Designing agricultural landscapes that protect biodiversity has become a high priority for some landscape architects, scientists, and farmers. And designing the right collaborations can be just as important as designing for conservation itself. “There are some advances that can only occur through collaboration, which is why conservation requires design,” said Dr. James Gibbs, a conservation biologist and professor at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo in Chicago. Gibbs shared his experience with master farmer Zachary Wolf and Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, who worked together on Oakencroft Farm in Virginia and Overlook Farm in Pennsylvania.
Using “private land as their laboratory,” Gibbs, Wolf, and Woltz are collaborating to design a balance between agricultural production and ecological conservation on these farms. Each brings different expertise to the table, but their ultimate goal is to create landscapes that are not only productive and beautiful, but also biodiverse. The future of “biodiversity conservation lies in the intricacies of these working landscapes,” Gibbs said.
Achieving beauty is actually a central goal of the conservation projects. According to Gibbs, aesthetics is an essential ecosystem service. “We ask ourselves is this good for both biodiversity and aesthetics, or is there a trade-off? We think through the designs to answer this important question,” Gibbs said.
For landscape architect Woltz, combining forces to create landscapes that are both ecological and productive has shown him that “science and design belong together at every scale.” Before and after the ecological restoration projects on the farms, the team measures both ecological and agricultural production values. They then have a better understanding of the balance between the two goals. “We wanted to create a landscape that can be wild, productive, and expressive of this legacy of agricultural inheritance,” Wolf said.
The collaborators also treat these places with inherent respect and consider them cultural landscapes. These properties have cultural significance that requires re-interpretation “for the 20th century, but with a new set of values,” Woltz said.
Gibbs, Wolf, and Woltz credit the success of their efforts to their partnership. “Part of working together on these projects is admitting what you don’t know and building trust with different players,” Wolf said. “You can then step into the land with fresh eyes and assess the potential of these places.”