How Can We Ethically Design with Nature?

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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

High Line Founders Win Prize for Their “Impossible” Park

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Earlier this week, the National Building Museum presented High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond with the Vincent Scully Prize. In introducing the pair, Vincent Scully Prize jury chair David Schwartz said it’s amazing how the High Line, a single structure in New York City, has “created a national conversation” about how to reuse the abandoned, industrial legacies of our cities. He added, “it’s remarkable that these two citizen-organizers made this happen. They are the Barack Obamas of urban re-development.”

Last year’s Scully Prize winner, Paul Goldberger, former architecture critic from The New York Times and The New Yorker and now a writer for Vanity Fair, lauded the High Line, calling it an “amazing story, because things don’t work out as they are expected to and this broke all the rules and actually did.” He said the High Line is really an “impossible” story because projects of this scale in New York City tend not to have a happy ending. He thinks the High Line worked out because David and Hammond were really ignorant of all they were up against. “Nothing qualified them as experts. They aren’t developers or designers. If they had been, they’d realized it was impossible.” Instead, they went on this “crazy mission, enabled by how little they knew.” The High Line, Goldberger said, was the result of “fresh outsider thinking, fierce intelligence, brilliant political instincts, and hard work.”

Today, the High Line can be considered “the most important new model for public space in our time. It redefines public space.” This is because the park enables visitors to “look at the city instead of escaping from it.” It’s so impressive, Goldberger said, that “no one thinks of its distant resemblance to Promenade Plantee in Paris, the original French railroad park; the High Line is far more urbane and contemporary.” The High Line is not just a tourist trap either. “It’s immediately become part of the DNA of New York City,” with more than 5 million visitors per year, mostly from other parts of the city.

The story of how the High Line came to be is a long and fascinating one, relayed by David and Hammond in their excellent book, The High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky. In their remarks, they went through key highlights in the park’s history, explaining how they created the non-profit group Friends of the High Line, created their cool “H” logo for the park, took some wonderful photography of the space to build support for it, and eventually sued Mayor Rudy Guiliani to prevent its destruction (which would have cost some $50 million alone). And that was just in the first few years. They launched an ideas competition that brought in hundreds of entries from around the world. They went on to win the backing of NYC Planning Chief Amanda Burden and then Mayor Michael Bloomberg along with countless other local politicians by creating a smart preservation, design, and economic case rooted in the realities of New York City’s real estate market. They then got an innovative zoning area created so that air rights above the High Line could be moved to spots neighboring the park, although one result of this has been all the new, tall buildings that changed the character of the area.

David explained how the High Line was the result of multiple sets of competing forces: “real estate, politics, and money” and then “community, preservation, and design.” He said the “friction between these forces really created this unique place.” And as Hammond noted, there was also a lot of friction between the two founders. While both are well-educated gay men, they have very different talents and personalities and often disagreed about fundamental direction of the project and design decisions. However, they eventually seemed to work through these conflicts, forge an even deeper partnership, raising hundreds of millions together to finance the work of design team they selected made up landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, planting designer Piet Oudolf, and architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

All that money and design talent resulted in a marvel. David said the plank walkways were purposefully designed to mimic the original feel of the High Line, covered in native plants and weeds. Amid the planks, nature pops-up, infiltrating the man-made. “The wild landscape is still there,” just re-created by Oudolf. David and Hammond also convinced then-NYC parks department director Adrian Benepe to forgo the strict design guidelines the department uses for all its parks, enabling them to design benches and other elements from scratch. Benepe was said to say “this is more a work of art than a park.”

Now, with the first two sections of the High Line complete, fundraising continues for the final leg, part 3, which will wrap around Hudson Yards, what has been billed as the biggest urban redevelopment project in the U.S. right now. The project, which will cover six city blocks, includes 18 million square feet of mixed-use retail, office, and residential space. It will totally change the character of that part of Manhattan, much like the High Line has. As David noted in the beginning, the High Line then is a result of many forces and is really a “ballet.” He said “we didn’t choreograph this. No one group is totally in control of all of this.”

For the future, David and Hammond are really worried about maintenance. Each year, the High Line needs to raise $5 million to keep the park looking great. There are tons of operational challenges. “Keeping the garbage cans empty is a full-time job alone.” Hammond said “what keeps me up at night is how do we raise money for this year after year.” Their goal is to eventually get to a point where one-third of their budget is financed by fundraising, one-third is earned income, and one-third is from an endowment. Earned income may start coming from events and a new restaurant the High Line is opening. They want the endowment to reach $50 million by the end of the decade.

For all those communities who want to create their own High Line, Hammond said he and David couldn’t offer much advice, as the High Line came out of this particular community in Chelsea, with its unique history as a hub for gay culture, art galleries, and manufacturing. Each community has to come up with its own unique, abandoned, industrial asset worth saving, its essential project. “Focus on the particular problem you are trying to solve for.”

Image credit: The High Line

Walter Hood’s Hybrid Landscapes

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Artist and landscape designer Walter Hood, ASLA, head of Hood Design Studio and professor of landscape architecture at the University of California Berkeley, has been on a quest to find his identity, both as a person and a designer. At a lecture at the National Building Museum, he said it has taken “20 years for me to get comfortable in my skin.” As an African American and Southerner (he’s from North Carolina), he said “I’ve had to locate myself in the traditions of landscape architecture.” Now he has taken that hard-won self-knowledge and years of experience in landscape design to create new “hybrid landscapes,” designed to meet the needs of the communities in which he works.

His hybrid landscapes are either “conscious” or “unconscious.” He called conscious landscapes deliberate “collisions of differing points of view,” which “fuse the un-fuseable.” He said the result of all this fusing is a “strangeness,” because there are multiple types of landscape brought together that perhaps don’t belong together. But he said, too often, he’s asked to create “unconscious” hybrid landscapes, which have strange dualities found when examining them, but on the surface appear to “not disrupt order or continuity.” He thinks conscious hybrid landscapes are needed because they can fundamentally shock people into changing perceptions about what is an appropriate landscape.

Conscious Hybrids

Hood talked about the many conscious hybrids he’s worked on first. In Macon, Georgia, he took a 180-foot-wide street, with a square wedged in it, a “typical Southern typology,” and turned it into Macon Yards on Poplar Street, a landscape mash-up of street, park, and plaza. An obelisk from Confederate days in the center is now made the focal point. “By making things visible, we can better understand place.”

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He also described Splash Pad Park in Oakland, California, as a unique mix of different types of public spaces. “People call it a park, but is it really a park?,” he wondered. He says it’s really now something in between — a place where a park, plaza, and street meet. Whatever it is, it has proven incredibly popular, serving as the home for one of the largest farmer’s markets in Northern California.

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Hood then talked about Lafayette Square Park, another site in Oakland. He was asked to redesign the space because vagrants had taken control of the space. The earlier form of the park had a classic big X in the center of it, where the paths criss-crossed. At the center of the X were a “bunch of scary guys.” Hood ended up doing away with the idea of a central park that everyone could use — which really “turns landscape architecture history on its head” — in favor of many, smaller separate spaces within the park. This landscape is now about “being separate, not together.” Now people can be “yelling in one part of the park,” while in others, people are sunbathing or using the cook grills for a picnic.

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Lastly, he got to perhaps his best-known work, the de Young Museum, in which he created a vivid landscape to match Herzog & de Meuron’s building. To create this design, he went back to the history of Golden Gate Park and discovered that hundreds of years ago it was covered in dunes. It took really a 100 years of effort to turn it into the lush green space it is now. To bring the new space into the modern history of the park, Hood sampled all the trees and plants in a one-fourth radius around the landscape. He called it a “strange, not corporate, landscape” that both brings back what was there before in the form of sand paths, but also what was never there, with huge ferns from Australia, which many think are native, but, of course, aren’t. To add to the strangeness, “each side of the building pushes and pulls up to the landscape in a different way.” He also said “it’s not clear where the parks ends and the de Young garden begins.”

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Unconscious Hybrids

As for the unconscious hybrid landscapes, perhaps they are that way because “we just don’t have a name for their conjunctive beauty.” As an example, he pointed to the massive salt ponds people see when they come in by plane to San Francisco. Hood believes this inability to make the unconscious conscious is connected to our fear of discovering new approaches and putting them into words. As an example, he pointed to a new project that attempts to use the form of a swarm to design a park. Through the project, he’s exploring “whether it’s possible to design a space that will actually get people to swarm.”

His work with the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy and residents of the Hill District, a historically African American community, have resulted in GreenPrint, a new master plan for the area that accounts for the real cultural use of the area, its numerous trails that wind through the woodlands and communities. As a result, GreenPrint started out as a “trail,” but became a 1,000-acre “unconscious” hybrid plan to accommodate the actual usage patterns. The plan fuses together a trail network and plan for development with an existing woody parkland.

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He also outlined Solar Strand, a project he created for the University of Buffalo. Instead of simply plopping down thousands of solar panels into the university’s landscape, which is what they had done on their own the first time around to the university president’s disappointment, he organized them into a sort of art work and public space. Some 5,000 panels were organized into a strand-shape that illustrates how they power the nearby campus. The strand went in over a quarter of a mile. Around it, Hood convinced the university’s groundskeepers to “let everything go,” so there are now fields of weeds with paths cut through them. Spaces in the middle of the solar arrays are set aside as public spaces, laid with concrete chunks dug up for the project. Somehow, these spaces have taken off as spaces for markets, not something Hood planned.

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In his final remarks, Hood described how his creative process works with local clients, how he explains his complex thinking. He said he tries to tell his clients that “landscapes are messy and filled with contradictions; they are not clean.” He laughed that “clients want to know exactly what you are doing.” But, too often, this intuitive designer said “I don’t know. I’m just compelled. When I’m not here, I’m a mess trying to put it together.”

Still, Hood wants to know the boundaries or rules of the project before he breaks them. He also wants to keep an open mind as he moves through the linear design process because “epiphanies don’t happen when you think they will happen. Strangeness comes from the side. One has to be receptive.”

Indeed, he believes this open-minded receptiveness is what’s critical to working with communities. He fears coming in as an outside designer, imposing some artistic vision foreign to these places. He seeks to really work with the local culture. “You have to strip naked before entering a community. The can be no preconceived notions. You have to let it go and see them real.”

Image credits: (1) Walter Hood / The San Francisco Chronicle, (2) Macon Yards / Hood Design Studio, (3) Splash Pad Park / Hood Design Studio, (4) de Young Museum / Tropolism, (5) Green Print / Hood Design Group, (6) Solar Strand / University of Buffalo