Restoring the Balance between People and Nature through Wildlife Habitat Design


During the Dumbarton Oaks symposium on “Designing Wildlife Habitats,” a range of ecologists and landscape architects analyzed various aspects of the relationship between people and nature, and how these relationships take form in natural, managed, and even restored wildlife habitats. Speakers also explored cutting-edge thinking on “ecological infrastructure” and “human-nature interaction design,” ideas that can guide the future development of both designed landscapes and conservation systems.

Wildlife Habitat Design

Jane Carruthers, Professor, Deparment of History, University of South Africa, outlined the case of Pilanesberg, South Africa, a “ground-breaking” game reserve started in the 1970’s that created a wildlife conservation and eco-tourism model in marginal farmland. The designers guiding the creation of Pilanesberg believed that “wildlife must make money. The landscape must be productive and also used sustainably.” In addition, they rejected urban-based romantic ideas about nature in favor of prioritizing local culture and incorporating the community into the park’s functioning.

The park designers removed buildings and invasive species while, at the time, introducing native animal species. While species translocation was largely successful, there were problems with moving elephants into the park because delicate herd structures were disrupted by the addition of more young males. Cheetahs were also problematic because they “ate all the expensive species.” Carruthers said the park largely ended up reconstituting what was there, but the park managers still needed to “maintain the ecosystem by watching who’s eating how much.” The park’s overall longevity (and ultimate sustainability) is linked with the number of tourists who visit and number of people who are employed through the park.

Thomas Woltz, ASLA, Principal, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture, explored how landscape architecture can encourage plant and wildlife biodiversity within “productive agricultural lands.” Woltz said agriculture can be “lethal” to plants and animals, given it often involves “pollution, chemicals, steroids, soil erosion, and large-scale machinery.” Agricultural landscapes often look “bleached and ironed,” with the tiny rippley places where biodiversity actually exists ripped out.

To illustrate his firm’s innovative restoration work, Woltz highlighted the Young Nick’s Head sheep farm project in New Zealand. “This is a devastated landscape that should be temperate rainforest. It should not look like Scotland.” Woltz and his team tried to combine the restoration of wildlife structures with sustainable agriculture and livestock. “We wanted to build value for the wildlife of the region.” The project involved retiring 20 percent of the farmland. With the improvement in habitat health, the sheep’s health also improved. Some 50-acres of wetland, including 20-acres of salt marsh wetlands, were re-created.

The team also included the local Maori community in the project. Maori first arrived in the area in 1,100 AD. A local Maori horticulturalist was involved in the reforestation, and the project financed a small Maori-run tree nurseries. So far, more than 500,000 of the Maori-grown trees have been replanted, recreating a forest in the process. To restore the original mix of wildlife, excluder fences were added, which prevent rats and weasels from eating rare seabird eggs. “We called the massive fence our eco-Christo.” To encourage birds to nest on the restored habitat, the team brought in nesting boxes, decoy birds, and played looped tapes of birds’ calls.

Woltz argued that manipulating the landscape was key to its preservation. “We tried to get all the ecosystem services we could out of it.” Instead of bleaching or ironing landscapes, it must be about “stitching, sowing, or weaving.” Learn more about the ASLA award-winning project, and check out an article by Elizabeth Meyer on the site in Harvard Design Magazine.

Stuart Green, Green & Dale Associates, is a landscape architect who used Alice Springs Desert Park, Central Australia to discuss how to best incorporate educational resources into wildlife habitats. Really, Green said, wildlife habitat is the educational resource. If indigenous communities are brought into the design process early, true collaboration can occur between conservation park designers and the local communities who value biodiversity (and can, in turn, teach it to visitors).

In Alice Springs, a 1,000 hectare park was created, which recreates the “biotic diversity” of the area. Working with the local Aborigines helped avoid disturbing sacred sites. “However, this was hard because they often wouldn’t tell us where they were.” Many Aborigines ended up employed in the park as tour guides because of their deep reverence for the local biodiversity. “The caterpillar is a creation figure.”

For one part of the park, more than 8-acres of red sand was trucked in. On top of the rehabilitated lands, more than 400 types of native plants were used to restore the ecosystem. Existing waterways were widened and new riverine systems were added. For some, salt was added to recreate natural salt bodies. Termite mounds and aviaries were integrated into ecosystem walk-throughs. “We also brought in parrots and kangaroos.” The idea is to give visitors a habitat immersion experience and education in conservation. David Attenborough visited and said “no museum or wildlife park can match it.”

Creating Infrastructure for Biodiversity

Joshua Ginsberg, Senior Vice President, Global Conservation Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, explored the impact of scale on the design of conservation strategies. Ginsberg said at the small-scale people relate to landscapes. In the conservation world, this means zoos. Small-scale interventions are relatively easy to replicate. But at the larger scale, there are issues. At that scale, “we are dealing with exploded zoos or fragmented landscapes.” Exploded zoo challenges relate to restoring diversity, intensive management, and the “amplification of nature.” Fragmented landscape issues can only be resolved through land-use changes and regional plans for returning the biodiversity functions to landscapes.

The issues are increasingly critical given only 15 percent of the world’s land is now untouched by humans. In the vast majority of the world in which humans and wildlife interact, species are threatened most by (in descending order of importance) climate change, roads and infrastructure, deforestation, fire, invasive species, exurban development, and hunting. “Climate change and road connectivity swamp all other issues, including human population growth.”

Designing for different species involves thinking through the scales they need. “Wild dogs, grizzly bears require the broadest scales; black bears can survive at the smallest.” Ginsberg pointed to the Krueger National Park in South Africa, which reintroduced a wild dog meta-population, and must keep reintroducing the species for it to survive at a large-scale in the wild. Ginsberg said wild dogs are special because they require enormous ranges (or scales) to survive.  Wild dogs went extinct in this area more than 100 years ago. At the cost of some $200,000, 100 wild dogs were translocated into the park. However, repeated reintroductions were needed given all the challenges the dogs faced. Even at the broadest scales, Ginsberg said, small-scale interventions are needed to keep individual species alive. Population-level management, land purchases, resettlment, anti-poaching measures, and translocation are all strategies to be considered.

In Thailand, 90 percent of the original forest cover has been cut down. To connect isolated natural preserves, natural corridors have also been created, enabling some species the scale they need. In the Russian Far East, tigers, another species requiring large-scale habitats, are moving north, demonstrating that “climate change is real.” To deal with tiger migration, Russia has implemented a plan to establish protected areas, manage the “matrix of species,” and create connectivity. Tigers are also now moving into China. “I’ve tried to convince the Chinese that they are just getting their tigers back instead of harbouring Russian tigers.” (Ginsberg also expressed cautious optimism in the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative, which has resulted in an end to World Bank financing of infrastructure projects that cut through tiger ranges. In September, 14 heads of state from nations with tiger ranges will meet in an attempt to “put wildlife at the center of planning.”)

Ginsberg concluded that a “landscape species” approach was needed. “Wildlife generate landscape patterns and use landscapes differently from people.” It’s important to pick 4-5 landscape species and track the causal chains. “You can’t just design for one species.” Titling the lands of indigenous peoples may actually aid in this type of landscape species conservation because it gives local communities more direct control over conservation. In addition, the scale of ownership is also important — small lots need to be aggregated to create scale.

To sum up, scale is important; animals have different scale needs; and humans operate at all scales, but their impacts change with scale. In the design process, it’s crucial to design at scale, determine what you are trying to conserve, collaborate, and recognize that species interact with human influence differently.

Yu Kongjian, International ASLA, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Peking University, and president of Turenscape: Yu explored the idea of integration across scales, and using “ecological infrastructure” to protect biodiversity. Yu said the earth is now an endangered species. China is almost completely a brownfield. Some 75 percent of China’s water is heavily polluted, and 50 percent of wetland habitat has been lost. Over 25,000 dams have been created in China, and the channelization of rivers has led to the destruction of most natural riverine systems. Over the past 30 years, Beijing has expanded almost 700 percent. “Virtually, the whole natural system in China has been destroyed.” Yu asked: How can we minimize the impact of development and urbanization? One answer may be ecological infrastructure.

In contrast with Ginsberg, Yu said ecological infrastructure, which is characterized as a “systems approach” to restoring the entire environment, is needed instead of a landscape species approach. Ecological infrastructure uses biological conservation patches, networks, and corridors to marry ecosystem services with infrastructure. An ecosystem services design approach involves planning for all types of services, including “provisioning,” and “regulating” natural services. Patches, networks, and corridors can then be used to save essential natural processes. This involves evaluating the sources, surface areas, and security patterns needed to protect various species.  For instance, “we can build ecological bridges to stop roadkill.”

On an aesthetic level, it means moving to “messy, complex landscapes” that embrace biodiversity. “We don’t need any more domesticated, pretty gardens.” In fact, Yu believes people should “embrace the messy.”

Professor Yu made a few key arguments:

  • “Make Friends with Floods:” We need to stop the channelization of rivers, analyze the flood process, and allow the landscape to be flooded. “Flooding generates lots of ecosystem services.”
  • Mimimize landscape intervention and maximize ecological returns.
  • Help nature to recover and let nature work. Yu cited his most recent work of “ecological surgery” at the Qinghuangdao Beach Restoration, an ASLA honor award winner (learn more about the project).
  • Go productive. As an example, Yu pointed to his firm’s work integrating actual agricultural systems into the Shenyang Agricultural University (learn more about the project).
  • Think of the landscape as a living system. Planning and landscape strategies can help maximize ecosystem services, but will also create habitat in the process.

Read an interview to learn more about Yu Kongjian’s work.

Professor Jianguo (Jack) Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability & University Distinguished Professor, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University: Professor Liu, one of the leading researchers on human-nature interactions, argued that many researchers are either exploring human impacts on nature, or nature’s impact on humans, but few are looking at the “feedback loop,” the reciprocal interactions. To examine these interactions, Liu and his colleagues devised the Coupled Human and Natural System (CHANS) approach.

Liu zoomed in one case he’s been focused on for some time: the Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas. Wolong is in southwest China, and is a natural panda habitat. It’s a protected site and includes a core habitat area, buffer zone, and transition zone where there are human settlements. Interestingly though, since the area was declared a natural reserve, more panda habitat has been destroyed. Liu went about trying to discover what was causing habitat destruction, and identified the growth of the number of households as a primary factor.

Since 1975, the number of people in the area has grown by 80 percent. However, the number of households has grown by 180 percent, meaning the average number of people per household has declined rapidly. Each household in the area has been collecting firewood and and producing agriculture, negatively impacting the panda habitat. “Homes, instead of people, impact environments.” Liu said “living alone is particularly bad for the environment,” because multi-person households create important environmental efficiencies. To go one step further, living with your parents is good for the environment, and divorce is really bad for the environment. CHAN analysis helped pinpoint the feedback loops between habitat, pandas, and people in the area.

To preserve panda habitat, they must also be connected. Liu called for expanded corridors between the 63 isolated panda preserves, which pandas can then use to find mates. To build up local support for Panda habitat preservation, people should be “paid for ecosystem services.” Payments are needed to get people to move out of panda habitat. Human populations should be concentrated.

Liu concluded that landscape architects should adopt a CHANS approach so the focus is not just on landscape, but “human-nature interaction.” The long-term ecological and socio-economic benefits must go beyond landscape.

This is part two in a three-part series on the “Designing Wildlife Habitats” symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Read part one, “Designing for the Full Range of Biodiversity,” and part three, “Recreating Wildlife Habitat in Cities.”

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Honor Award, Orongo Station Conservation Master Plan, Poverty Bay, North Island, New Zealand. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

One thought on “Restoring the Balance between People and Nature through Wildlife Habitat Design

  1. Marita Roos 06/08/2010 / 6:26 pm

    Yu Kongjian’s work reflects much of what landscape ecologists and ecological-thinking landscape architects have learned in the last twenty years. But all of China a brownfield? That is truly scary and implies extinction, accelerated climate change and human health issues on a massive scale. It will be interesting to see if a non-democratic society can generate innovative ways forward out of this giant mess.

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