Designing Landscapes in a Changing Arctic

View of the Legislative Assembly building and the Capital Area Park, in Yellowknife, Canada by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander / Cliff LeSergent
View of the Legislative Assembly building and the Capital Area Park, in Yellowknife, Canada by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander / Cliff LeSergent

Landscape architects working in the fragile ecosystems of the arctic have been forced to confront some of the most severe environmental impacts associated with climate change. “We’ve have to address climate change with great seriousness in all the work that we do and we must alter our designs and attitudes. The planet is finite and land is a resource. We must think about how to motivate people to understand this,” said Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Oberlander, and Virginia Burt, ASLA, Virginia Burt Designs, discussed their primary strategy for working with climate change in the arctic: plant what you see. Taking time-consuming and labor-intensive measures to preserve the character and ecology of these landscapes by only using native plants, Burt and Oberlander said their efforts have been well worth it. “From the tallest trees to the tiniest lichen on the granite shore, if we put it there, nature starts to bring it back. Nature truly does prevail in the end,” Burt said.

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Acadia Point in Blandford, Nova Scotia, Canada by Virginia Burt Designs / Virginia Burt Designs

With few nurseries in many of the Canadian towns in which they work, Burt and Oberlander typically collect soil and plants from areas near their projects. The soil and plants, with their embedded mix of lichens and mosses, are then propagated in greenhouses, and finally blended into the the landscapes they are working in.

Yet, climate change has made the task of collecting and transporting native plants to landscape restoration projects even more difficult. Discussing a project she worked on Inuvik, a town in Northwest Canada, Oberlander noted that the changing Canadian landscape presents challenges to even small-scale reclamation projects. When trying to transport plants from Vancouver to Inuvik to restore a Boreal forest shelter belt next to the Inuvik School, “the truck transporting the plants got stuck. There was a landslide and the ferry couldn’t take them across the Mackenzie River. Luckily, my truck with those plants was the last to be hauled across the Mackenzie river,” Oberlander said. “This was all caused by climate change.”

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Shelter Belt along the Inuvik School by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander / Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Working in the arctic has forced Hahn and Oberlander to deal with climate change and environmental degradation head on. “Why do we approach design in this way?,” Burt asked. “Because it’s the only way. We’re working in spaces that are in a delicate transition, so we must borrow from nature as gently as we can and create an opportunity to heal these places.”

2 thoughts on “Designing Landscapes in a Changing Arctic

  1. duanedesign2013 11/24/2015 / 8:46 am

    Climate has been changing since the earth was formed. It is man’s responsibility to be stewards of the gifts God gave us, this earth. It’s always good to see us working to protect our natural resources for the future. We are here on earth for such a short time. Good article, I especially like the last paragraph.

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