Some of you may know that my favorite podcast is 99% Invisible, which examines the hidden influences of design in our world. I love how they dive into all sorts of topics and explain the history of an idea, building, policy, culture, etc and explore how it/they shape us. This past weekend I listened to their most recent podcast episode titled “The Batman and the Bridge Builder” which focuses on a fascinating intersection between the natural world and the built environment as well as some effective marketing.
Austin, Texas has a remarkable event most summer evenings when millions of bats emerge from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. It has become a major tourist attraction and hallmark of the city. The reason the bridge become a home for this bat colony is because the engineers renovating the bridge spaced some box beams just the right distance apart which made it a suitable perch for bats. In return for hanging out in Austin, these bats help out the city and the surrounding area by eating insects and agricultural pests. Since discovering the underlying reason why this bridge makes a great home for bats, engineers and biologists have partnered together to create similar features in other bridges in Texas to encourage bats to come to those areas and provide similar benefits.
Yet, it wasn’t always a beloved phenomenon in Austin. You may look at the image above and think – wow, kind of scary to have all those bats right above you. That was the initial reaction of the Austin community, which originally wanted the bats ousted. The podcast outlines the trajectory from terrifying creatures to the sought-after sight they are now and how one man, Merlin Tuttle, played a big role in changing the public’s perception of bats.
What stands out to me is how the natural world and built environment are able to thrive together in this situation. Typically we think of these things in conflict – we think of the concrete jungle of a city pushing out wildlife or we seek out state parks as our only chance to get in touch with the natural world. Yet, here is a great example of these two spheres intersecting for the benefit of both. Furthermore, it took some extra effort and persistent messaging for the community to realize the benefits and flip their perspective on the seeming intrusion of the natural world. However, with greater understanding and by encouraging the right aspects of this discovery, they were able to make the most of this bat bridge.
I encourage you to listen to the whole podcast or read out it on the 99% Invisible website here: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-batman-and-the-bridge-builder/