How Can We Ethically Design with Nature?

felson constructed ecosystem
With the line between human and natural environments becoming increasingly blurred, how can we ethically design with ecological systems? One session at the Society for Ecological Restoration‘s conference in Madison, Wisconsin, examined the ethics of ecological restoration and human interventions in nature.

Ben Minteer, Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, described the tension between two seemingly opposed views on human agency in nature – preservationism and pragmatism. Preservationists have long advocated wild, “pristine” landscapes as holding moral value. Therefore, human intervention in nature should be minimized, except to return landscapes to some kind of historical baseline. In recent years, this philosophy has come under fire as being impractical and simplistic. After all, historical baselines can be arbitrary and difficult to establish, and many landscapes have been altered to a point that they have no natural analog.

Minteer described how new, anthropocentric approaches to nature call for an abandonment of idealized notions of pristine wilderness. According this view – pragmatism – human intervention should aim to enhance ecosystem services instead of attempting to restore to a certain point in history. But he also cautioned that this approach, where humans have complete control over nature, could promote reckless interventionism. Instead, Minteer advocated a middle ground between preservationism and pragmatism – a “pragmatic preservationism.” In this view, humans’ interventions in nature are equally weighted with an ethical responsibility toward the land.

Eric Higgs, University of Victoria, also advocated a middle ground for ecological restoration, worrying about what he viewed as the risk of reckless intervention. Higgs described a spectrum of restoration challenges, from pristine landscapes (historically continuous ecosystems) to radically altered landscapes (novel ecosystems). He defined ecosystems that fall between these extremes as “hybrid.” According to Higgs, a responsible attitude toward restoration involves restoring hybrid ecosystems to historical baselines whenever possible, while still recognizing that many ecosystems may be altered beyond a threshold where this is possible. Ecological restoration then uses history more as a guide than as a template. Like Minteer, Higgs stressed the need for ethical responsibility when dealing with any notions of new, historically-unprecedented natures.

Higgs was followed by Alexander Felson, ASLA, Yale University. Felson, who is both a landscape architect and an ecologist, spoke to the challenges and opportunities facing restoration ecologists dealing with urban ecological systems. Felson emphasized the need for ecologists to expand beyond their field, bridging theory and practice. This involves considering difficult questions regarding how we define nature and what we want out of nature. For instance, is an ecosystem restored to a historical baseline always doing as much good as one designed purely for ecosystem services? He described the need for ecologists to engage in designed experiments within urban ecological systems in order to generate data (the image above is an example of Felson’s work in this area). By integrating experimental research with design projects, we may begin to answer questions about the role of designed ecosystems in sustainable urban design.

Joy Zedler, University of Wisconsin – Madison, concluded the session by exploring how restoration might work in the face of an uncertain future, considering the challenges of climate change, extreme weather events, new hydrological conditions, nutrient loading, and invasive species. Zedler acknowledged that many attempts to restore to a historical precedent, or “turning back the clock,” fall short. Furthermore, this notion of total restoration is becoming even more impractical as we lose pristine reference ecosystems and the ability to quantify ecosystem services.

Still, Zedler stressed that historical precedence should remain the primary guiding influence for ecological restoration, but should not be used as an absolute template. Instead, restoration targets should be flexible and dynamic, and all restoration projects should be treated as experiments to generate new data. By taking an improvisational approach, continually testing alternative restoration methods and evaluating their effectiveness, we can embrace uncertainty and learn while restoring.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: A constructed eco-system. Bio-retention garden system in Bridgeport, CT / Urban Omnibus

7 thoughts on “How Can We Ethically Design with Nature?

  1. Ernest Wertheim ASLA 10/14/2013 / 11:55 am

    Recently, I drove through part of the Smokey Mountains; this was a wonderful experience. I was very concerned with what would happen to this lovely park if there’s a fire. What will happen in Yosemite and its surrounding after this recent fire? There have been hundreds if no thousands of acres burnt. How should we approach the re-vegetation of these areas? Should we let nature take its course which might mean automatic change? Does nature always do a perfect job? Should we look at our forests like the Germans and Swiss do? They manage their forests.

  2. Terry Mock 10/14/2013 / 2:14 pm

    Future Nature: How Do We Design Ethical Landscapes?

    To achieve sustainability of our rapidly expanding community ecosystems and deliver the maximum level of benefits to the inhabitants, the community forest must have three components:

    1 – Healthy Tree Resource
    2 – Comprehensive Management
    3 – Community-wide Support

    Building a Sustainable Community Forest

    • Brad Smith 10/16/2013 / 12:25 pm

      Terry, while the benefits of tree canopy in urban settings is vital, the tree-centric views expressed in your referenced article falls far short of addressing the larger ecological picture of plant diversity and resiliency. Planting trees alone to represent an ecosystem (or as a stand-in for restoration) is similar to suggesting 1+1=2 represents the field of mathematics.

      • Terry Mock 10/16/2013 / 4:13 pm


        I agree that trees are not the total answer… But trees are the major infrastructure that must be restored for the rest of the life forms in the ecosystem to flourish.

        My overall message was that a balanced triple-bottom-line approach must be employed to produce a sustainable result.


  3. Ricahrd K. Sutton 10/16/2013 / 9:26 am

    Wow! Meeting in Madison and not one line about Aldo Leopold whose Land Ethic Dictum should be ingrained into every landscape architect’s memory and design approach (and restoration ecologists as well).

    “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

    Looking a the sites with which we landscape architects must deal –bombed out, burned out, scraped off, hammered and compacted — in reality we all become ecological restorationists on a daily basis.

  4. Daniel Ruggiero 10/30/2013 / 1:08 pm

    “pragmatism – human intervention should aim to enhance ecosystem services instead of attempting to restore to a certain point in history. But he also cautioned that this approach, where humans have complete control over nature, could promote reckless interventionism”

    my ‘framework’ largely agrees with this summary of Ben’s view (I didn’t see his talk).

    (Pragmatism?)…I think both Pragmatism (with a capital P, and with a small p) are relevant to the discussion. Here is one of the points I make in my SER2013 presentation:

    “There is a notion among restorationists that the alternative to historical fidelity is potentially a hubristic, highly engineered approach to realize current cultural preferences that are anthropogenic in scope. I argue, instead, that the ‘historically correct ecosystem’ often is the hubristic, culturally defined, described and prescribed ‘ecosystem’, when and where it falls within a broader environmental context in which it requires intensive management (existing as a cultural anachronism)..a garden, not because I’m calling it a garden, but because it is (through necessary intervention, defined as a garden (can be thought of as a spectrum of management). So, I’m worried that we’re re-constructing the notion of ‘ecosystems’, in a glass house constructed by culture and science, in which people are going to continue to throw rocks. (i.e., by investing heavily in the resistance to change at local, fragmented scales, and failing to approach the goal of ecological continuity by understanding that continuity implies evolving in response to the present context, we’re setting ecosystems up for shattering.”

    ^what I’m getting at here is that in practice, restorationists (who have good virtues), aren’t rejecting historical fidelity (in pursuit of creating ‘disneyland’), but are doing so in pursuit of meeting ‘the essence of ecological restoration’, over relevant spatiotemporal scales. Restoring ‘back’ to the greatest extent (practical) is (an inevitability?) of appropriately applied decision theory (?)

    By ‘pragmatic preservationism’, I’m pretty sure that ben is simply acknowledging that ‘eco-evolutionary’ continuity, to the greatest extent (practical) is still a central (defensible) goal for restoration/conservation, but that (although there is overlap) it is not synonymous with the notion of maintaining a ‘historic community type’.

    This was the subject of my talk (Contextual Ecological Realities: An Evolutionary Framework Suggests a Minimally Invasive Ecological Restoration)

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