Should programs in architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture require a certain minimum level of learning about the fundamentals of ecology? Why?

Paul Downton, Melbourne.  Barbara Deutsch, Washington, DC.  Martha Fajardo, Bogota.  Noboru Kawashima, Bogotá.  Norbert Mueller, Erfurt.  Kaveh Samiei, Tehran. 
6 January 2014

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Every month we feature a Global Roundtable in which a group of people respond to a specific question in The Nature of Cities.
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Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Barbara Deutsch, Washington
All professionals contributing to sustainable design projects should have an understanding of the importance of ecology and its basic principles to achieve optimal results.
Paul Downton, Adelaide
Cities need to be designed as ecosystems, yet architecture’s most influential culture heroes have betrayed open antagonism to nature.
Martha Fajardo, Bogota
The habitat professions’ programs need to understand the basic principles and processes of city as a system.
Noboru Kawashima, Bogota
Landscape Architecture is work of creating artificial nature. It is a man-made environment. But we cannot aim too low in landscape architecture just because it is not “real” nature.
Norbert Müeller, Erfurt
Although there is a growing concern about sustainable urban design there are still major backlogs both in theory and in application.  
Kaveh Samiei, Tehran
There were some cultural and logical problems that emerge from misunderstandings about the relationship of humans and nature — core viewpoints that have traditional and modern roots of human dominance on nature and resources as materials for consumption!
Barbara Deutsch

About the Writer:
Barbara Deutsch

Barbara Deutsch is the Executive Director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, and has diverse experience from the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

Barbara Deutsch


By definition landscape architects design for natural processes, natural resources, and people so a thorough understanding of ecological sciences is essential.

Now more than ever, clients and government agencies have specified interests in sustainability. All professionals contributing to sustainable design projects should have an understanding of the importance of ecology and its basic principles to achieve optimal results. An understanding of natural processes, such as the hydrologic cycle in an urban context, is also critical to designing, building and maintaining high-quality urban ecosystems.

Landscape architects understand the city as a system and are well-positioned to “translate” — or facilitate a greater understanding of ecology among a full design team by integrating and applying the sciences with the design process. Landscape architects should also have enough knowledge of ecology to “know what they don’t know,” and know when to engage a botanist, soil scientist, ecologist or other specialist.

Beyond designing for ecological processes, landscape architects and others must be prepared to communicate these concepts and goals to clients, agencies and municipalities: those who will commission or incentivize exemplar sustainable design projects. The Landscape Architecture Foundation is helping practitioners make the case for more sustainable design through its Landscape Performance Series, an online interactive set of resources to show value and provide tools for designers, agencies and advocates to evaluate performance and make the case for sustainable landscape solutions.

Urban Ecological Design was the central focus of my studies at the University of Washington’s Department of Landscape Architecture. Though ecology is not specified per se in the landscape architecture accreditation standards, natural systems, the principles of sustainability, and ecosystems are all key components of landscape architecture programs and central to students’ knowledge and values. Tools such as the Landscape Performance Series, as well as SITES, can augment the curriculum requirements to help practitioners both design for ecological function and understand and promote the ecological benefits of their work.

Paul Downton

About the Writer:
Paul Downton

Writer, architect, urban evolutionary, founding convener of Urban Ecology Australia and a recognised ‘ecocity pioneer’. Paul has championed ecological cities for years but has become disenchanted with how such a beautiful concept can be perverted and misinterpreted – ‘Neom' anyone? Paul is nevertheless working on an artistic/publishing project with the working title ‘The Wild Cities’ coming soon to a crowd-funding site near you!

Paul Downton

Ecology is about the relationship of organisms with each other and with their environment, so all those that design and manipulate the environment should have a minimum level of learning about the fundamentals of ecology. Buildings and cities are constructed ecosystems even if they’re not designed as such.

They need to be designed as such, yet architecture’s most influential culture heroes have betrayed open antagonism to nature. In 1925 arch-Modernist guru Le Corbusier praised cities as an assault on nature. In 1986 I heard an imperious Zaha Hadid confess hatred of nature in a conference keynote. For all his stylistic skills, like most of his profession Richard Gehry is unlikely to be remembered as a champion of green design.

Urban design and planning is about creating urban environments in which coherent relationships exist between its elements, yet I have seen city planners reduce that idea to an insistence that buildings share the same eaves heights in the name of ‘contextualism’. The destructive impact of our built environment is exacerbated by ignorance of how its impacts come about and that ignorance runs deep, especially in architecture and urban design. It is vital to regard the built environment in terms of process and place rather than objects in space and it makes no sense to place the care of living systems in the hands of people who don’t have a basic understanding of natural processes, yet in the world of design the power of the image trumps reality and facilitates a kind of environmental double-think in which the word ’sustainable’ is routinely applied to projects that are ecological nonsense.

All programs related to the built environment need to contain a minimal level of familiarity with the fundamentals and language of ecology to ensure such nonsense does not continue.

Drawing by Paul Downton
Drawing by Paul Downton
Martha Fajardo

About the Writer:
Martha Fajardo

Martha Cecilia Fajardo, CEO of Grupo Verde, and her partner and husband Noboru Kawashima, have planned, designed and implemented sound and innovative landscape architecture and city planning projects that enhance the relationship between people, the landscape, and the environment.

Martha Fajardo

The landscape the place we live in, is our most important life support. Population increase is pushing the limits of the land to a critical point of rupture. The complexities of the current issues, the impact of rapid urbanization; the management of resources; the after-effects of disasters, both natural and manmade. Soil is being made less fertile; water is drying up; trees are being felled; animals and people are being made less viable. Inequity and poverty thrive while the land is put into a state of alienation. Here lies the land of possibility; a biophysical territory to be nurtured with well-informed anticipation and evaluation; a transforming landscape approached thorough impact assessment, visionary planning and sensitive management.

Collaborative processes demand experienced professionals, teams and leaders that stand for for analysis, planning and/or design. Therefore, programs must require the application of landscape ecology and conservation biology principles to the strategic design of urban infrastructure; training for ways to structure and guide the flows of organisms, materials, and energy that pass through a city in ways that support the characteristic biodiversity of a region. Here the fundamentals of ecology embrace the integration of landscape issues: disturbance, fragmentation, landscape manipulation, fundamental ecological processes, composition and structure, and environmental influences.

Landscapes positively contribute to the complexities of the contemporary city, to a more equitable distribution of ecological and environmental resources, and to the creation of better futures across all regions of the world. Landscape architecture, as a very ancient discipline and practice, carries ecological knowledge of generation after generation and has demonstrated a significant capacity to react and to adapt.

The habitat professions’ programs need to understand the basic principles and processes of city as a system. Happily, landscape architecture and allied design disciplines and practices are nowadays developing better capacity to facilitate dynamic adaptive processes; contributing to a transition from a first to a second phase of ecological design.

LID — Low Impact Development: A Design Manual for Urban Areas introduces general audiences to Designing landscapes for urban storm water runoff—a primary source of watershed pollution. Credit: University of Arkansas Community Design Center’s images from ” Low Impact Development: a manual for urban areas (LID)” University of Arkansas Community Design Center, Fayetteville, AR Client: Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency ASLA 2011 award of excellence
Credit: University of Arkansas Community Design Center’s images from ” Low Impact Development: a manual for urban areas (LID)” University of Arkansas Community Design Center, Fayetteville, AR Client: Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency ASLA 2011 award of excellence
Noboru Kawashima

About the Writer:
Noboru Kawashima

Noboru Kawashima is a Japanese biologist, urbanist and landscape architect, living in Colombia as Grupo Verde Ltda Vice-president.

Noboru Kawashima”

Our human lives are dependent on productions from natural resources: foods, energies, industrial goods, constructions and everything.

The natural resources are treated in cycles of extraction from the earth, transportation, processing, trading, consumption and going back to the earth. For example, foods: cultivation from the fertility of the earth, transportation to market and trading, cooking, eating and the organic materials go back to the earth. These cycles are very complicated and cross each other and with many other cycles such as energy cycles, industrial cycles, commercial cycles, social cycles, and so on.

Many times these cycles are not complete, at least in a short term, or are interrupted. There are environmental costs when the cycle is not closed, such as when there is no re-cycling and no sustainability in the use of renewable natural resources. For example, a sewage system is very good to sustain sanitary conditions in urban area, but the organic materials do not come back to the earth of cultivation, and so there is the interruption of the cycle.

It is estimated that the percentage of world urban population will rise up to 80% in 20 years. The difficulty is that urban areas are far from the places of extraction of natural resources: far from cultivation fields, far from waters of fishing industry, far from mining sites, far from oil wells, far from water power plants, and so on. So, the most of urban inhabitants, day by day, will have less chance to recognize how their lives are dependent on the natural resources and less chance to know the importance of establishing and sustaining cycles of renewable natural resources.

Landscape Architecture is work of creating artificial nature. It is a man-made environment. But we cannot aim too low in landscape architecture just because it is not “real” nature. You can see in a green area the living things growing, flowering, fruiting and dying. You can touch the soil in a garden. In this way you will feel in your daily life the importance of soil, and recognize our dependence on natural resources.

From the view-point of natural resources the duty of architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, and urban planning programs is to:

• Create urban environments that minimize the interruption of cycles of natural resources.

• Create urban environments so that inhabitants may recognize their inter-dependence on natural resources and the importance of sustainability of the cycles of natural resources.

In these senses, architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, and urban planning programs must require a certain minimum level — or more — of learning about the fundamentals of ecology.

Norbert Mueller

About the Writer:
Norbert Mueller

Norbert Müller is vegetation ecologist and Professor in Landscape Management and Restoration Ecology at the University Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany. His main fields in research and lecturing are conservation biology, urban biodiversity and sustainable design. Since 2008 he is president of URBIO (

Norbert Müeller

The main challenges for life on earth for this century are urban population growth, climate change and loss of biodiversity. Urban landscapes are using 75% of the global resources, are producing 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions, and are main drivers of biodiversity loss. For the future it will be essential to reduce the urban ecological footprint and make our towns and cities more sustainable. The main responsible planning disciplines to meet these challenges are architecture, urban design, landscape architecture and urban planning.

Therefore it is important for professionals working in these disciplines to a have a certain minimum level of learning about the fundamentals of ecology. Today, many programs at schools and universities offer courses in ecology and their specifications — especially plant, vegetation, and animal ecology as well as climatology, hydrology and soil ecology. Also urban ecology, the ecological discipline which examines the interactions between the abiotic and biotic environment in urban areas, is more and more included in programs. Although there is a growing concern about sustainable urban design there are still major backlogs both in theory and in application — for example, even now we do not have standardized tools for designing sustainable urban green spaces. Therefore, future research and education must focus not only on fundamentals of ecology but also on design methods how to apply ecology for more sustainable urban design and planning.

A recent opened online survey by the network URBIO on knowledge gaps and research priorities for urban planners and urban stakeholders stated the following 5 questions as most important:

  • What are the ecosystem services offered by a particular landscape?
  • How can ecosystems in a given city mitigate the vulnerability of cities in time of climate change or after natural hazards?
  • What is the social and economic value of conserving biodiversity and ecosystems?
  • How can we integrate ecological design and tools into strategies for land use planning and management?
  • How to set up a strategic policy to integrate biodiversity in the city?

I want to invite all readers of this blog to participate at this online survey to find out further knowledge gaps in the understanding of cities and how design them more sustainable.

About the Writer:
Kaveh Samiei

Kaveh Samiei is an architect and researcher in built environment sustainability.

Kaveh Samiei

Applied disciplines such as architecture, landscape architecture and urban design, all are interdisciplinary fields that we categorize as environmental design disciplines. An architect works as a connector of different fields such as design, art, engineering, environment, psychology, and so on. Thus, yes! Architecture as one of the main disciplines of the built environment requires a minimum level of learning about ecology and environment. In fact, every construction imposes itself onto nature and alters the ecological systems and function; nature works as an integrated whole. On other hand, designing urban landscapes and ecological planning without considering the role of architectural design and building blocks is an abortive attempt! Although landscape architecture and urban design students may take courses in “Plant ecology” and “Urban ecology”, landscape architecture is a new field in Architecture and Urban Planning schools in Iran and students can enter this program only in graduate levels. “Climatic design” and “Human, nature and architecture” are the only courses that architecture students in Iran currently must take at the undergraduate level!

Therefore, three years ago I began to teach “Ecological architecture” in “ARCH V”, a final design studio for undergraduate architecture students at the University of Semnan, School of Architecture and Urban Planning. I found out that we have to introduce fundamentals of ecology and sustainability before entering key subjects of design; some students can’t understand why we require discussion of sustainable design! “Theoretical foundations of architecture” was a free content course in which teachers typically spoke about different and diverse subjects; later I decided to utilize this course for teaching “Fundamentals of ecology” and in following semesters students could apply their comprehension of ecology in designing ecological residential buildings. Probably I taught that course to architecture students for first time in Iran!

There were some cultural and logical problems too that emerge from misunderstandings about the relationship of humans and nature — core viewpoints that have traditional and modern roots of human dominance on nature and resources as materials for consumption! So without shifting minds, we can’t go ahead. After three times teaching these courses, many students, even some students in year two and three, became interested and curious in ecological and sustainability issues! Now, under my supervision, six students are studying ecological approaches to design through their final thesis. Also, in collaboration with my students, I’m working on new methods of learning ecological design by doing a comprehensive research project about architecture education with an emphasis on sustainable, ecological design; I hope we can disseminate the results in near future.

Paul Downton

Paul Downton

Writer, architect, urban evolutionary, founding convener of Urban Ecology Australia and a recognised ‘ecocity pioneer’. Paul has championed ecological cities for years but has become disenchanted with how such a beautiful concept can be perverted and misinterpreted – ‘Neom' anyone? Paul is nevertheless working on an artistic/publishing project with the working title ‘The Wild Cities’ coming soon to a crowd-funding site near you!

23 thoughts on “Should programs in architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture require a certain minimum level of learning about the fundamentals of ecology? Why?

  1. Hey everyone. Two years late but thank you so much for this discussion. An ecologist by training, I searched for such threads as I start teaching an elective course on Ecology to students of Architecture, Landscape design and Urban planning in a few days. I think I was searching for answers to my thought ‘ Will we understand each other?’ I shall try my best to understand where the students come from and what ticks for them, and I just hope they can feel the same about me’

    Wish I had read this thread before as I requested to teach 2nd and 3rd year students, but it seems 1st year would have been best.

    Any pointers or help from the other side would be most welcome. Am also happy to share the syllabus I have prepared if any of you could comment /critique the same.

    dipani sutaria ( India )

  2. Saudos desde la Ciudad de México en la que hace muchisima falta este tipo de propuestas, la arquitectura en gran parte contribuye a la deforestación en áreas urbanas y pienso que en muchos paises como el mío estamos rezagados en la construcción de una arquitectura que responda a las características del entorno natural, estamos acostumbrados a pelear con el contexto natural y no de adaptarlo.

  3. Yes, Norbert, see you in Korea. Just a parting note. I think we need to establish iconoclastic examples of design (and management of the design). But how to get that first example off the ground? We need examples that demonstrates a process to get things going.

  4. It seems very useful and practical. Do you have any plan or curriculum for architecture students of your college in order to learning ecological design as well? I have visited your department website, establishing Ecological Planning Center in architecture and planning colleges is one of appropriate approaches. Good luck!

  5. Dear Mark
    I totally agree and support your comments especially the last paragraph
    ” the problem of course in real world application is that developers, city elected officials, and the general public have been trained to see beauty in terms of manicured lawns and ornamental shrubs”
    in this sense it is very important that landcape architect students are understanding how to combine good design with supporting biodiversity/sustainabilty. So I am hopeful that future journals of landscape architecture as well as popular garden magazines and journals provide more papers, photos with diverse colorful meadows instead of manicured lawns….
    I hope to continue with you and the other contributors of this blog the discussion during our next URBIO conference 2014 in Korea We will organize an own session on “Landscape design for biodiversity”
    See you inSouth Korea Norbert

  6. My comment references Jon’s below (reply button did not work?)
    Very good point Jon. Understanding and appreciation in one’s natural heritage is not only lacking in the general public but in our students. My Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation (Univ of Florida) had to fight to keep the few field-based programs that we have. We primarily only see wildlife majors in these classes but students in landscape architecture and planning would greatly benefit from these classes. How can one design a functional, biodiverse development when the built environment professionals involved do not know (identify) local animal and plant species? Come to think of it, we have a dual degree track with urban planning and design but no requirements for natural history courses.

    I agree, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if the beholder is seeing texture and colors as beauty, it will be difficult to design something that conserves biodiversity. For example, I see trim, blue-green lawn bordered with showy flowers as ugly but this is because I understand the impact this type of landscape has on local and regional species. Perhaps LAs and Urban and Regional Planners could go through (first) basic natural history courses and then to ecological principles. Basic flora and fauna courses are rare indeed even for wildlife students!

    Now, the problem of course in real world application is that developers, city elected officials, and the general public have been trained to see beauty in terms of manicured lawns and ornamental shrubs. LAs design what the people want and it is tough to move it in another direction if you want a paycheck. That being said, I think there are plenty of opportunities to design for human aesthetics and biodiversity. The trick is getting those working examples in cities and then market them.

  7. I’ve maintained for many years that architecture, urban design and planning should be regarded as sub-sections (sub-subjects?) of urban ecology. It’s most heartening to learn that there is some movement in this direction. Is the curriculum available on-line?

  8. This is an interesting roundtable conversation.

    I’m an ecologist. For the last few years at Lincoln University in New Zealand, we’ve had our landscape architecture students in the first and second year ecology courses I examine.

    I would like to add to this conversation the importance of distinguishing between teaching ecological principles (species-area effects, minimum viable population size, food web ecology, etc.) and natural history (what species live in an area, who do they interact with, what are their habitat requirements, etc.). Students arriving at Lincoln University know almost nothing about the wild species around them, including which are native and which naturalised introduced species (there’s an article on my blog about this survey). In New Zealand, more than most parts of the world, the distinction between native and naturalised species is unambiguous yet most New Zealanders are only peripherally aware of it in the places where they live.

    When I walk through an urban space here, I am surrounded by species and their ecological stories, and most of those are stories of recent immigrants. Little remains of the rich, ancient stories that were here before the city came. That is mainly the result of past and present design choices. It’s hard for me to see it as anything but disrespectful and ecologically dysfuctional (and ugly!). Instead, most students arriving at Lincoln, and most members of the public, just see textures and colours.

    I would argue that more ecologically sound designs come from being more knowledgeable of the local natural history, more so than being well versed in general ecological principles. I think that both are certainly important. However, as long as “ecological sound” is defined in terms of the well-being of the local native species as much as it is about water, nutrients and carbon flows, then designers need to be respectful of the local ecology. That requires local knowledge.

  9. At the University of Utah, we are remaking our curriculum, and our department, to fill this need. As of the 2013-2014 school year, our undergraduate degree in the department of City and Metropolitan Planning is a bachelor’s degree in Urban Ecology. I am a full-time faculty member in the department, and a landscape and urban ecologist by training. I am off in a few minutes to teach my class, which is called Principles of Ecology for Planners. Students in our program are getting solid training in ecological science – they may not be carrying out scientific research, but they will have a much deeper and more critical understanding of urban planning and design within its ecological context.

  10. Within the disciplines of landscape architecture and urban design Sustainability, resilience, biodiversity, and ecosystem services like clean air, carbon sequestration, and water quality are now more and more incorporated into planning and design. However, the connection between these general goals and the specifics of implementation is very complex, and the realized impacts of most projects are simply unknown. Incorporating ecological science professionals into the design of urban spaces has the potential not only to improve the ecosystem services provided by the places where we live and work, but to increase our understanding of the systems.
    Building scientific design into architecture, landscape, engineering and urban design /planning will contribute us greater information previous. The field of ecology indeed will give significant understandings that are relevant to the integration of science, planning, management and design
    The interrelationships between ecological systems and land transformation need to be acknowledged and incorporated into decisions that determine how those transformations unfold. This is one key to improving how well cities will provide essential services to the expanding urban population.

  11. Yes David! Good suggestion! The future of architecture and design should be ecologically because there is no other way for us. I think among mentioned disciplines, architecture requires more environmental courses. However, in some schools of landscape architecture and urban planning, ecologists are working now. Anyway co-teaching along with an ecologist who is interested and experienced about design is my dream! Maybe we should initiate new interdisciplinary fields between design and ecology based on our requirements.

  12. I have had the good fortune since the start of TNOC to interact with more architects and landscape architects. All of these — admittedly a self-selected group — have been interested in a sophisticated ecological grounding.

    One challenge, though, is that designs, even when they intended to be ecological appropriate may not be sufficiently specific with respect to ecological goals. The design of storm water mechanisms such as bioswales have been good this way — they are designed with specific targets for water capture. Ecological goals for biodiversity and habitat, however, are typically less specific. Pouliquen-Young suggests this in another comment in reference to “native” species that are actually from far away — that is, they are native to the continent but not the region. There is sometimes a disconnect between professions about the meaning of words — words like “native”, or “habitat” usually have very specific and technical meaning to a professional ecologist. To me, the answer lies in more collaboration across disciplines and professions that produces more specific, and more rigorously formal, ecological and social goal setting for projects. Goal-setting that recognizes that the design, ecological, and social goals and processes are all linked.

    Among those of you that teach design, how many co-teach with an ecologist (or sociologist for that matter)? It would be good, no? to teach some shared principles of design and ecology. The challenge perhaps would then become to find ecologists who would do it (and so calling our bluff!), but the exploration of such a shared language with students would be a major step forward. I think that the Baltimore Ecosystem Study group has made progress in this direction.

  13. Totally I agree but about visual impacts as a designer who tries to design as sustainable as beautiful, I think beauty is an important portion of sustainability! Mostly in my classes students think buildings should be sustainable or beautiful! In my idea that’s wrong! Although sustainability may restrict design but an expert designer should find solutions everywhere! That’s our challenge really! Yes we require more and more experience and knowledge in practical view; too difficult but achievable!
    Each integrated whole consist of separate and self reliance parts, self reliance but integrated as whole! That’s a relative concept.

  14. It is sad when a Landscape Architect recommends ‘native’ trees that grow in a different climate 3,000km away, or street trees of a certain colour to make a visual impact, without more thoughts about their origin or other characteristics. Likewise the engineer who builds a stormwater system which can carry water as fast as possible from A to B, without thoughts of local drains and ecology.
    However, I think we need to learn more about cities: why they developed, their benefits and their issues and the diversity of people. I am concerned that we tend to equate cities with bad ecology, and self-sufficiency (Paul’s diagram) as the solution in many locations. This in turn has whiffs of self-reliance and arcadian visions, and ignores the benefits of cities as a whole.
    A sewage system which can treat wastewater of thousands of people, and hence limit the spread of water-borne diseases, may be more resilient than thousands of individuals trying to maintain household black water systems. Likewise with water tanks, where it would be very difficult to be self-sufficient in some climates. Maintaining a (large) water tank is not as easy as it seems.
    It will be an expensive day when city-size utilities are not supported any longer because of a self-reliant individualistic approach to city living. The car is one example when we know it has not worked terribly well for many (the elderly in particular) by displacing city-specific mobility solutions such as the train or bus. Maybe a sociologist could see a parallel with the race to have one’s own rooftop PVs and water tank.
    Thank you for a very interesting roundtable!

  15. Hi NJ, what is your email address so we can connect about your discussion? Mine is [email protected]. My thesis is a paper document at the moment, it’s originating files on some zip disk somewhere… I have been wanting to resurrect it though, so maybe this is a good impetus. I’d be happy to put together a resource list for you that might work with your upcoming class.

  16. NJ Unaka – Your comments about chickens are totally apposite! It is difficult to know where to start talking about design, materials and ecology when so many students are ignorant of the most basic facts about ordinary life. For that reason, when I taught this stuff full-time I didn’t shy away from going back to basics and stating, from time to time, the ‘bleeding obvious’… I constructed a course on ecological architecture of about the same length and scope as the one you’re talking about back in 2000 and still have some outlines and notes which you’re welcome to use – they’re pretty sketchy but you may be able to pick some useful material from it. Email me if you’d like a copy ([email protected])

  17. As a masters student in my final year of a city and regional planning program, I couldn’t agree more! My thesis is on this very subject, but I’m finding it a challenge to teach myself about ecological sciences without any experience or a tested curriculum. I would have LOVED to take a course on ecology for urban professionals–and not just urban ecology, but an understanding of ecological processes for urban planners and designers. Thanks for being vocal and sharing this need!

  18. I agree wholeheartedly, However, I think we are preaching to the choir here. We must consider how to get this across to many others who may not agree with us – not just faculty, but even among many students. I have some ideas about that but first…

    Peg, please may I have a copy of your thesis? I think Paula V is absolutely right. The concepts are part of most design programs – obviously, more so in Landscape Architecture than in Urban Design and even less in Architecture (my opinion from crude unscientific survey). The more important point she made is about how it is connected to design. I sometimes teach the core structures and construction class here at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. I felt like I needed to teach them the industry standard, but also alternative approaches, but it is difficult to find texts that do that. And I need that for every aspect of the building. I was able to show them different types of wall systems, but even then, many of the components are conventional materials. It was even worse in other aspects. For instance, I looked at the Low Impact Design stuff and just taking the storm water management section alone, I felt like I let my students down. I wish I had (as they had) a good and clear comparison between the conventional foundation (“hard engineering” in their terminology) and one that works well with a natural water management/filtration system – “soft engineering.” And they had diagrams. Such simple and clear examples, incorporated into the normal course material would go a long way to addressing this.

    However, there are two deeper issues, in my view. First, I think that ecological issues and aspects of how a building is put together (particularly how the latter affects the former) should be taught in studio, not as a lecture course. Even if such lecture courses are required, the student still consider unimportant because it is not studio.

    The second is that ecological issues are necessarily local (practically), regional (conceptually) – with global implications as we have learnt. Living in the world today means that many of us are ecologically illiterate. For instance, many people my age (in my 40’s) living in US urban areas have no idea where most of their food comes from – many have never see a live chicken, even though they eat quite a bit of it. When I taught junior high school in Boston about a decade ago, I realized one day that many of my students had never seen raw chicken. To them, it came in a package in one of two ways: one was already cooked at a fast food restaurant, the other “precooked” to be zapped in a microwave.

    While this may seem a bit off point, I believe it is indicative of how we approach architecture – and how we live in the contemporary world. Buildings are assembled from finished pieces – usually for the visual aesthetic. Hence many designers do not really understand what a window or wall exist to do. Anything in nature is seen as merely the environment (our surroundings) or as resources to access – usually to plunder. So for instance, we look at the water on the site as something our precious facade eschews. Therefore, we shed the water, with no regard for where it goes, how it could otherwise be channeled and used, or what the implications of all those are. And like the chicken, their designs call for plumbing fixtures, possibly with pipes that have a note. “to the water mains” or “to sewers” and so on… And so, I feel like I have let them down.

    Anyway, in a few weeks I will teach a class called Ethics, Ecology and Design. I wish I could have taken such a class, but it was not available. So I will teach one – and I hope to learn. This is my first time teaching it, so I can experiment a bit. I imagine there are others trying this in other schools around the globe. I will have about 14 lectures – once a week. I have a 2-3 week section to roughly introduce ethics, because I wish to begin the discussion as to why it is important to be concerned about ecology – this cannot be assumed. Then I have another 2-3 weeks for ecology – I know it’s short, but I plan to address a few issues like bio-diversity, ecosystems and resources (energy, water, food and waste as part of an ecosystem or seen as resources for humans). I will also try to address threats to ecosystems and eco-crises (over-development, over-population and over-consumption, etc…). That allows me to segue into a section for design – mainly to discuss designs impact on ecology. For the rest of the term, I will encourage the students suggest things to discuss.

    I have a few questions for you gentle people:
    1. Do any of you know anyone, anywhere teaching such a course? What I mean is a course that does not assume that the students understand and/or accept that ecological concern are legitimate. I think I would really love Kaveh’s studio, but I think it should be a foundation studio. As he said, he needs to introduce them to basic concepts. As I said, I think we need to make the case for why as well.
    2. Any suggestions of what else/how to cover. Right now, I am considering discussion of things like time, space and beauty – you know, traditional design topics (assuming the students don’t bring interesting discussion topics), after the brief exposure to ethics and ecology as well as design that responds to both.
    3. Since architecture education is (for better or worse), precedent-based, do you have suggestions of ecologically minded design ethics/approaches (with examples) to suggest like Arcology, Passivehaus, Terreform, Baubiologie and obviously “vernacular” approaches, etc…?
    4. Any other suggestions…?

    Thank you for having this conversation. The insights above have been very helpful and I for any other ideas, thanks in advance.

  19. At the very least, we’d get better landscapes that needed fewer maintenance visits, less fertilizer, etc. Trees would be properly spaced and the species would be appropriate for the site-aspect.

    Those of us in the urban forestry business have been waiting for this for a long, long time.

  20. In 1998, I completed my University of Oregon Landscape Architecture master’s thesis on this topic. I wrote about “Educating Environmental Designers and Planners for Ecological Sustainability.” I continue to be drawn to the subject and feel strongly that all students (not just design students) need a foundational understanding of systems thinking and design as choice-making. Many people don’t think of themselves as parts of and participants in countless systems or as designers, but we all go about each day designing constantly and creating ripples of effects with each choice we make. Understanding ecological systems and the fact that we are walking ecosystems ourselves builds a core competency for living on earth in collaboration with all our relations; plants, wildlife, mountains and the air we breathe. Teaching from the perspective of relationships highlights connectivity, strengthens community and can enliven a sense of place.

  21. Ecological principals have been included in most landscape architecture programs as far as I know. The subject may not be called ecology, but aspects of this discipline are usually included in more general subjects. Nonetheless, this does not mean that ecology is well understood by students in order to use it as a design strategy. It is very common to review student’s LA projects and professional project competitions to find an overwhelming understanding about the flora, fauna, people, climate, geological and hydrological conditions of a site, and their interactions; however, most of the design proposals hardly include and reveal any of that. Somehow, in between the process of analysis and design, the ecological approach to design fails. I believe this is the challenge; to include ecology in landscape architecture and other design programs, so it is comprehended, valued and applied as a design approach.
    Who teaches ecology in LA programs? Should it be thought by an ecologist or a landscape architect? An ecologist may know the theoretical foundations and the systemic approach behind it and the landscape architect may know how to explain it based on design strategies. However, the teaching about the interaction between ecology and design is what should be stress in LA programs; and this, for instance, requires an interdisciplinary approach.
    Yes, ecology should be definitely taught in LA programs and other disciplines as well, which deal with landscape design, management and environmental decision making, but in a very specific manner, in which ecological principals are not diminished by design. Economists, educators, engineers, among other professionals should have also a deep understanding of ecological principals in order to take the appropriate decisions for the environment. In particular, and with respect to landscape architecture programs, ecology should be strongly integrated in design studios formed by interdisciplinary teams (of students and teachers), where we can learn that people, plants and animals are part of the same system and all of our actions, interactions and designs have an effect on it.

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