After this challenging year, Marina Abramović, perhaps the world’s most famous performance artist, recommends everyone vent their frustrations to a favorite tree in a public park. She tells you to hug one tightly for no less than 15 minutes and pour out your woes to it. Your angst will be “absorbed in the bark,” and you will feel “rejuvenated.” This is tree-hugging on a whole other level.
Abramović believes there is a degree of energy flow between us and our arboreal friends. “Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you.”
This participatory performance work — Complain to a Tree — is part of series of exercises called the “Abramović Method,” which was developed by the artist to “practice being present.” In Abramović’s most well-known art work, The Artist Is Present, she sat nearly immobile at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City for 736 hours, facing 1,545 visitors over the span of weeks. Being present became a form of “endurance art.”
In the video, Abramović states that “trees are like human beings. They have intelligence. They have feelings. They communicate with each other. And also, they are perfectly silent listeners. You can complain to them.” And she notes that many cultures worship and commune with trees.
For those inclined to try this out in public, Abramović offers guidance:
“One important thing is that you really choose a tree that you like. It can be small and even not that beautiful a tree. But you have some relation to this tree, emotionally. Don’t pick the tree because of the beauty of the tree. Pick the tree because of its smell, the bark, the leaves. Whatever triggers your affection. So look around, and take the tree you like.
Don’t immediately hug the tree. Just feel the energy of the tree. Even not touching it but just holding your hands a little bit above.
And then complain your heart into it. This is the whole idea. Have any of you ever complained to a tree before? No. So this is something that you will be doing for the first time. This is like a journey into the unknown. So get out of your security box and do something that is different.
I hope we can create some kind of trend, that actually people are going to run to the parks and start complaining to the trees. This is one way of healing at this moment of our history.
Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you. So the tree is actually healing the complaint. You’re opening your heart. You’re just telling all your negativity and what bothers you in your life. And the tree is a silent listener. And everything is absorbed into the bark of the tree. And you feel rejuvenated. You feel happy after that.
This is the message for the public. Please—go to the park near you. Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.”
The performance was part of a 5-hour public program Abramović produced for the Sky Arts TV channel in the United Kingdom in early December.
According to Pliny, Roman Emperor Tiberius’s doctors instructed their charge to consume a fruit of the Cucurbits family each day. To grow these melon and cucumber fruits year-round on his home island of Capri, Tiberius directed construction of specularia: “[He] had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the Cucumis were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirror-stone.”
Thus begins The Conservatory: Gardens Under Glass. Illustrating their text with stunning photography, the authors Alan Stein and Nancy Virts, co-founders of Maryland’s Tanglewood Conservatories, survey the evolution of the conservatory in Europe, North America, and, ultimately, the world. The conservatory, an outgrowth of global trade, imperialism, and innovation, embodies a historical leap in the conjoining of architecture and landscape architecture—the extension of the growing season by manipulating the outputs of the sun.
After specularia, the next great innovation in overwintering plants didn’t occur until the arrival of oranges to Europe in the late fifteenth century. Wood and stone structures called orangeries protected the citrus from cold temperatures. At first merely functional, these buildings grew increasingly extravagant, achieving maximal opulence in the seventeenth century at Louis XIV’s Versailles. There, the orangery, 492 feet long and 42 feet high with double windows and thick walls, warmed over 1,000 orange trees.
And yet, an “ordinary stone-and-glass orangery” was not suitable for Hugh Percy, the third duke of Northumberland, who needed a structure for his collection of exotic plants—“the floral dividend of Great Britain’s expanding global empire.”
Lucky for him, the industrial advances of the nineteenth century were taking hold: new fabrication methods for glass and metal made them ubiquitous and affordable, and standardization increased speed and affordability of construction. With all that at hand, in 1827 Charles Fowler designed the Great Conservatory for Percy’s Syon Park in England, a structure of iron webbing connected by countless panes of glass: the first conservatory.
With material innovation came a shift in intention. Instead of gardens of pleasure for the wealthy, conservatories also became research centers to study the medicinal and industrial value of the plants they housed. The Palm House (1848) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England particularly embodied this transition. Not only did the conservatory present the first structural use of wrought iron at such a large scale, but it was also free for the public to enter. Kew’s research center served as model for conservatories around the world.
If the Palm House marked a turning point in the use of wrought iron, the Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton did the same for glass. Constructed as the Exposition Hall for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the “revolutionary modular structure” occupied nineteen acres and reached a height of 168 feet—and was built, in fact, around several elm trees on site. The immense amount of glass was enabled by the production of large panes, and machine fabrication allowed uniformity, affordability, and rapid installation. After the international Great Exhibition hosted over 14,000 exhibitors and 6 million visitors, a flurry of conservatory construction swept the world. The Crystal Palace’s light, open space, and facility of construction subsequently informed architecture of all kinds, and the relationship between buildings and the outdoors.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, conservatories at the scale of the Crystal Palace emerged across Europe, growing increasingly elaborate in form and detail. Serving as “a way for the wealthy to preen and for universities to pursue research,” they seemingly offered an acceptable display of affluence. British conservatory design influence emerged from the Chateau Lednice Conservatory in the Czech Republic (1845), the Palm House conservatory (1880) at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, as well as further south in Madrid and Milan.
North Americans, too, replicated the British conservatory model. They didn’t have an empire, but they had their own brand of colonialism, and, “like the Europeans, Americans needed places to conserve and study what had been found.” New York built its own Crystal Palace (1853); San Francisco erected its Conservatory of Flowers (1879); and Pittsburgh, the Phipps Conservatory (1893). Conservatories became integrated with the City Beautiful movement, whose romanticized parks often included glasshouses, like those in Baltimore and Chicago.
Throughout this progression, as note Marc Hachadourian and Todd Forrest in the volume’s introduction, “the history of conservatory design is the history of humankind’s obsession with cultivating rare, exotic, useful, and beautiful plants.” As such, it is often a history of the elite, as those with the means to obsess over such plants have usually been those of power and wealth—a fact made clear in The Conservatory. But also as such, the history of conservatory design is of those who labored in the conservatories, the factory workers of the industrial revolution, and the territories from which the conservatory plants were snatched, newly “discovered.”
The authors do not eschew the problematic imperial stimulus behind conservatories. And they importantly note that, in the days of orangeries, the primary difference between European and American versions was their work force: American orangeries were built and maintained by enslaved people. Yet this volume begs more such admissions and revelations. As Kofi Boone, FASLA, writes: “what if landscape architecture were described with some acknowledgement of the dynamics of race, class, gender, and power?” Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, in which sat the Peters Rawlings Conservatory (1888), mandated recreational segregated facilities for Black and white individuals until the 1950s. What bearing did this racial division have on visitors to the conservatory?
The history of conservatories also prompts inquiry into their present-day purposes as we struggle to chart new habits beyond our imperial and colonial pasts. Most historic structures have rightly dedicated themselves to education and research, and, along with newly constructed ones, have become leaders in environmental efforts and stewards of biodiversity. Kew, for instance, has played a critical role in protecting Taxus wallichinana, a Nepalese plant from which an anti-cancer drug derives. Though, these initiatives too can be seen as a contemporary embodiment of the same problematic worldview that birthed the structures: a worldview that collects, “protects,” controls, and systematizes the exotic Other.
The modern structures, like their antecedents, exemplify technological advance and trends. Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory (1989), also a modern research institution, was recognized for its energy conservation. The two conservatories at Parc André Citroën (1992) in Paris stand upright through tension cables that underpin skins of glass. Amazon’s Spheres (2018) at its corporate headquarters in Seattle bring nature to its employees so they may “think more collaboratively and creatively” (there are certainly much more cynical interpretations).
And yet, what if a modern conservatory were rooted in and respectful of place and culture, rather than exploitative of them? One of the book’s few glasshouses from the Southern Hemisphere, Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay (2012), offers an example in part. Climate change takes center stage at its Cloud Forest, where the visitor ascends the 135-foot thickly vegetated Cloud Mountain. The path winds through different sections, among them “Lost World, “Earth Check,” and “+5 Degrees,” each revealing calamitous effects of a changing climate on plants.
The anthropological alterations of the planet may have themselves altered the gesture of the conservatory. Our longstanding obsession to cultivate plants divorced from site — of a piece with the driving forces of the climate crisis — has turned out to be a preemptive salve: the modern conservatory has germ in the earth that was.
Indeed, from the current vantage point, a visit to a conservatory does seem of the past. In the Covid-19 era, who would elect an indoor nature over that outdoors? But this moment will likely pass, and The Conservatory makes a persuasive argument for the role of conservatories in our contemporary world. The authors’ passion for the structures, and their admiration for the assiduity required to erect and tend them, similarly convinces the reader of their magic.
Black American cultural landscapes are often made invisible and disrespected. During a session at reVISION ASLA 2020, three Black women landscape architects and students explained how these places can instead form the basis of more affirming, inclusive, and resonant place-making today, which in turn can help heal the scars of the past.
“The bottom is the lowest point, the deepest part, a place with marshy soil. It’s also a colloquial term for Black landscapes that are no good, devalued, and vulnerable,” explained Ujijji Davis Williams, ASLA, an urban planner and landscape architect with SmithGroup.
In many cities, “the bottom is where Black people were confined to live.” Escaping the Jim Crow-era racism of the South, Black migrants moved to northern cities and took up residence in these low-lying areas, which often experienced flooding and offered very limited access to the rest of the city. Later, Black Americans were redlined into these areas, which they still invested in and made into livable communities. In Washington, D.C. there is Foggy Bottom. In Detroit, Michigan, Black Bottom, and in Richmond, Virginia, Shockoe Bottom, among others. While in some instances these names have remained, the Black communties that once lived there have not.
Davis Williams wrote an essay — The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Urban Landscapes — in Columbia University’s Avery Review that outlines the history of these forgotten “vernacular landscapes.” In Detroit, Black Bottom was used for industrial purposes, resulting in a “dirty, heavily polluted landscape.” In the 50s and 60s, the community was raised to make way for a highway as part of “urban renewal efforts.” Today, the area is known as Lafayette Park and is seen as an “exclusive, high-value neighborhood.” Now the site of Mies van der Rohe-designed apartment complexes, the original Black Bottom is a coveted neighborhood. The place was “transformed; the narrative had changed.”
“What could have Black Bottom been if it was left alone — or even included in the rest of the city?” To answer the question, Davis Williams said it’s important to undertake a process of “landscape reconciliation,” which is “not about memorializing but transforming residual impacts and undertaking a healing process.”
For Whitney Barr, ASLA, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the University of Georgia, Sapelo Island, a state-protected barrier island in McIntosh County, Georgia, is a fascinating Black cultural landscape that offers a way for contemporary Black Americans to heal from the wounds of hundreds of years of enforced labor on the land.
The island, which is 11 miles long by 3 miles wide, has one convenience store, a bar, no doctors, and is only accessible by ferry. Settled by white slave owners and nearly 400 enslaved West Africans, the island’s massive plantations grew sugar cane, cotton, and other crops. From a population high of 600, there are just 45 Gullah-Geechee people left in Hog Hammock, a historically Black community. The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of those enslaved West Africans and decided to stay after Reconstruction.
Barr has been studying the Hog Hammock agricultural landscape, seeking ways to use design to reconnect Black Americans to the soil in a healing way. Referring to Dr. Anneliese Singh’s book, The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing, Barr explained how Black Americans can move from conforming to white culture to a sense of “integrative awareness,” which involves steps such as deep immersion in Black culture. By re-educating Black Americans about West African food and unlearning white approaches, they can get to a place where “they no longer think of agriculture as bad.” Regenerative agriculture and cultural regeneration go hand in hand.
In a set of plots on private land (much of Hog Hammock is owned by Georgia Heritage, a state authority), Barr has been working with residents to plant sugarcane, indigo, sugar peas, herbs, and hibiscus, sweet potato, and garlic. Youth participants decide what they want to plant.
During planting and harvesting events, “we give people permission to process — they can work solo or participate in conversations.” Barr and other designers have laid out spaces, created wayfinding systems and “peek and reveal spaces,” along with bioswales for stormwater management. There are educational and play spaces that help participants “re-imagine Black joy.” In addition to re-connecting with their landscape heritage in an affirming way, the goal is for residents to generate revenue and increase self-sufficiency, so as to reduce trips on the ferry for groceries.
Anjelyque Easley, Student ASLA, who is studying for her master’s of landscape architecture degree at the University of Texas at Arlington, has been delving into Black burial sites, which are often disturbed sites or have been built upon. The ones that remain intact are “desolate places” that suffer from “ignorance, lack of respect, and lack of documentation.” Easley’s goal is to investigate these sites, learn the names of the people buried, document the landscapes, and bring them new respect. “There are human beings there, not second class citizens.”
Even in tony Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the black cemetery Mount Zion is in a state of disrepair. The cemetery, which is 3.5 acres, is actually two separate cemeteries — Mount Zion Cemetery and Female Union Band Society Cemetery — and became a predominantly Black burial site starting in the mid-1800s. While the cemetery is adjacent to the predominantly white Oakhill cemetery, which is in pristine condition, Mount Zion is “largely ignored,” with broken tombstones and overgrown vegetation.
In discussing Mount Zion and other cemeteries in Texas, Easley concluded that Black burial sites leave an important legacy for future generations. The way forward is to recognize the error of failing to invest in their restoration and maintenance. “Planners, developers, and designers can reconcile with these places by offering new respect, convening, and memorializing to create places of healing.”
As Davis Williams explained early in the lecture, reconciling with the past can lead to a freer future rooted in equity and equality. “To move forward, we need to create a sustainable future that includes everyone.”
During this unforgettable year, a number of new books were published that renew our hope for racial justice, human and environmental health, and climate action. For those spending time at home over the holidays, now is a great time to explore bold new ideas through books. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift or a meaningful read for yourself, explore THE DIRT’s bestbooks of 2020:
Landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, and writer and educator Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, have co-edited a very personal volume of contributions from Black landscape architecture thought leaders, such as Kofi Boone, FASLA, Austin Allen, ASLA, Louise A. Mozingo, and urban planner Maurice Cox. Rich visual essays of photographs and design renderings are interspersed amid the contributions, which explore the deep yet often unrecognized history of Black American landscapes and make a powerful case for researching, honoring, and preserving these places. Through greater understanding, landscape architects and designers can create landscapes that are more honest about American history, more respectful of diversity and difference, and encourage greater inclusion. As Hood explains, “Black landscape matter because they are renewable. We can uncover, exhume, validate, and celebrate these landscapes through new narratives and stories that choose to return us to origins.” Read an interview with Hood.
This gorgeous 500-page door stopper of a book, which is more than a foot tall, makes the case for using raw earth — not baked or fired earth — to build our homes and communities. Used for thousands of years, across many cultures, raw earth is one of the most sustainable building materials invented. Earth architecture is clearly a passion of former Centre Pompidou curator Jean Dethier, who ably mixes in diverse contributions and finds fascinating cases that span the millennia and continents. Raw earth building isn’t just for ancient kingdoms; a whole chapter on “contemporary creativity” shows the potential of the building technology as a critical climate change solution today. The book is part National Geographic-style photographic odyssey; part architectural call to action.
Aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock. Read the full review.
Mariana Mogilevich, a historian of architecture and urbanism and editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus, the online publication of The Architectural League of New York, has written about a moment in history in New York City, during the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay in the mid-1960s through the early 70s, “when designers, government administrators, and residents sought to remake the city in the image of a diverse, free, and democratic society.” Through extensive archival research, site work, interviews, and the analysis of film and photographs, Mogilevich delves into how theories of psychology and inclusion influenced the work of landscape architects Paul Friedberg, FASLA, and Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, as well as the architects of New York City’s Urban Design Group.
Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of “wicked leadership” in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike. Read the full review.
Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. While exploring 18 countries, Watson pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.” Read the full review.
In a compelling survey of eight contemporary Chinese landscape architecture practices, Jutta Kehrer, director at LAC in Hong Kong and former design director at AECOM, shows the incredible breath of creativity across China. The emerging firms are creating striking and sustainable contemporary places rooted in traditional and vernacular styles. In an essay, Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, writes that “these firms put design in service of community building, local economic development, and reinvestment in place, people, and processes.” And Ron Henderson, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, notes that “there is a revived confidence explicit in the work.”
Landscape architect David Barth, ASLA, argues that “the majority of parks and recreation system plans address traditional parks and recreation improvements, rather than community-wide issues.” Barth provides a much-needed contemporary approach, calling for park and recreation systems to address racial and social inequities and climate change and become more interconnected. He also outlines how parks and recreational sites can become “high-performing public spaces.” Together, these approaches can help public parks and recreation departments transcend their silos and better partner with other government agencies and private park conservancies and developers to create park and recreation systems that work better for the entire community.
Dr. Howard Frumkin is the former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health. We are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being. Read the full review.
The French landscape architect Michel Desvigne isn’t well-known in the U.S. but a new monograph of his firm’s work from the publisher Birkhäuser should help change that. Transforming Landscapes beautifully conveys Desvigne’s simple yet striking parks, plazas, and master plans. There is a sense of clarity in his work that emerges as you look through the book’s many rich color photographs. The book is entirely focused on Desvigne’s public projects, which is where his passion lies. Read the full review.
If, like me, over the course of 2020 you’ve had thoughts like there has to be a better way or what the world needs now are better leaders, then Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems may just be the book you need to prepare for 2021 and beyond. Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of wicked leadership in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike.
Roadmap for the Anthropocene
Humanity is just 70 years into the Anthropocene, the age where “humans create Earth’s conditions that support or threaten civilization.” In our new epoch, the problems we have created and need to solve are “wicked.”
Wicked problems — climate change, inequality, urbanization, water scarcity, agriculture, energy, and the linear economy — are “extraordinarily difficult to define and even more difficult to solve.” Wicked problems are polarizing; exist across interconnected systems; span cultures, borders, institutions, governments, and markets; and “no one organization or sector of society can know in advance how to solve” them. Throughout these systems are people who adhere to diverse beliefs and whose values are often not in alignment with our own. How do we establish trust, facilitate meaningful communication, and hold space for the beautiful natural diversity that exists in our world to create a sustainable future? With leadership strategies for sustainability, of course.
For readers looking for an entry point that relates to their personal interests or area of professional focus, you may wish to start with a quick review of the “Introducing Leadership Stories” section. Specifically, the Navigating the Leadership Stories table, which maps Anthropocene challenges (stormwater, biodiversity, urbanization etc.) to the key actors and the leadership practices illustrated in the respective case study, while also referring to where in the toolbox the practice is explained.
Toolbox for Wicked Leadership
Wicked problems require leadership that empowers everyone to “lead from where you are,” regardless of title or recognized authority. To provide context, Hull and his co-authors unpack the necessary leadership practices required in wicked situations as compared to what is required in tame and crisis situations.
Leadership for wicked problems is defined by the concepts of “direction, alignment, and commitment,” which occurs only when “stakeholders agree on a direction for their efforts, align their resources as needed to achieve that direction, and commit to delivering those resources as well as supporting each other.”
A key point here is that everyone is responsible for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment. What makes this approach such a powerful tool is that it is clear, can be applied broadly, and it “works in most cultures, contexts, and situations,” as the case studies section demonstrates.
At this point in the book, the authors begin to illuminate a better way and introduce readers to leadership practices, which support professionals to “connect across space and time, collaborate across differences, and adapt to uncertainty” when problems are wicked. Caution is noted here: professionals need to understand that these practices must be used appropriately for the given set of circumstances.
To that end, specific strategies are detailed, which serve as a guide to achieving self and situational awareness, so that appropriate action plans can be implemented. For example, to connect across space and time leaders might establish a “community of practice,” so that “professionals can learn from each other and become more effective in their respective practices.”
In this reviewer’s opinion, the section on collaborating across differences is perhaps the most valuable because it provides strategies for navigating what often blocks individuals and groups from successful outcomes — our differences. How do we collaborate when people “hold different identities, agendas, factual beliefs, world views and values?”
The first step is self-awareness and requires understanding our individual preferences, values, influencing style, and approach to dealing with conflict, all of which evolve over time. With this awareness we can better communicate who we are, develop greater capacity for empathy and respect for difference. In turn, increased self-awareness better prepares us for the practices of adaptive leadership.
The chapter on “Adapting to Change, Uncertainty, and Failure” delves into achieving direction, alignment and commitment, when “situations are characterized by confounding uncertainty and dynamism.” Readers are introduced to a powerful sense-making tool, and strategies for collaborative innovation specific to sustainability.
Storybook: People Practicing Wicked Leadership
In the final section of Leadership for Sustainability, we meet the people in the field who have successfully implemented the leadership practices for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment — by leading from where they are to find solutions to the greatest challenges of our time. It is through their stories that we find our own opportunities and inspiration to make new connections, collaborate, and adapt our way to a better future. Thank goodness we now have a new set of tools that we can customize for the task.
Susan Apollonio is a leadership coach who writes from Phoenix, Arizona. She partners with natural resources and design professionals to develop their leadership presence for professional and personal success.
In 1964, architect, engineer, and critic Bernard Rudofsky curated the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Architecture Without Architects in order to shatter the exclusive and discriminatory canon of architectural history, which was long overdue for redress. The exhibition examined “non-pedigreed architecture,” which, “for want of a generic label,” Rudofsky called “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural.”
Julia Watson continues that discussion in her necessary new book Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism and introduces a new term: Lo–TEK—a meshing of “lo-tech” and TEK, which abbreviates Traditional Ecological Knowledge—redefines indigenous innovation and technology as models of symbiosis between humankind and nature–ones we direly need to confront the crisis of climate change. Radical indigenism advocates refashioning knowledge systems to include indigenous philosophies and create new discourses. Design that incorporates radical indigenism creates sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure.
Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. Exploring 18 countries, she pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.”
The technologies she presents span ecosystems and purposes: they purify water, grow food, maintain biodiversity, collect rain and groundwater, and enable habitation of aquatic and arid locales, to name a few.
The Ifugao people’s palayan rice terraces in the Philippines simultaneously irrigate, filter water, and support community-based rice farming. The Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania construct boma acacia corrals that prompt desert afforestation and ecological succession in lands grappling with desertification.
Sustainable agricultural practices increase productivity and preserve biodiversity. In Mexico, the Mayan people’s milpa system uses a cycle of burning, mulching, and fallowing to encourage forest succession, soil fertility, and polyculture gardens. In Tanzania, the Chagga people’s kihamba forest gardens support over 500 species by inter-cropping trees with agriculture.
The Ma’dan people in Iraq and the Uros people in Peru demonstrate how to live with water using buoyant, biodegradable infrastructure. All innovations are local, affordable, and made by hand. They enable the sustenance of both people and resources, not their exploitation. They rely upon indigenous communities remaining on their ancestral lands—unlike many conservation efforts. And “rather than primitive, as Le Corbusier would say, this knowledge is primal and known to us all,” Watson writes.
Designers in search of new tools and models to counter the mounting threats posed by climate change will find this book an accessible compilation of sustainable landscape innovations. Structured by ecosystem, the book categorizes the technologies as mountain, forest, desert, or wetland.
Each innovation receives a detailed description of its use and integral role inside the culture that created it. Sometimes interviews delve further into a design and its culture, like Jassim Al-Asadi’s insight into the floating civilizations of the Iraqi wetlands. Drawn diagrams break down each innovation. One could imagine a design firm nonchalantly co-opting certain elements—maybe the bheri wastewater treatment system used by the Bengalese people in Kolkata, or the waru waru cut-and-fill micro-topography of the Inca in Peru—within otherwise non-radical designs.
What will be harder to co-opt is the spirituality intrinsic to these indigenous technologies and the cultures from which they emerge. A worldview encompassing religion, ethics, and systems of belief is inherent to their ecosystem management.
In Bali, the Subak people, who maintain highly biodiverse and productive subak rice terraces, practice water temple rituals based in their belief that the goddess Dewi Danu provides their irrigation water. J. Stephen Lansing, director of the Complexity Institute at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, notes such understandings are not so-called “‘magical’ ideas.” They’re critical to the operation of these landscapes; the temples are the locus of a cooperative water distribution system. Though the technologies themselves are innovative, the people tending them ultimately ensure their performance through their systems of belief. Lansing writes: “the wedding of these ideas with the managerial capacity of temple networks provides powerful tools for communities to impose an imagined order on the world.”
It’s in part the very dearth of the spiritual that Watson asks her readers to question. In championing indigenous technologies, she invites readers to critique the mythology of technology that has dominated the world since the Enlightenment.
Adherence to this myth—itself an outgrowth of humanism, colonialism, and racism—has fueled resource extraction and the dismissal of natural systems. Questioning it means interrogating its hegemony, homogeneity, and sidelining of indigenous peoples and wisdom. After all, in many indigenous cultures, “spirituality in the landscapes is directly related to sustainability and resource management.” Watson suggests embracing a different and new mythology of technology, one that unites humanism with radical indigenism.
Advocating that nuanced practices deeply rooted in indigenous cultures can be extricated from their contexts and duplicated, hybridized, or adapted engenders a tricky balancing act. Watson herself notes that popular culture in our current eco-friendly era encourages milquetoast versions of greenwashing premised upon a merged spiritual and scientific understandings of the environment.
It’s dangerously easy to cross the line into romanticizing indigenous cultures, as has been wont over the past several hundred years. In the US landscape, for instance, permutations of the mythology of technology materialized as manifest destiny and the fiction of empty space. “Like imperialism itself, landscape is an object of nostalgia in a postcolonial and postmodern era,” writes W. J. T. Mitchell, “reflecting a time when metropolitan cultures could imagine their destiny in an unbounded ‘prospect’ of endless appropriation and conquest.”
Watson, from the vantage of our postcolonial era, nods to this nostalgia by asserting indigenous techniques as components of myth. But in also calling out technology as myth, she proposes a subversion of it with a co-evolved mythology that joins the two. She checks myth with myth.
The danger in Watson’s proposal would be that in building this new mythology, indigenous innovations and the people behind them become assimilated and appropriated by technology’s homogenizing forces. Throughout Lo–TEK, Watson repeats that indigenous technologies offer “clues,” “inspiration,” and “models” for a future built environment of soft systems that collaborate with nature, but she stops short of articulating precisely how. “They are not instructions, but, like a compass, they provide an orientation rather than a map for the future,” she writes.
Nonetheless, one may still crave more specificity from Watson, who from her thorough field research certainly has some ideas. If Lo–TEK offers a timely, overdue, and respectful catalogue of indigenous technologies that can bring wisdom, other voices, and heterogeneity to our current unsustainable paradigm, the next effort lies in determining how to realize and maintain those heterogeneities.
A year ago, you launched Climate Positive Design in an effort to help landscape architects design and build projects that can become climate positive, meaning that over their lifespan they sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they embody or produce. You also put out a major challenge to the community, stating that if all landscape architects and designers took a climate positive approach, they could sequester an estimated one gigaton of greenhouse gases by 2050. What motivated you to start this effort?
First, I had to dig in and understand all the science and policy. I made a conscious effort to understand the Paris Climate Accord, and more recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calling for limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 ˚F).
I was shocked to find out that according to the IPCC, we have less than ten years to prevent catastrophic events from happening to human lives, and that those who have the least, particularly in the global South, will likely be impacted the most.
Out of curiosity, I began analyzing case study projects from our work at CMG. I realized it is relatively easy to improve the carbon impacts of our projects without reducing the quality or performance.
I started to grasp that what we do as designers can make a big difference when we scale up all of our work around the world. It was with this understanding that I launched the Climate Positive Design Challenge.
Since launching the Pathfinder app, a tool that helps landscape architects, developers, and property owners design to a carbon positive state, nearly 1,500 projects have been submitted, totaling more than 43,000 acres. In addition to other climate-friendly practices, these projects are expected to plant 777,000 trees, which, in ten years, will result in 1.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases being sequestered. What have you learned from this first set of projects? What patterns are you seeing?
Within the first year, we’ve seen a gradual improvement in the years-to-positive scores across project sites. This is being achieved by a continuous reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through the embodied carbon and materials and operational carbon in landscapes, and an increase of carbon sequestration. It’s looking at that overall equation for a landscape carbon impact.
In the first few months, we saw a lot of academic projects being logged. It seems that the Pathfinder is being widely used as a teaching tool, which is great! Since realizing that, we’ve added in a feature, so those studies can be used as an academic resource, but their data will be excluded from the overall impact numbers.
The current average years-to-positive is 21 years for urban landscapes like plazas and streetscapes, and the target is 20 years to positive, so we’re really close to reaching our goal. We will perhaps make it more challenging going forward.
For parks, gardens, and campuses — inherently greener projects – the years to positive target is five years. The average of all the projects received to date is nine years to positive, so we’re not quite there yet. We need to keep pushing, which is the point of a challenge.
We’ve also seen that the projects across the board have over three times more sequestration than emissions, which is fantastic. This would put us on track to meeting our overall goals.
One of the helpful things about the data we have collected over this past year is that we can see the average emissions and sequestration per square foot. That information will be used in the upcoming landscape carbon SITES and LEED pilot credits. We’re now able to take this data, transform it, and relate it to other rating systems, which will hopefully increase exposure and awareness of Climate Positive Design and other rating systems.
What are the top five things all landscape architects should be doing now in their projects to sequester more carbon and get to climate positive? What things have the biggest bang for the buck, in terms of the climate?
I like to keep things simple. Otherwise, it’s too easy to become overwhelmed and not change our practices.
The top five things to remember are: plant more; pave less; use materials with lower embodied carbon; update your specifications to meet the highest sustainability performance standards, specifically your concrete specifications by using cement substitutions. The fifth is to create operations and maintenance manuals that limit the use of fossil fuels to operate the equipment to maintain landscapes — so use organic fertilizers rather than fertilizers made from fossil fuels.
You note that deciduous trees store a bit more carbon than evergreens. Are there particular species of trees and shrubs that are carbon-sequestering powerhouses?
This is perhaps the most frequently asked question. There is no one perfect tree for sequestering the most carbon. The best tree to plant is the one that will grow the fastest, live the longest, and get the biggest. This is the tree that is going to sequester the most carbon in the region your project is located.
Carbon is directly correlated to biomass. A redwood tree — a massive tree that lives a very long time — is going to sequester much more carbon than a small, understory redbud tree. This is just as an example where size does matter.
Another interesting example is bamboo. It is a rapidly renewable, woody species that can be converted into building products, such as flooring, furniture, even structures. It’s incredibly strong and actually a grass, so the carbon within its root system can stay in the soil for thousands of years. It is a super sequesterer, but it should be used with caution, because it can be an invasive species.
How can we ensure that plants selected to store carbon also support local ecosystems and provide habitat for pollinators and wildlife?
Bamboo demonstrates how we need to be mindful that we don’t cause more problems than we had before. We must be mindful of not planting invasive species that will take over native plant communities and reduce biodiversity.
We can use native species to sequester more carbon where they’re appropriate, increasing biodiversity and reducing water usage at the same time. Native plants are one way to ensure we support local ecosystems.
How can landscapes architects partnering with historically-marginalized and underserved communities, which experience higher climate risks and impacts, use your tool to address climate injustices?
This is one of our biggest challenges to overcome as a profession. I do not have all the answers. But I will say that from my experience, really listening to people and meeting them where they are is a start.
If people say what they really need most are jobs, then don’t give them a skate park. Think about how we can partner in non-traditional ways to create jobs that might also improve quality of life and be part of climate solutions – like community jobs programs supporting tree-planting initiatives. The results of something like this can be measured in local school programs through the app for free.
It’s my hope that things like this can give the next generation hope that there are solutions out there. We just need to work together on them.
What models or innovations that aren’t widespread today could speed up the carbon sequestering abilities of plazas and streets with large areas of hardscape?
There are definitely innovative products coming out that capture carbon, such as Carbon Cure. But I challenge us not to rely wholly on new models or fancy innovations, and instead step back and think about simplifying things.
This is an opportunity for us to rethink how we design, to do more with less. Let’s rethink the typical plaza. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all concrete. Maybe it can have large trees in a field of stabilized, crushed stone paving, as many historic plazas around the world.
This is my challenge to the profession: let’s think about things differently. Let’s turn this into an opportunity to make a statement that we believe in climate-positive landscapes. We’re taking a stance on climate change, and that’s something that many of our clients will get behind.
What needs to happen in the landscape architecture product marketplace to further accelerate climate positive design? How are you seeing product manufacturers respond to the climate crisis?
Over the past decade, in other disciplines, architecture in particular, product manufacturers have been increasing the transparency of their material and product development processes and revealing associated emissions. Product manufacturers are providing this information through an environmental product declaration (EPD). The data manufacturers provide — the CO2e emissions related to Global Warming Potential (GWP) — is what is used in the Pathfinder calculations.
We hope this increased transparency in the architecture field will migrate to the landscape products space. We must ask landscape product manufacturers to provide EPDs so we can make informed decisions about which product or material to choose.
Vestre, a Norwegian landscape product manufacturer, is currently working with Climate Positive Design to include their products into the app. They’re going to be providing their EPDs for use in the Pathfinder. They do not want us be exclusive, but rather encourage other product manufacturers to provide the same level of transparency and include their products as well, which says a lot about their values.
I hope that everyone will jump onboard, because this is an opportunity at a global scale to reduce the impact of these products.
The latest version of your app, Pathfinder 2.0, includes a bunch of new features. What improvements were made? And what do you hope to tackle next?
New features include the ability to compare design alternatives; analyze existing conditions; and understand site impacts, like grading, tree removal, or reused soil imports and amendments. There is also improved data that covers the replacement of materials over time, and more data transparency in the way of pop-ups and information icons.
As I mentioned, we’ll be adding products into the app soon. But we’re also hoping to expand the sequestration data for ecosystem restoration projects. Forest restoration is coming up next. Then, we’re hoping to get financial support, in the form of donations, to expand to coastal wetlands, kelp, mangroves, grasslands, etc.
The goal remains to keep the app free, open, and accessible for all to use and make a difference in projects. This is a commitment I have made.
I believe there is an incredible opportunity for landscape architects to re-imagine landscapes so they are not only wonderful places for people, but also help solve the climate crisis.