Restoration Ecology in Agrarian Landscapes

The Conservation Agriculture Studio, established within Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, applies design sensibility along with conservation science to projects that are rooted in agrarian landscapes. At the ASLA 2011 annual meeting, Thomas Woltz, RLA, FASLA, principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz, said agrarian landscapes present an important opportunity for landscape architects to apply their broad skillset to landscapes and issues that are often considered beyond their realm. Agrarian landscapes account for an enormous portion of land use, and, as Woltz stated, are “the largest non-point source of pollution in the nation.” The strategy of the Conservation Agriculture Studio has been to approach private land owners with the question, “What if you re-engaged with your land?” They then work to create master plans that bring certain areas of the property back into cultivation, while restoring and conserving areas that “never should have been cultivated.”

Oakencroft, a 262-acre farm in central Virginia, was one example of the fertile ground to be found at the intersection of landscape architecture and conservation agriculture, and also of the fruitfulness of collaborating with scientists on projects of this nature. The baseline for this project was an agrarian landscape suffering from monoculture, lacking in biodiversity, with degraded riparian habitat due to stream channelization, and forests that were unable to regenerate due to the presence of non-native invasive plants. In order to better grasp these baseline conditions, SUNY-ESF professors and students were brought onboard to conduct full-blown biodiversity surveys of the site, measuring populations of fish, amphibians, insects, birds, and other species. Temperature sensors were also installed throughout the site to monitor microclimates. The master plan ultimately composed a diverse landscape that included meadow restoration, paddocks for cattle rotation, organic vineyards, and protected wildlife corridors. By continuing to collect ecological data from the site, including conducting additional biodiversity surveys, this project will  provide crucial data that can inform and support the future work of private land owners, scientists, landscape architects, governmental organizations and other land managers.

Another example, Orongo Station Conservation Master Plan in New Zealand, was described by Breck Gastinger, RLA, ASLA, a senior project manager at Nelson Byrd Woltz. Orongo Station is a 3,000-acre sheep farm located along a stretch of coastline that is both culturally and ecologically significant. A portion of the farm was set aside for conservation, with intensive efforts focused around creating sufficient habitat to re-introduce tuatara, an ancient endemic reptile. To achieve this end, a predator-proof enclosure was created by fencing off the end of a peninsula (fence shown above), and non-native mammalian predators were eliminated within the enclosure. Reforestation was also conducted in this area and other coastal areas of the property, and saltwater and freshwater wetlands were created in a historic wetland area that had been drained for livestock grazing. Agricultural components included aesthetically-designed citrus orchards and the maintenance of the station as a viable sheep farm.

Gastinger also described their work on the Monticello Landscape Stewardship Master Plan in Virginia, of which he said, “the visitor experience has one really glaring omission – and that’s the lack of agriculture.” The master plan for this site seeks to protect cultural resources, restore ecological function to woodlands impacted by invasive plants and deer over-browsing, and to reveal the historic patterns of agricultural land use to visitors by creating native meadows.

Other examples of the Conservation Agriculture Studio’s work included a wine tasting room landscape in Sonoma County, California, a rethinking of the botanic garden on Catalina Island, and work on the National Arboretum of New Zealand. 

For projects of this scope, it is important for landscape architects to get help from scientists. Landscape architecture inherently weaves together threads from many disciplines, but the knowledge base of landscape architects cannot encompass the depth of study undertaken by scientific specialists. Members of the Conservation Agriculture Studio have found that by collaborating with scientists, landscape projects can benefit from rich baseline data as well as goals and strategies for ecological improvements that target specific species. According to Woltz, “Never before have we needed more cross-disciplinary thinking,” and “it’s unbelievable what [scientists] can teach us that we weren’t trained to know.”

The exchange between landscape architects and scientists can be mutually beneficial. James Gibbs, PhD, Professor of Conservation Biology & Wildlife Management at SUNY ESF, said that there is room for “some balancing between what frogs need and what people want.” Landscape architects can improve ecological interventions that tend to be engineered purely for function and end up suffering aesthetically. “We (scientists) can define the biological limits and you (landscape architects) can define the possibilities of design.”

Gibbs offered several examples of projects conducted by scientist for the sake of protecting biodiversity that “could be done far more elegantly,” including the construction of a network of vernal pools in New York, the creation of clearings for endangered rattlesnakes to bask in sunlight, the closing of beaches for the protection of plover nesting areas, and roadkill prevention through the design of road edges that direct wildlife to culvert under-crossings. The latter, Gibbs noted, is a ripe area for landscape architects, given the amount of money that goes into road engineering. 

Restoration ecology in agrarian landscapes is an important frontier for landscape architects and scientists. On one hand, “the burgeoning human population needs to be fed,” noted Gibbs, and “most land is private.” On the other hand, as ecological collapse makes the need for solutions more desperate, “proactive conservation where everything isn’t pure is where things are heading.” Woltz called the threat to biodiversity from invasive plants and animals “the next holocaust that faces us.” From this perspective, collaboration on private lands has an advantage because, as Gibbs stated, “unlike on government lands, things can happen remarkably quickly on private lands.” Furthermore, the biodiversity crisis that faces us is larger than the focus on individual species or populations that scientists tend to have. “We’re only going to save biodiversity if we think at the landscape scale,” said Gibbs. “As designers and scientists together, we might be able to make a difference,” said Woltz.

This guest post is by Dakotah Bertsch, Associate ASLA, Design Associate, Design Ecology

Image credit: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

One thought on “Restoration Ecology in Agrarian Landscapes

  1. Ruben Palacio 12/05/2012 / 11:09 am

    It’s true, working at the landscape level involves interdisciplinary research. In an ecological point of view, the landscape is an heterogeneus area with diverse ecosystems and ecologists work on improving connectivity, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Landscape architects can help enrich the landscape wih better design and improved functionality, both for human and non-human species.

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