of years to keep zebra's cool to cool our own cities.

Category of the action


Who will take these actions?

Biomimicry New England is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Boston that is dedicated to establishing nature and natural systems as an important resource for education and innovation in New England.

The interventions suggested in this proposal all require significant investment and community engagement to make a reality. Biomimicry New England as a community resource is proposing that we lead the effort to bring together the many different voices and skills needed to enable these to become a reality.

To this aim we have begun early collaborations on this proposal with key individuals and organizations, including collaborations with globally celebrated yet local aerial net artist Janet Echelman and her team. We have also begun collaborations with Joe Zazzera of Plant Solutions, a leader in living wall installations to help consider how we might integrate living structures. We expect to build collaborations with engineering and architecture firms as the proposal grows.

Biomimicry New England is fortunate to have leaders experienced in urban engagement and facilitation. This project is co-led by Tim McGee and Renata Mann. Tim has lead and supported urban design conversations around the world, including developing Ecosystem Performance Standards for Lavasa in India, and assisting programs ranging from Urban Greenprint in Seattle to round table conversations in Toronto and New York bringing together stakeholders to find ecosystem service outcomes. Renata designs systems and experiences to engage people in creating a more regenerative, holistic future. Renata has shown her knitted jewelry at The Green Shows, collaborated with artist and interventionist Eve Mosher designing plant growth systems for urban environments, and taught children forest art classes in the wild.

What are other key benefits?

We believe that both the excitement for Janet’s work, and the impressive visibility of these installations will incite conversations about their purpose that we can encourage. Opportunities for collaboration and education go far beyond planning and construction phases, and into the experiential and future expansion phases as well.  

  • We will invite students, professionals, institutions, organizations, and the public to experience the installations and participate in the continued planning and design process.

  • We will collaborate with artists to design extended interactions, amplifying the naturally resulting conversations, and engaging people directly in the question, "How can a city function like a forest?"

  • Each site will host specific activities which create a collaborative design process expanding the project into the future. This process will allow the growth and expansion of the 'urban forest' in Cambridge, over time transforming the city through community engagement and collaboration.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The program costs can be divided into each of the three implementation areas, we propose the Aerial Nets as the backbone of the structure while the supplemental green walls/trellis structures and zebra roof add performance where possible and desirable within the community.

Aerial Nets ~ $1 - 7 Million 

The nets of Janet Echelman have been deployed around the world ranging in price from one to seven million US dollars. The work has seen civic success, and gaining popularity as a way to enhance local appeal as a permanent installation or for short-term events. The technology developed to suspend the nets has also evolved so that they are lighter weight and can often be hung without additional supports. This greatly reduces costs, and specific numbers are arrived at as part of the planning process. Two areas we have identified early on that could benefit most from this type of engagement include Alewife Station area or Central Square area. We believe that a case study of the nets ecosystem impacts from existing sites around the world would be useful in gaging the scope of the project for Cambridge.

Vertical Green Walls ~ $100-$300 / Sq. Foot

Design considerations include maintenance, ventilation, drainage, as well as artistic and local challenges such as wind, pollution, and human poaching. The extent of implementation will depend on design and permissions from specific buildings or areas within the city. A design challenge as part of our proposal will help identify and develop where green walls and trellis structures can optimally impact the intervention of the nets.

Zebra Stripe Roof ~TBD

Cost requirements are minimal, using paint alternating in pattern. However, development of this concept could take many routes including working with local institutions to develop novel algorithms for roof to create an optimized pattern of paint, and application techniques that can be scaled. We also expect Zebra roof stripes to be co-developed along with green and blue roof structures.

Time line

Our phased approach engages the community, and builds on previous work in other urban environments to create delightful experiences while creating ecosystem services such as reducing urban heat island effect.

1. Civic and Governmental Engagement

  • Engage and facilitate local government and civic stakeholders in city of Cambridge around these innovation concepts - jump started by Climate-Co-Lab. (year 1)

  • Run design challenge to promote local adaptation using our three components and suggested applications of monitoring of ecosystem services. (year 1-2)

  • Develop collaborative proposals with existing and proposed city initiatives, following a community engagement model. (year 1-3)

2. Technological and Feasibility Study

  • Complete and publish case study of urban aerial nets currently existing around the world as ecosystem service (year 1)

  • Collaborate with expert technological and engineering firms for desired locations and actions. (early/potential collaborators identified) (year 1-3)

  • Work with local universities to push edge of technology for implementation. (year 2-3)

3. Design & Engineering

  • Create RFP for engineering and maintenance contracts (year 2-3)

  • Design finalization of phased approach (year 2-3)

  • Run baseline impact of ecosystem services provided, and monitoring strategy for years 5-25.(year 1-3)

4. Construction

  • Phased approach launching with Aerial net, and regional roof and wall/trellis structures in concentrated location. (year 2-3)

  • Additional phases of construction would focus to expand based on success of early implementations. (year 3-10)

5. Ongoing Monitoring and Maintenance

  • Ongoing community engagement and education at intervention sites that help ask the question 'How does our city function like a forest?' (year 1-50)


  • Budget allocation in local government for ongoing monitoring, and evaluation of ecosystem services gained as well as ROI of investment in urban ecosystem services. (year 3-50)

Related proposals

Variations on the Velarium :: Providing strategic and delightful canopy structures that endure, and are flexible to seasonal needs.

MyHEAT Cambridge MA :: Information can be displayed on the nets in a visible and impactful way. For example the permanent installation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation projects the color of the sunrise from their different offices around the world in real time. Our nets could visualize the UHI or other climate impacts on the city in real time, creatively opening up conversations that bridge the digital and physical realms.

Cold Spot: Evaporative Cooling through Ceramics :: Finds similar ground in creating evaporative cooling structures within the built environment. We believe by coloring the evaporative bricks with alternating Zebra Stripe patterns we can increase the effective cooling of the bricks as roofing amendments (Larison, et al. 2015).

Improving the Living Urban Infrastructure :: Enabling the living eco-structure of the community to thrive.


Background References

Janet Echelman TED Talk

Seattle Urban Green-Print

~ HOK's Genius of Biome Report

Terrapin Bright Green's The Economics of Biophilia

Academic Papers

1. Bejan, A., S. Lorente, and J. Lee. "Unifying constructal theory of tree roots, canopies and forests." Journal of theoretical biology 254.3 (2008): 529-540.

2. Larison, Brenda, et al. "How the zebra got its stripes: a problem with too many solutions." Royal Society Open Science 2.1 (2015): 140452.

3. Oberndorfer, Erica, et al. "Green roofs as urban ecosystems: ecological structures, functions, and services." BioScience 57.10 (2007): 823-833.

4. Nedovic, Sonya, and Anne-Marie Morrissey. "Calm active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment." Learning environments research 16.2 (2013): 281-295.