Learning the Subtle Language of Nature

The Weather Detective / Dutton

The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs is the new book from forester Peter Wohlleben, who wrote the international bestseller and modern natural history classic The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World. Meandering from the forest to the garden, Wohlleben asks us to pay closer attention to our environment — to “recognize and understand the signs of nature.” With climate change, a deeper understanding of nature has only become more critical — it’s only then that “we will appreciate what we stand to lose.”

For Wohlleben, closely concentrating on what’s going around you outside is a source of pleasure but also discovery. In the first sections of the book, he plays detective — deducing temperature, time, and atmospheric conditions from how plants, animals, and insects behave.

A few tidbits:

Plants can tell you if it’s going to rain: If we closely watch water lilies, we can discover they are a “reliable indicator of a coming change in weather. The flowers close when they sense rain, often hours before it comes.”

Birds and plants can tell you what time it is: If all birds were singing all the time, they wouldn’t be able to hear each other. Somehow they have reached agreement to sing at different times, so as to better communicate with potential mates or rivals. According to Wohlleben, each bird species tends to “observe its relative time slot, day by day, with astonishing accuracy.”

Flowers also open their blooms at particular times of the day with “impressive reliability.” Carl Linnaeus, a great Swedish natural scientist and father of modern taxonomy, planted a “very special flower bed in Uppsala Botanical Garden,” arranging the plants into the shape of a clock face, with twelve sections. “In each section, the flowers opened at the appointed hour, enabling passersby to tell the time.”

If you see bumblebees out, it’s at least 54 degrees Fahrenheit. This precise temperature seems to be the “magic threshhold” for a number of species, including grasshoppers and crickets. Wohlleben notes that to make a decent sound, the air temperature must at least be 54 degrees. And this may explain why that temperature is so significant for some insects — it’s when insects that communicate through rapid vibrations of their legs and wings can start to hear each other.

But as the book progresses, it somewhat awkwardly transitions into discussion about the seasons, climate change, and then, surprisingly, hands-on guidance for gardeners, with some broader insights about nature thrown in. While the structure is disjointed, the book is still enjoyable because it’s interesting to perceive nature as Wohlleben does.

In dealing with climate change, Wohlleben has some advice for gardeners: “Some experts recommend choosing plants that are better equipped for a warmer climate in the face of rising temperatures. I think this is very unhelpful advice. Rising average temperatures mean that dry hot summers and damp winters without snow will become more frequent. But even in the future, winter will still bring hard frosts, only much less frequently than nowadays.”

For him, the best strategy is the most natural: “The closer your garden management style resembles natural conditions, the less impact there will be. Nature is well prepared for climate change.”

He then argues the longer the lifespan of a native tree species, the more tolerant to climatic change they will be. For example, a beech tree, which can live up to 400 years, has seen many different climatic conditions over its lifespan and can tolerate those changes. It’s not about adaptation, but tolerance of a “broad spectrum of temperature and precipitation levels.” Still, trees and other plants have a better chance of survival if they are living in their “climatic comfort zone.”

The end of the book is a dive into practical gardening tips, with detailed guidance on how to measure the temperature of your garden, assess soil types and quality, incorporate native plants, and deal with invasive ones. A final chapter on how the territories of wildlife overlap suburban gardens is fascinating. Who knew that squirrels occupy a territory of 10 acres, foxes 50 acres, and black storks, 25,000 acres?

ASLA Launches Guide to Climate Change Mitigation

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Honor Award. SteelStacks Arts + Cultural Campus, Bethelhem, Pennsylvania / Christenson Photography

Global climate change is the defining environmental issue of our time. From devastating wildfires to historic storms and rising seas, the effects are already being felt and will continue to get worse. According to NASA, sea levels could rise anywhere from 8 inches to 6.5 feet by 2100. Additional impacts include increased spread of diseases; extensive species extinction; mass human, animal, and plant migrations; and resource wars over dwindling food and water supplies. Furthermore, these impacts will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Sustained, meaningful commitments and actions to substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all sectors of our economy can help avoid the worst of these negative impacts. The benefits of these actions will be measured in lives saved and communities spared.

In 2015, the international community gathered in Paris, France, and agreed to a landmark cooperative framework for limiting global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to meet this goal, GHG emissions will need to peak by 2020 and fall to zero by 2050. This is an immense goal, but also achievable.

Landscape architects are helping to shift us to a carbon neutral future. Landscape architects plan and design dense, walkable communities that reduce emissions from transportation and sprawl. They make the built environment more energy and carbon efficient with strategies like green roofs, water-efficient design, and use of sustainable materials and construction practices. They defend and expand carbon-sequestering landscapes such as forests, wetlands, and grasslands, helping to drawdown atmospheric carbon dioxide. All of these efforts also enable communities to better adapt to climate change and improve their resilience.

The threats posed by climate change are immense, and there is no single strategy that will solve the climate crisis on its own. Instead, mitigation requires an “all hands on deck” approach as we seek to reduce GHG emissions wherever possible. Achieving a carbon neutral future will only come about through the cumulative effect of countless individual actions. Every one of those individual actions counts.

Explore the new ASLA guide to climate change mitigation, which complements Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, the report and recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Sections of the mitigation guide include: regions, cities, materials and construction, green infrastructure, and natural systems.

New Video: ASLA Chinatown Green Street

With urban infrastructure in urgent need of revitalization, it’s time for new thinking about how the civic realm can better serve public needs and meet environmental goals.

The ASLA Chinatown Green Street, in downtown Washington, D.C., is a unique demonstration project that on one city block combines advanced “green,” “complete,” and “smart” street concepts. It addresses comprehensively the pressing problems of stormwater runoff and pollution, energy inefficiency, and pedestrian safety. At the same time, it enhances the vitality of the public realm and reflects cultural sensitivity, while demonstrating the ability of cutting-edge green infrastructure to support the goals of property and business owners.

ASLA Chinatown Green Street / Design Workshop

When the Chinatown Green Street demonstration project is complete, cities everywhere will be able to study its strategies and outcomes and draw lessons that can improve our understanding of how a reimagined infrastructure can profoundly enhance the quality of 21st-century American life.

ASLA Chinatown Green Street / Design Workshop

Discover what problems the ASLA Chinatown Green Street will solve, explore the project history, and make a donation.

52 Ways to Ignite Your Creative Spark

A Few Minutes of Design / Princeton Architectural Press

The mission of the Creative Education Trust in London is to empower kids through creativity and design thinking. Partnering with Princeton Architectural Press, they created A Few Minutes of Design, which offers 52 activities to encourage inventiveness. This well-crafted little packet of fun may work just as well for inspiring creativity among children and young adults as it does for rekindling the spark of a semi-burnt-out designer confronting endless deadlines.

The trust believes “creativity is the ability to find connections between the things we know and to turn these connections into new ideas and action. The academic arts and the sciences, practical subjects and life skills all need creativity. Creativity is highly valued by employers. With knowledge, skills, and creativity, every young individual is equipped to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

To appeal to as broad a group of people as possible, Emily Campbell — who is director of programs at the trust and a former graphic designer and design director at a government agency — clearly devised activities with many design disciplines in mind. There are engaging exercises not only for budding graphic and industrial designers, but also landscape architects, urban planners, and architects.

Campbell thinks the 52 activities, which are found on small note cards with instructions on the front and information or images on the back, are deeper than they first appear.

“The cards evoke what it’s like to be a designer through a series of accessible, concise exercises. Some ask you to draw and write; some ask you to classify, others to distinguish or explain. Some tasks are singular; others have several variations. All of them ask you to perform a rudimentary act of design by following plain-language instructions. Although the lessons in these exercises may at first seem minor in comparison to the grand vision — the ‘killer concept’ or ‘problem solved’– small moves and decisions such as these have a powerful influence on the success of any design.”

Some intriguing activities for landscape-minded creators:

Simplify, Then Multiply: “Identify a shape within the photo. Draw or trace the shape, leaving out shadows, highlights, and complicated details so that you have a simplified version. You may to need to invent parts of the shape that are not in view. Imagine that your simplified shape is no. 1 in a series or family of 3. What rules would govern the shape of nos. 2 and 3? Draw them.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

Joint Endeavor: “Explain in a drawing how you would join the objects or materials. You can cut them and/or multiply them if you need to. Label the drawing with instructions.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

Organizing Rules: One of my favorites — and easy for those with messy drawers, bags, or purses: “Empty onto a surface the contents of your bag, pencil case, desk drawer, or any other container that holds a variety of small, handheld objects. Think of a method or rule for organizing the objects. Organize them into a composition following your own rule. Take a photo of your composition.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

Lastly, there is a well-known landscape architect who asks her employees and interns to do a similar exercise — also 100 times (!) — when confronted with a design challenge:

Object 100 Ways: Draw as many uses as you can think of for the object. What qualities, or properties, does this object have? How else could these properties be used? You can multiply the basic unit, add materials, cut the object, reshape it, or otherwise modify it.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

On second thought, that may take more than a few minutes.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 15 – 31)

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A colonnade of palms inside Rio de Janeiro’s botanical garden / Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket

A Guide to Rio de Janeiro’s Coastal Cool The New York Times, 8/17/18
“From historical gardens to feats of Modernist architecture, what to see and where to stay in the beloved Brazilian city.”

This New Park Is Designed for a Future of Flooded Cities Fast Company, 8/20/18
“Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn Centennial Park can hold a million gallons of rainwater to help control the city’s increasing floods.”

10 Urban Sanctuaries Well Worth a Visit The Santa Maria Times, 8/25/18
“A foray into the heart of a city can be made all the more memorable and enjoyable with a visit to a public park.”

Why Your Favorite Bench Might Be There to Thwart a Terrorist Attack The Washington Post, 8/27/18
“When landscape architects recently began redesigning a wide, red-brick sidewalk in Washington’s Chinatown, they initially ­focused on improving the storm-water runoff and making it easier for pedestrians to navigate safely.”

Atwater Beach Groundbreaking Signals Next Big Thing for Detroit Riverfront The Detroit Free Press, 8/27/18
“The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy broke ground Monday afternoon on Atwater Beach, the latest addition to the city’s waterfront attractions.”

Monarch Landing Designer Relishes Opportunity to See Community’s Growth The Chicago Tribune, 8/28/18
“Most people visiting or residing at Monarch Landing in Naperville see the beautiful senior living community for what it is now, thriving gardens, thriving residents and all.”