Introduction / Prompt
In the creation of better cities, urban ecologists and landscape architects have a lot in common: to create and/or facilitate natural environments that are good for both people and nature. Mostly. Some may tilt toward the built side, some to the wild. Some may gravitate to people, others to biodiversity, form or ecological function, or social function, or beauty.
There are a lot of shared values. And yet, they are still two distinct professions, ecology and design, and so there are ways in which we may say similar sounding things but mean something different. Steven Handel wrote in this space to analogize ecology and landscape architecture to a marriage: it takes work to make all that love and harmony happen.
Built into this roundtable prompt is certainly an issue of communication. That is, the possibility that, if we just talked to each other more, and more effectively, everything would be fine. But it is also possible that value sets do not exactly align. If you had to choose, what is the most important thing to consider? The responses in this roundtable include development of a unified vocabulary and suggestions of more integrated training, collaboration that functions throughout a project’s duration, start to finish, and ideas beyond.
So, get it off your chest. What is something your partner in environmental city building, the other profession, just doesn’t get about you? And what would it take it fix it? Or, if you don’t like the marriage metaphor, what are one or two key ideas from your profession’s beliefs and way of working that are not making it over to the other profession in a complete and true form? How can we get landscape architecture and ecology better integrated in the service of better cities?
Fed Astaire and Ginger Rogers expressed it quite well, singing the words of George Gershwin in Shall We Dance:
You say to-MAY-to, I say to-MAH-to
You eat po-TAY-to and I eat po-TOT-o
To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to, po-TAY-to, po-TOT-o
Let’s call the whole thing off
But oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part
And oh, if we ever part then that might break my heart
—”Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George Gershwin (from Shall We Dance)
Here’s how Fred and Ginger said it, in a park, no less. And even if you don’t read another word of this roundtable, check out the dance number (including tap!) on skates.
We all have our points of view. Someone said about Rogers and Astaire: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.”
Better call the calling off, off. Because, in the meantime, the stakes of getting city design right are high. And in diversity and collaboration, the spice of life creates new paths.
Historically, a wide distance has existed between (1) disciplines that have nature as objects of study or which are based on biotic materials (such as ecology or biology), and (2) disciplines focused on anthropogenic creation and usually based on processed materials (such as architecture or civil engineering). That distance has evolved through the time since the west’s medieval epoch (it’s important to remark that history evolved very differently in Prehispanic America), when the realm of the second group was the small urban settlement, and the first realm was considered far outside the purview of the second group.
Such limitations have progressively vanished, mainly because the built world has invaded the “outside” world, and the natural one has suddenly demonstrated that it exists and underlays the built environment (through floods and landslides, for example). Nevertheless, the concepts and focus of both disciplinary lines haven´t been adjusted as they should be. Thoughts in public policy are mainly driven by physical proposals, and the “function” of the proposed design is planned under a utilitarian, western way of looking at life, ignoring the unavoidable eco-systemic base function. Meanwhile, natural sciences struggle, trying to convince others that nature matters and that our life on this planet depends on natural resources that we are spoiling.
Only when urban sprawl becomes worrying in scope and fundamental resources are increasingly scarce does society start to feel concern about certain urban-nature relationships.
It is at this time that the Landscape discipline comes to catalyse and sew these two halves of land management ideologies together. The landscape discipline is not at the other end of the spectrum as this Round Table question suggests; rather, the Landscape discipline is the bridge that deals with both mentioned branches, but additionally highlights experiential input in habitat complexity, the sensitive component that leads to establishing a sort of negotiation between human beings and the living and non-living world.
Historically, there has been a certain ambiguity in the title of the professionals dedicated to dealing with landscape matters or around the name of the profession itself. Brilliantly, the Spanish authors Busquets and Cortina suggest coining the term “paisalogía” that resumes in one word for landscape science, embodying: conceptualization, research, planning, design, materialization, and management of the whole spectrum—natural, built, and human—in a delicate balance and at multiple scales.
The word “architecture” in its name refers to spatial composition, but it does not necessarily mean artificially built. Not keeping this clearness in mind leads to the imprecision of locating this activity as an opposite to ecology, as it has been suggested by ecologists, while engineers identify it with environmentally guided activities. As someone said once, we are bats in the middle of a rats and birds confrontation. Consequently, the subject of landscape professionals is quite complex; as Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe states: Landscape design is the most complex of the arts. Among other attributes, it could be said that: Landscape is spatiality: “multi-dimensions” and physic spatial relationships (long, wide, high, time), as well as the proportions in which these combine. The landscape is observed, perceived, and lived space.
Landscape is perception: multisensory experience. Not only visual, but tactile, auditory, olfactory, and even gustative.
Landscape is identity: local par excellence, unrepeatable. A big difference with architecture, which can put the same building in different places or environments. For this reason landscape is an expression of identity, of a society, in a place in a certain time.
Landscape is expression: The expressions of the individuals or the conglomerate over spaces, are translated, spatially and compositely, and thus contribute to the strengthening or fading of the habitat character.
Therefore, to practice landscape professional activities, you have to:
- Accept that nature is everywhere: living, functioning, and supporting
- Inspire based on local resources and identity
- Attend to local people’s traditions, interests, and concerns.
In opposition to other land ordering professions, landscape-responsible interventions propose:
- Articulation instead of limits
- Systems instead of polygons
- Ecotones instead of frontiers
In the rich tropical strip of the world, and particularly in Colombia, landscape concern comes later than in many parts of the world—paradoxically, because of the native richness itself. We have all natural sources in abundance, mainly close to most cities’ locations. In addition, technology advances have been driven to bring those resources from places ever-farther away, so citizens are not aware of their imperative need or scarcity.
Interest in landscape is increasing because of the economical concern derived from tourism business. Only when it is considered as an income source does landscape seem
to deserve attention from policy makers, even insofar as regulation and law.
Landscape is SPACE,
Is not “object”
Is not “ornament”
Is not “tool”
Landscape is LIVING,
Not only scientific analysis (landscape ecology)
Not just planimetry or “render” (hard contructions)
Landscape should be INTENTIONAL,
No random result.
Not a sum of casual fragments.
The need to incorporate landscape considerations into decision-making is not new, but it grows in importance as interest in sustainable development grows (Swanwick). No small or large scale physical, urban, or infrastructural development project should be addressed without landscape considerations. And this does not mean remedial gardening, or “landscaping” after the fact, but honest, ethical, and systemic considerations of common convenience, above functional, economic, or formal whim decisions that guide many development projects.
In this way, landscape is the bridge between ecology and the built environment, for the satisfaction and happiness of the beneficiary of that bridge: us.
Ana Luisa Artesi and Vero Fabio
The Landscape, Connector
Cities are the setting and the resultant of the dynamic relations and tensions between nature and human culture, in constant transformation.
Conceptually, Natural Landscape—no longer original but the result of evolution—is the integrator of life, a service provider, a connector of the various superimposed frames. The continuity of landscape is the nexus and support for the dynamics of Biodiversity.
On the one hand, Landscape Architects’ projects can generate substantial change (sometimes permanent) that may affect the environment, not only in immediately apparent ways, but also in underlying and subjective values.
On the other hand, the Urban Ecologists and Naturalists comprehend the site from a dimension of full nature, considering mostly the nature as it was in its origin.
Ecology’s principles and vision of the Natural Landscape refer to the ancient times, and all transformation is perceived as a threat.
We have heard many times concepts such as: manmade projects have a great impact against nature because they permanently alter biodiversity; biodiversity corridors must be only natural; projects should only use native species; nature must be respected as original; production of goods and food produces harm nature. In many ways, they are correct and true ideas, but they may fall in an extreme interpretation.
This, we believe, is the trigger of the opposite positions between ecologists and landscape architects.
So, today more than ever, it is imperative that we find an understanding.
The nature in cities is composed by tangible and intangible elements such as natural traces; its history, culture, rites, myths, monuments, and buildings; natured and artificial spaces; and its biodiversity. They are inherent to cities and their landscapes.
Soil, water, air, vegetation, life in all its forms and other protagonists of the natural systems coexist with the anthropic systems in the context of the three spatial dimensions plus the variable of “time”.
It is in cities where people live, devise, realize, and grow, forging their history and values in ways that are intertwined with the public space. In this way, the natural and the social are inseparable.
Our space, the one where our house lies, is the very planet earth.
Today, cities are more inhabited and densified. A recent study shows that these days 50 percent of the world population inhabits cities, and it is estimated that this proportion will grow dramatically.
It goes without saying that without proper planning, the clear division between the rural and the urban will become blurred, due to the proliferation of new developments.
Thus, Urban Landscape is a living organism in a delicate evolutionary (or disruptive) balance.
Over the years, nature awareness and knowledge applied to landscape architecture has been varying. Studying it from a new and different perspective has substantially modified the related design principles:
Projecting in a more sensible way, we must increase the use of approaches that relate nature to the built environment. This provides a different view of the construction of the landscape.
Sustainability principles are a priority when dealing with landscape projects. Side by side collaboration is required between the different disciplines.
It is our mission to make Landscape Architecture a discipline of integration. The creation of sustainable projects can be achieved only by acting in coordination and direct relationship with other professionals and specialists such as Landscape Ecologists, Naturalists, Biologists, Sociologists, Cartographers, Geologists, Surveyors, Planners, Architects, Engineers, and Artists.
The challenge is to consolidate and unite criteria among these disciplines, in order to generate new ideas, to enable the growth and continuity of nature systems in today’s cities and in the “cities to come”.
The subject “How can we get landscape architecture and ecology better integrated in the service of better cities?” is really important. It is important to bring all possible partners and activities for this target of “creating better cities” together. This aim requires even more partners than ecologists and landscape architects. But these two disciplines can be seen as core disciplines for reaching the target.
These disciplines are often labeled “basic” knowledge (ecology) and “applied” knowledge (landscape architecture). This is right, but things are not always so clear cut, because ecology has already developed in the direction of application, and landscape architecture in creating new knowledge needed for architectural applications.
What we need is knowledge about the urban ecosystem, its functionally, processes, and structure. Without knowledge, all design is based only on ideas, fashions, or individual perspectives. But knowledge alone is not enough. We can see that only a part of the existing and available knowledge is used in planning and design of new buildings, new open spaces, new districts, and new or renewed cities. The actual visual example is the fast ongoing urban development of Chinese cities; this development is mostly not based on ecological principles and does not apply urban ecological knowledge.
Urban ecological knowledge includes not only knowledge from the natural sciences’, but also knowledge about those who design, develop, and use the urban ecosystems: the urban dwellers. For this, we definitely must integrate social science knowledge.
To apply ecological knowledge, a perspective of what is necessary to create better cities is useful. Any general goal has to break down to clear targets, measurable by indicators; only then can we make better designs. This is perhaps the rarest profession in the chain, from knowledge-gathering to change-of-reality. A lack of policymakers causes even the best ecological designs not to be realized. All contemporary Chinese building projects have green roofs in the designs, but mostly none will be realized.
Flip sides of the same coin—one target
Ecology and landscape architecture seem simply to be flip sides of the same coin: both aim to make better cities. But this is not completely right. Ecology, as a university discipline, can successfully create new knowledge. Landscape architecture as a university discipline is forced to use knowledge for practical design solutions to problems. But both disciplines can work on both sides, the knowledge and the application sides.
Both urban ecologists and landscape architects aim to help develop natural environments that are “good for both people and nature”. But it is good to accept that the urban environment should be a natural environment, but one that is predominately designed for people! We should not aim to protect biodiversity or, more simply, rare species as assiduously in cities as we do with nature protection outside of cities for ethical reasons. We need a paradigm shift towards considering the whole range of urban ecosystems and towards the benefits we need from nature in cities for their inhabitants. Nature conservation may be challenged by the novelty of some urban ecosystems. But it is necessary to recognize the associated ecosystem services and social benefits of novel urban ecosystems, too. With this ecosystem service approach, urban ecology and landscape architecture can cooperate well and bridge the gap from understanding to making use of urban ecosystems.
Two key ideas of urban ecology
The most important critical idea that remains in urban ecology is to simply understand the ecosystems in a city or the complex urban ecosystem as a whole. With understanding, we follow the idea of modeling and balancing, which is ambiguous, especially when humans and human behavior are included. This is not an intellectual game, but a necessity for the next step, planning, and design of urban ecosystems. Landscape architects are typically better than urban ecologists at this kind of thinking. But we are best when we cooperate.
Urban ecologists and landscape architects are both interested in the structure or form of urban land. While an ecologist may investigate how the structure of the land influences, and is influenced by, ecological processes, landscape architects have a more direct hand in actually shaping that land. An idea from ecology crucial for understanding how cities work and for guiding efforts to create better cities is the reciprocal link between the spatial heterogeneity, or structure, of urban systems and the ecological functioning of that system.
Heterogeneity is fundamental to general ecological theory because of this hypothesized link between it and ecosystem functioning. In its most basic definition, heterogeneity is the spatial variation in at least one variable of interest, and urban heterogeneity consists of the spatial differentiation of biological, physical and social structures of urban areas. Specific descriptions of heterogeneity may include zones of different land use types, maps of socially bounded neighborhoods, or areas of greater or lesser vegetation diversity. These heterogeneities may influence the flow of nutrients and pollutants, the diversity of organisms, or the amount of carbon stored, for example. Because landscape architects can fundamentally alter the spatial heterogeneity of urban systems, recognizing the ecological functioning of that heterogeneity is crucial in order to incorporate heterogeneity into designs in a way that maximizes positive ecological outcomes and minimizes negative outcomes of the design.
Of course landscape architects incorporate heterogeneity into designs; heterogeneity in the physical or biological structure of the landscape can be aesthetically pleasing. Conveying the style or signature of the designer is important so that their work is recognized, but how can heterogeneity be used functionally and not just stylistically? Sometimes designed heterogeneity is constrained to the boundaries of the specific project and in other cases the design integrates the project with adjacent areas. Flows of people across boundaries are usually considered, but how about the flows of nutrients and pollutants, non-human organisms, information, etc.? How would the design differ if it explicitly considered both the ecological processes occurring in the specific project area and the ecological flows across the boundary between the project site and the adjacent landscape?
Because both disciplines share an interest in the structure of urban land, the potential for integrating the work of ecologists and landscape architects is enormous. The studio training of a landscape architect offers a setting ripe for fostering meaningful interaction between the disciplines. I, along with colleagues, have had the privilege of engaging with landscape architecture students in their studio courses as they work on design ideas throughout a term. We provided a broad overview of ecological concepts relevant to design in a seminar format but that was of limited utility. More productive was time spent together walking the project site and talking casually about what we each were seeing through our respective disciplinary lenses. In this casual setting, we could build trust and share the motivations and assumptions we each hold. We could also discuss design scenarios to achieve stated goals and the potential ecological implications of each scenario. After that “walk and talk”, we ecologists went away until the end of the term, when we attended the charrette, listened to the students’ presentations of their work, and provided feedback. Feedback at the end of the term is useful but, again, limited. The second time we contributed to a studio class, and every time following, we participated in “desk crits” at regular intervals. This process of literally dragging a chair from desk to desk to engage with students over their ideas and designs added an incredible richness to our conversations and allowed us to collaboratively make modifications to the design. For example, the use of a particular tree species in a design may be driven by the quality of shade it throws, and the tree’s size and shape. In conversation about resource needs of the tree, perhaps a different species that could provide those same characteristics but also be more appropriate for the climate could be substituted, or the number and arrangement of trees could be discussed relative to the flow of resources.
As an ecologist, learning the motivations, assumptions, processes, and constraints that a landscape architect experiences in the process of design was informative for how to communicate lessons from research and, excitingly, these collaborative conversations also sparked new research ideas for testing the link between urban heterogeneity and system function. Working collaboratively in a studio setting requires intellectual openness and a desire to learn from the other discipline. Participants have to be willing to be surprised, confused, and challenged respectfully in order to learn a different way of thinking. Obviously this takes a certain personality and combination of personalities, and sometimes it will fail. But when it works, it can be enormously valuable because of the ideas generated and the new ways of thinking developed and shared.
In our part of Canada, ecologists have been leaving the “pristine” forests of the North for the cities, first invading their conservation areas and more recently their inner cores. Is this migration the result of an epiphany, a road to Damascus, or just an opportunistic change in habitat due to the gradual extinction of funding resources in the natural range of that species? One can only guess.
Anyway, the result is that the urban jungle now gets the attention of ecologists. They are slowly realizing that the key species in that strange built environment is man, and humans have strange views on nature. In fact, they don’t always appreciate it or recognize the true value of biodiversity. To contend with this challenging urban environment and win over urban communities, ecologists are now, more or less reluctantly, calling upon landscape architects and planners to join their teams: as partners, or as wallflowers.
For example, ecologists might deploy heavy modelling artillery to plan green infrastructure considering target species. Or they will go to great lengths to study the ecological dynamics of urban forests or wastelands. Or they’ll decide to conserve a piece of remnant nature. At first, the city and its inhabitants are not taken into account. After a while, landscape architects and urban planners are invited to join in, out of caution or to put a qualitative or aesthetic finish on the project. However, the question or the project is already framed within a very narrow ecological perspective. Important issues such as people’s perception, appreciation, valuation and uses of urban nature, not to mention social acceptability, are neglected. Co-design was never part of the plan. Had landscape architects participated in the definition of the project or the construction of the research object from the start, the collaboration would have had a better chance of success.
Are ecologists entirely to blame? Interdisciplinary research is hardly the norm, even today. Funding agencies and universities are partly responsible for the state of affairs. In Canada, at least, funding agencies are still divided between Health, Natural and Applied Science, and Social Sciences. And in this age of meagre funding, competition between disciplines is fierce. Any project on the margins, any hybrid that may possibly be funded by another granting organization, is viewed with suspicion. In universities, education in biology and ecology is still heavily, if not solely, focused on the natural environment, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. Students have very little chance to acquire basic social science or planning and design notions. Yet I often see ecology students who work on urban sites and are eager to integrate a social, design, or urban planning aspect into their graduate research. But the format of graduate studies in ecology and sciences in general and the productivity expected from universities precludes the students from taking the time to acquire the necessary knowledge to venture outside of their field or to work with a colleague from another discipline.
Studies suggest that encountering nature is important both for children’s development and their connectedness to nature. Isn’t time that ecologists encounter landscape architecture and planning earlier in their education if we want successful connections to occur and better cities to be built?
Large, interdisciplinary consultant teams have become the norm in urban design over the last 20 years. The movement away from a purely formal, architect-driven vision of city making reflects a shift in understanding away from the primacy of a modernist position which uncoupled form and environmental process.
In an essay titled “Regenerating Landscape Architecture” published in Topos 71 in 2010, I suggested that one of the reasons landscape architecture waned as a recognizable professional presence in the 60s and 70s was its merge with the discipline of ecology. Landscape architecture took on the mantle of environmental planning, a position that had a somewhat anti-urban focus. What resulted were large-scale planning efforts such as Ian McHarg’s layered analysis of Staten Island (see his book Design with Nature, 1969), which prefaced regional analysis over the urban human scale of design. The work, which ultimately led to the development of GIS mapping, remains a very important component of planning and mapping that should not be confused with design.
The formal backlash that occurred in the 80s and 90s is perhaps akin to the provocation hinted at in our prompt. While some designers remain purely aesthetically driven, others deny form, giving preferences to fish and mollusks over people. Happily these camps are more at the fringe of the profession as a whole, which is now more rooted in a nuanced and hybrid approach that blends functional urban design, civic beauty, and viable ecological planning.
Collaboration between ecologists and designers is not without a lot of give and take. My firm DLANDstudio is currently working on a project for daylighting a stream with an engineer as the lead, an ecologist as designer of the stream bed, and DLAND—the landscape architect—as community liaison. The problem with this arrangement is that the landscape architect is tasked with explaining to the community why they will lose their programmed recreational space. The design is functional and will likely be beautiful, and will work well as a daylit stream, but denies the complex program requirement of a public park located in a dense urban center. If the landscape architect were leading the team, elements of program, ecology, community engagement, and civil and structural engineering would be more synthetically managed and prioritized. It is not an issue of form over function. It is an issue of finding a balance of form and function. The landscape architect is better able to synthesize the work of many disciplines and integrate myriad voices into a clear unified vision. Civic beauty comes from maximizing the potential of both natural and formal systems.
Although ecologists and landscape architects have shared many values they have often not, until recently, succeeded in reconciling important aspects in their shared projects, and that’s what causes many projects to fail. I think that this difficulty is anchored in the roots of both professions and by the way they have been developed so far.
Ecologists are aware, and often carry the burden, of the complexity of any ecosystems they intend to restore or rehabilitate, while designers, in their day-to-day work, plan and fashion the form and structure of objects. When the object to be planned is a landscape, designers frequently threaten nature by neglecting the fact that creating green infrastructure is about designing autogenic (or self-regenerative) systems.
An ecologist working on a restoration project, in contrast, moves in hesitation, knowing of the hopelessness of an ecological landscape created by a designer; only Nature itself can do this. Nevertheless, the act of creating is central to the designer’s work; thus, landscape architects often approach a project by giving more weight to aesthetic and human aspects at the expense of ecological responsiveness.
However, this divergence is changing, and I trust it will change radically in the future. The need to re-nature the urban matrix, making it more livable and sustainable, will not allow professionals to put design before ecological functionality anymore.
Beyond collaborative thinking processes that presently prevail in any given project, smart city planning should move away from merging approaches or struggling to balance ecologists and designers in their traditional domains. A smart city needs doers trained in transdisciplinary knowledge at early stages of their academic studies. Transdisciplinarity arises when participating experts interact in an open dialogue, giving equal weight to each perspective and relating them to each other.
To decrease the present divergence between ecologists and architects, higher education should engage in curricular transformations. Evidence shows that different academic subjects and forms of curricula organization produce different kinds of people because disciplines involve clear world views and values. Therefore, universities, as key institutions in processes of change and innovation, should reassess what gets taught and researched and the way they train skilled labor forces. Professors and students should be involved in transdisciplinary long-term projects exploring ways of engagement with their communities.
For six years and with these goals in mind, the architecture and environmental engineering faculties at the Flores University, Buenos Aires, have offered students of both disciplines the opportunity to enroll in Landscape Ecology and Alternative Energy courses, where they work together and take part in ecological restoration and rehabilitation of public space projects (see photos).
Of all the ecologists I have worked with in 30 years of professional life, I would like to promote Dr. Mike Wells as a great example of an ecologist who understands how to inform, enthuse and encourage landscape architects and, also, when needed, to challenge and question their ideas.
Mike has a particular ability to think outside the usual confines of ecology and science to find inspiring ecological options and I want more ecologists to be similarly creative in their thinking because we need a step change in the way we work on city planning and design issues. We are making headway in getting green and blue and health and food issues into the city planning debate, but are we really offering the ecological vision needed to push us out the other side of the global problems?
If ecologists need to get in touch with their imagination, then landscape architects need to learn more effective ways to process and apply ecological principles into urban schemes. We can only bring change if we act together to deliver the planning, design and management of more ecologically sound and inspiring, socially inclusive city environments.
This triple-layered objective to deliver Ecological, Inspirational, Purposeful urban landscapes should be our focus. Ecologists need to realize that arguments based on ecosystem services or species diversity are only half the answer, and landscape architects who are entirely obsessed with aesthetics, function, and experience are only offering the other half. We need both professions fused together in each and every urban project.
Of the above objectives, I believe ‘Inspirational’ is the least understood, but a crucial ingredient. If we are to change our behaviour and values to achieve a more sustainable urban future, we need to be inspired to do so. Much of the output of current ecology and landscape design derives from tired and traditional models and, whilst there are exceptions, I believe more than ever that we need radically new landscape interventions within cities that challenge our notions of the traditional patterns and components of urban landscapes. In addition to places for play, food, sport and leisure, I want to bring the awe and surprise you get when you see a natural wonder right in the heart of the densest urban areas. Magnificent waterfalls, dense forest, characterful rock outcrops—landscapes in scale with the new urban fabric that become the social media memories of the city.
While I see the role of landscape architects as communicating and implementing designs of the scale, purpose, and physical expression of such interventions, I would like to see more ecologists stretching their imagination to define new approaches to ecosystem design that allows the evolution of entirely new habitat types and systems that help bring these places to life and put nature at the doorstep of every urban resident and worker.
However, it’s not really about the respective roles of ecologists and landscape architects that will make a difference. It is how we are engaged by the powers that be, either public or private, in the challenges of city planning and design. We need a step change in perception of our joint value.
The television series “Thunderbirds” made a big impression on me as a kid. Palm trees that can be flipped over to make space for a runway. Amazing scenery, jets, cars, submarines and spaceships. A sense of saving the world and a global perspective in the guise of International Rescue. The best bit was always the choice of vehicle to tackle that episode’s challenge. Would it be the Mole or Thunderbird 1? Would it be Brains or Lady Penelope? In each case, the right person or device or combination of all was deployed to save the day. Teamwork was fundamental to every episode.
How great it would be if we could tackle the challenges of ecological city planning and design with such clarity. A wise client selecting the right professions and process to tackle each new challenge. An ecologist cracking a specific species conservation strategy or outlining the principles for a neighbourhood-specific ecosystem alongside a landscape architect shaping a space that lifts the spirits and creates another functioning piece of the city. Always a future-focused team, but with the right emphasis for each challenge. That would be almost perfect. We just need Tracy Island as our base.
Successful project delivery, post-collaboration
Over the past few years I have had the privilege of working with landscape architects on various projects that seek to integrate ecology with design. In every case, I have been lucky to collaborate with passionate and knowledgeable people who share my ambitions to develop more ecologically informed design. Our curiosity, respectful discourse, and willingness to listen to and explore the nuances of each other’s disciplines have been fundamental to the success of our projects, as well as making the experience an enjoyable one.
Yet within our own professions there are also diverse approaches to practice. While the landscape architects I have worked with have had an impressive basic knowledge of ecological concepts and principles, they may not represent the majority of people within the profession. Similarly, within ecology there are a range of views and opinions, each with their own inherent biases. Open and frank discussions, such as this roundtable, are required within and between these two disciplines to ensure that we continue to make progress and push our fields further along the path to new discoveries. Encouraging and promoting knowledge-transfer and collaboration with other disciplines will also ensure that the ecologists and landscape architects of tomorrow have a broader vernacular at their disposal, and a firmer foundation for future collaborations.
There are a growing number of initiatives that demonstrate how the disciplines of ecology and landscape architecture can support each other. One example is the Society for Restoration Ecology, Australasia’s National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia, which was developed in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (or AILA). These National Standards also form the foundation for the recently released International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration, which was released at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 13th Conference of the Parties in Cancun, Mexico at the end of 2016. Another example is The Sustainable SITES Initiative, which includes the SITES Rating System and certification process. Indeed, there are a large and growing number of inspiring projects that have been delivered through collaborations between landscape architects, ecologists, and others who share the same vision for an alternative future; and these examples are expected to continue to grow into the future.
This leads me to believe that we are now at a point where the critical barriers are no longer related to how ecologists and landscape architects might work together, or even related to what we need to do and how to do it. Rather, the largest barriers are now the practicalities of trying to overcome current business as usual limitations and constraints. Adjusting management and maintenance practices may require contract adjustments, new machinery, or alterations to existing policies or guidelines. New approaches to construction are also being developed that need to be tested and refined. Therefore, finding the right clients, and sympathetic champions within government, industry and other organisations is one of the largest outstanding challenges we currently face. However, this is where the differences between ecology and landscape architecture become strengths, as there are a broader range of frameworks, understandings, terminologies, and networks that can be called upon than would be possible if either discipline had been working on their own. Ecologists can draw upon scientific methods to document and test the strength of the ecological outcomes, while landscape architects can create a design and scope of works that turns abstract research outcomes into physical, deliverable realities. Our individual vocabularies become just as important as our shared understandings, showing once again that diversity is a strength.
I’m shy, but I think we have a lot to offer each other. You designers know so much and have so much to offer to the public. Space maker’s designs satisfy so many programming needs for the public. I can complement your skills in new ways, and I think we’d be a really attractive couple.
I can bring so many ecological services to your side. These are recognized more and more as valuable to people and even save on budgets for public officials. I know you’re interested in stormwater management and the joy of cultural services, the aesthetic thrill of walking in a modern, designed landscape. I can add cleaner and cooler air, the sounds of nature, and the binding of soil to keep your waterways clear. My work can even add pollinators, enhancing the urban agriculture that so many folks are interested in these days. In this way, our partnership can make you seem more fiscally responsible and folks will really like that. I can help you on so many scales, giving you an ecological foundation for all your work. From a roadside planting to a green roof to a grand-scale public park. I know there are ecological perspectives that can be plugged in to make your work even better. So often, ecological features are really seen as engineering tools, cutting down on runoff or using green insulation keeping buildings cool. There is so much I can do, if you give me a chance.
I know you may have heard some bad things about me and I know some people are fearful of hanging out with ecologists. Sure, there’s rumors of ecological disservices, parts of my perspective that people fear: biting insects in public parks, funny odors, critters that might carry diseases; who needs them, some people say. I talk about thickets of native shrubs on the landscape, and people are nervous that muggers may hide there. But with communication and understanding, I can explain to people that these things are overblown and the value of having me around much outweighs these irrational fears. We know these communication gaps can be a real problem, but with time and honesty, we can overcome them.
I know we haven’t grown up together or even gone to school together, you over there in the design school and me stuck with the scientists across campus. Nevertheless, if we do meet, I think we can have a swell time together. I’d like to be with you from the very beginning of a project, when we lay out design features and the interplay of all the elements that are on your mind. If we meet later in the process, too much is set in stone, literally, and there is no room for me in your life. If we meet early, when the proposed project is young, we can grow it up together and be real partners. So many RFPs don’t even mention me. They see a public work as needing architects and engineers and traffic consultants and lighting specialists. People like me who think about food webs and biodiversity and natural heritage are rarely invited to the table of public work design. Let’s try some small projects together, talking about landscape on a coffee date or on a quiet walk through an industrial park that’s being redesigned. That’s not a big commitment, and I think it could lead to some really great times together. Then, people will start wanting us to attend a big public work events.
I’ve been hugging trees for a long time, but earning a general affection by the public will take a long-term courtship, I’m afraid. Give me a call and let’s see if we can get this relationship going.
Many cities globally still have rather large natural remnants within the cities. What I refer to as remnant nature in this text includes woodlands or urban forests. These remnants do sometimes have unique prerequisites for biodiversity. Meaning, these urban woodlands have additional values that forests outside cities do not have.
These values are linked to the fact that forests in cities are not under timber production command and have different aged trees, shrubs, and dead wood—things that are removed in production forest, but which are important for biodiversity. Thus, urban woodlands can have as high biodiversity as other forests but also provide unique habitats for hole-nesting birds, for example, due to older trees and dead wood. Sweden has high coverage of forest, with 55 percent coverage, but out of these, 97 percent of the forests is for production. This means that most forests in Sweden are monocultures of one species, with equal ages in large areas and almost no dead wood. This also means that deciduous species are lacking in the landscape since coniferous species have higher production values.
In cities, however, woodlands are mostly left for future expansion or for recreational purposes and not for production. This allows trees to get old and also allows for a mixture of species. In Sweden, urban woodlands in the urban fringe have more dead wood than the forests outside cities, and deciduous bird species are in higher abundances in cities. However, these urban woodlands are threatened. The main threat is the densification trend of cities where forests are removed. Often, the previous forest are totally removed and replaced by a smaller park. It is very unusual that the already old and existing trees—nature remnants—are kept for the new area.
The second threat is what I refer to as “parkification”. This is when dead wood is removed for safety and aesthetic reasons; saplings are removed, and thus the understory of the woods is cleared (also for safety and aesthetical reasons) and some unwanted trees are removed, such as large coniferous trees. In the end, the forest looks more like a park than a natural remnant.
Here comes the interesting link between the ecologist (me) and landscape architects. Because when I worked at the municipality of Uppsala (4th biggest city Sweden), my landscape architecture colleagues said that parks where the same as nature. And my colleagues influenced the strategic planning map of the whole municipality. Thus, when a natural remnant was removed on the strategic municipal plan and replaced by a park, it was marked as green on the map—the same green colour as the nature parts in the city. At least, this was done on the bigger official maps. It then looks like nature has been kept in the city, although forests have been “changed” to parks. I had real trouble with this, since I believe that there are major and important differences between parks and natural remnants. This might be self-evident to most of you, and maybe my writing is one case of a problem in a small Swedish town, without similar perspectives elsewhere. But travelling around in cities on all continents, it is striking how parks dominate in the city and also how they all look the same, with lawns, some trees that are not indigenous, and some flower beds.
Thus, parks dominate cities, although new research shows that there are higher aesthetic perceptions in natural remnants than in parks. Also, biodiversity per se increases positive perceptions of urban settings, e.g., many native bird species that sing increase positive perceptions more than only a few species. These birds thrive in urban woodlands, but they don’t flourish in the same diversity in parks. Further, it is very common that parks to a large extent have lawns. Lawns are mostly monocultures, reducing the number of pollinators. Given these factors, biodiversity may be considered to be highest in natural areas. Interestingly, new research shows that many people, though not everyone, prefer meadows with large flowerbeds rather than lawns. Meadows have a much higher variety of flowers and allow a diversity of butterflies. It is possible to keep urban woodlands or meadows that are safe and provide high aesthetics.
Why do we then continue to build parks with lawns when natural areas provide biodiversity and well-being in higher extent than parks? Building parks seems deeply rooted in planning. It is also somewhat provoking, for me at least, that parks are considered to be nature. The urban green areas in cities, and especially in mega-cities, may be the only “nature” people experience. Experiencing nature in cities has been demonstrated to lead to a deeper understanding of nature elsewhere. So, with an ever increasing proportion of humanity living in cities, it is important to provide natural settings, not only for health and higher aesthetic experiences, but also for an understanding of the natural environment outside cities. In a majority of Sweden, you can easily still reach forests in the urban fringes that resemble virgin forests, but for how long?
Ignatieva M, Eriksson F, Eriksson T, Berg P, Hedblom M. 2017. Lawn as a social and cultural phenomenon in Sweden. Urban Forest & Urban Greening. 21:213-223.
Nielsen AB, Hedblom M, Stahl Olafsson A, Wiström B. 2016. Spatial configurations of urban forest in Denmark and Sweden – patterns for green infrastructure planning. Urban Ecosystems. DOI 10.1007/s11252-016-0600-y
Ode-Sang Å, Gunnarsson B, Knez I, Hedblom M. 2016. The effects of naturalness, gender, and age on how urban green space is perceived and used. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 18: 268–276.
Gunnarsson B, Knez I, Hedblom M, Ode Sang Å. 2016. Effects of biodiversity and environment-related attitude on perception of urban green space. Urban Ecosystems. DOI 10.1007/s11252-016-0581-x
Hedblom M and Söderström B. 2008. Woodlands across Swedish urban gradients: Status, structure and management implications. Landscape and Urban Planning. 84:62-73.
Ecology ≠ “Good”
About 20 years ago, I was sitting in a group of students from various fields who were gathered in a month-long course to learn about ecological design. One young woman, a student of landscape architecture, was presenting with enthusiasm a project in which she and her mentor were working with the ecological concept of “edge”. Edges, they undersod from ecology, are places of very high biodiversity, because they are places in the landscape where different habitat or community types meet and there is a mingling of species from both ecological communities. Taking a normative leap, they then concluded that since biodiversity is “good”, then edges are desirable in landscapes and they were putting much creative effort into designing landscapes that maximized edge.
Indeed, the landscapes she showed us were beautiful—rendered in watercolor and full of curves and spirals. However, at about the same time, ecologists were publishing numerous studies showing that landscapes that are dominated by edge habitat are landscapes that do not support the vast biodiversity of “interior” species, species that cannot or will not live in edge habitats. Edges favor generalist, highly adaptable species, whereas much of the world’s biodiversity consists of specialized species that cannot tolerate edge conditions. As human influence spreads across a landscape, we tend to create more and more edge, and leave less and less interior, ultimately causing interior species to go locally extinct. Thus, the well-intentioned designs of these landscape architects may actually have promoted the opposite effect than they were trying to achieve. They “knew just enough to be dangerous”.
I fear this example to be illustrative of a broader (though surely not universal) phenomenon within the design fields. There is a desire to design ecologically, to be “green”, yet for landscape architects, ecology is only one of many subjects covered in their training, and they may draw bits and pieces from it without the deeper contextual understanding and questioning that comes from training and practice as an ecological scientist. A part of this is pedagogical: ecology is taught as a static field of knowledge and theory, with general principles and classic case studies. (I myself teach an ecology class like this to urban planning majors—mea culpa.) So if you are applying those principles, you must be designing “ecologically”.
There are two fundamental and related aspects of ecology (and science more generally) that, I believe, fail to be communicated to students of landscape architecture (and to the general public, for that matter). First, ecology is often attributed a normative function in terms of representing “the way things should be”. Actually, ecology is an objective science that seeks to understand how the world works, but it does not attribute value to one state of a system over another. As a result of holding up ecology as a normative frame of reference, some landscape architecture goes little further than using an ecological concept (such as edge) as creative inspiration for design, assuming that this is sufficient grounding to make it “ecological” and therefore “right” and “good”. The relevance, applicability, or consequences of this choice in context are not assessed. (A similar example would be the universal acceptance that “connectivity” is a good thing, whereas ecologists could certainly list examples of cases where connectivity promotes outcomes people probably don’t desire, such as the spread of disease or pests.)
In treating ecology as “the right way”, people fail to recognize the second critical aspect of ecology, which is the profound understanding that the world, and the field of ecology along with it, are in a state of constant change—some slow, some fast. It is a common misperception that ecologists “know” ecology. Scientists, in fact, are not trained to know, but to ask questions. This is one of the common frustrations of non-scientists with trying to get answers from scientists—they will never commit to certainty about anything! Through asking questions, and collecting data addressing those questions, scientists accumulate understanding, but to call it knowledge implies that it is static and fixed. In fact, ecological “knowledge” is a landscape of shifting sands in which our understanding of the world is constantly changing, sometimes in small ways where new phenomena are revealed, and sometimes in radical ways that force us to shift our entire paradigm. Ecology’s understanding of the world has shifted radically over the past several decades, but there is little opportunity or mechanism for landscape architects to keep up with the scientific literature in ecology. By perceiving ecology as a static pool of knowledge, rather than as a process for accumulating knowledge, designers end up with a piecemeal, value-laden interpretation that is out of date.
I am not arguing here for more or different ecological training for landscape architects—I don’t believe that many single individuals can be both good scientists and good designers in a single lifetime. Rather, I would like to see more direct and long-term collaboration between ecologists and landscape architects in the form of a mutual appreciation of the expertise that each has that the other lacks and a willingness to do their own thing, together. It means embracing humility (we don’t know the “right” thing to do), inquiry (what should we know and how could we find it out?), caution (we have the potential to do harm rather than good), investment (I am willing to have a relationship with this landscape and learn from what happens here), and turning to a friend to help navigate a path forward. On the ecologist’s side, I advocate for accepting that people manipulate the natural world and recognizing an opportunity to learn from this manipulation by working with landscape architects to build processes of inquiry into design projects, thereby co-producing both landscapes and knowledge.
Ecological Functionality vs. Aesthetics
In the realm of urban landscape design, ecologists (such as myself) frequently ask these conservation questions about a landscaping plan: Does it sequester/store carbon? Provide wildlife habitat? Filter water and improve water quality? Is it energy efficient and does it reduce C02 consumption? Provide opportunities for pollinators? Does it limit exotics and particularly invasive exotics? In summary, ecologists think in terms of ecological functionality or ecosystem services. Architects and landscape architects tend to think in terms of aesthetics and functional use by people: Is the landscape beautiful? Can people use and have a quality experience in the place?
First, a recent blog by Kevin Sloan on a concept called “One Landscape” explores an idea where buildings and other hardscapes match natural elements such as trees, hedges, and lawns. In the design of suburban megacities, Sloan states “. . . the future will, in fact, be One Landscape where nature, either cultivated or ‘wild,’ co-exists with diffuse patterns of civilization that feather across density and nature layers”. Initially this sounded good to me, but what does this design concept mean? Loosely translated, this means where landscapes and buildings “reciprocate.” As an example, evenly spaced trees replicate the columns and walls of buildings (see illustrations in blog).
To me, the One Landscape concept is an example of a landscape architecture idea that lacks discussion about ecological functionality or ecosystem services. Taking the example above, planting trees in an even spaced line, particularly if they are the same exotic/ornamental species, is a disservice to biodiversity. A monoculture of exotic/ornamental trees is not good habitat for a variety of wildlife and insect species. Biodiversity thrives at the edges of and in the thick of “chaos.” Symmetrical and even designs limit biodiversity, not to mention what these highly maintained landscapes mean for energy consumption and water consumption. A more natural landscape requires much less maintenance and is better for wildlife. Overall, I would argue designing with such symmetry would not conserve natural resources and any “win-win” scenarios are lost between aesthetics and ecological functionality.
Next, Joan Iverson Nassauer’s original study on homeowner preferences proposed a concept called “cues to care.”. She presented homeowners with photos of yards varying from highly manicured to more natural in appearance, asking them what they thought about these yards. The take home message from the study results were: “They [results] suggest that to be publicly acceptable, ecological practices must be designed to pay special attention to vernacular cues to care. Design that maintains aesthetic quality should include prominent mown areas in front of patches of indigenous plants. As a general guideline, mown areas should cover at least half the front yard.”
This is a study of a suburban community in Minneapolis-St. Paul—and it is supposed to represent the entire U.S. culture? I have heard this study, which is relatively old and can be found only as a technical report, used as a rationale for having a landscape that is highly manicured. I argue that this study has been widely misinterpreted, and is not a representation of landscaping preferences among people living in the United States. The study and the interpretations of it are fundamentally flawed on several levels. First, it is a non-random sample of a small residential community in only one city—hardly a representative sample of most Americans (or even of Minneapolis-St. Paul). Second, the residential participants for this study (about 167 in total) had come from neighborhoods with highly manicured landscapes. It is inherently a biased sample. These participants already were exposed to a neighborhood “norm” of mowed lawns with little indigenous vegetation, so of course they would select manicured lawns as desirable. I wager that if homeowners were interviewed from a much older residential neighborhood that had little or no lawn, their opinions would be much different because the neighborhood norm is quite different. In this hypothetical example, I suspect results would be skewed more towards yards with less lawns (and more native vegetation) as more desirable. In this case, the “cues to care” may actually mean a more ecologically-minded yard with less lawn.
I have worked with a community in Gainesville, Florida, (called Madera) where mowed lawns actually stick out like a sore thumb. Native vegetation and a lack of mowed areas are the “norm.” I bet if we were to do the exact same study on this neighborhood, the results would be quite different and lawns would be less preferred. Perhaps starting off with a neighborhood design that minimizes the amount of lawn would create an initial norm that would carry into homeowner awareness and preference.
In summary, I think city/residential landscapes can be both aesthetically beautiful, functional for people, AND ecologically functional, providing many ecosystem services. I do understand the position that peoples’ values play a significant role in landscape design, but I think we need to revisit aesthetics and what actually are norms in different situations. We just need more examples of ecologists and landscape architects working together, and creating properties where the highly manicured portion of a city landscape becomes the smallest part of the landscape. If this came to pass, I believe residents would be much more accepting of “messy” landscapes that are more sustainable.
Yun Hye HWANG
It’s a matter of redefining working scopes and creating a more open design process
Looking beyond traditional boundaries of landscape architecture as a single discipline, we know that an integrated approach is essential for successful landscape projects. This approach requires in-depth intellectual inputs from associated fields in the sciences and humanities such as soil science, geomorphology, climatology, biology, hydrology, geography, anthropology, environmental psychology, and social studies.
There is no doubt that these “layers of landscape” have contributed to creating a more complete understanding of diverse environmental functions and human demands on the landscape. However, integrations with other fields are challenging in practice. In order for landscape architects to integrate the work of ecologists, we might, for example, need longer term studies and more opportunities for piloting experimental designs to account for unpredictability and complexity in dynamic human-natural ecosystems. This rarely works with the linear project development process and the limited understanding of ecology in the built industry.
Moving towards the practical implementation of an integrated design approach under given limitations, I would rather like to speculate on redefining scopes of landscape architects and involving ecologists in the design process. To what extent does the scope of landscape architecture design work need to be expanded in design projects in order to implement ecological knowledge effectively? When are the appropriate timings to invite ecological inputs from experts throughout the design processes? These questions have been explored to be answered through design studios, which I have conducted for the last couple of years in Singapore on the transformation of secondary forests into new residential towns. This is a common land development pattern that has far-reaching impacts, as these developments typically do not account for the ecological, biophysical, and socio-cultural values of these forests.
[Redefining working scopes]
Landscape architecture is generally regarded as a profession that focuses on tangible experiences of space where developers or clients ask them to design, but there are other notable issues when the necessary working scope extends beyond property boundaries. In the cases of the design studios, we regarded the assigned site as a “landing point” so that the boundary of site was more loosely redefined. When proposing a few-square meter backyard garden near forest edges or a few-hectare size nature park, for instance, we extended the range of working scope from fertility of soils, micro fauna, and the life cycle of single plant species up to mega fauna movement and ecological networks in a city island scale outside of the designing area and immediate surroundings. This approach is aligned with one of the fundamental urban ecological principles that urban landscapes are functioning ecosystems connected at nested scales.
[Creating a more open design process]
The core duties of ecologists for deforestation management projects are to identify areas that contain biodiversity conservation potentials and to highlight wild habitats to be saved. In many projects of Singapore, those environmental consultancies with environmental impact assessment reports are used as “AFTER” processes to seek formal support for developing on secondary forests, where planners and developers havealready determined to construct high-density housing estates. The inputs of ecologists should come at the initial stage, when beginning to review and prioritize the potential sites—“BEFORE” decision-making. The design studios I have conducted have highlighted multiple critical moments when ecologists’ timely involvement is needed in the design processes, including during the aforementioned stage of policy/ land use planning, contracting to determine the direction of site development, evaluation, design, construction, operation, and management in the post-occupancy period.
We all know that at the broadest scales, everything is a metaphor, and we can all agree that “green” is good. We all agree that Stockholm, Helsinki, and Copenhagen are green cities. It is at the narrow scales, at the site or neighborhood—at the action scale—that we discover we don’t mean the same thing about the quality of green.
The modernistic design of urban green areas, even in very “green” cities, primarily employs intensively managed lawns (as a major “matrix” of neighborhood green space), with some scattered trees and decorative shrubs and perennials. The tidiness and clear visibility of management are the main pillars of today’s vision of urban green areas in a majority of cities. The question of “quality” of green features and the place of biodiversity in this “green” space, as well as the design of sustainable ”green” space, is very complicated. The “quality of green” also incorporates different meanings for different people. For ecologists, truly “green” might be rich urban meadows and shrubs with berries which attract pollinators and birds, whereas for private garden owners, just a piece of grass is likely to be perfectly “green” and satisfactory. Likewise, for a landscape architect, tidy, prefabricated design will probably be in favor.
How can we make practicing ecological design and working with natural processes more popular, shifting this pattern from novelty and curiosity into the mainstream? How to convince your own colleagues—professional landscape architects, urban planners, or city gardeners—to be more open in using alternative, biodiverse, rich lawns-meadows or groundcovers instead of conventional lawns that need constant mowing? Why are the most artificial, expensive, resource and energy consuming elements, such as lawns (or groups of trimmed exotic decorative shrubs) seen as real and truly “green”? Is it possible to appreciate nature as it is in urban environments (without improving it by colorful and unusual flowering species which will please urban dwellers’ eyes)? Can we switch to a new paradigm of use and appreciation of local nature? What needs to be done in education and how can we work with neighborhood communities and local politicians to achieve these goals?
There are already quite a few theoretical and practical experiences and solutions of working with green spaces at finer scales, such as at the site level. These include enriching biodiversity in naturalistic herbaceous plantings and alternative meadow like lawns, low-impact design (green roofs, green walls, swales, and rain gardens), and integrating ecological planning and design in different countries. Nature-based solutions, especially those which are popularizing native plants, are even given priority in some countries due to deep environmental crisis and dramatic loss of native biodiversity. This tendency corresponds with a search for local identity and shifting from global to local contexts. However, the ecological merits of such pure “nativism” are also debatable, even among ecologists and landscape architects. Can the “golden mean” ever be achieved in this ongoing, native-exotic species debate? Should urban nature’s green space be of hybrid origin, reflecting ongoing urban ecological process and centuries of horticultural experiences and achievements?
We encourage you to share your visions, experiences and thoughts. Let’s discuss: what does the “quality” of green mean? Who questions the quality, and what does the word quality mean?
I took my first Ecology course 25 years ago when I was a fledgling undergraduate Landscape Architecture student. This was the first time I’d been exposed to many of the ecological principles, ideas that are woven into my work today. While the texts unlocked new secrets, it was hard to comprehend this new, foreign language and reconcile this to the visual and design work I was learning in studio. It wasn’t until my professor recommended that I read Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel “Ecotopia” that things finally clicked for me. Before you laugh at my nostalgia for what is admittedly a pretty bad book in terms of fiction, the underlying message to me was clear. This was not ecology as an abstract principle, but a coherent vision for an integration of humanity and nature. I’ve been hooked ever since.
The disciplines of Ecology and Landscape Architecture are linked together by their shared focus on the environment and the subsequent interactions that occur on these spaces. The challenge today is not one of shared values, but rather on our difficulty in how to apply these values towards a compelling vision of what ecologists and designers, together, can co-create.
To achieve these shared goals, we need to better align the key strengths of each discipline—focusing the scientific analysis to achieve accessible and applied solutions, while integrating design synthesis that achieves cultural goals and rigorous, measurable ecological outcomes. There are many good examples of collaborations that result in positive urban habitat for flora, fauna, and people, often emerging from interdisciplinary efforts. However, integrated design/science firms and even the inclusion of scientists on development teams is still relatively rare. The disciplinary boundary gaps continue to perpetuate this disconnection between science and design and, more, notably between academia and practice. The bulk of scientific research is often inaccessible or hard to apply beyond very specific conditions, offering little to designers. Many design solutions that privilege aesthetics goals and are not built on scientific research offer shallow, “ecologies” lacking function.
When thinking initially about this question, I was reminded of an essay by Davis and Oles “From Architecture to Landscape: The Case for a New Landscape Science” (Places, October 2014), where the authors pose the idea of a hybrid, Landscape Science, to redefine this mode of practice to better tackle the world’s big problems. The difficulty I have with their argument is the difference between inherently analytical operations (i.e. Ecology) that study systems using scientific methods, and generative operations (i.e. Landscape Architecture) that synthesize with a goal of creating an applied physical design. This is not to say that Ecology has no creative dimension, nor does it imply that Landscape Architecture has no analytical modes. However, ecologists are not designers and landscape architects are not scientists—nor do we want to remove the generative role of design.
To tackle these wicked problems, Landscape Architects don’t need to be become scientists, but need to better understand and speak the language of science. And we need scientists to help by making these principles more accessible. One great example of this on the shelves of many landscape architects is the slim volume Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning (by Dramstad, Olson, and Forman), which uses a visual approach to core concepts like patches, edges and boundaries, corridors, and mosaics, which are presented in this format. This is a simplified summary and by no means complete, but offers enough information to inform practice, and, more importantly, begins to frames a shared language for future conversations. Another is Placing Nature: Culture and Landscape Ecology (edited by Joan Nassauer), where I first discovered the approach of her seminal essay, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames” which has continually influenced my thinking on how to integrate the art and the science of landscape architecture. Together, we can better integrate this interdisciplinarity into all work, by polling designers as to research needs and possible collaborations, and by making ecology and design part of the standard operating procedure on all planning and design projects.
We must continue to redefine the role of landscape architecture to tackle climate change, resource depletion, and species extinction, and encourage science to value urban and human in their ecological research. I’m heartened by the continuing theoretical explorations of Landscape Urbanism and Ecological Urbanism to expand our potential in an interdisciplinary manner. And this is easier to apply to projects through more rigorous applied ecological principles that have permeated innovative certification systems, such as the Sustainable Sites Initiative and Salmon Safe. This strength means science that is connected to and generating research by ecologists that can be understood by designers and integrated with rigor in designs by landscape architects—with results that truly work for people and ecosystems.
Ecology + Design: From Marriage (Therapy) to Music (Metaphor)
Our work here in the big chorus of TNOC centres on the intersection of cities and nature; both big, messy joyful cacophonies of life, teeming and pulsing with energy. Ecologists (and other environmental scientists) and landscape architects (along with planners, architects, and urban designers) are all focused on making and shaping healthy habitats—homes—for all. So why do our professions continue to compete rather than collaborate, or repel more than we attract? I wonder why in my professional world that acknowledges complexity, values diversity and embraces uncertainty, do we continue to struggle with both the concepts and the practices of synergy, integration, hybridity?
However, designers do rely on carefully honed powers of observation, and that is arguably poorly understood, in part because the design community hasn’t cultivated methodological scholarship or invested in it to the same depth and extent of the sciences. In methodology, designers often appear as poor cousins of the sciences. If scholarship doesn’t show it, the evidence of practice does: designers are indeed trained to finely-tune their observation skills for detailed, meticulous and technical representation—from the patience of photographing or sketching a tree though the seasons, to the dynamism of human life drawing, or animation. A designer’s observation abilities are reflected in technical skills (either by hand or computer) which are needed for adept visual communication; these abilities are built through repetition and experience, and are not unlike the rigour of or investment in an ecologist’s empirical training for systematic experimentation. The designer’s repertoire of observation is ultimately deployed as the springboard for inspiration, as a companion to intuition, and the pollinator for imagination that is essential to envision a desired future. In short, whether ecologist or a designer, we all value observation and narrative—the power to tell a story.
But we rely on different ways and scales of knowing, and we look in different directions: ecologists see what is, and designers see what could be. Both these perspectives—the objective and the subjective, the normative and the conditional—are fundamental to creating a shared story, and from this, making legible the landscapes we live in. These are not binary skills in competition, or singular in isolation. Rather, they are improved in collaboration and enhanced in creative tension. The paradox is that neither approach is especially useful in the work we do without the other!
Ecology, nature, environment, cities, all rest on the central notion of oikos, home; not merely a house, but a home, which implies a certain kind of bond, whether communal, familial, or just familiar. And like a home, (or as Steven Handel cheekily reminded us here, like a marriage), we know it is not a constant place of peace, love and harmony—there are times of dischord and dissonance, and others of comfortable resonance. The point is that there are many melodies possible. So maybe there is power in a music metaphor as well as marriage therapy! The nature of cities—like life itself—is a symphony: complex, diverse, and much more than the sum of its parts. We need our diversity of perspectives, integration of voices, and scales of observation, both dissonant and resonant. It is precisely within this creative tension that we find the possibility and the promise of a more resilient, convivial future—one in which we collectively honour both the culture and the nature that sustains us.
As an ornithologist that has developed into an urban ecologist, I have worked with birds as models for studying urban ecological patterns (and starting to untangle some of the related processes) for over a decade now. Birds are a fantastic group to work with because they are diverse, melodious, and beautiful, but also because they are quite informative from an ecological perspective with (often) less field effort needed than many other wildlife groups.
Birds form complex communities throughout cities (comprised by different species and in different numbers, both varying in relation to the nature of sites), and they have been one of the most studied wildlife groups in urban areas as bio-indicators (focal groups). As John T. Emlen stated in a pioneer urban ecology study back in 1974, “The new [urban] synthetic habitats lie open to invasion and colonization by any birds that can reach them, utilize their peculiar constellation of resources, and survive their special hazards” (The Condor 76, p.184). This idea has been highlighted in more recent publications: some of the most important drivers of urban avian diversity are related to cities’ resources and hazards.
Regarding an important urban hazard for birds that has passed largely unnoticed (or has been somehow ignored), are clear and reflective panes (both glass and plastic; referred to as “windows” hereafter). Bird-window collisions have been identified as one of the most important anthropogenic causes of avian mortality. Recent studies have suggested that they represent the most important anthropogenic mortality cause for birds after cat predation. In the U.S. and Canada alone, an estimate of 624 million—yes, million (624,000,000,)—birds are killed on a yearly basis through window collisions. Although these are estimates and real numbers are unknown, the magnitude of the evidence stresses the importance of the issue. These types of collisions occur basically because birds are incapable of recognizing windows as obstacles. They behave as if windows were invisible to them, attempting to reach “the other side” behind clear panes or striking the reflected image of vegetation and/or sky on mirrored panes. Diving a bit more into the tragic reality of the phenomenon, Prof. Daniel Klem Jr.—the leading worldwide expert in the topic—clearly states that “Casualties die from head trauma after leaving a perch from as little as one meter away in an attempt to reach habitat seen through, or reflected in, clear and tinted panes.” (p. 244). Besides birds being killed outright, avian window collisions can also result in debilitating injuries that make surviving victims highly vulnerable to predation or threaten their ability to recover, among other aspects that have not been considered in the shocking available estimates.
A handful of scientists, mainly from temperate-upland developed countries in North America and Western Europe, have explored this complex human disturbance; thus, little is known and much needs to be fundamentally discovered from tropical and subtropical cities, where urban growth, economic disparity, and biodiversity meet. Although people relate bird-window collisions with the height of tall buildings, they also occur in single-story residences. Birds are vulnerable to this threat regardless of their sex, age, or resident status; yet, scientists have identified some variables influencing the probability of collision, among which the size of the window, its height, and association with surrounding vegetation have shown to be the most important.
Well, this phenomenon is really worrisome, but what can be done to prevent such an amount of unintended causalities? Scientists have suggested some evidence-based solutions (as well as some educated guesses) to try to mitigate this involuntary massacre. Although it is believed that falcon silhouettes (or any other figures) are effective in preventing bird-window collisions, evidence shows they are not. Only if the elements/silhouettes/figures uniformly cover the entire window, separating the elements of a pattern by 5–10 cm., will collision prevention be effective, Given the complexity of the phenomenon, both short-term and long-term actions have been suggested to prevent collisions. Regarding short-term solutions, two head the list: (i) covering windows with nets/screens/decorations facing outdoors and (ii) setting bird feeders within 1 m of windows. In relation to long-term solutions, scientists are working with window-makers to apply coatings to windows, or to modify their outdoor finishing, to make them visible obstacles that birds will avoid. Although UV signals—which often alert birds to items in their environment in different ways—have been thought to prevent collisions, results of studies differ, and thus their effectiveness is still to be proved. One promising path is to modify window finishing using nanotechnology, as to alert birds with signals that are imperceptible for our eyes.
We, regular urbanites, do have options to join the cause! Architects, engineers, urban managers, and planners all need to know the problem, raise awareness, and contribute to reducing the effects of this unnecessary, unintended, and unwanted source of bird mortality though their creative talents. I am confident that a feasible long-term solution will be soon found through hand-in-hand collaborations between scientists, practitioners, and technologists.
Ecologists and landscape architects: Meeting the challenge
To get ecologists and designers working together efficiently in the service of better cities, the first step is to acknowledge the differences in the way the two approach cities. Ecologists are scientists; their approach is analytic, their logic guided by a step-by-step data gathering and analysis process organized to understand the structure and function of living systems. Design thinking is heuristic, seeking answers to a specific problem, learning through creative discovery, a process that is not in the least predetermined. The descriptive approach of ecologists elaborates complexities of the existing landscape, while the prescriptive skills of designers addresses the needs of people and their aspirations for quality living.
These two approaches are complementary. Fruitful collaboration, however, necessitates bridging the communication gap that results from the different modus operandi of ecologists and designers. Just as important is the logistic of such collaboration: when does the work of one discipline stop and the other begin? Or is such clear allocation of roles unrealistic altogether? A parallel can be drawn with the collaboration of architects and landscape architects, the latter often being called at the last stages of the design to “beautify” the building site rather than contributing early on to help forge a holistic framing that embraces open and built, natural and manufactured elements. Nor is it acceptable for landscape architects to seek ecological assessment at the early stages of the design project to free them to get on with the business of “designing”. Ecological assessment is an ongoing process. The challenge, therefore, is the same as in other transdisciplinary collaborations, which necessitate breaching disciplinary boundaries to forge a new language and find a shared modus operandi, a middle ground for working together.
Implicit to the breaching of this disciplinary divide is the questioning of scope and method. Ecology has evolved to embrace schools that range from the reductionist focus on ecosystem energetics and trophic-dynamic analysis to the holistic, integrative approach of landscape ecology, a younger branch of the science. Design thinking since McHarg’s Design with Nature is similarly expanding beyond the analysis-synthesis paradigm, broadening the way designers conceptualize nature beyond what is visible to embrace invisible processes that regulate the world we inhabit and underlie our very existence. Ecological design is one example of such shifting paradigms, where design thinking is shaped by the holistic and dynamic understanding that is rooted in ecology (diagram). Landscape ecology influenced my practice in landscape architecture, informed my design approach, and liberated my professional intellect and creativity. Above all, landscape ecology tempered my inclination to bound landscape in time and space, prompting me to search for continuities and contiguities.
Designers set boundaries so they can focus on the problem at hand and come up with answers/ solutions. Patterns and processes however are shaped at different levels of the spatial hierarchy (from ecotope, the smallest to the ecosphere, the largestand) just as they flow across the temporal scale. Although I still set spatial limits in research and practice, however, I do so knowing for a fact that long-term, enduring solutions can only come from a hierarchical, evolutionary knowing of the landscape.
Scientists today are worriers. These days, when we look into the future, more often than not, we wonder, “what will go wrong”? It wasn’t always like this; there was a time when, like designers, scientists wondered, “what if” and saw a magnificent world of possibilities for technology, for cities, and for the way that people might live in the coming decades.
But things have changed after the many mistakes that have been made. Science and society have failed to anticipate the worst consequences of technological advances such as combustion engines, mass production, the widespread use of impervious surfaces, and modern highway systems. The result has been ever-increasing concentrations of pollutants, degraded water systems, cities clogged with traffic, and divided communities. We are seeing political and social ramifications of the dawn of the Internet age and social media, not all of which are positive. Our cities are dependent on massive imports of energy and materials, leading to waste products that have nowhere to go except into landfills and the local air and water supply.
Scientists worry so much, but design can help
There’s much hope that nature in cities can rectify some of these mistakes. If paving over large areas of land caused many of the environmental problems of the 20th century, won’t restoring nature reverse the trends? And yet, scientists worry about this solution, since we have miscalculated before. History has shown that the places we created are complex and dynamic. Cities are ecosystems and the great lesson of ecology is that most ecosystems are unpredictable: try to push them in one direction and they may take off in another. When we tried to fix the problem of urban infectious disease we created “sanitary” water conveyance systems that concentrated pollution; when we revitalized neighborhoods with new parks and amenities we displaced poorer residents through gentrification. In fact, the list of unanticipated consequences of large-scale programs to “fix” cities is perhaps rather longer than the list of anticipated consequences.
So we worry. Many people ask: what could go wrong in large-scale efforts to bring nature back to cities? Here are some of the issues that give us pause:
1) Scale: The simplest concern is that small scale greening projects are not up to the task of absorbing and mitigating the dramatic emissions of pollutants and other transformations of the urban environment. It’s likely that most green solutions to urban problems must be implemented on a very large spatial scale to really make an impact. But honestly, in most cases we don’t really know the scale that’s necessary to achieve the desired impact—that’s a fundamental knowledge gap. This shouldn’t prevent us from engaging in small-scale projects. However, to really solve critical urban problems, we must get a handle on scale and advocate for the right scale in the right place.
2) Altering systems that we don’t really understand: Large scale change comes with the possibility of making large scale mistakes. Neither science nor society has a great track record of reliably predicting the outcome of dramatic land transformations. I live in a desert city, and worry in particular about water resource and climatic consequences of efforts to shift vegetation and greenspace in one direction or another. Desert cities in the U.S. tend to use quite a lot of water to manage urban greenspace. It’s a worthy goal to reduce this water consumption, but many other ecosystem components are tied to water including local climate, human thermal comfort, energy use, and downstream water supplies such as groundwater. When we consider changing one part of the system, we must carefully consider possible cascading effects.
3) The right project for the right place: This is an old axiom, and yet, the devil is in the details. I have found that ecologists and landscape architects have much to discuss about why and how particular projects are suitable for a particular city, landscape, and site. In my city, located in a unique high desert region, there is much discussion about what a climate appropriate landscape looks like, and how it might provide needed shade and aesthetic properties while minimizing water and maintenance requirements. Which imported design types work here? Which plant types balance resource use, aesthetic, and functional criteria? Why or why not? There is still much discussion, a few points of agreement, and many uncertainties.
The scientific tendency to focus on uncertainty can be frustrating for people who need to act now. As scientists, we don’t want action to grind to a halt just because we don’t know all the answers yet—far from it. But as a compromise, we propose to build uncertainty into action. This can be done with projects that are “safe to fail” and by providing mechanisms to plug knowledge gaps with each new design project. More than just providing performance monitoring, scientists are hoping for opportunities to work with landscape architects to test critical pieces of the urban ecosystem puzzle with every new project. In many cases, we know what we don’t know, or at least can take a good guess. Can we build projects together that fill the many holes in our understanding of how cities work? This might make the future of cities much more predictable, with fewer mistakes and consequences that we can more fully anticipate. We might worry a lot less, and together start imagining again a great future full of new possibilities.
Facts and Ideas
Well, it may surprise the panel, but my private practice in landscape architecture and planning, Kevin Sloan Studio, consistently enjoys energetic and positive collaborations with ecologists, environmental engineers, and, on occasion, scientists. The reason our design work “reaches across the aisle”, I suspect, originates from a particular design view that was taught to me by two great mentors.
Werner Seligman was a young European architect in the mid-1950s who was hired and implanted into the School of Architecture at the University of Texas-Austin, along with a group of other European educators, to pioneer a new architectural curriculum for the 20th century. While Edward M. Baum wasn’t one of the “Texas Rangers” (a nickname given later to the UT-Austin Europeans), he was an academic colleague of Seligman’s and the Dean at the UT-Arlington School of Architecture. When I relocated from New York to North Texas, Werner told me to “look up Ed Baum”. What they both gave me was a “new set of eyes,” especially about how to see and understand the task of design and how it interacts with many other hands.
Architects and landscape architects bring facts and ideas together to direct the production of places and spaces. The “facts” of a project can include the specific needs of a location, a finite budget in money and time and/or the facts of horticulture and the climate of a particular region. Other facts might include lessons drawn from the great reservoir of history to imbue a contemporary assignment with content and depth. Then there are ideas, such as organizing principles, conceptual frameworks, patterns, theories, and metaphors that guide a landscape architect to artfully imagine possibilities that reconcile the facts and their problems.
When landscape architecture is seen ONLY as art, problems arise, potentially when they are working in collaboration with other fact-driven disciplines, such as ecology.
The work of an artist is treasured because it offers a personal and singular view of the world. Since ecology, and other related disciplines, such as horticulture and botany, are based on science and repeatable phenomena, the priorities of an artist can, on occasion, be exclusive and intolerable to the pragmatism of those who speak for nature, ecology and science.
In addition to facts and ideas, the design work of Kevin Sloan Studio aspires towards the standards set by great design precedents. One in particular, the round barn at Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, is a unique and appropriate example for the roundtable because it demonstrates a perfect synthesis of landscape architecture, architecture, ecology, farming, and agriculture. When the round barn is fully understood, it’s difficult to assert whether it is a metaphor, a machine, an instrument, or something even more profound.
The Shakers clearly knew archetypes and architectural history, since the round form of the barn is not only temple-like, but is prominently located in the village as if it was in fact a place of worship. At the time, a round building was also the ideal form for feeding an entire herd of cattle using only a single farmhand. This was the functional objective.
When the farmhand would appear, the cattle would instinctively begin moving towards the barn where a round building was, again, a perfect form to face and gather the herd from all directions. Once they entered through a set of equidistantly spaced doors, the interior layout queued all the animals to vertical wood slats that lined an interior circular hallway.
The farmhand would then take a pitchfork of hay from the center mass and place it in front of the animal who was on the other side of the corridor—take three steps—then, repeat the process, around and around. Each animal left the queue when they were full. When the last animal walked out of the building, the herd was fed.
But the more profound aspect of the design is how it ultimately became a “time machine.” As political and religious separatists, the Shakers were a society devoted to energetic celebration. A barn that allowed them to feed the village herd with one brother would give the rest of the congregation a maximum amount of time for “shaking.”
Our office hopes that someday we will produce a design that is as effortless, brilliant, indestructible, and profound as the round barn at Hancock Shaker Village.
Yin and Yang: Urban Ecology and Landscape Architecture
Dear Landscape Architecture, We’ve been together for several years now, and they’ve been the most exciting, fruitful and creative years of my existence. As a team united by shared values and interests, we have combined our skills, perspectives and knowledge towards projects that are beautiful and functional, both ecologically and culturally.
Sadly, we are not in a balanced place at the moment. Our therapist, David Maddox, has suggested that we communicate our discontent and seek reconciliation by identifying the gaps between us. Specifically, he suggests we reflect on the following: How can we get landscape architecture and ecology better integrated in the service of better cities? After some venting, I will reflect on the inadequacies of my profession in this light and will conclude by outlining some approaches that, if we both adopted, could help create better cities and landscapes.
When we first got together, we used to go for vivid walks that elevated our powers of observation to child-like ecstasy. Do you remember? Whether in the natural environment, sculpture parks or beautiful cities, the outdoors is definitely where we fell in love, because we love the same things. Our poetry sang the praises of natural shapes and forms, admired the intricacies of blossoms, and mused upon dramatic contrasts. We were constantly learning from each other, and took turns exchanging field guides and sketch books. Or at least this is how I remember it.
Nowadays, you’re only ever behind your screen or at the drawing board and rarely come outside. It seems that you trust your notes and photographs to the extent that you don’t need to visit the site again. Working at plan view is such an abstract and technical exercise! I don’t want to challenge your practice, but I am concerned that you are limiting yourself (and your gifts of creativity and sensitivity) to a 1-dimensional plane. Is it time pressure/ time management? Or have you lost touch with your inspiration?
If there wasn’t so much at stake, I wouldn’t mind. But your studio-/ screen-based process also seems to have shifted your priorities away from “life” and increasingly towards “living”. You take such delight in geometry, sculpture, and clean surfaces that little time remains to consider other forms of life. What about birds and bats, who need homes, food and water? Given so little thought, designed features like lollipop trees will offer little benefit to particular species who need our help. Your colours and patterns are beautiful, but will the species lists actually benefit insects, pollinators, or birds? How will they affect local and regional food webs?
On the other hand, I really admire your ability to move forward on a project in spite of incomplete knowledge or understanding, as I realise this is a hindrance of mine. As a plant ecologist who dabbles in landscape design, I am hindered by my ideal to thoroughly know a site and to predict how an installation will establish and develop. One of my weaknesses, personally and professionally, is to get bogged down by the knowledge of the knowledge I lack. I could take lessons in confidence from you, since my holding back does not serve the world.
I have faith in our connection, and believe that we can accomplish much more together than we could alone. Following are a few points that I think could help create better cities and landscapes. These may resonate with you, but perhaps with other professions, too. At the very least, I hope they help us better understand each other and our relationship to making the world a better place.
The urban ecologists approach to landscape design:
- Observation: prioritise observing the site (or other sites with similar qualities) at various times (day/ month/ year);
- Consequential yields: plant selections will impact food webs and trophic structures, so choose your plants wisely;
- Bird’s-eye view: consider the role of the site/ project to regional corridors, networks, populations, communities, etc.
- Think global, act local: identify local qualities and features that are relevant to the site and its context (e.g., cultural heritage, green space networks)
- 80-20: aim to spend 80% of your time/ energy on the survey, analysis and design, and 20% on the implementation and maintenance;
- Ethics: regenerative and sustainable designs can be achieved when they take into account the needs of local communities and people, the potential of local ecosystems, and create conditions for abundance;
- Patterns: design from patterns to details;
- Collaborate: there is always more to learn (and it’s fun!);
- Stay informed: science and practice continue to churn out valuable information and knowledge;
- Down-to-earth: if you start feeling overly conceptual, get outside and refresh.
I suspect most ecologists are well aware of the things I’d like to share about landscape architecture. Because you, ecologists, interact with the impacts of our work long after we’ve fulfilled a construction contract. How does the large plaza and pier on a new riverfront impact the river ecosystem ten years after the ribbon cutting ceremony? Ask an ecologist. How does a designed “forest” in a local park impact bird populations over time? Ask an ecologist.
Try as we might to act on behalf of all living creatures and systems, a landscape architect’s work is anthropocentric. It is shaped by human constructs: ownership of land, commodification of space, and human timescale.
Ownership of Land:
Landscape architects most commonly work for clients who own land. While natural systems and non-humans disregard these legal definitions of who owns what, we are bound by and to them. Water flows, soil is porous, and birds, animals, insects, and plants move fluidly across property boundaries, while we create islands according to them.
Landscape architects are often asked to quantify how a project will increase capital, in order for it to happen. Metrics tell us that landscape architecture can raise surrounding property values, increase human health and productivity, reduce crime, and attract people who then support nearby businesses. Other less commodifiable value propositions, such as ecosystem health, are acceptable so long as they don’t decrease the commodification of a space; what keeps landscape architects employed.
Landscape architects plan and design with the goal of implementation. To implement a plan, we construct it, and to construct it, we have contracts to manage liability. Contracts operate on human time, which is usually about maximizing profits and often at odds with ecological time which is about maximizing change and resilience. The images we create to communicate with clients and the public represent contract time because they illustrate what a landscape will look like as a result of construction. Sometimes built landscapes get frozen in contract, or human, time because maintenance keeps them looking like the static images that convinced people to build them. As we’re learning from erratic and increased weather events, human time landscapes are less resilient than those with the ability to change with and adapt to a changing planet.
Ecologists, can you see how much we need you? You know how the islands of our work within property boundaries impact natural systems beyond. You know what is the highest ecological value we could embed into our commodified spaces. Now that we are in the Anthropocene, whereby humans are the greatest geologic force on the planet and nothing remains untouched by us, we need your feedback loops. Since we work on human time, and you on ecological time, we must put our heads together to bridge the two for more resilient communities, and planet.
Disciplinary myopia and professional tribalism
The question is a vital one, but just one example of a wider phenomenon and problem related to design in its entirety, that of “disciplinary myopia”.
In vocational education in landscape architecture and ecology, as in many other disciplines, what those in other disciplines care about and why has been given too little attention. In depth investigations of the historic canons of knowledge and thought underpinning spheres of endeavour other than one’s own have been given little emphasis. The sheer burgeoning of knowledge and expectation in each profession has compounded the problem by focussing energies for study too myopically.
This phenomenon of not caring to find out what others care about—and why—leads to a second phenomenon of professional tribalism: when trained professionals engage together to undertake real projects. Pressures of budgets, timetables, and project team structures, themselves, often strongly militate against the provision of interdisciplinary explorative space. Far from a constructive collaboration, there is often inter-disciplinary competition based on different starting premises and “professional territory” (and feeding different egos). Small wonder that so many design teams founder on the jagged rocks of mediocrity when delivering what is supposed to be a multidisciplinary creative endeavour! Of course there are great exceptions, but it is sadly so often true.
Professionals with different lenses on the world
One might think that the professions of landscape architecture and ecology would be the exceptions—that the divide between them would be less marked than between other professions given their “common currency” of nature. But the fact is that landscape and ecological professionals often care differently about the same things and also care about different things. They have been taught different languages, and different philosophies (whether explicit or implied) based on different starting premises. They use different lenses on the world.
Ecologists that I know, by and large, appear to have entered the ecological profession driven not only by their love of nature but by their deep moral indignation at the damage done by man to nature in all of its innocence and incapacity to fight back. The theory and practice of nature conservation evaluation elevates to importance those features in the world that are rarest, take the longest time to develop naturally, and display the least influence of Homo sapiens. Ecologists frequently focus on our being at one with nature by somehow “going back” to it; they often jibe that when we, like the Oozlum Bird or the Easter Islander, disappear from the globe on a wave of our own greed and ignorance, “we will not be missed”.
This focus, however, underrates the many achievements and values of civilization and culture, and can cause disengagement from the pressing challenges posed by our ever-increasingly urban existence—challenges for which ecological thinking is vitally required if we are to find proper resolutions, not only for us but for all nature within and beyond the urban realm.
Landscape architects instead generally focus notably more on the merits of Jacob Bronowskian Ascent and Kenneth Clarkian Civilisation in our relationship with nature. They reason that as the only know civilised and self-reflective being, we are clearly here to take a different path to the rest of nature. So, exerting control upon it, simplifying it, abstracting from it, recombining it, and improving on it—all hold significant allure for the landscape architect, both emotionally and intellectually; indeed, these actions might even be considered to encapsulate our very purpose on Earth for landscape architects.
Such a focus, however, can create a blind eye to (or much reduced focus on): the concepts of natural limits on resources, the different responses and capacities of different parts of ecosystems to absorb anthropogenic environmental change, and our whims of intervention and on the intrinsic value of non-human life.
Many who read this will be, like me, passionate believers in the merits of humankind and the “ascent of man”. We will revel in the achievements of culture, the arts, fine landscapes, fine music, fine food and drink, fine buildings and astonishing technologies—in short, appreciating all the best in human creative endeavour. We will wish for this “ascent” to continue.
Many of the same readers will have hearts that bleed at the pollution of the seas, the felling of the forests, and the mindless eradication of natural wonders and genetic libraries by human action and will want to reverse these depredations.
To achieve both goals, true synergy is needed between ecologists and landscape architects—and all other professions involved in both protecting and embellishing our world as a place of wonder and delight.
And for that to happen there is a pressing need for us all to develop a much deeper knowledge and respect of each other’s disciplinary lineages and value sets.
Give urban biodiversity a chance!
Private and public green spaces and structures planned and designed by landscape architects have a main impact on the biological diversity of cities. Many landscape architects do a good job and plan and realize good, attractive, and ambitious urban green. But, from my view, I miss some essentials with respect to maintaining and improving urban biodiversity.
What is it that I miss? The landscape architects construct green areas, which show richly structured vegetation; the vegetation is aesthetic and it considers the needs of the people. Many of these landscape architects believe that they make a contribution to species richness and diversity, both quantitative and qualitative. As a rule, however, they use a superficial understanding of the meaning and mechanisms of what constitutes urban biodiversity, aligning it with visual perception. Those planning and designing do not realize that such an approach can realize the potential of a location for the protection and development of diversity and for the perception and experience of nature by the dwellers but, possibly, can counteract biological diversity. Some examples for the latter: if the construction material stone is used excessively in green places, even when stone is present in abundance in cities; if the extensive offer of flowers attracts pollinators, but the blossoms are modified or infertile, that pollination is not possible; if the landscape architects share the sentiment, without analysis, that wild places, like wastelands, are ugly and have no value.
I think it is necessary that landscape architects grapple with scientific knowledge about urban biodiversity. The responsibility for the protection and improvement of biological diversity should be become an integral part of the education and training of landscape architects and, in this context, they should be taught which processes influence biodiversity in urban areas.
Who of the landscape architects knows the essential components of the local and regional species pools? What are the biogeographically typical species, which can be part of the urban biodiversity in order to mirror the regional biogeography? How well do landscape architects know the impact of their planning and designs on the diversity of animals and plants? Which landscape architect is aware that each planned and designed green space influences the structure of the metapopulations in the city? Or, is aware of the contributions of the green space to the local food chain? Etc. etc. Experts in the local and regional species pools are not always able to present sufficient answers for the specific plan, but they can give an orientation.
And, another point. Do not forget common species. They contribute to regional identity, because the common species of the surrounding landscape are often species that are able to enter and survive in urban areas, too. They are also fundamental for the occurrence of rare species in urban areas, because they support the nutrition cycle, are essential parts of food webs, act as shelter for other species, and ensure a great extension of the ecosystem services. Last but not least, they provide the biggest potential for nature experience in urban areas.
Landscape architects make important contributions to the valuation of urban green. Therefore, they should visualize that apparently ugly places, such as wild, unpleasant waste areas settled by a variety of plants and animals, are of value. Good planning concepts and the placing of remarkable symbols, but also the use of interesting information, can produce a shift in thinking, such that the former ugly place becomes a new beauty.
What would be helpful?
First: The topic of urban biodiversity and the scientific background and knowledge of that topic should become an essential part of education and advanced training of landscape architects
Second: Local and regional knowledge by experts and laymen (citizen science) about the occurrence—in past and present—and diversity of species and their habitats should be considered in planning and design of urban green.
Third: Landscape architects are important stakeholders conveying awareness about values of green spaces and structures. Landscape architects, ecologists, and environmental economists should come together to discuss and work out the valuation and improvement of urban biodiversity.