Imagine an “ecological certification” for urban design. What are such a certification’s key elements?

Ankia Bormans, Cape Town.  Katie Coyne, Austin.  Sarah Dooling, Austin/Boston.  Nigel Dunnett, Sheffield.  Ana Faggi, Buenos Aires.  Sarah Hinners, Salt Lake City.  Mark Hostetler, Gainesville.  Jason King, Portland.  Marit Larson, New York.  Nina-Marie Lister, Toronto.  Travis Longcore, Los Angeles.  Colin Meurk, Christchurch.  Diane Pataki, Salt Lake City.  Mohan Rao, Bangalore.  Aditya Sood, Delhi. 
16 August 2017

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Every month we feature a Global Roundtable in which a group of people respond to a specific question in The Nature of Cities.
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Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Ankia Bormans, Cape TownPerhaps a more sustainable approach would be to develop a strategy of assessment where it is ascertained how ecological considerations can enhance or assist in alleviating socio-economic issues.
Katie Coyne, AustinCertification, if fulfilled, should be more than just a trophy, but lead to greater resource efficiency, quantifiable benefits to the local community, and lower life-cycle costs to the owners of the project.
Sarah Dooling, Austin/BostonLEED v4 social equity credits broaden conventional certifications beyond technical standards, but must go further to fundamentally address persistent inequities in design among neighborhoods.
Nigel Dunnett, ScheffieldBasing ecological certification on species lists alone, as is often done in the U.K., is not good ecology, and is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of plant communities and of dynamic ecological functions.
Ana Faggi, Buenos AiresAn ecological certification for urban site design should guarantee that the project has considered the site as a living system. This could also help to create inspirational places engaging communities in valuing sustainable sites.
Sarah Hinners, Salt Lake CityNo one should assume that checking a certain number of boxes in a certification scheme assures that you’ve done all you need to do to save the world, even one project at a time.
Mark Hostetler, GainesvilleWhat happens during the construction and postconstruction phases can ruin the ecological value of ecology-sensitive designs. Current certifications schemes don’t address this.
Jason King, SeattleWhile SITES and Salmon Safe begin to address ecological issues, a true ecological certification, in the sense of one that measures actual place-specific ecological value, does not currently exist.
Marit Larson, New YorkTwo key factors should be incorporated in urban ecological urban design — and in an ecological certification program: (1) continued research on the ecological assumptions of design; (2) planning for maintenance and adaptive management.
Nina-Marie Lister, TorontoEcological design is a package deal: ecological performance plus human response — and that is more than a measure. It’s a long-term investment plus passion and care.
Travis Longcore, Los AngelesThree elements are needed for any certification: bird-friendly design; reduction in light pollution; and rules for pesticides and wildlife interactions.
Colin Meurk, Christchurch The first solution for competent decision making is for a certified ecologist to be a required member at all board and governance tables.
Diane Pataki, Salt Lake CityMany people should have a say in developing an ecological certification, but scientists need to speak up too. These days it’s ineffective at best and dangerous at worst to wait for someone else to generate the checklist for us.
Mohan Rao, BangaloreTerms like rating, ranking, and certification need to be replaced with evaluation and benchmarking. This is not merely pedantic nitpicking but an important step towards reimagining both the process and outcome.
Aditya Sood, DelhiIt can’t just be about “sites”. The impact of sites is felt not just within urban limits, but much beyond it.
David Maddox

About the Writer:
David Maddox

David loves urban spaces and nature. He loves creativity and collaboration. He loves theatre and music. In his life and work he has practiced in all of these as, in various moments, a scientist, a climate change researcher, a land steward, an ecological practitioner, composer, a playwright, a musician, an actor, and a theatre director.


Urban sites gets planned. Urban sites get designed. Urban sites get built. Many of them are labelled as “sustainable”, or “ecological”. Are they so? How would we know? What do we even mean by the words sustainable and ecological, especially when put alongside the more common design descriptors relating to aesthetics and social function? Integrating these ideas suggests the need for various disciplines — ecology, landscape architecture, and planning, at least — to hash out the common principles into a shared understanding to advance evidence-based and ecologically sound design. Conversations like this can easily turn to certifications.

The Oxford Living Dictionary gives the following definition for the noun “certification”:

The action or process of providing someone or something with an official document attesting to a status or level of achievement.

A certification is a professional seal of approval, based on a set of professionally confirmed metrics. Indeed, we certify people for their expertise; there are certifications for organic produce; for fair trade coffee; and many more. And if we want to call urban sites that are designed to be “ecological” or “sustainable”, then we could certify these too. In theory, it would hold designers to a standard. It would give managers and policy makers confidence. It would put the ecology into ecological design.

That is, if we could actually agree on which underlying values and metrics should be built into such a certification. This is the conservation we are having here in this roundtable, and the responses are all over the map. What the specific metrics are, and at what phase of  a project they should be applied — even whether it is a good idea at all — are offered in diverse and sometimes provocative  answers.

Some examples of ecological design certifications already exist. LEED, owned by Green Business Certification Inc, has evolved to include more ecological and social parameters. The Sustainable SITES Initiative is a metric-based scheme that, according to their website, “ushers landscape architects, engineers and others toward practices that protect ecosystems and enhance the mosaic of benefits they continuously provide our communities…” There the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method — BREEAM — based in the U.K. Other certifications exist to focus on species or systems, such as Salmon Safe. There are some created by and for specific cities. New York has developed several certifications, including  the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines, or WEDG (“WEDG is doing for the waterfront what LEED® has done for buildings”, says their website). The always environmentally progressive Singapore created a Landscape Excellence Assessment Framework, or LEAF). [Note: This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, just an illustrative one.] 

So, a number of certifications exist that are relevant to our theme, and each emphasizes a different but overlapping set of ecological and social parameters. Perhaps none are perfect, but all try to build some ecology into the worldview of design. Enough ecology? The right ecology? Do interdisciplinary teams lack a shared vocabulary? (Yes, as we discussed here in a previous roundtable.) What is needed to move froward?

We have gathered 15 designers and ecologists to talk about ecological design certifications. They were invited to celebrate or criticize existing systems, if they cared to. But mostly they were prompted to talk about the key principles and core metrics that would make the phrase “ecological design” harmonize the words ecological and design.

Ankia Bormans

About the Writer:
Ankia Bormans

I came to Landscape Architecture by serendipity. I have many passions and perhaps the greatest passion is curiosity, as that allows me to immerse myself in the process without bothering or caring too much for the end result.

Ankia Bormans

Site analysis and evaluation in a developing country

Mechanisms for site analysis and evaluation have been developed, with the most notable that of SITES, GBC (Australia) and LEED (USGBC). The Green Building Council of South Africa have amended and adopted GBC and have adjusted the document to apply to the environmental and building legislation of South Africa. The document allows for the assessment of a building and more importantly the assessment of a green precinct.

Perhaps a more sustainable approach would be to develop a strategy of assessment where it is ascertained how ecological considerations can enhance or assist in alleviating socio-economic issues.
Although this is a great step forward, the development of a tool to assess any site, be it a rural landscape/site or an urban landscape/site, needs to be developed even further to apply to all the constraints that face us in a developing country.

In both the cases of SITES and GBCSA, the tools are relevant and useful but fall short when it comes to addressing the social and economic issues communities are faced within a developing country such as South Africa. These communities are often faced with more immediate needs, such as ensuring community safety, providing basic needs, developing sufficient public health systems, transport systems and education. These needs take precedence, often at the cost of ecological considerations.

Although there is a section in both SITES and GBCSA relating to the ecological rehabilitation of a site and the responsibility to healthy communities, it fails to address the issues when communities are already established and are in the process of being upgraded in situ.

It is understood that better ecological design will enhance and benefit communities, however pressing socio-economic issues often take precedence to the suggested ecological issues. This is particularly true in situations where immediate remediation is required in order for the community to benefit. Transport systems are a good case in point, where an immediate need to develop a sufficient transport system will take precedence over the rehabilitation of an adjacent river corridor or the upgrade of the stormwater run-off of an existing system. There are simply not enough resources to provide both, nor is there the time to develop an overarching strategy.

One can argue that this is exactly when an ecological assessment is required, but a strategy must be developed where the assessment of the site and the needs of the people can be accommodated without compromising one or the other.

There is a perception that taking a responsible ecological approach will miraculously change the way people respond to their immediate environment; that it will make a project instantly sustainable!

Questions remain. To what extent is the landscape (and inferred ecological responsibility) the appropriate tool to act as a catalyst to social change? What issues can be resolved or assisted through the change or upgrade in the landscape rather than expecting the ecological approach and upgrade of the landscape to be the miraculous answer to the complex issues facing developing countries?

As stated before, the issue is not merely to have a system of site assessment and ecological responsiveness, but how to act on, or within a site, remain ecologically responsible, and still take the needs of the community into account.

Sustainability should not only hinge on ecological factors but should take equality and accessibility and socio-economic factors into account. Perhaps a more sustainable approach would be to develop a strategy of assessment where it is ascertained how ecological considerations can enhance or assist in alleviating socio-economic issues.

More often than not projects or situations of this nature are in the public realm. Developing a strategy where ecology “dove-tails” with socio-economic issues the question around funding is also answered to a certain extent.

I certainly do not have the perfect answer, but feel the ecological assessment of urban sites is perhaps too reductive and do not address complexities in urban developments.

Katie Coyne

About the Writer:
Katie Coyne

Katie co-leads the Urban Ecology Studio at Asakura Robinson where she is a passionate advocate for design informed by studying the overlap between social and ecological systems.

Katie Coyne

Can an ecological certification help fix the critical problems in ecological design and Planning? 

Certification should be more than just a trophy, but lead to greater resource efficiency, quantifiable benefits to the local community, and lower life-cycle costs to the owners of the project.
Before considering what the key elements of an ecological certification are, it’s important to consider what a certification is trying to accomplish. My initial concern is that some proponents of certification schemes are trying to over-simplify complex systems, minimizing the ecology of a site to a series of checkboxes evaluated by the site’s designer.

I hope not, and believe a carefully considered certification should be a catalyst for interdisciplinary collaboration, raising the bar for what we expect from ecological design and planning work. We should start the conversation about what to include in a certification by understanding the most pressing problems we’re trying to solve and prioritize from there. The following outlines are what I see as our prevailing problems in ecological design and planning today and how a certification could be a part of the solution.

1. Disconnection: There is a disconnect between scientists and designers in language, rigor, practice spaces, value systems, and access to research and literature.

If you say “transect” an ecologist will think you’re talking about field sampling, but a designer will think of a graphic, depicting variables across a spatial gradient. A lack of common ground in language translates to an inability to understand expectations of rigor across disciplines and exacerbates physical and theoretical disconnections between disciplines by creating gaps between scientists and designers even when they are both at the table. For scientists, learning to be “bilingual” means they need to be more willing to understand how landscapes hold different value for different people and that ecological value is only one piece of the pie. When designers understand the value of ecological knowledge informing practice, they are often met with literature so filled with jargon that it remains inaccessible because they often do not know how to translate technical scientific data into design principles.

2. Interdisciplinarity: There is a lack of expectation for truly interdisciplinary teams which translates to designs that do not maximize multifunctionality.

Design firms are becoming more interdisciplinary internally — a step in the right direction. Even so, scientists who practice within their field should be regular parts of design teams. Lack of interdisciplinarity means that teams miss opportunities for multifunctional design and favor focusing only on the functions the team is most knowledgeable about.

3. Scale: Many designs focus on sites but do not address neighborhood, city, or regional scales.

Landscape architects and planners are not collaborating enough with each other; and, ecologists are not expounding on the impact larger regional networks have on systems function. Many city policies promote site-scale sustainability but miss neighborhood to regional scales. Policies promoting green infrastructure (GI) decoupled from a city-wide GI plan result in piece-meal development of projects thereby promoting concentrations of GI rather than distributed networks and resulting in differential distributions of GI across socio-economic gradients.

This image shows 5 scales of green infrastructure projects in either Houston or Austin, Texas as compared to Austin’s Waller Creek Watershed. While the Mueller Development has been heralded as a prime example of networked, ecologically-informed, neighborhood-scale landscape design, the most recent widely-celebrated project is Bagby Street—a 0.62 mile green street project in Houston. Image: Katie Coyne, 2017

4. Money: Even for projects with explicit urban ecological goals, there is typically not enough budget to pay ecological consultants as part of the design team or pay for monitoring before, during, and after project implementation.

All too often, academic expertise is expected to be provided free of charge and instead of these experts being integrated parts of design teams, their involvement is reduced to a single meeting. A limited number of informed clients willing to allocate sufficient funding for a consultant team to carry out rigorous research further exacerbates this problem.

All this considered, if an ecological certification is to be successful it must:

  1. Create a common language across multiple disciplines.
  2. Find a middle ground in expectations of rigor.
  3. Create universal metrics across disciplines that provide an accurate measure of project effectiveness against project goals and other projects.
  4. Create a forum whereby scientists and designers can regularly collaborate.
  5. Promote an understanding in ecological partners that ecological value is an equal part of a larger, holistic value set.
  6. Create an open-access database of academic research “translated” for non-scientists.
  7. Mandate the inclusion of interdisciplinary team members with verifiable expertise.
  8. Mandate that designs meet a minimum level of socio-cultural and ecological multifunctionality.
  9. Provide a certification opportunity for site, neighborhood, city and regional scales.
  10. Minimize the cost burden of the certification fee by creating a variable fee structure.
  11. Mandate that academic partners are equitably compensated members of the consultant team.
  12. Mandate socio-ecological research occur before, during, and after a design or planning process.
  13. Promote grant opportunities to help fill funding gaps.
  14. Emphasize that the certification, if fulfilled, will be more than just a trophy for a project but lead to greater resource efficiency, quantifiable benefits to the local community, and lower life-cycle costs to the owners of the project.

As an accredited professional with an existing certification program called Sustainable SITES, I can say that this program hits many of the key elements above, but not all. Most notably, SITES only certifies projects when constructed, leaving the possibility of certifying something like a neighborhood scale or larger green infrastructure plan unlikely, even if there are tangible results on the ground. LEED has a good precedent for what this model could look like with their LEED – Neighborhood Development certification. LEED-ND provides certification opportunities for new land development projects or redevelopment projects containing residential uses, nonresidential uses, or a mix at any stage of the development process, from conceptual planning to construction. Hopefully, SITES will prove to be the dynamic program it needs to be, evolving with practice and the input of its interdisciplinary supporters and critics, expanding its certification offerings to encourage rigorously designed landscapes across scales and contexts, and promoting more interdisciplinary conversations with designers, ecologists, and planners.

Sarah Dooling

About the Writer:
Sarah Dooling

Sarah is an interdisciplinary urban ecologist, with 17 years of experience in urban ecology, social work, and wildlife management. She works on colaborative design projects and policy development efforts that integrate ecological design, environmental planning and social equity issues.

Sarah Dooling

Expanding the social Work of site design: Certification of design mentoring programs in LEED social equity credits

The development of cities is driven by politics and social prejudices that concentrate the creation of aesthetically pleasing and ecologically functional green spaces in wealthier neighborhoods. Site designs, likewise, are also value laden, indivisible from larger cultural and economic systems that generate inequities. However, site designs can also be tools that weaken dominant views that poor neighborhoods are negligible and that the future of community residents is pre-determined by poverty and insufficient opportunities. Many designers feel overwhelmed by the seemingly unstoppable power of speculative economics and underlying racist policies that thwart attempts among design teams to resist the machinations of urban development. One approach for mainstreaming a social justice agenda within the design process is to expand the existing social equity credits of performance-based certification programs, to include credits that award points for sustained relationships between design teams and under-served communities that create possibilities for vibrant futures.

LEED v4 social equity credits broaden conventional certifications beyond technical standards, but must go further to fundamentally address persistent inequities in design among neighborhoods.

Certification creates and enforces standards about the construction and quality of a given product. For the design professions, including ecological design and landscape architecture, certification establishes areas of expertise and skills required in making site designs. Landscape professionals have not historically been trained to integrate social equity concerns into site design plans. However, in 2014 the LEED certification program, which awards points for new construction projects for buildings and master planned neighborhoods, created three social equity credits. Last year, the Landscape Architecture Foundation published The Declaration of Concern which called for broadening the social impact of designs and mitigating root causes of degradation. Momentum is gaining to make the design professions ecologically and socially progressive.

LEED v4 social equity credits clearly broaden conventional LEED site performance metrics from building material selections and energy use to corporate cultural practices that recognize the up and downstream processes involved in creating goods and bads for people and the environment. The first credit focuses on corporate responsibility, and awards companies points if they pay the prevailing regional wage for construction workers and provide adequate safety training for workers. The second credit awards points to companies who develop a community engagement process to determine what the community’s needs are relative to the company’s project. Social responsibility in supply chains is the third credit awarded to companies that prioritize worker health and safety, uphold non-discrimination practices, establish grievance procedures and maintain a harassment-free construction site.

However, certification programs, including LEED v4, must go further in order to achieve truly progressive change in design and development practices. With a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, the seemingly unstoppable devastation created by gentrification pressures and the unrelenting criminalization of people of color, design professionals must be creative and fearless in their commitment to creating equitable futures. What does “an equitable future” look like for an African American young man who stops attending an under-funded public school and helps pay his family’s rent with money earned by selling drugs? What does an equitable future look like for a community of mothers who worry that their children will quit school and end up in prison?

Expanding the social impacts of design means that designers become aware of and listen to community concerns. Certification programs, like LEED, have been criticized for promoting feature indicators over indicators that assess actual performance. For communities struggling with school-to-prison pipelines, the modification of the physical environment alone remains necessary yet insufficient for addressing root causes of poverty and racism. One possible approach is to establish Design Mentoring programs that partner with local public schools to work with students.

Mentors offer youth opportunities to learn design skills and to explore how modifying physical space can improve their own neighborhood. Youth offer mentors experiences about precarious living and the opportunity to understand that the future is about collaborative survival. The site design process becomes the point of departure for building relationships that heal and open up dialogues where we begin to know more about ourselves and each other.

Incorporating Design Mentoring Programs credits into LEED Social Equity credits legitimizes this broader understanding of the design process and performance goals.

Site Performance Goal: Cultivate a culture of leadership and self-respect within at-risk community youth.

Metric 1.1: Number of public school students involved in mentoring programs involving design team members.

Metric 1.2: Number of public school students who successfully complete a one-year mentoring program and admitted into a post-secondary degree program.

The Design Mentoring Program would require basic technical training, including computer design programs (e.g., InDesign, CAD), hand-drawing and model building. Students would be involved in discussions about project scoping and attend community meetings to observe the influence of political and cultural dynamics on design decisions. Design team members would sign a one-year contract for each mentee, and develop learning goals with the mentee. Participating students would present at the end of their enrollment in the Design Mentoring Program to mentors and clients. Equally important, design team members would publically present their experiences of working closely with their mentees to clients, parents and education administrators.

Creating a Design Mentoring Program is no easy task for design firms. However, such a program is an investment in the future of places and people for whom the future is bleak. Certifying something like a Design Mentoring Program mainstreams the expectation that design professions work to empower historically marginalized communities. Building resilient communities must start where people, and their biotic neighbors, are hurting. Establishing Design Mentoring Program credits establishes the site design process through which learning and leadership converge in the lives of community residents who have the most at stake in reversing the patterns of inequitable development.

Nigel Dunnett

About the Writer:
Nigel Dunnett

Nigel Dunnett is Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture, University of Sheffield, UK, integrating ecology, horticulture and urban design.

Nigel Dunnett

I’m a botanist and ecologist by training and much practical field experience, but I live my life as a researcher, teacher and practitioner in the field of landscape architecture, and specifically in introducing green infrastructure into new and existing developments, often in high-density urban contexts.

Basing ecological certification on species lists alone, as is often done in the U.K., is not good ecology, and is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of plant communities and of dynamic ecological functions.
One thing that my knowledge and personal observations have taught me is that in ecology, nothing is ever black and white, and universal truths are hard to come by. Instead of binary “good and bad” concepts, ecology is really all about gradients, and most things can be seen as being on a continuum between two extreme points. Moreover, what is seen as an absolute ecological rule by scientists in one generation, is then superceded by another, as further research and insight shows that in actual fact things were never that simple in the first place. Viewed in this light, ecological certification schemes can, highly ironically, potentially cause actual ecological damage if applied in an unthinking ways.

In the UK, ecological certification (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, or BREEAM), as applied to landscape developments rather than buildings, comes down to lists of species: it’s a tick-box approach, based on a complex formula that is based primarily on the number of native species included in a scheme. “Biodiversity” is the key word, and great weight is placed on this at the planning permission stage of developments. Of course, biodiversity itself is a rather meaningless and nebulous term, especially when non-experts are responsible for making planning decisions. Does it mean the total number of species, or does it mean how closely it meets target native plant communities, or is it all about very rare and threatened native species?

Current ecological science journals are filled with articles that are based on extreme quantitative approaches, mathematical modeling, and complex advanced statistics that are a million miles from the more descriptive origins of the science. While quantitative approaches are perfect for certification schemes that largely cover materials, life-cycle costs, energy performance, etc. for buildings, can the same sort of methodology be applied to dynamic, living systems? Too often, as in the UK example, ecological goodness is reduced to a tick-box listing of native plants — the fact that they are native (however that is defined) is seen as the key thing, regardless as to whether they are appropriate for that situation or not.

And this is the key point. The ecological environment in a city is usually far removed from that of the surrounding hinterland or countryside. Soils are highly disturbed, modified, or non-existent. On green roofs and other landscapes over structure, there is no contact with natural soils or geologies. Temperatures are elevated (often significantly so) through the heat island effect, and other microclimatic elements are also modified. It therefore makes so scientific sense whatsoever to insist upon native species of the region, or to look to plant communities that may be typical of the area, or to hark back to some pre-development ideal that represents what would have happened in a pristine world on that site, using the oft-cited argument that native species of the region are best adapted to the climate and soils of that region.

Furthermore, the true urban ecological plant communities that are truly adapted to local conditions, and fully site-specific, are the recombinant communities based upon easily dispersed species that can reach and survive on tough, inhospitable urban sites — and they are composed of alien non-natives that have found their home in the city, alongside native species. These novel ecosystems are truly urban, cosmopolitan, spontaneous, and hugely metaphorical in terms of having great cultural resonance. And yet they would never be recognized in “purist” ecological certification schemes as being a valid basis for high scoring.

I’ve worked on many projects where ecological certification has meant the removal of a wide range of species from the original proposals — species that would have brought huge ecological benefit in terms of pollinator resources, fruits and seeds, and many other benefits, purely on the basis that they were not native. I’ve been heavily involved with green roof schemes, where certification has insisted that “green roofs for biodiversity” are installed, following restrictive sets of rules, only to see them fail because plant species selection has been wholly inappropriate, again because of a purist tick-box approach.

One of the big problems with this method of certification is that ecological factors trump aesthetic ones. Where landscapes are visible and useable, they must work for people, not just for biodiversity. Ecological certification is definitely a good idea, but it must be enlightened and flexible. Basing it on species lists alone is not good ecology, and is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of plant communities and of dynamic ecological functions. We need to move from the taxonomic idea that a plant community or ecosystem is composed of a standard list of species, to a functional approach, where it is the ecological functioning of the system that is of key importance. And we need to ensure that such schemes do not do active ecological damage in terms of the those processes and functions

Ana Faggi

About the Writer:
Ana Faggi

Ana Faggi graduated in agricultural engineering, and has a Ph.D. in Forest Science, she is currently Dean of the Engineer Faculty (Flores University, Argentina). Her main research interests are in Urban Ecology and Ecological Restoration.

Ana Faggi

An ecological certification for urban site design should guarantee that the project has considered the site as a living system. As such it could also help to create inspirational places engaging communities in valuing sustainable sites.
I believe that site certification could help to move away from technocratic, design-conforming local agency standards and codes whose advances are too slow (or nonexistent) to sufficiently keep to keep up with the design challenges imposed by the Anthropocene.

Many cities around the world continue to be built with paradigms of the past that do not consider the challenges imposed by climate change, geological and geomorphologic constraints, soil quality, water sources, the loss of biodiversity and the homogenization of the landscape. An ecological certification for urban site design should guarantee that the project has considered the site as a living system. As such it could also help to create inspirational places engaging communities in valuing sustainable sites.

Therefore, an ecological certification should include indicators of natural patterns such as topography, drainage, soils, local weather, and vegetation to be layered on manmade patterns such as land uses, transportation and facilities.

To develop an ecological certification framework one should set goals and define indicators to measure performance in meeting them. To pose an example, I present in the following table a checklist for a multi-scale assessment that allows assigning values to some variables discussed by Bry Sarté (2010) in his book Sustainable Infrastructure.

Assessment for an ecological certification of urban design, following Bry Sarté (2010).

Following this example, an urban site could reach the environmental certification if it scores at least 52 points (26 variables x 2 [the score for adequate]).

Nevertheless, as each site and design are unique, variables should be discussed on site following a participatory process. Evaluating these resources as key design assets will help people meet important community values and help to protect those saving costs of impacts mitigation in the future.

In closing, one question that I want to pose is: who should be responsible for ecological design certification? The city council? Professional councils? NGOs? Universities? Who can we trust for ecological certification without making a project more expensive?

Bry Sarté, S. 2010. Sustainable infrastructure. The Guide to Green Engineering and Design. John Wiley & Sons,, New Jersey.

Sarah Hinners

About the Writer:
Sarah Hinners

Sarah Hinners is a landscape and urban ecologist focused on bridging the gap between academic research and real-world planning and design applications. She is the Director of Research and Conservation at Red Butte Garden and Arboretum in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sarah Hinners

No one should assume that checking a certain number of boxes in a certification scheme assures that you’ve done all you need to do to save the world, even one project at a time.
Designing for social-ecological systems

I am generally skeptical of anything that involves a checklist, a point system, a prescribed set of “design principles” or “best practices”. At most, these things should be a starting point, not an end in themselves. On principle, I disapprove of any certification system where project planners and designers sign off and walk away, where a certification plaque is displayed somewhere and everyone goes home feeling good about themselves. I am an ecologist, and I know through the challenges of trying to convey the nature of ecological science the tenuous balance that exists between the broadly generalizable and the locally unique. Seeing the world through a lens of complex adaptive systems means that in every place nature, culture and chance events interact to produce an emergent social-ecological system that is different from anywhere else, despite the best efforts of national and international forces to make every place look the same. As the world changes around us at dizzying speed, I see the fulcrum shifting toward the local, rendering generalized recommendations less relevant.

We live in the time of a great social-ecological transition. All of the new human habitat we build for ourselves now should be preparing the next several generations for that transition and the post-transition world. Most of the certification systems that I’m familiar with (namely LEED and SITES) are focused on conservation of ecological resources and minimizing pollution. Wise use of resources and conservation of natural systems are a good and necessary step of course, but how does that prepare the next few generations of humans, other than making resources go a bit further? It just hands off the current maladaptive system, with a little less fuel to run it. What tools do they need? The majority of humans that now live within urban areas are disempowered: they are uninformed, disconnected, and vulnerable to disruptions in the complex global-scale networks of economics and infrastructure that support their lives. These networks are ultimately rooted in the biophysical world of our planet but ordinary individuals and households have essentially zero power to pull any levers to influence that system. (The power of the individual consumer as a market force is oversold in most cases.)

I argue that what the next few generations need from their human habitat is a combination of knowledge, connections, and options. That is, knowledge to understand what they see and experience, how the everyday world around them works, and their place in it. Connection, to place, to each other, to their community and to other living things. And options, to change course, to try something different, to fix something that isn’t working, to adapt to changing conditions. This is a social-ecological conceptualization of resilience in that it embeds the human designers and inhabitants of the built environment within that environment and within “nature”, particularly local nature.

Therefore, the questions I would ask (not the same as criteria but a step in that direction) are:

  1. Social-ecological integration: What human community is associated with this project and how is their ongoing relationship with this system integrated into the design?
  2. Knowledge: What knowledge or understanding will be enhanced by this project, particularly for its local human community?
  3. Connections: How does this project enhance social-ecological connections within the human community and with place?
  4. Options: How does this project build capacity for social-ecological adaptation?

One final question about certification programs concerns me. What is the moment at which certification is earned? Upon completion of construction (the norm)? One year post-construction? Five years? Fifty years? At the end of its lifespan, whatever that means? I think that certification should be given by the next generation, quite frankly, but this removes the incentive.

In the end, working as I do now in the reality of the present, I find systems like SITES useful as a reference point, and as an approach to starting a discussion that “speaks the language” of the current way of doing things. But no one should assume that by checking a certain number of boxes that you’ve done all you need to do to save the world, even one project at a time.

Mark Hostetler

About the Writer:
Mark Hostetler

Dr. Mark Hostetler conducts research and outreach on how urban landscapes could be designed and managed to conserve biodiversity. He conducts a national continuing education course on conserving biodiversity in subdivision development, and published a book, The Green Leap: A Primer for Conserving Biodiversity in Subdivision Development.

Mark Hostetler

What happens during the construction and postconstruction phases can ruin the ecological value of ecology-sensitive designs. Current certifications schemes don’t address this.
Most certifications, while raising awareness about sustainable practices, are lacking in two areas: 1) all do not (adequately) go beyond design and address long-term management, and 2) functional, biodiversity conservation measures are sorely lacking in most certifications. This published article discusses these two points in detail, and I will highlight some concerns in this blog.

Most development certifications, such as LEED Neighborhood Design, spend most of their emphasis, and point allocation, on design. For example, design points given for appropriate placement of built areas and conserved areas. This, of course, is important; one would want to conserve the most highly valued ecological areas. However, what occurs during the construction and postconstruction phases can ruin the ecological value of these conserved areas. Typically, no certification points or very few points are available to project components outside of design.

Construction impacts: In a development project, contractors and sub-contractors sculpt the land, installing transportation systems and building lots. Earthwork machines raise and lower grades to meet local building regulations. This whole process is an extreme disruption of the development site. For example, after a rain event, sediment concentrations coming from construction sites are often 10 to 20 times greater than runoff from agricultural land and 1,000 to 2,000 times greater than forest areas. A nearby, protected wetland can be heavily impacted from an influx of large amounts of sediment, chemicals, and other pollutants. As another example, large, ecologically significant trees may be marked for conservation, but construction activities can kill them. Trees and their roots are extremely vulnerable to construction activity. Vehicles that run over the root zone cause soil compaction, reducing the ability of tree roots to absorb essential nutrients and water. Around 80% of soil compaction occurs in the first pass of a vehicle. Fencing that is placed around the trunk of the tree is usually flimsy and not monitored. Where I live in Florida, heavy machinery is often parked beneath trees for shade.

Another critical issue during construction is how land clearing creates conditions where invasive exotic plants can gain a foothold. Many invasive plants are adapted to disturbance and when native vegetation is removed, and they are typically the first to spread into an area. Earthwork machines, which are transported from other construction sites, may carry invasive plant seeds and propagules to the construction areas. Once invasive plants gain access to a site, they can spread into conserved natural areas and displace native plants, ultimately impacting native plant and animal communities and ecosystem services. Careful monitoring and removal of invasive plants SHOULD occur during construction, but alas, very little attention is given in most certification programs.

Postconstruction impacts: Any sustainable development design can still fail depending on what happens during the postconstruction phase. The way people manage their homes, yards, and neighborhoods dictates how ecologically functional a development is over time. The list of inappropriate behaviors is quite extensive and includes:

  • Excessive irrigation—Watering excessively draws down local groundwater supply, causing nearby wetlands to dry up. Also, overwatering causes an increase in leaching sending large amounts of pollutants to nearby streams, lakes, and wetlands.
  •  Excessive fertilization and pesticide use—Combined with overwatering, excessive amounts of nutrients and pesticides can enter waterbodies, causing a decline in water quality.
  • Spread of invasive plants and animals—How homeowners manage their pets and decisions made on landscaping can have dramatic consequences for conserved natural areas. For example, free roaming cats can kill a surprising number of birds, lizards, and frogs. Released pets, such as Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus), have caused extensive ecosystem problems (e.g., the Florida Everglades). If a homeowner purchased and installed an invasive-exotic plant (e.g., Coral Ardisia Ardisia crenata), this plant would may spread into natural areas and outcompete native vegetation.
  • Replace native landscaping with exotics—Uninformed homeowners could replace natives with exotics and this would not only reduce biodiversity, but may also increase their use of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.
  • Improper management of Low Impact Development (LID) features—LID features must be properly maintained by homeowners if they are to remain effective. Permeable pavements require annual vacuuming, swales and rain gardens should not be filled in, and cars and other vehicles should not park on swales. Lack of maintenance results in a loss of soil permeability preventing water from percolating into the ground.
  • All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and foot traffic in conserved areas—If people and ATVs are not kept on designated trails, they can disrupt wildlife populations and destroy native vegetation.
  • Feeding wildlife and other human/wildlife conflicts—If people feed wildlife, wildlife species lose their fear of humans and can become a nuisance. Feeding alligators, raccoons, and squirrels may cause these animals to become aggressive. This is especially a problem with alligators, as their threat can be lethal.
  • Conflicts with natural area management practices—For example, many natural habitats (e.g., longleaf pine uplands) are maintained by prescribed fire. If homeowners are not supportive of prescribed burns, these natural areas would revert to something other than what was intended.

While design is important, I believe a majority of the total certification points should be allocated towards construction and postconstruction issues. I conclude by listing several key construction and postconstruction practices (again, taken directly from my online article). These practices should be implemented by the built environment professionals and supported by appropriate certification programs.


  • Reduction or elimination of turfgrass lawns. A number of native groundcovers and native shrubs and trees covers are available.
  • Utilization of stem wall construction for houses. Often, fill dirt is required to raise the grade of a lot to meet flood requirements. However, when using stem wall construction, only the footprint of the home is raised by the required amount to meet flooding standards. The whole site does not need to be graded; conserving topsoil on a lot-by-lot basis.
  • Establishment of clearly marked construction site access and routes that coincide with eventual streets and roads. This practice limits compaction of the soil to areas that will eventually contain roadways for the subdivision.
  • Designation of parking and stockpiling sites for vehicles and building materials. Limit and clearly mark these areas so contractors know where to park vehicles, to mix materials, and to store materials. Riparian buffers, in particular, should be off limits to vehicles and construction activities.
  • Avoidance of lowering or raising the grade around trees and natural areas as lowering the grade damages roots and raising the grade smothers them. Sturdy, protective fences must be installed at least around the dripline of trees.
  • Regular construction equipment checks for invasive-exotic material. Establish an effective monitoring system to identify and eradicate any invasive species and also to clean machines before they enter a construction site.
  • Construction and maintenance of silt fences. It only takes is one fence blow out to impact nearby wetlands.
  • Development of environmental covenants and contracts for all contractors and subcontractors. In particular, contracts should clearly identify areas and landscape features that are protected; list financial penalties for contractors that damage these areas. Even bonuses could be included where contractors do no damage to protected areas.


  • Creation of strict Codes, Covenants, and Restrictions (CCRs) that address environmental practices and long-term management of yards, homes, and neighborhoods. These CCRs should describe environmental features installed on lots and shared spaces and appropriate measures to maintain these. An example of an environmental CCR can be found at
  • Develop and install an on-site education program that includes educational kiosks along primary walkways and a web site that provides detailed information about local environmental and conservation issues (see example here).
  • Establish a homeowner association that includes a sub-group to oversee conservation issues associated with built and conserved areas.
  • Create a funding source to help with the management of natural areas. Funds can be collected from homeowner association dues, home sales (and resales), and the sale of large, natural areas to land trusts with some of the funds retained for management.
  • Hire a landscaping company that understands environmental management techniques for shared common areas, such as stormwater retention ponds, forested areas, and riparian buffers.
Jason King

About the Writer:
Jason King

Jason King is a landscape architect focusing on urban ecology, practicing at GreenWorks, blogging at Landscape+Urbanism, and researching at Hidden Hydrology.

Jason King

Made to measure: Rating system for ecological performance

Certification systems are valuable drivers of change in development, shifting paradigms by offering added value to developers and owners to differentiate their products from those that merely meet codes. That said, many of these certifications continue to be primarily building-centric, including LEED, Living Building Challenge, BREEAM, and One Planet Living to name a few. The focus on building performance is laudable and have raised the bar for energy use, indoor air quality, and water usage. Additional certifications such as EnvisionSTARS and Green Roads, provide non-building project certification for infrastructure and transportation. Together, these certifications provide opportunities to address sustainability issues in a systematic way, however none of these address ecology holistically, with often simplified metrics of open space and habitat.

While SITES and Salmon Safe begin to address ecological issues, a true ecological certification, in the sense of one that measures actual place-specific ecological value, does not currently exist.
There have emerged in recent years some interesting new examples of certification that move beyond building-centric approaches, while adding a sharper focus on ecology to the mix. Sustainable Sites focuses on non-building projects, and offers new broad strategies that go beyond simple metrics to measure water, soils, vegetation, materials, and maintenance. Transdisciplinary in nature, the system developed robust metrics. For example, the biomass density index (BDI) goals for projects, provides a methodology that goes beyond a mere land cover to assign ecological values that are weighted to difference structural vegetation types.

On the west coast, Salmon Safe uses aquatic and ecosystem health for charismatic megafauna as the touch point for a certification system for parks, farms, campuses and urban sites. Focusing on water quality, habitat, urban ecosystem health, reduced use of chemical and pesticides, and proper construction practices, the system provides guidance for projects ranging from many acres to small parcels. Salmon Safe is unique in being less prescriptive, with guidelines for teams and that are evaluated by an interdisciplinary assessment team of experts in ecology, stormwater, habitat, integrated pest management (IPM), and landscape architecture convened as an assessment team to meet with project teams and evaluate success.

While SITES and Salmon Safe begin to address ecological issues, a true ecological certification, in the sense of one that measures actual place-specific ecological value, does not currently exist. The development of a good certification system requires the ability to both provide clear direction on expectations and levels of compliance with key targets and ensure a reasonably streamlined and consistent way to measure success. This is possible in ecological systems, but more difficult to translate into a metric that is widely adoptable or able to be simplified in a manner that is consistent from project to project. On one hand, a level of specialized knowledge would be needed to provide the necessary data to accomplish the measurements, for instance, using Shannon Diversity Index, conducting Floristic Quality Assessments. On the other hand, this level of rigor would ensure that projects employ a range of professional expertise (ecologist, wildlife biologists) to evaluate and measure pre- and post-development success in ways that are more scientifically rigorous. The certification system must also grapple with the dilemma of regional variation, with different bioregional variables that belie standardization due to the fact that most places have divergent ecological parameters.

At a minimum, the ecological certification system must:

  • Be specific to the ecoregion and promote the key indicators that are unique to a local condition, such as key indicator species, unique ecosystem goals, and specific challenges. The place-based approach would need to employ reviewers that are familiar with the location of the project, and
  • Have clear and measurable goals and objectives so users know the specific targets to achieve appropriate certification levels. This can take the form of a checklist approach, or a rating system via a number of points, or, use a less prescriptive approach, similar to Salmon Safe, using a panel of experts to assess project success.
  • Be developed by an interdisciplinary team, including designers, scientists, planners, and engineers. This allows for vetting and cross-pollination of ideas from multiple fields, but also ensures a combination of rigor and applicability.
  • While the challenges of creating such an ecological certification are not insignificant, the value in raising awareness and expanding our ability to measure project success becomes more vital as we address growing wicked problems. A true measure of projects with a focus on ecological health, and habitat value, provides key data in our strategies to address the impacts of climate change and resilience.
Marit Larson

About the Writer:
Marit Larson

Marit Larson is the Chief of the Natural Resources Group (NRG) at NYC Parks. NRG manages over 10,000acres of natural areas including forests, grasslands and wetlands, stormwater green infrastructure and a native plant nursery.

Marit Larson

Two key factors should be incorporated in urban ecological urban design—and in an ecological certification program: (1) continued research on the ecological assumptions of design; (2) planning for maintenance and adaptive management.
Ecological landscape design requires an understanding of how soil, hydrology and vegetation interact, and can be used to mimic, expand and protect native ecological communities, processes and functions. In urban areas, each of these basic elements of site design is usually disturbed or constrained. The extent of these constraints varies greatly, even within one city, due to different positions in the landscape, and age and types of development. An ecological certification would help planners, regulators and land managers who are trying to preserve and protect natural resources in complex urban environments.

Two examples in New York City show how ecological certifications, or variants thereof, are being tested. One is the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), which was developed by the Waterfront Alliance to promote a resilient and accessible waterfront in a city with 520 miles (840 km) of shoreline. A large portion of the city waterfront is continuously in some state of construction or repair, as aged infrastructure is replaced and industrial zones on the water’s edge are repurposed. Though WEDG does not focus entirely on ecology — other principles include equity, community input, and access — it provides a good example of an ecological credit system for design. After all, there are few locations in a dense urban area where ecological objectives are the only considerations. In WEDG, ecological design credits are associated with a range of design actions, according to specific waterfront types (residential / commercial; parkland; industrial). Some of the key ecological design components in WEDG include: conduct a thorough site assessment; avoid impact to existing habitat; remove artificial fill or structures; maximize habitat complexity; utilize native vegetation; plan for invasive plant removal and control; minimize stormwater runoff and maximize detention; and use natural materials.

A second example is the effort under way by the New York City Department of City Planning to update rules in the Special Natural Area Districts (SNAD), which were established to manage construction in environmentally sensitive areas. Special districts, which cover about 30 sq mi (78 sq km), were designated to preserve the diversity and integrity of native habitats, as well as neighborhood character. Over the decades, however, the outcomes for both protection of natural features and construction have been unreliable. To be successful, this planning effort needs to present clear criteria for design and construction that are not too onerous to follow, particularly for small homeowners making renovations.

The new SNAD requirements include key elements for ecological site design such as: assessment of current site conditions (wetland boundaries, vegetation communities, rare plants, invasive species, and other features); native planting that provides biodiversity, connectivity, and structural complexity; reduction of impervious area; management of stormwater; and invasive plant control. The applicant will have access to reference information such as site-appropriate vegetation community types, plants species lists, and priority planting locations that will facilitate the process for both applicants and reviewers. One question is how to ensure developers can access the expertise needed to develop and ecologically sensitive design, without posing an excess burdens, particularly to small property owners. An ecological certification process could eventually provide a resource to help landowners understand expectations and find expert advice.

Several common elements of ecological design from both these New York City examples can generate quantitative (or semi-quantitative) metrics. Hydrologic performance, for example, can be measured by a comparison of stormwater runoff at a site under natural vegetated compared to built conditions. Plant selection criteria can include percentage of native species, numbers of species, and forms of species. Use of natural materials can be evaluated in volume, or area. These or other metric can be compared across ecological certification programs over time to assess how effective they are in producing desired outcomes of protecting natural resource over time.

Two more key factors should be incorporated in urban ecological urban design — and in an ecological certification program. One is science and research: whenever possible, assumptions about what ecological benefit a specific design element brings should be tested and quantified. The other is planning for maintenance and adaptive management. In theory, a sustainable design requires little maintenance. In practice, however, in an urban area, many sites are vulnerable to environmental stressors, such as invasive species and pollutants, as well as disturbance — if not directly on the site then on adjacent sites, which can add to more environmental stressors. An ecological certification program can help assure that these factors, which are usually afterthoughts, are seen as integral to effective ecological design.

Nina-Marie Lister

About the Writer:
Nina-Marie Lister

Nina-Marie Lister is Graduate Program Director and Associate Professor in the School of Urban + Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Nina-Marie Lister

Ecological Design-By-Numbers: Metrics for Success or Measuring Minutiae?

What is the measure of good ecological design? Is it in litres, degrees, and watts, or in happiness, heartbeats, and scent? Humans can establish measures for anything, and with it, as the maxim goes, we can know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Certification systems abound, and more recently, several new ones that establish criteria and associated performance measures for sustainability. But do they advance ecological design or fall short?

Ecological design is a package deal: ecological performance plus human response — and that is more than a measure. It’s a long-term investment plus passion and care.
Sym Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan first described ecological design in 1996 as design that minimizes environmental harm while integrating itself with living processes*. This definition implies performance, which certification systems purport to measure. From ISO systems of manufacturing to LEED Green Buildings, rating and certification systems posit measures for success of materials, building and landscape projects; they are targeted at improving economic as well as environmental and health performance. In the context of landscape and environment, a new player on the ratings circuit has been the Sustainable SITES Initiative, a rating and certification system intended to evaluate the sustainability of landscape designs. Over the last decade, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) developed the SITES Initiative through a partnership with the University of Texas at Austin, using the Ladybird Johnston Wildflower Garden as a test case. Grounded in a framework of sustainable principles, SITES developed a variety of specific performance measures for design and construction practices that protect ecosystems and enhance their ecological benefits — such as climate regulation, carbon storage and flood mitigation. SITES-certified landscape designs are those that reduce water and energy consumption; filter and reduce stormwater runoff; provide and enhance wildlife habitat; improve air quality; improve human health; and increase outdoor recreation opportunities. The resulting rating system, now in its second version, was recently acquired by the U.S. Green Building Council, which also administers the LEED rating system for buildings. (See more here and here.)

But none of these factors and measures tell us about the quality and impacts of design on the human user (and they certainly don’t address perceptions of non-humans). How should ecologically designed projects look? What responses should they evoke? How should they make us feel? Should they inspire? Create joy? Be beautiful? These outcomes are both the essence and the nuances of design; while related to performance, some would argue, the emergent qualities of design cannot usefully be reduced to, let alone assessed by a single measure. As Ursula Franklin wryly observed, that which is easiest to measure often reveals the least. The challenge for certification and rating systems that relate to ecological design for landscapes and living systems is to integrate rather than reduce. Akin to living systems themselves, a robust rating system needs more than performance measures — it needs monitoring and assessment of human use, the quality of changes over time, adaptation and regeneration, and yes, emergence through design. Such complexity is hard to imagine, and certainly beyond the scope of a single profession or discipline. Rather, it suggests value in exploring processes by which we design, e.g. embracing active transdisciplinarity to develop integrated systems of knowledge, evaluation and monitoring. As useful as it can be to evaluate and rate performance, much depends on which performances are evaluated, and to what ends. Measuring changes in human attitude and beliefs is more challenging than measuring behaviour for example — but these are often connected phenomena and the link between them is essential to learning, and certainly to adaptation and response. When we measure and assess human responses to ecologically designed landscapes (e.g. parks in our cities) we learn much that can inform and improve future designs.

Although SITES is grounded in broad principles of sustainability, like most rating systems, it is silent on the matter of how a landscape should look, how it should make humans feel, or the response it should evoke. Design, at its core, is the act of creation through deliberate direction and intention. In an ecological context, this act embraces the processes of life itself: unfolding, evolving and adapting. Surely this integrative act is more than the sum of performance measures. To be clear, SITES and other related certification systems are positive steps to mainstreaming sustainability through tangible projects and markets, while cultivating political and public acceptance of ecological design. In an era of climate change and a growing challenge to design with nature in our cities, the development of resilient public landscapes demands rigourous evidence-based design with effective performance measures. But arguably more importantly, resilient ecological design will rest on the nuanced and critical social assessment of human use and response to the landscapes that ultimately sustain us. Ecological design is a package deal: performance plus response — and that is more than a measure. It’s a long-term investment plus passion and care.

*Van der Ryn, S & Cowan, S. 1996. Ecological Design. Washington: Island Press.

Travis Longcore

About the Writer:
Travis Longcore

Travis Longcore studies nature and cities. He teaches students at the University of Southern California in the Master of Landscape Architecture and B.S. in GeoDesign programs.

Travis Longcore

Wildlife interactions should be incorporated into ecological site certification

To imagine an ecological certification for urban site design requires development or establishment of a normative definition for ecology. The study of ecology, in theory, is about understanding how interrelated systems work and does not set out aspirational goals, even though many ecologists have such goals. In everyday language, however, “ecological” tends to be used to distinguish a concern for other species and their habitats in addition to concerns that are more anthropocentric. In that usage, an ecological certification could be useful in that it welcomes and encourages consideration of other species and their needs within human settlements. It is necessary because one could have designs that are at the pinnacle of energy efficiency and yet are devoid of life and detrimental to other species (e.g., bird-killing glass boxes with no landscaping so as to avoid the water use).

Three elements are needed for any certification: bird-friendly design; reduction in light pollution; and rules for pesticides and wildlife interactions.
The City Biodiversity Index (aka Singapore Index) is a useful tool to encourage thinking about other species and their needs at the municipal scale. It focuses on establishing a baseline of native species in some required and other user-specified categories and encourages municipalities to think about how biodiversity is integrated into local government and educational systems. It is not, however, well suited to guide project-level assessments and would cause only frustration if applied in that manner. Rather, it provides incentives for cities to create local biodiversity action plans that might include recommendations for project-level features that would encourage native biodiversity in a locally appropriate manner (for which the City would then improve its score on the Index). The SITES scorecard is an appropriate project-level tool for site design and contains several attributes that would be part of an ecological site certification: protect wetlands, floodplain function, and threatened species; conserve and use native plants, special status vegetation, and soils; and reduce light pollution. The SITES program stops short of making deeper and more explicit connections to native wildlife and their habitats and some point categories are couched in predominantly human terms (e.g., reduce light pollution).

For urban sites, an ecological certification that has co-existence with and promotion of native biodiversity could have many metrics. I offer three for this discussion.

First, bird-friendly design is essential, because even the most urban site will have some native bird species and could have more with some thought. The literature on avoiding bird deaths at windows is large and growing and detailed guidelines are available and have been adopted by major jurisdictions in the United States. Once collision hazards are addressed, site design can encourage bird use through provision of native plants, which provide needed food in the form of insects, seeds, and berries. Bird conservation science now identifies survival during the migratory period as critical to the future of many birds of forests and grasslands and designing bird-friendly cities is one way to help conserve birds across the continents.

Second, sophisticated guidance for reducing light pollution is needed in a manner that recognizes how differently other species perceive and react to light at night compared with humans. An ecologically certified site would minimize lighting to the times and places necessary, use the lowest possible illumination necessary, and avoid the shorter wavelengths of light (blue, violet, ultraviolet) that contribute most the physiological disruption of circadian rhythms and alterations in behavior such as insect attraction. “Dark-sky” recommendations are a good start in this direction, but are insufficient to address ecological concerns.

Third, any ecological certification of an urban place needs to have an enforceable set of regulations that govern interactions with wildlife. Urban wildlife specialists have clear recommendations that designers and project planners should incorporate from the start. For just a few examples: do not use anticoagulant rodenticides (they kill mammalian and avian predators); do not use neonicotinoid pesticides (they kill pollinators and birds); do not allow feeding of mammals (that includes unintentional feeding through unsecured trash and intentional feeding, such as feeding outdoor cats, which increases their concentrations and results in conflicts with predators such as coyotes); and remove stray and feral animals. Long-term ecological value depends on how a site is managed, and designers and planners can build that management into the site and set good standards at the outset.

These and other elements as a certification could provide benchmarks for designers to design better for native biodiversity in cities in a way that I believe would measurably improve outcomes in this area over other available certification schemes.

Colin Meurk

About the Writer:
Colin Meurk

Dr Colin Meurk, ONZM, is an Associate at Manaaki Whenua, a NZ government research institute specialising in characterisation, understanding and sustainable use of terrestrial resources. He holds adjunct positions at Canterbury and Lincoln Universities. His interests are applied biogeography, ecological restoration and design, landscape dynamics, urban ecology, conservation biology, and citizen science.

Colin Meurk

The profession of ecology is in a state of crisis — dismissed often as the preoccupation of “greenies” and “tree-huggers”, and yet an ecological lens and ecologically informed decisions about managing the planet and urban environments has probably never been more crucial. Ecology brings a particular holistic approach to analysing issues and problems and devising innovative, joined-up solutions. As they say, some of my best friends are landscape architects, ecological engineers, planners, environmental lawyers, etc., but unfortunately, at least in New Zealand, ecology is not part of their curriculum. And yet these other professions have largely usurped the role of ecology in urban planning and design with their powerful mantras of control, order, safety, colour, fashionable imagery, public health, and 3-D fly through graphics.

The first solution for competent decision making is for a certified ecologist to be a required member at all board and governance tables.
This imbalance can result in costly installations and designs devoid of meaning or historic connection and worst of all may be unsustainable because of lack of basic ecological knowledge about plant succession and the role of stress and disturbance in dictating vegetation potential and management. This feature (visible connection of landscape to history) has been described in the landscape architecture profession as “legibility”. Ironically, the profession that gave rise to this concept sometimes has to be reminded! Despite the emergence, in the 1990s, of the Triple Bottom Line concept to highlight the urgent need for at least three pillars of sustainability (business, sociology, ecology) to be part of decision-making, ecology has remained a poor cousin to the other, taken for granted, considerations. How many governments, boards, committees, and executives have an ecologist as a permanent member? No, ecology is seen as “common knowledge” so therefore why would you need an expert? As I’ve been told by an executive, “our board has very talented and experienced people, and when we have an environmental problem, we know to come and ask”. I said to him, “ok how about if the whole board was very experienced and talented ecologists, and when we have a business or engineering problem we know to come and ask”. While this inversion is somewhat funny, there is no requirement to change, and so we have the same kind of gate keepers who “don’t know that they don’t know” deciding when we need some green fluff added to the grand plan.

This is a slight deviation from ecological certification, but it is one thing to be certified, and quite another for there to be a protocol/rule/law in place that requires ecological input as an equal partner with the other pillars. This is a “metric” that needs to be applied to city hall and business rather than to ecologists. That is, decision-making bodies that evaluate or permit land management, natural values, development, etc., shall have equal representation of business/economics, sociology (in the broad sense, including cultural considerations and aesthetics), and ecology (may include environmental engineering but must have an experienced, ecosystem scale ecologist). Once this is achieved, we can be confident that more integrative, inclusive and sustainable decisions will be made.

So the first solution for competent decision making is for a certified ecologist to be a required member at all board and governance tables—to spot the risks and define the opportunities at an early stage of planning, to save wasting resources and to capture benefits. Ecology should be the hand-maiden of all site evaluation (making sure there isn’t some rare thing being sacrificed for someone’s “amazing” creation), planning, design (using appropriate species in appropriate/sustainable ways), AND implementation. Having an ecologist on all boards is not pretending that they are “neutral”, but it is acknowledging that the business and social representatives aren’t neutral either. It is critical to have an advocate defending all the values at the co-creation stage, not as a “nice-to-have” after thought.

Certification: Boards and clients need to have faith in the integrity and knowledge of the professionals working for them. So some standards are needed. New Zealand does have ecological members of environment courts, but more often than not they are people who have a good understanding of environmental law rather than ecology per se. Maybe I can elaborate on their standards later.

Criteria: Apart from having holistic credentials and expertise in given subfields of ecology, there is a need to demonstrate that one is capable of considering, evaluating and accommodating a broad cross-section of values and needs, and importantly is widely networked to all the sub-disciplines so that opinion can be sought from other appropriate expertise when required. Well, that sounds a bit like the gate keeper again, but at least it is a little closer to the coal face. Attention to minutiae as well as the big picture is essential, as is understanding the difference between a natural ecosystem and a restored or offset one. I’m somewhat protecting my own situation here — decades of experience (based on careful observation of nature in my own country and internationally), but inevitably old school in terms of modern statistical techniques. It seems that paper qualification is one measure, but years of (field) experience should also count.

So, paper qualifications, at least 5 years of field experience (perhaps engaged with community groups), publications, demonstration of wide multi-disciplinary networks, and references from peers and former clients/employees should be in the mix.

Diane Pataki

About the Writer:
Diane Pataki

Diane Pataki is a Professor of Biological Sciences, an Adjunct Professor of City & Metropolitan Planning, and Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Utah. She studies the role of urban landscaping and forestry in the socioecology of cities.]

Diane Pataki

Many people should have a say in developing an ecological certification, but scientists need to speak up too. These days it’s ineffective at best and dangerous at worst to wait for someone else to generate the checklist for us.
Three components (and caveats) of an ecological certification for urban site design

Just the other day I was in a dissertation defense quizzing a student on the definition of the term ecology. This led a colleague from another discipline to suggest that ecological scientists should stop claiming “ownership” of the term ecology, since the word is now used by many different groups to mean many different things. That’s the first issue that comes to mind when thinking about the question of ecological certification. It’s undoubtedly true that even within the intersecting fields of urban ecology, planning, and design, “ecological” means different things to different people.

Which brings me to my first concern about ecological certification:

1) We’ll actually have to agree on what we mean by ecological

Sometimes the term is highly normative, meaning something that’s more “natural” in some sense and therefore basically “good”. Scientists tend to bristle at the suggestion that a particular ecosystem can be “good” or “bad” (although if you scratch at the surface there’s a whole value system embedded in even the most “scientific” ecology). Similarly, my colleagues from the social and environmental sciences often use words like “interconnectedness” and “holistic” to describe places and ideas that are more ecological. This bears some relationship to the ways in which scientists envision ecology at the systems-level, though still, sometimes these words also give me pause, scientifically. Is everything really connected? Everything, in a literal sense? If so, it might be a tall order to understand all of these connections, and an even taller order to account for them explicitly in site design.

Nevertheless, there is some commonality across disciplines in the idea of systems interconnected with each other, and with the outside world. So one element of an ecological certification would probably be about connected-ness, both internally and to the external environment. Understanding how a site is connected to outside systems such as air, water, wildlife habitat, other natural resources, and hopefully the wellbeing of people is tractable, and could bring together several uses of the term “ecology”.

2) We need to talk about who gets to decide what’s important, and who’s willing to decide

This connectedness component presents its own problem though, in that some kind of prioritization is necessary to decide which relationships we should focus on. It’s not uncommon in certifications to generate some kind of checklist that contains all of the possible options we can think of, and then to let someone else decide what’s important: some group of stakeholders, clients, policymakers, or “the community” (which opens up a host of questions about how and why certain members of the community were consulted).

My colleagues on the social science side of the aisle are also quick to point out dynamics of power that determine who gets a seat at the table in deciding the components of ecological certification. The regulatory environment is hugely influential as well. In my experience in U.S. cities, environmental initiatives are still heavily influenced by the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and their accompanying mandates to meet standards for the criteria air pollutants and Total Daily Maximum Loads. These were both critically important pieces of legislation that should be protected (as they are currently in some danger).

However, they’re also more than four decades old. It’s striking to me that in the last 45 years, we’ve made relatively little progress in coming to a consensus about basic metrics of environmental standards that facilitate human health outside of these federal mandates. Even coordinated efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are stalled in the U.S. at the federal level (though admittedly much less so in the rest of the world). Perhaps the accelerating political actions of U.S. scientists responding to federal inaction will finally spur some scientific consensus on environmental metrics and desired outcomes that government mandates cannot. Because while many diverse stakeholders and community members must have a say in developing an ecological certification, scientists need to speak up too. These days it’s ineffective at best and dangerous at worst to wait for someone else to generate the checklist for us.

3) We need to be willing to do this the hard way, not the easy way

So that said, I think full greenhouse gas accounting needs to be part of an ecological certification. While many carbon accounting protocols have been developed for regulatory purposes, urban landscapes have unique issues that differ significantly from, say, avoiding deforestation in the tropics. In my opinion, too many projects seek to claim carbon “credits” either formally or informally by adding up the things that are easy to add, such as carbon contained in soils and trees.

But the climate system is not a carbon calculator. It sees everything: the fossil fuel emissions generated by an offsite nursery to grow the plants; the energy used to pump, treat, and spread irrigation water; the energy consumption and nitrous oxide emissions associated with inorganic fertilizer; and the emissions associated with excavation, transporting equipment, and maintenance.

If we want to promote sites that really contribute to solving climate change we need to do full life cycle accounting of landscapes, in the same way that the full life cycle of products is now commonly accounted for. It will take more information than is generally available for most projects, but it’s still tractable, and it’s the only way to know we’re making real progress in meeting climate goals through landscape projects.

Mohan Rao

About the Writer:
Mohan Rao

Mohan S Rao, an Environmental Design & Landscape Architecture professional, is the principal designer of the leading multi-disciplinary consultancy practice, Integrated Design (INDÉ), based in Bangalore, India

Mohan Rao

Ecological certification for Urban Site design – a really bad idea!!

The idea of a certification or rating is premised on the hypothesis that there is a single perfect solution against which a given intervention / proposal is weighed. One has to only examine the well-meaning but misplaced idea of certification prevalent in buildings. Focused on efficiency, the system has effectively flattened the very nature of built environment across the globe. In its efforts to standardize, the system has not only become highly prescriptive, but more dangerously, has reduced all built form into simplistic templates.

Terms like rating, ranking, and certification need to be replaced with evaluation and benchmarking. This is not merely pedantic nitpicking but an important step towards reimagining both the process and outcome.
If an ecological certification is deemed necessary, the first question would be: Why? What is the need for such a certification and what purpose does it serve? This may seem to be a moot point, but it is critical examine this before developing such a system. Is the purpose to conserve a sensitive ecology, maximize ecosystem services, reduce risk and/or increase resilience, perhaps all of these? Any intervention — urban or otherwise — invariably impacts the site, often in irreversible ways and one of the purposes of an ecological rating would be to ensure minimal damage to the environment. Current processes of certification are extremely building centric and thus have very limited applicability to natural processes.

In other words, if the intent is to mimic LEED-like certification for ecological performance, then yes — it is a bad idea. However, if the intent is to enable a framework for assessment of site level interventions for their ecological performance, the way to go would be creation of comprehensive benchmarking processes as against a mere certification akin to LEED. This is all the more critical given the negative experience of building certification.

An ecological evaluation process would have three necessary characteristics: diversity, prioritization, and temporality; aspects entirely missing from processes such as LEED.

Diversity is obvious, since the process needs to address the immense diversity of ecological processes. Even assuming that this would not be a global standard but one tailored to each country / region, the process would still encounter a wide variation in ecological parameters. One can see immense variation in soil quality, stratification, topography, etc., between sites separated by even a few kilometers.

Prioritisation is a bit more difficult since it may not be strictly objective. Even within a small geo-climatic context, behavior of natural elements and their interaction with each other is complex and varied. For example, a standard framework like zero-discharge cannot be universally applied across contexts. One will have to go beyond urban drainage demands and factor in ecological base flows upstream and downstream and to address capacity and resilience. The other aspect of prioritization comes to the fore when socio-cultural layers are laid over the site and context. The process should allow for subjective prioritization of issues based on both the natural and development context of the site. While not strictly technical, these parameters often determine the success or failure of an intervention.

Temporality is the ability to be able to not only interpret the process and outcome but also allow for dynamic changes in the system’s behavior over time. For example, one may develop a “manicured” landscape as a short-term measure to address erosion and dust but the desired outcome in the long term may be a gradual progression to natural landscapes. It is important to note that unlike building centric rating systems that are concerned with a product, an ecological evaluation process has to address the behavior of and changes in a natural system over time. Temporality becomes all the more critical if one has to integrate climate change challenges over the lifecycle of the intervention.

The ecological benchmarking process should necessarily address three broad aspects: Capacity, Flows and Resilience.

  • Capacity, or Natural Capacity, is the intrinsic capability of the system for generating, sequestering and/or recycling a given resource. This will be a factor of both geological and atmospheric agents to establish capacity of the site with respect to critical resources: water, biodiversity, nutrition, carbon, micronutrients, etc.
  • Resource Flow captures all the resources that are part of the natural system including key elements such as carbon, phosphorous, nitrogen, etc.
  • Resilience of the system maps key parameters likely to render the system vulnerable and disrupt its equilibrium.

The central idea of the ecological evaluation process would be to ascertain the changes in natural processes of the site and the extent to which the final product would enhance, support or disrupt these processes. Only when the benchmarking process is well established can the proposed intervention be evaluated for its impact on the site. This would imply a non-linear evaluation of each aspect of the development, unlike the silo approach seen in LEED-like rating systems. Based on the need, context and expected outcome, the intervention can be evaluated for overall performance. It is important to distinguish from conventional rating processes where above-average performance in one criterion can be offset by suboptimal performance in another (extremely good energy efficiency with very low water conservation, for example).

A critical difference between an ecological evaluation and LEED-like rating systems would be the benchmark. While building-centric conventional rating systems rely on the norm or business-as-usual models for comparison, an ecological evaluation system would derive benchmarks based on natural processes. An intervention would be evaluated for not how it compares with other conventional developments but on the degree of change it brings to the site in its natural state and manner in which that change is managed.

To illustrate one possible way in which ecological ratings may be actualised, one could examine water. LEED-like systems rate an intervention based on the idea of efficiency: reduction in demand, extent of recycling, quality of wastewater output, water harvesting, etc. The entire understanding of water here is one of demand management within piped networks. An ecological evaluation would encompass the complete water cycle: precipitation, run-off, atmospheric humidity, soil moisture, deep aquifer, fossil waters, embedded water in biotic systems, etc. The evaluation process would use the natural capacity of site and systems towards resource management and establish a baseline against which the proposed intervention is examined. The three characteristics of the benchmarking process — diversity, prioritization, temporality — will help address the changed hydrological cycle within the given context and develop strategies based on site specific priorities and over time. It should be noted that unlike LEED-like systems, development strategies are neither static nor dependent on the nature of development (industrial, housing, etc.), but are dynamic and defined by the intrinsic natural capacity of the site. (A part of this process is illustrated in the image below).

To address the original provocation — of ecological certification as a bad idea — the focus is on evaluation based on rigorous benchmarking of ecological processes and not comparative ranking and rating of interventions. Terms like rating, ranking, and certification need to be replaced with evaluation and benchmarking. This is not merely pedantic nitpicking but an important step towards reimagining both the process and outcome.

The process outlined above is by no means comprehensive or conclusive. It captures some of the essential elements I have used in my own work across diverse geographies over the last two decades. And it should be pointed out that the framework undergoes continuous changes when applied to a new site!

Credit: Mohan Rao. Click on the image to expand it.
Aditya Sood

About the Writer:
Aditya Sood

Aditya Sood has a diverse research and professional experience in water resource management, civil and environmental engineering, and in software development. He enjoys hiking, bird watching, photography, and occasional dabbling in oil paints.

Aditya Sood

It can’t just be about small sites. The impact of sites is felt not just within urban limits but much beyond it.
As the world population becomes more urbanized, urban centres will play a critical role in our quest for sustainable development. By its very nature, an urban centre is a densely-populated area with high per capita income and high consumption patterns. Hence its footprint goes much beyond its boundaries. The resources required to meet the demands of the population in an urban centre and the impact of waste generated by urban centres extend thousands of miles outside its boundaries. Sometimes the negative externalities that result cannot be directly linked to cities. It is also critical to look at the environment within the urban centres, since that impacts the wellbeing and heath of urban residents (and hence of the majority world population). Improving resource use within urban centres also helps in reducing conflict between urban and rural sectors. Efficient resource use within urban centres puts less pressure on rural sectors and forests, reduces pollution and hence is also beneficial for conservation.

Certification to a city cannot be a single matrix. It needs to incorporate different aspects of the city. I would group “Ecological Certification” for cities into 2 categories:

Resource Use Certification
This certification helps control the influence of cities beyond their boundaries.

  • Minimal waste: The goal of the city should be towards zero waste. This implies that all the components of a product produced are reused, thus leaving nothing for landfills. This requires a product life-cycle redesign in a way that allows for the reuse of its components. Since most of the industries are in cities, cities can play a significant role in changing the industry practices with the help of incentives and disincentives. The cities could also set up recycling units with active participation from industry.
  • Small footprint: Footprint implies amount of land (or atmosphere) required to sustain the use of natural resources. Cities consume food and water and pollute air and water. How far these impacts go and how large these areas are, should be part of the certification. Cities should encourage urban/peri-urban agriculture and buy food items grown locally or from nearby areas. Water should not be transported from large distances. Instead there should be well developed rainwater harvesting systems, water reuse mechanisms and proper use and management of local groundwater. Strict regulations should be in place for reducing air pollution. The wastewater generated should be treated and reused.
  • Energy self-sufficiency: Cities are the largest consumers of energy. Energy production is the main driver of climate change. Certification should be given based on how many of the buildings in city are energy efficient (LEED certification) and how much of the demand is being met from within city through renewable energy – such as building-integrated solar systems, geothermal, wind etc.
  • Stormwater management: The current goal of building stormwater drainage systems is to remove water immediately from the city through a network of pipes to a river or creek nearby. This is very detrimental to the health of the river or creek. The impervious surface created by a city increases runoff to rivers during storm events and reduces flow in dry season — both of which impact the aquatic biodiversity. With proper combination of decentralized stormwater management systems, storms should be managed to have minimum impact on natural river flows.

City Planning Certification
This certification is more to control a city’s impact within its boundaries.

  • Public transport: A city requires a good network of comfortable public transport with last-mile connectivity that encourages people to not use individual vehicles for their daily commute. This will help to decongest a city, reduce energy consumption, reduce environmental pollution, and reduce stress. There should be infrastructure and encouragement from the city to make people cycle or walk to nearby destinations.
  • Integration of green and grey infrastructure: As part of certification, there should be a way to reward a city for its emphasis on green infrastructure. For example, wastewater can be treated with a conventional system of sewage treatment plants or it can be done as a combination of conventional with green treatment (such as built wetlands).
  • Mixed development: Segregated development of society by residential, business areas and shopping areas lead to large travelling distances for work and even small needs. There should be proper integration of different categories of buildings to reduce daily travel.
  • People-friendly spaces: There could be other interventions such as parks, tree cover, car free plazas etc., which could enhance the living experience within a city.
  • Less noise pollution: A city should also focus on reducing noise pollution to bring down stress levels. Some examples: keeping railway lines away from residential areas, restrictions on use of loud speakers, proper design of expressways near residences.
Ankia Bormans

Ankia Bormans

I came to Landscape Architecture by serendipity, and am currently director of TERRA+ Landscape Architects. I have many passions and cannot single out one single one as life takes too many interesting turns, so perhaps the greatest passion is curiosity as that allows me to immerse myself in the process without bothering or caring too much for the end result.

29 thoughts on “Imagine an “ecological certification” for urban design. What are such a certification’s key elements?

  1. Mohan – very salient points! I loved the doctor analogy. Yes, win-win situations where finance intersects with ecology is where it happens. I have another essay that addresses this very point (see ). The trick is probably to use scenarios where different development designs are associated to both economic and ecological metrics. Of course the rub is immediate economics (does the developer have to pay) versus long-term economics (city and residents have to pay). As you stated Mohan, the short-term economic argument won the day.

  2. Mark, David, excellent conversation.. Apologies for the long silence but needed time to digest the diverse threads and concerns expressed… Am still crying tears of joy imagining Colin’s best friends! Within the larger concern for ecology, what is common across the discussion is the diversity of lenses!! One could interpret this as the ‘typical’ disagreement among ecologists. I actually see this as an immensely valuable way to imbibe principles of ecology and the challenges to the development paradigm. The wide spectrum rightly includes concern for endangered species to social justice, questioning development paradigms to accountability. As Diane says, the term ecology has multiple owners with multiple understandings. Given this multiplicity of ‘ownership’ and roles, I would like to extend the identity of an ecologist (for this discussion alone!) beyond the technical one to include those of us who actively engage with the natural environment at various scales. Vague and open ended, but should hold for now..

    Other than the diversity of frameworks, one thing that struck me was the quiet frustration amongst many of us on our inability to enforce a strategy, law or policy. The reason I mention this is not tangential – in fact, I see it as quite central to the discussion on ecological certification. It brings up the issue of both the need and the motivation for certification.

    Bear with me for an analogy. When a doctor diagnoses a clinical condition (or even a future risk) and advices a corrective path, the likelihood of her being taken seriously is pretty high. However drastic the suggested treatment, neither economic nor lifestyle issues are offered as excuses by the client / patient. Failure to follow the doctor’s advice means consequences for the patient, either immediate or a future risk. Contrast this with the ecologist’s role in development projects. Not only is her understanding of the issue contested, a host of objections are raised for not addressing such concerns – these could be economic, procedural, precedence and simple expediency.

    There are two critical differences in the motivation for action, or lack of, in the two scenarios. In the former, the consequences for non-action is personal and the impact is immediate, or at least in the near future. In the latter, the price for non-compliance is paid by the ‘other’ and across an indefinite timeframe. Much of the focus in certification processes is to maintain status quo of current development paradigms and till such time this is questioned and recast, it is akin to placebo medication without any change in the patient’s lifestyle! Particularly relevant in this context is Sarah Dooling’s observation on the seemingly unstoppable devastation created by gentrification pressures. And as Sarah Hinners put it so succinctly, the power of the individual consumer as a market force is oversold in most cases!

    In the few cases where we have been able to successfully influence a project’s direction, it has been precisely this statement of consequences. In one case, the density of development was reduced by half once the future costs of provisioning water was made apparent. In another, we used climate change projections to demonstrate the acute vulnerability of the development and its direct economic impact for the client. In both cases, we used the land capability benchmarking process I refer to in my article. The supreme irony of course remains that in both cases, it was the financial argument that won the day, albeit framed from an ecological perspective!

  3. Great discussions all around! I was intrigued by Sarah Dooling’s suggestion for “Incorporating Design Mentoring Program.” I agree social equity is very important. Involving local community members into the design process would be fantastic. Do you have an example where a design firm actually did this? What do you think the enabling conditions are (that need to be in place) for this to actually happen?

  4. In response to Mark’s question about enabling conditions that allow an ecologist to sit at the table: this is something we’ve thought a lot about as well. How does “stuff” happen in the world? What sets projects in motion? I think what happened in the case I discussed when we met in San Diego (which still hasn’t broken ground yet so I can’t quite hold it up as a study in success) is that scientists took on the very uncharacteristic role of advocacy. They started talking to each other, to students, and eventually to university administrators about this degraded stream on our campus. We have a huge interdisciplinary center on campus that plays the role of getting faculty and students from all over campus who are interested in sustainability together and interacting with one another, and that center reports not to a college but directly to Administration. Speaking to ecologists here, if you want to be on the team, you need to develop relationships with people other than ecologists. You need to be known to the local community of planners, developers, your university administration, etc. You need to start conversations, without telling people what to do, just saying “hey, there’s this thing that we need to do something about and I think there could be a great opportunity here. I’m an ecologist and I have some ideas but I need other people with other expertise to help me figure it out .” (At least, that’s what I say…)
    So, not to go on and on here, I guess the enabling conditions include: 1. an idea that you’re willing to go to bat for and a bunch of other people who are interested as well 2. someone with the power and resources to buy into your idea and start a process in motion 3. the time and resources to devote yourself to something that may not pay you much in monetary terms 4. a strong sense of humility and the ability and willingness to listen to others.

  5. Sarah, Colin, and All: Interesting Interesting . . . . . An ecologist could be on equal footing with the other engineers and architects that are sitting around the table, but I would say that is a highly unusual experience. I am curious Sarah (I remember your presentation in San Diego) could you tell folks what enabling conditions created a collaboration where an ecologist had equal footing and even had the opportunity to conduct research/monitoring into the project? Cheers

  6. I couldn’t agree more Sarah – my comment about a whole board of ecologists was just a satirical, tongue in cheek, response to having NO ecologists! yes, exactly the point; all areas of expertise have their own lens, and each lens is critical to a fully rounded decision/design that takes account of all perspectives. ecologists have not only their own lens but have different networks to connect with. this was the whole point of TBL (triple bottom line), but it was never implemented (I actually think there should be 6BL but that’s another story). I also agree that one can’t blindly apply generic ecological principles derived from ‘natural’ wilderness to urban envts unless you have actually worked in urban envts and seen how they apply in practice. urban envts are different AND the same as wild envts – the whole urban wild movement is founded in that. it can all be understood in terms of Grime’s stress x disturbance framework :-). what is equally crucial is understanding differences between continental and more isolated (depauperate/endemic) biota as on micro-continents like nz – another story. well, not sure if we have got a bit off topic from certification of projects/developments. but we have to have global as well as specific/local understanding of ecological principles; and as Mark says to have a funding stream and expectation that it’s not all over when the construction crew leaves the site and an instant ‘plastic’ ‘garden’ has been laid out.

  7. Reply to Colin and Mark – I don’t necessarily advocate for ecologists to “lead” projects, or boards or commissions, merely to be a core team member beginning to end. Ecologists, like everyone else, have their own perspectives and perceptions, conscious and unconscious biases, agendas, etc. I think that the way to build better places is to have a wide, yet relevant, set of perspectives and skills at the table, maybe led by a neutral convener and/or facilitator. The “hand off” or “checking the box” shouldn’t occur really, except when the group says “OK, we’ve decided we want to do this, now you with x expertise please carry out task 1 and come back to the group.”
    And again, ecologists have certain expertise, but more importantly they have certain skills, like finding out important information about complex ecological systems. Asking an ecologist just to offer some words of ecological wisdom is of limited value and is just checking a box, as we’ve said. Most of the principles of ecology that an ecologist would offer in such instances were developed through studying pristine ecosystems and when applied to designed or strongly human-influenced systems constitute nothing more than the blind application of dogma. We don’t understand these systems and the only way we will come to understand them is by studying them AS we build and operate them.

  8. Great conversations all. I’d like to bring Mohan (and others) into the conversation. Ecological evaluation would have to measure ecological processes and benchmarks/indicators, as opposed to a more built/design evaluation such as LEED. But how to do this realistically? Especially when it is much easier to tick a box on a design and get points. Just throwing this out there because as i have commented, long-term monitoring that is required is difficult to do in private and public development projects. My one suggestion was for the land developer to put aside a a mechanism where funds continue to be collected over time and it is used to hire a third party evaluator that monitors ecological processes and indicators. Thoughts?

  9. Colin – I about had water come up through my nose (laughing that is) on your comment “how about if all the board members were very experienced and talented ecologists, and when we have a business or engineering problem, we know to come and ask!” Oh so true. But seriously, why is this? Well, mostly like a matter of scale and perception of risk. Buildings and roads, for example, if they were built wrong, ugly, and caused immediate problems (e.g., traffic jams, buildings collapsing, etc.) people tend to respond to this through engineering and building science. Ecological concerns may be at a longer time frame (in many cases but not all) and thus your friend there could not understand a board led by ecologists. One can think of long term ecological effect such as loss of biodiversity and water quality within a region leading to ecosystem collapse that would affect some ecosystem services (food loss as in local fisheries, clean air, clean water, pollination services, etc.). Ecological variables are slow and may take a while to show up (e.g., nonpoint source pollution) but it would be just as dramatic as a traffic jam or building collapse. But – it is not immediate. Thus engineering and architecture forms the lead on most city projects. Your acquaintance Colin cannot understand the importance of long term effects when the city inhabitants complain the most about traffic congestion and ugly, poor designed buildings. Still chuckling at your comment . . . .

  10. Brilliant Sarah and Mark – I echo your thoughts/experiences absolutely. Mark you are spot on with how ‘ecology’ is brought in for a nice chat (tick that box) then nothing heard until, if you are lucky, you see the finished product set in stone – grand edifices with maybe green tufts that are an extension of the engineering, not messy life as we know it. I think fundamentally, professional designers/planners/architects often believe they have a monopoly on ‘art’ and aesthetics. For my own part, I designed an award-winning pocket park exhibit of indigenous plants for a garden show and I regard every restoration installation a work of natural art and balance. I often think tho of Jean Cocteau’s quote “Art is Science made clear’. I think many ‘artistes’ may forget this. But how does one change this hierarchy. People in power seldom volunteer to give it up. I once asked a director of a board (running the commercial activities of the local council), ‘are there any ecologists on your board’ (in the spirit of TBL of course) and he choked for a moment and said “No, but we have very experienced and talented people and when we have an environmental problem we know to come and ask”. Right, so they are the gate keepers, second guessing what ecologists may know about risks and opportunities! So I said, “how about if all the board members were very experienced and talented ecologists, and when we have a business or engineering problem, we know to come and ask!” Well, he sort of got it, but there is no requirement for them to change – and am still waiting for the phone call :-). And then there is academia and the science establishment who don’t value practical works even though we all sense that good theory must be informed by praxis. I suppose one should also look at our ‘flaws’ – to explain why as a profession we are not listened to. [I should acknowledge tho that there are some very successful ecologists and practitioners in this forum]. it seems that the path to success includes clarity, focus, simplicity, certainty (risk avoidance), pursuing low cost, high profit – the kind of linearity that Nina-Marie described. in many ways these attributes are the antithesis of holistic, complex ecology. When a typical ecologist is asked for an answer a lengthy diatribe about this and that and everything being connected ensues. and before long everyone is asleep. Or am I just describing my own effect on people 🙂 ok, wake up now! seriously, I think the urban ecology profession has to present a coherent, united case (with case studies of things going right and wrong) to governing bodies (whether state, corporate or build professional as well as within the ecological profession itself) for inclusion of joined-up ecology as a vital component of policy and development practice – throughout the process, NOT as an afterthought. [and here’s another caveat to put everyone to sleep again – by ‘ecology’ I’m really referring to the old-fashioned natural history and landscape ecology – not so much the reductionist eco-physiology or generic ecological modelling – altho they have their place :-)] … For institutions to live up to the Triple Bottom Line paradigm and promise we all thought we’d bought into.

  11. I like your thinking Sarah! Ecology FOR cities. As an urban ecologist that happens to work 80% of my time in Extension (I’m at a land grant University), getting my hands “dirty” is a weekly occurrence. City/county planning meetings, being part of environmental consulting teams doing a project, workshops to develop policies, etc. However, as Nina-Marie suggested, rarely are ecologists the lead. For example, I have been brought in by a developer and a hired environmental consulting firm to “join” the team and provide guidance on design and management. This usually is a few meetings where we visit the site and look at the plans and make suggestions. However, the consulting firm is in the driver seat and even though there is a lot of head shaking and kumbayah moments, the real goal is to push it through the planning processes and acquire the development order. Most of the people sitting around the table are “paid” quite handsomely for their time (guess how much the academic is paid? lol). Frequently, we do not hear from the consulting firm much and when we do (after a long lapse), things are set in stone. Development projects happen at a much faster time frame then what academics could muster (with teaching and research loads). For an academic ecologist to take a lead, I would think the ecologist would have to quit their academic post and become a planner/environmental consultant. Just talking out loud now as I have seen many of my forays into the design/build world fraught with inconsistencies in what my role is and how much follow-through could actually be done. My limited successes are when I have built trust with the developer (which takes a huge amount of time). I am not saying it is impossible, but somehow city/county planners need to step in and create enabling conditions where ecologists have equal footing at the table. Not easy I know. By the way – I agree with your frustration in publishing scientific case study results because they are very difficult to publish in journals that want “generalized” results. However, they are truly meaningful and offer nuggets to help create ecological designs and practices FOR cities.

  12. Still on a high from my first total eclipse – wow!
    As per comments by Marlon, Diane, Mark and Nina-Marie regarding establishing long-term relationships with designed urban landscapes: Mark points out that academic ecologists do not have incentives to play the “ecologist” role that comes up in most of these posts. Diane asks us to define what it is that we mean by ecology anyway. Marlon, Nina-Marie and myself all spoke to the need for adaptation and resilience – how do we design for it, but more, how do we understand and measure it going forward? While most of this conversation has stressed the limitations of design and the way projects happen in the real world, I think there is an opening here to reconsider what it means to be an ecologist, particularly an urban ecologist. A few voices in the literature lately have been calling for a new practice of ecology, “ecology FOR cities”, (building on past concepts of “ecology in cities” and “ecology of cities”.) Ecology for cities is exactly what we’re describing here – it is the practice of ecological science embedded within and informing the structures that carry out the business of making a city run. Urban ecologists practicing ecology for cities are not just consulting, saying “don’t do that there, there’s a rare plant there”, they are studying the dynamics of the whole system over long time periods. They are designing and implementing monitoring networks and “designed experiments” and managing and analyzing data. This ecological science may not produce glamorous generalizable publishable results over the short term of the sort that academics are supposed to produce (this is why I’m not seeking tenure!). Although I suspect that when you have a whole bunch of urban ecologists generating local insights these will eventually teach us something important about complex social-ecological systems. I think we need to think about how we train urban ecologists (we train very few and mostly in traditional ways) and also how academic ecologists can get their hands dirty in local planning and design. It is a whole different ecology out there and it’s wide open for us to step out of our campus labs and find us some public and private sector partners and just start doing it!

  13. Hello All: I too am enjoying the conversation. Addressing long-term functionality is tricky in most certification programs because built environment professionals (in most cases) want to design/build it and move on to the next project. There is no reward system for actual impact on natural resources over time (sound familiar? I can think of academics publishing papers for publishing sake because of rewards, but who cares about implementation in the real world? . . . but another time). As an academic that has worked with environmental consulting firms and developers, of course we never are asked to take a lead and nor could we do so. This means we need good ecologists (not in academia) taking the lead. While, typically, design practitioners are not steeped in ecological principles and nuances, ecologists are not trained in the practicalities of submitting a design through the development process. It seems like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. How do we set up rewards/training/policies that promote/enable ecologists to take the lead in environmental firms and government decision makers? A lot of stars have to be aligned. For example, why would a landowner/developer make sure that the head of the consulting team working on a project is a bonafide ecologist? By the way, the eclipse was awesome yesterday.

  14. The commentary by Nina-Marie is so intellectually astute and perfectly grounded in practice. I’m not sure if there is comfort in knowing that the problems (of hierarchy, linearity, reductionism, silos, and gate-keeping by people who don’t know that they don’t know) appear to be world-wide. We are not alone! Collective fight back from this hopeless fragmented, bifurcated approach to managing the world is our best chance to change this procurement/supermarket/consumption/instant gratification culture of design/purchase/build/walk-away. It needs to change to one that is life affirming (rather than being mesmerised by lifeless design), understanding of ecological processes/limits, in touch with ancient wisdoms of yin and yang and with landscape concepts of legibility and connectivity. This is crucial for biodiversity, curing ‘nature deficit disorder’, learning from nature, respecting all life and developing joined-up holistic approaches to deep problem solving. Urban Biophiilia needs to be put into practice, and an inversion of the conventional model of the biosphere being seen as merely a resource subsumed within the economy. So we need evaluation/certification criteria for projects/installations/developments that rank biodiversity, ecosystem and landscape function, connectivity, legibility, interpretability, ‘meaning’, and sustainability/resilience thru post-construction and maintenance; while accommodating entrenched attitudes towards order/control (‘cues for care’?). But for these esoteric and philosophic metrics to be adopted and assessed, there needs to be acceptance and requirement from government AND experienced ecologists in both governance and project teams able to understand these concepts and guide adaptive management as required. May I finally draw your attention to Philip Grime’s insightful CSR framework for understanding, designing and managing nature in cities. A great tool for bringing reality into design. 🙂

  15. I am also really enjoying the comments that our discussion is generating. Like Mark, Jason and others, I’ve focused on the bifurcated nature of certification systems which ostensibly focus on optimizing performance (through designed outcomes) but in reality, provide little or no means to follow a project through implementation and post construction performance (and this is still far away from any means to measure social impact, values-added, user response etc as importantly noted by Sarah and others) . Many of us seem to agree that certification systems fall short on follow-up ( not only in monitoring but ongoing management, maintenance and evaluation of impact on users as well as site). In my practice in my research I’ve noted that this omission happens for several reasons, not least because certification systems originated with product development and buildings (static structures rather than living processes). In particular, LEED was designed for built form rather than living landscapes, which was part of the push to create SITES. Although SITES takes steps to include living structures and the processes to which they relate (eg native biodiversity and pollination) it still provides no mechanism to assess the performance of landscapes over time (ie processes and structures). As several of us have noted in our posts, certification systems are silent on monitoring change over time and the important ecological phenomenon of adaptation–which is central to establishing an assessment of resilience. Mark’s good suggestion that a project budget be split between design and post-construction, with some proportion of funds set-aside for monitoring, maintenance, and evaluation is something many of us have been calling for — and I hear it regularly in the industry when a project has problems or falls short of expectations. But this goes to another problem with the bifurcated nature of certification systems: and this has to do with both governance and procurement. For most public projects, single-mission agencies govern the procurement and implementation of projects, for example public parks. Although a public park is likely to have many impacts beyond recreational sports fields and tree plantings, a city parks agency may lack the capacity or oversight to deal with stormwater, flooding or native biodiversity. Post construction budgeting for monitoring for example) would more realistically need to be split between various agencies — and we know how hard it is to get various “silos” to speak to one another let alone share information or collaborate on budgeting. Another problem is that the standard procurement and construction model for both public and private projects (whether a standard tender process or design-build model) is that it is hierarchical and linear, based on a single profession leading the exercise (usually engineer, architect or less often landscape architect, but NEVER an ecologist!) The lead professional or prime consultant is responsible for subcontracting the “other” necessary elements of the project, and the result depends very much on the education, awareness, ambition and network of the lead professional. (In my experience, it’s also where the best of design intentions breaks down in practice!) This leads to further fragmentarion or reduction of a potentially good ecological design solution that should in fact be implemented using an integrated systems approach. While easier to measure project components by reduction, the emergent qualities of landscape adaptation are inevitably lost if we continue to rely on a fragmented process of design/build/walk away. There’s a lot here… I’ve been writing about the challenges integrated planning and design for sometime now and, like Mark, I definitely see an opportunity for a future paper with some of this group as collaborators! Let’s continue the discussion… After today’s eclipse which I am planning to watch from the north shore of Lake Ontario!

  16. Yes Colin and Travis and others, I think ecological concerns and longterm functioning seems to be lower on the totem pole for most certifications. In particular, it seems like the permitting and city/county policies focus on energy, water, and transportation but biodiversity is virtually nonexistent (save for endangered species). Thus, we would need for governments to realign their policies in order for environmental consultants to be able to also address biodiversity in a meaningful way. Although the end around is for a maverick developer to partner with a maverick environmental firm and do it anyway. Alas – that is few and far between!

  17. I hear you Jason about postconstruction and whether a project worked or not, is very frustrating. I have seen my share of “green developments” not work very well over time and the original intent is lost. And yes, I think both LEED and Sustainable Sites Initiative have very little points to address matters beyond design. And I truly doubt there has been one LEED certified project that has lost its certificate because monitoring revealed that things were not functioning. I like your suggestion of certification being heavily weighed towards long-term measurement and setting up the design in ways that help facilitate this. But how to do this in a certification? I would suggest a prerequisite: it would say all certifications must set aside money to pay a third party to visit the site annually and assess. Not hard to do as it could be through collection of HOA dues, small taxes on individual properties, etc. The third party certification would determine successes and failures and enough funds are in this management kitty to allow fixing design failures. I also smell a “perspectives essay” for the journal of Landscape and Urban Planning. What do you think? Enjoy the Eclipse today! We are only at 80% in Gainesville but should be fun to see.

  18. So… Mark, I actually thing there are quite a few elements by which several of us emphasized longer-term management. Some of that can be built into design, but really it does depend on the people who will care for the place. As any of us who have done urban habitat restoration would probably agree, you can’t walk away from it — urban nature needs stewardship. So that idea of certifying the long-term and not the construction is compelling. Maybe the certification is the starting point, not the ending point.

    Diane, hard to argue with your points, especially that we need to agree on what “ecological” means. In its most abstract sense it is just thinking about whole systems, with no normative component. I tried to define it in a way that distinguishes it from anthropocentric certifications — that it would focus on native biodiversity instead of just people. But that isn’t necessarily what everyone would agree upon.

    Aditya, I take your point about needing to think about the footprint of cities, but in what you’ve written I don’t see a vision for the city as a place for species other than humans, except as an accident of providing a more pleasing place for people. It seems your vision is that the goal is to reduce the impact on other species outside the city. From a biodiversity perspective, it can’t work that way. Cities can’t be sacrifice zones for biodiversity (which you probably aren’t suggesting, but I’m pushing the point), because they are unevenly distributed on the landscape and some rare ecosystems and biotopes are only found in cities.

    I noted a trend of wanting to see ecologists more fully integrated into design processes. I think the key to this for designers to realize that they might not know what they don’t know when it comes to ecological considerations, a position that makes it much more obvious why having an experienced ecologist in the room is useful. My position as an urban ecologist hired as faculty in a landscape architecture program is consistent with this trend.

  19. For all, an interesting resource I think applicable to this discuss that focuses a bit more on quantification is Per the site, it “can be defined as a measure of the effectiveness with which landscape solutions fulfill their intended purpose and contribute to sustainability.” The focus isn’t necessarily ecological, but does talk to some comments on human interaction, equity, etc. and a context on a more robust methodology (based on the LAF Case Study Investigation concept – )

  20. Responding to Mark – per your first comment, there are a number of key elements in any system that are prerequisites so somewhat of a baseline, and others that are mixed and matched to achieve the point totals. There are plausible scenarios in LEED where you can do practically nothing in terms of site sustainability and still get certified at least at a basic level, but for greater certification you have to address these items – which is indicative of the sliding scale approach where Platinum is worth more than Silver. Often resident education is employed in LEED as a Innovation Credit (signage, operational manuals, etc.) and performance monitoring for landscapes is not really a focus. That said, you can lose your certification if the proposed performance you achieved originally is not upheld, but in reality there’s no ‘enforcement’ of this.

    In regards to your essay, I was really struck by this idea you bring up on the scope of certification being post-design. The context of an ecological certification being just for post-construction site management is intriguing to me, as it just measures what’s there on its own terms (is it performing?), and allows the site to evolve as well as be adaptively managed over time to fine tune. I see it being a new paradigm of how evaluation systems work – which obviously includes agency in designer in setting the stage for success, but really celebrating those sites with high functions.

    This comes up for us as landscape architects as a frustration – projects are a relatively short time frame, after completion there’s minimal involvement – but lots that can go wrong. Even beyond things going wrong or not, it’s great to evaluate success and failure (of ecological systems, as well as of humans using these projects) and make changes – which is very rare to have that opportunity. A formal, systematic, post-occupancy benchmarking and evaluation of any site (using those terms mentioned by Mohan) is pretty compelling.

  21. Such great information in this roundtable. I admit as I was brainstorming with David on this topic I was skeptical of whether it was going to yield good discussion, so I’m pleasantly able to admit it that my concerns were unfounded based on the thoughtful responses. There’s a theme about how we don’t know the final answers, but that there’s some wisdom and perhaps necessity in exploring this further in the lens of what is ecology, how to tackle the unique context of novel ecosystems and anthropocentric change, and the role social systems in measurements ecological performance in social systems. This seems an inspiring start to me.

  22. There are a lot of wise, cautionary notes in this forum. I have a rather embarrassing admission to make – that because of competing demands during the rushed writing of my initial piece I think I misunderstood the intention of forum to be about certifying urban ecologists rather than criteria for site/development certification! perhaps this was influenced by my common experience of ecology being regarded as an afterthought and therefore seeing the problem as not so much having a checklist of criteria for sites (or ecologists) but rather to have a culture shift that requires an experienced ecologist to be in the planning, design, implementation and maintenance (post-construction of Mark) team – that is, throughout the whole project. Although you can have criteria it needs the ecological lens to fully understand the nuances and deeper intent of criteria however well intentioned they are. While one may get individual developers to operate this way, across the board this will only be implemented if there is a law change that requires triple bottom line to be adhered to. and then we have to ensure those ecologists do have the right stuff – experience, knowledge, creativity, etc. So there is a governance question here!

  23. Nina-Marie: enjoyed your contribution. And yes, how people respond to a design and management is important because manegment is often up to the local residents. However, a bit of caution, aesthetics tends to be put front and center in many landscape designs. There is very little “good” research on how ecological design affects people in terms of acceptance (e.g., cues to care research, this needs a serious discussion but another time). Given the paucity of how ecological landscape designs fit in with local/cultural/individual preferences, how can certifications incorporate human “responses” to a design that insures both long-term ecological functionality and public acceptance?

  24. Katie: enjoyed your contribution. Agree with most of your points. I would have to say, though, the LEED – Neighborhood Development certification is sorely lacking in terms of ecological function. It is highly gameable (point wise) and lacking in biodiversity conservation and long-term management.

  25. Nigel: highly unusual that a certification program puts biodiversity first?! Despite the shortcomings, how common is this!? We have nothing like it in the US. In fact, biodiversity is barely addressed in all certification programs. Which we could blend the certifications.

  26. Global warming is accelerating the rate of ecosystem changes in dynamic and unpredictable ways. This means that any “ecological certification” system needs to be dynamically adjusted with environmental feedbacks continuously.

    Furthermore, it can not be a human centric process as was indirectly pointed out by the biologists in the group discussion. The regenerative processes of pristine ecosystems may not necessarily equate to resilience in a changing climate. If we now overlay this with site specific issues, it becomes easy to see that the only solution is an iterative process.

    Certification needs to include the full life cycle from preliminary assessments through construction and does not end until after the surrounding ecosystems have fully recovered.

  27. I think most of us see the importance of having an ecologist involved in a certification program. And we see (especially Colin’s post) that outside of design professionals and civil engineers, ecologists are marginalized and virtually excluded. Brought in as an afterthought. Does anybody have a good example where a bonafide ecologist was involved from the beginning? What were the factors that helped this to happen?

  28. This should generate some discussion! Anyway – Ana, Katie, Travis, and others, I think we (in this panel and the range of certification out there) still emphasize way too much on design. However, (see my part in this panel) even a good design can fail because of what goes on in the construction and postconstruction phase (i.e., long-term management). Even the Sustainable Sites Initiative – that comes closest of the certification programs in addressing construction and post construction issues, still has over 80% of the points dedicated to design. Thus, from my understanding, one could get certified without, for example, addressing Education of residents and performance monitoring. (Is this true Jason? Am I reading the point system right?). Thus, I query- how can we infuse more construction and postconstruction points into current and maybe even future certifications? Please comment and comment a lot. Cheers

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