The engineers of the future say new cities will be designed according to the lessons of our biological past.

QUT environmental engineer Dr Cheryl Desha says Australian cities should emulate nature, if they want to become world-leading liveable cities by 2050.

Dr Desha spoke at the Catching up with The Jetsons: Cities in 2050 event of the World Science Festival Brisbane over the weekend.

“The potential for humanity on this planet is extraordinary if we can take inspiration from nature and its designs developed over billions of years. Yet it is almost like we are designing in the dark,” she said.

“Drought-prone environments, for example, with not much fresh water access can look to nature to solve the problem. The incredible Namibian Beetle of Southern Africa – one of the world’s driest regions, harvests water vapour from fog using its wings. It is the inspiration behind a number of water collection devices in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“Certain plants are quite exceptional at removing particles from the air – a bit like sticky tape can catch dust – so we should be planting them on the sides of buildings to catch particle matter from pollution that can overwhelm cities like Hong Kong and Delhi, literally saving lives.

“Trees use capillary action to draw water from their roots to their canopies. Imagine if we could do that with buildings.”

Dr Desha said the majority of the world’s population lived in cities and yet most were becoming what she termed ‘urban deserts’ and increasingly unhealthy to humans and other species.

“We are surrounded by concrete structures rather than oxygen producing and nurturing atmosphere that nature gives us,” Dr Desha said.

“My vision for 2050 and beyond is that ... cities around the world will be functional and resilient; able to blend into the surrounding environment with green space everywhere, coping with the changing weather and climate that will affect us all this century.

“Cities should move things – like cool or warm air, hot and cold water – from place to place as quiet as a rainforest rather than being full of the constant noise of motors and pumps we currently live with.

“My research is concerned with creating a functional environment that builds the resilience of a city to protect us from heat, weather, flooding, smog, mosquito-borne viruses and more. It’s more than window dressing to just make a city look pretty.”