Posts Tagged ‘ecology and design’

Each year, I begin my course on Ecology and Design with quotes from astronauts who have seen Earth from space, and I remind my students of the first time humans were able to get this awe-inspiring view of Earth. After 40 years of Earth imagery, we take this perspective for granted, I’m afraid. The 40th anniversary of the Blue Marble image, shot by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, is celebrated in a short film by Planetary Collective.

The quotes that I use in my class are the following:

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.
- Edgar Mitchell, USA

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
- Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
- Aleksei Leonov, USSR

Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
- Sigmund Jähn, German Democratic Republic

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Researchers from the Royal Horticultural Society, the University of Reading, and the University of Sheffield published a paper this month (Cameron et al., 2012) in the journal, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, called “The Domestic Garden – Its Contribution to Urban Green Infrastructure.” The article attracted attention from the UK newspaper, The Independent, because of the seemingly counter-intuitive claim that gardening can actually be harmful to the Earth, or “eco-unfriendly” according to The Independent. For a mere $39.95 US, you can read the article yourself from Science Direct! Among the indicted are peat, pesticides, petrol lawnmowers, and hardscape materials with high carbon footprints. Even a newly planted tree has a carbon footprint that may not be overcome for as much as a decade. Anyone with knowledge of sustainability already knows these things, but it is good to see it in mainstream publications available to the general public for far less than $39.95.

via The Independent

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what direct effects have flowed from Paolo Solari’s experiment in the Arizona desert I’ll leave to others. But my musings on the relationship between ecology, design, and, perhaps, greenwashing were prompted by an article on Arcosanti in this week’s New York Times. The article is titled An Early Eco-City Faces the Future. A few lines in particular caught my eye. The author, Michael Tortorello, describes how some recent trends, like “the national food-gardening craze,” have not caught on at Arcosanti, an intentional community of 56 people who would otherwise seem like exactly the type of people who would be excited about sustainable food production. Tortorello goes on to say:

Meanwhile, the project has only dabbled in popular technologies like solar panels, rain barrels and composting toilets, off-the-shelf gear that can be applied on a small scale.

“I should have them,” Mr. Soleri said during a recent visit to the project. Yet for most Americans, he maintained, chasing these technologies can become a game unto itself. “We are passionate collectors of gadgetries,” he said. “We can’t resist.”

This reminds me of a quote from the architect, Glenn Murcutt, that I often share with my students. I found this quote in a conference paper by Christopher Theis called Prospects for Ecological Design Education. Theis cites a Raul A. Barreneche (2002) article in Architecture magazine where Murcutt’s Pritzker Architecture Prize was announced.

If I were a young architect today looking at supposed eco-architecture, I wouldn’t want to do it; it’s a one-liner. When ecology becomes the major issue, you’re left with a scientific box that does nothing for the spirit. I cannot separate the idea of the poetic and the rational. If there’s not a junction, we’ve got merchandise, not architecture.

And this is from an architect renowned for what some would call eco-architecture. I think Murcutt speaks directly to this issue of “getting real,” of going beyond green gimmicks and gadgets, as Soleri suggests. So what is the role of the gadgetry? In this age of recession, one could argue that green building and green infrastructure, commonly reduced to checklists and engineering-based techniques, have been some of the few areas of growth. What are the implications of this?

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For years now, I have attempted to unite ecological theories and principles with design decision making in a class that I teach to undergraduate landscape architecture students. It’s no easy task! The goal is to have students move beyond a limited understanding of physical and biological site conditions, which, in studio, are typically investigated through the development of site analysis drawings, and toward a more full understanding of ecological function and its implications for design. It has been my experience that traditional site analysis drawings (1) almost always depict landscape structure alone, and (2) are incomplete, often missing crucial details. Achieving a more full understanding of landscape structure (which I describe in simple terms as the things that you can point to in the landscape – buildings, trees, soil, plants, etc.) is a great accomplishment, for students and maybe even for some practitioners… Adding an understanding of landscape function, flows of energy and materials – the often unseen ecological processes in the landscape, is really quite difficult. Recent professional projects identified as “landscape urbanism” do appear to be reaching for a better understanding of ecological processes, especially of landscape dynamics, or change over time, but a more full expression of ecological knowledge still largely eludes landscape architects, IMHO. (Feel free to counter this opinion by commenting!)

People with an interest in “ecological design” or “ecological planning” have been discussing this challenge for a long time now. The 2001 book, Ecology and Design: Frameworks for Learning, edited by Kristina Hill and Bart Johnson, explores the topic through essays by landscape architecture faculty and practitioners who had come together for the Shire Conference in 1999. Hill and Johnson urge landscape architects to “get real,” to go beyond lip service to ecological principles in ways that include follow-up monitoring of built work.

So, you could say that we have been talking about this since the 1960s, from the time of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and McHarg’s Design With Nature. And we’ve become more sophisticated in our thinking. Add to this the rise of LEED certification from the marketing juggernaut called the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It seems like heresy to criticize LEED, at least in landscape architecture circles, but plenty of people have criticized it (see here, from 2005, and here, from 2010, for popular press/media accounts), with criticism mainly directed to building performance and energy performance in particular. And how does LEED relate to the long-sought integration of ecology and design? I see it as an umbrella for a set of techniques (especially low impact development (LID) and/or green infrastructure (GI) stormwater management techniques) that could improve the ecological performance of landscape design. These techniques are essentially codified in checklists for design, including the newer LEED program, LEED-ND (follow this link for an enthusiastic description). But it’s the distillation of ecologically-sensitive planning and design into a checklist and set of easily understood techniques that is the problem. It can be seen as an oversimplification of the design process.

Back in 2009, when LEED-ND was introduced, Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) described the program in a series of three posts, the first of which is here. The NRDC was one of two organizations that worked with the USGBC to develop the rating system. The Congress for the New Urbanism was the other. The American Society for Landscape Architects (ASLA) was not at the table, to my knowledge. (Readers, correct me if I am wrong.) I base this on the fact that I was in discussion with ASLA representatives about becoming involved in LEED-ND development back in the early 2000s and was told that no landscape architects were involved at that point. Planning for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a partnership between ASLA, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden, got underway about the same time.

At this point, I’m asking myself why I am opening up this giant can of worms in a blog post! Well, I’d like to raise the issue and see if anyone would like to discuss it (in the comments or offline, praxislandarch (at) gmail (dot) com). There are many directions in which such a conversation might go. For now, I will conclude with a couple of quotes in a follow-up post.

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Last summer, a post in this blog posed the question “how do you handle the constant stream of discouraging environmental information?” Shortly afterwards, I saw an article in Grist titled, “Do environmentalists need shrinks?  Apparently, I am not the only one thinking about this issue – although I suggested that designers are natural optimists (feel free to disagree) and less likely to be consumed by the pervasive environmental negativity. Now there is an article in New Scientist that boldly states “Ecologists Should Look on the Bright Side.” Is this even possible? (Colleagues at SUNY-ESF, what do you think?)

A key graph, also the introduction, states:

It’s hard to spend your working life charting the demise of the things you love. Ask an ecologist why they chose that career, and you will often hear a tale about being mad about animals as a kid. These days, they are more likely to spend their days modelling how quickly their favourite species will disappear. As Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC puts it: “My whole generation spent our lives writing obituaries of nature.”

As someone who once had a job writing obituaries for beautiful places (called environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impacts statements (EISs), I know how that feels!

Even so, conservationists are starting to worry that their message is counterproductive. In a 2010 editorial in BioScience (vol 60, p 626), Ronald Swaisgood and James Sheppard of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research wrote: “We contend that there is a continuing culture of hopelessness among conservation biologists… that will influence our ability to mobilize conservation action among the general public.”

What do you do when you hear bad news all the time? Turn it off. Pessimism leaves little room for action.

What’s at stake is more than what makes the best message, it’s what makes the best conservation strategy. Chronicling demise offers little guidance. But if we tell stories about positive outcomes and share details of how they are achieved, the likelihood that they will be replicated will increase. Hope engenders conservation success, and success breeds more success.

Fuel creative responses to what is, yes, a bad situation by giving people a reason to think that there is hope. This is a message that is especially important for young people. My children are growing up in a world where they are told that the planet is dying (and that somehow they are charged with saving it). Even if they watch a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, there is a little voice in their heads telling them that the oceans are dying. What an oppressive thought! We have to preserve the sense of awe, wonder, and love of the Earth if we are going to motivate people to act on its behalf. IMHO.

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The economic downturn has hastened the move to stormwater green infrastructure (GI) approaches (e.g., permeable paving, vegetative swales, rain gardens, green roofs) as a way to combat combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in the United States. Federal policies that mandate water quality improvements in cities have commonly been met with arguments about how the new measures will not be financially feasible (even in the pre-Clean Water Act days when urban creeks might be called “bubbly” because of methane discharge from rotting waste). However, the financial argument carries weight even with regulators in today’s fiscal environment, and U.S. EPA is now signaling a willingness to be more flexible in the arrangements it makes with cities. EPA’s embrace of stormwater green infrastructure has been apparent for some time, and that trend appears to be set for the foreseeable future. Greenwire, a subscription service, reports on new guidance to regulators from EPA’s water chief, Nancy Stoner, and uses the following example of past agreements with major cities:

Over the past 10 years, EPA and the Department of Justice have sought to stop the overflows by suing cities and striking settlement agreements that require massive upgrades. As a result, at least 40 cities or sewer systems across the United States have entered into such agreements with EPA since 1999.

The agreements tend to require rebuilding pipelines, expanding treatment plants and digging underground tunnels big enough for subway trains. The tunnels act as storage tanks for stormwater that would normally pour into waterways and allow time for treatment plants to clean up the mess.

As part of its 2003 consent decree with the federal government, Washington, D.C., broke ground last month on a $2.6 billion tunnel-building project, the largest since construction of the metropolitan area’s subway system. The tunnel will be 23 feet wide and 100 feet deep and will extend 4.5 miles from the sewage-treatment plant along the east bank of the Potomac River, crossing under the Anacostia River and extending to RFK Stadium on the city’s east side. [Emphasis added.]

With eye-opening treatment options like that, it is no wonder that cities are interested in hosting GI experimentation. Hoping to head off even more tunnel construction, the Washington, D.C. Water General Manager is enthusiastic about contributing to the GI body of knowledge!

“No city or utility has ever done a sustained and large-scale pilot study of green roofs, trees and porous pavement to help in those areas,” D.C. Water General Manager George Hawkins said. “We hope to do just that.”

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On Thursday, around the time I was showing the Waldheim video (mentioned here) to my class, the video that includes the West 8 Dutch “Shell Project” as an example of landscape urbanism, an interesting post was going up on the new Landscape Urbanism website. The author, Laura Tepper, discusses the ephemeral nature of the project, a fact that she says is not mentioned when this project is used as an example today (true of the Waldheim video also). The key graph is this one, in my opinion, but the entire article is definitely worth reading.

The contrast between the barrier’s austere utility and West 8’s erstwhile shell installation force us to confront challenges beyond the project’s early acclaims. The storm surge barrier—with its complex programmatic functions, sophisticated engineering, and costs—illustrates what landscape architects and urbanists face with ambitious infrastructural projects. Generally speaking, when infrastructure washes away unintentionally, it is considered a failure. The integration of infrastructural and public programming can impel social, ecological, and practical transformations. However, we must take on the seemingly contradictory synthesis of permanent armatures and dynamic cycles. We must modify our objectives against empirical evidence and clarify our intentions, lest the works of the landscape urbanist discussion become decorative and slip away unnoticed.

As it turns out, stripes of white and black shells on a surge barrier are not sustainable. Perhaps they washed away; it is unclear what happened to them. Of course, there are ways to explain this as being the original intent of the project, but that fact is omitted when this project is referenced. This is where theory and concept meet praxis. Can the ambitious ideas of landscape urbanism, especially those that suggest that ecological systems can be effectively harnessed to meet design goals, become realities in the sense that we usually ascribe to landscape architecture, or is the emphasis on temporality and long-term dynamics a mask for pure speculation?

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