The Brave New World of Ecological Restoration

At a Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference entitled, “Brave New World: Working with Emerging Ecosystems,” Jack Sullivan, FASLA, Professor and coordinator of the new landscape architecture program at the University of Maryland College Park, said ongoing deforestation and urbanization is actually a “war on nature.” Furthermore, any attempt to restore nature that has been taken over by development can’t rely on the “natural history of a site” for guidance. These “post-traumatic” landscapes have been altered too much. Ecological restorationists and landscape architects, who are at the “front lines” of the battle and are the “heroes in this brave new world,” must take better advantage of ecological research in order to restore nature. To date, a restoration approach based in ecological research has often come into conflict with the “big D” design approach to a site. The end goal shouldn’t be a place “that could be anywhere so you don’t know where you are.” A restored landscape must reflect a careful examination of the site and its natural history.

One of the front lines of this war for ecological restoration are “novel ecosystems,” which are “ecosystems that have purposefully emerged because of the presence of people,” said Margaret Palmer, Director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and Professor at University of Maryland. Novel ecosystems beg questions: How do they work ecologically? Should we restore them to a more natural state? Maybe they should be left as is?

As an example, Palmer pointed to attempts at ecological restoration that have gone awry: channelized rivers that were restored and ended up turning into muddy, non-functional ditches. In other cases, large-scale power dams, which are huge interventions in natural riverine systems, are actually blocking the spread of non-native species, so keeping them in some places could be a good thing. In addition, some ecological restorationists have tried to restore to some vision of nature that didn’t really exist in an environment. Referring to well-regarded research on smaller mill dams, Palmer said once mill dams were removed on one site, new natural channels added didn’t work. Instead, “threaded channels” like a wetland were the correct application of nature. 

We live in a “human-dominated world” but nature is constantly changing. “Rivers and streams are actually fixed in a state of change.” In another example, Palmer said fisheries have a changing baseline, having been depleted over time. Relating this to a forest, Palmer asked, “at what point do we chose a baseline?”

“Reference” sites are even declining. “Should we use least-impacted reference sites instead?” She argued that this approach “makes you feel like you are giving up on restoring nature.”

So “how do we restore nature if the world is changing and we can’t go back in time?” One way to restore a stream is to look at flow records, the “historical natural flow regime.” This, in fact, should be “embedded in any stream restoration.” In addition, restoration ecologists can design a channel based on what “we think it will be like,” and calculate slope, depth, and scale based on estimated flow. “This hydrologic and geo-morphologic model for change is extremely complex and multi-variate though.”

Palmer argued that restoration is “big business” these days. Lots of state and municipal governments are investing in restoring nature. In these efforts, the priority has been conservation; then “passive restoration,” or removing obstacles; then “active restoration,” like creating a new wetland from scratch; and finally, creating “designer ecosystems” – creating a wholesale new stream where there was none before. 

She concluded “maybe it’s not possible to keep everything we want. We can restore certain ecosystem service functions.” (Unless, that is, those certain functions can’t even be supported in degraded environments). In these cases, communities need to decide what is the priority, and ask “What services do we want from rivers? Communities can chose the ones they want and decide on a process to get that.” Restoration ecologists and landscape architects can then “manipulate ecological processess and biophysical structures to get services back.” Given tight budgets, communities must first make priorities when restoring nature.

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Professional Analysis & Planning Honor Award. Brays Bayou Greenway Framework, SWA Group

6 thoughts on “The Brave New World of Ecological Restoration

  1. Mossin' Annie 04/14/2011 / 8:08 am

    Blessed to live in a place where “nature” still exists in our rich cove forests that boast incredible bio-diversity, I still feel the encroachment of “unnatural” landscapes. Even when landscape designers incorporate native plants, there is an “unnatural” approach evidenced repeatedly. For instance, native rhododenron and mountain laurel are lined up in systematic fashion and then surrounded by bark mulch for definition. This artificial approach to using native plants ignores their natural growth habits and the natural forest floor which nurtures native plants and provides habitat.

    What is missing? An entire group of plants has been ignored as essential to the holistic approach of native restoration — our indigenous bryophytes or MOSSES. The viability of mosses as a horticultural choice is amazing — not only for completing the “natural” approach for aesthetic reasons but for environmental benefits as well.

    Far more than just an ignored groundcover, mosses offer a myriad of shapes, textures and shades of green. They can grow in places where no other plants could survive. Although some mosses prefer shade, there many types that tolerate sun exposures, too. Mosses offer environmental solutions for erosion control and enhanced water filtration for stormwater run-off. Eco-friendly mosses require no chemicals – NO fertilizers, NO pesticides, NO herbicides – eliminating any groundwater contamination.

    In approaching “naturalization”, I urge landscape design architects to explore the advantages of mosses and specify these non-vascular plants in their designs. Mosses complete a sustainable landscape and add the final touch of realism to native restorations.

    Ironically, mosses even introduce themselves into “novel landscapes”. Not restricted to forest environments, mosses find micro-niches of moisture in urban settings. As I continue to conduct research on bryophytes and establish methodologies for successful horticultural applications, look for mosses as a plant choice for green roofs, living walls and as an alternative to grass lawns. Go Green With Moss!

  2. Chris M 04/28/2011 / 7:06 am

    Ironically, the image selected features a rip-rap lined Rosgenesque drainage ditch with lots of neat and tidy turf grass along the banks. What function is provided here besides putting another plaque in SWA’s lobby?

    For as much as the landscape architecture profession likes to stroke itself for being ‘ green’ and ‘ stewards of the land’, it is long on talk and short on walk. ASLA needs to take the rhetoric down a notch and stick to what it is good at – giving lots of awards for making pretty things.

    • asladirt 04/28/2011 / 9:57 am


      The image selected is from a project that does much more than provide a drainage ditch.

      The project was guided by the Houston parks department and two local park conservancies.

      The project designers argue that the project provides a “visionary framework [that] presents multifaceted solutions to simultaneously restore the surrounding habitat and offer urban recreation and education.”

      • Chris M 04/29/2011 / 5:17 am

        The project designers can offer up all of the fluffy rhetoric that they want to. When you start quoting statements that incorporate the word ‘visionary’ and ‘multifaceted’, you only serve to prove my point about ‘long on talk’.

        The image that I saw does not show ANY ecosystem services. So there’s water – so what? This is merely a conveyance system to control flooding that got prettied up as a public park. ANY IMAGE COULD HAVE BEEN SELECTED to illustrate the point of this article. The image that was selected does not. This speaks to my point about ‘short on walk’ and illustrates the general cluelessness of the LA professional when it comes to providing ecosystem services:

        There are certainly talented individuals within the profession who understand how ecosystems function and employ effective practices, but the profession in general is lost. So go on and keep making your pretty pictures and pretty gardens and co-oping the professions that are actually effective at restoring the environment.

      • asladirt 04/29/2011 / 9:37 am


        Thank you for your comments.

        From my understanding of the project, it does offer an ecological approach to flood mitigation, which is a very important ecosystem service.

        I read that the project includes some 3 acres of restored or recreated wetland.

  3. Johnj 07/20/2011 / 1:39 am

    I agree to some extent with Chris. The project does seem to long on recreation planning and short on ecological services. I guess we need to keep in mind that the project is a master plan. Hopefully the implementation will utilize native grasses and such, that are easily sustainable. I suggest that the city should look into reducing run off into the bayou rather than taking a heavy engineering approach by widening it.

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