Earth Day Interview with Richard Weller: A Hopeful Vision for Global Conservation

Richard J. Weller

Richard J. Weller, ASLA, is the Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of landscape architecture and Executive Director of the McHarg Center at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of seven books, including the forthcoming The Landscape Project, a collection of essays by the faculty at the Weitzman School of Design. He is also the creative director of LA+, the interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. In 2017 and 2018, Weller was voted by the Design Intelligence survey as one of North America’s most admired teachers, and his research has been published by Scientific American and National Geographic and exhibited in major museums around the world.

Later this year, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will meet in China to finalize what is being called a “Paris Agreement for Nature.” The agreement will outline global goals for ecosystem conservation and restoration for the next decade, which may include preserving 30 percent of lands, coastal areas, and oceans by 2030. Goals could also include restoring one-fifth of the world’s degraded ecosystems and cutting billions in subsidies that hurt the environment. What are the top three things planning and design professions can do to help local, state, and national governments worldwide achieve these goals?

Design, Design, and Design!

There are now legions of policy people and bureaucrats, even accountants at the World Bank, all preaching green infrastructure and nature-based solutions. But the one thing all these recent converts to landscape architecture cannot do is design places. They cannot give form to the values they all now routinely espouse.

But design is not easy, especially if it’s seeking to work seriously with biodiversity, let alone decarbonization and social justice. Design has to show how biodiversity— from microbes to mammals— can be integrated into the site scale, then connected with and nested into the district scale, the regional, the national, and, ultimately, the planetary scale. And then it has to situate the human in that network – not just as voyeurs in photoshop, but as active agents in ecosystem construction and reconstruction.

Of course, wherever we can gain influence, this is a matter of planning — green space here, development there. But it’s also an aesthetic issue of creating places and experiences from which the human is, respectfully, now decentered, and the plenitude of other life forms foregrounded.

It’s as if on the occasion of the sixth extinction, we need a new language of design that is not just about optimizing landscape as a machine, or a pretty picture, but that engenders deeper empathy for all living things and the precarious nature of our interdependence.

In 2010, the CBD set 20 ambitious targets, including preserving 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Of these targets, only 6 have been partially met. On the other hand, almost every week, we hear about billions being spent by coalitions of foundations or wealthy individuals to buy and protect vast swathes of land in perpetuity. And the protection of nature and leveraging “nature-based solutions” is increasingly a global priority. Are you positive or negative about the future of conservation?

In 1962, there were about 9,000 protected areas. Today, there are over 265,000 and counting. If our yardstick is humans setting aside land for things other than their own consumption, then there is reason to be optimistic.

In 2021, the total protected area sits at 16.6 percent the Earth’s terrestrial ice-free surface, not quite 17 percent, but close. The missing 0.4 percent is not nothing – it’s about 150,000 Central Parks and over the last few years my research has been motivated by wondering where exactly those parks should be.

The World’s current protected areas. Image by Rob Levinthal, courtesy Richard Weller

The fact that humans would give up almost a fifth of the Earth during such a historical growth period is remarkable in and of itself. While targets are useful political tools, the question is one of quality not just quantity. And that’s where pessimism can and should set in. Protected areas, especially in parts of the world where they are most needed, arise from messy, not to say corrupt, political processes. They are not always a rational overlay on where the world’s most threatened biodiversity is or what those species really need.

The percentages of protected areas around the world are also very uneven across the 193 nations who are party to the Convention. Some nations, like say New Zealand, exceed the 17 percent target, while others, like Brazil fall way short – and they don’t want people making maps showing the fact. Protected areas also have a history of poor management, and they have, in some cases, evicted, excluded, or patronized indigenous peoples.

Protected areas are also highly fragmented, which is really not good for species now trying to find pathways to adapt to climate change and urbanization and industrialization. The global conservation community is keenly aware of all this but again, while they are good on the science and the politics, they need help creating spatial strategies that can serve multiple, competing constituencies. Under the Convention, all nations must produce national biodiversity plans, and these should go down to the city scale, but these so-called plans are often just wordy documents full of UN speak. There is a major opportunity here for landscape architects to step up.

So, the pessimist’s map of the world shows the relentless, parasitical spread of human expansion and a fragmented and depleted archipelago of protected areas. The optimist’s map on the other hand shows over 160 projects around the world today where communities, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reconstructing ecosystems at an epic landscape scale.

Rob Levinthal, a PhD candidate at Penn and I call these Mega-Eco Projects. As indicators of the shift from the old-school engineering of megastructures towards green infrastructure on a planetary scale, they are profoundly optimistic.

Mega-Eco Projects taking place in the world today. Image by Rob Levinthal, courtesy Richard Weller

We don’t call these projects Nature Based Solutions. The reason being that “nature” comes with way too much baggage and “solution” makes designing ecosystems sound like a simple fix. These two words reinforce a dualistic and instrumentalist approach, things which arguably got us into the mess we find ourselves in today.

By placing the Mega-Eco Projects within the tradition of 20th century megaprojects — many of which failed socially and environmentally, if not economically, we are taking a critical approach to their emergence, which is important to working out what really makes for best practice as opposed to just greenwashing.

I mean there are great projects like the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative and the Great Green Wall across Sub-Saharan Africa, but when someone like President Trump endorses planting trillions of trees, you have to wonder what’s really going on.

The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller
The Great Green Wall. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller

Whereas the definition of old school megaprojects was always financial — say over a billion dollars — our working definition of Mega-Eco Projects is not numerical. Rather, it is that they are “complex, multifunctional, landscape-scale environmental restoration and construction endeavors that aim to help biodiversity and communities adapt to climate change.”

Furthermore, unlike the old concrete megaprojects, Mega-Eco Projects use living materials; they cross multiple site boundaries, they change over time, and they are as much bottom up as top down. The project narratives are also different, whereas megaprojects were always couched in terms of modern progress and nation building, the Mega-Ecos are about resilience, sustainability, and a sense of planetary accountability.

There are four categories of Mega-Ecos. The first are large-scale conservation projects; the second are projects that seek to resist desertification; the third are watershed plans; and the fourth are green infrastructure projects in cities either dealing with retrofitting existing urbanity or urban growth.

As you would expect, landscape architects tend to be involved with this fourth category, but there is a bigger future for the field in the other three, which is part of our motivation for studying them.

By our current assessment, there are about 40 Mega-Eco Projects taking place in metropolitan areas around the world today. These tend to be in the global north and China, notably the Sponge Cities initiative, where so far over $12 billion has been spent in 30 trial cities. We have not yet conducted a comparative analysis of these projects, nor are many of them advanced enough to yet know if they are, or will be, successful.

With specific regard to urban biodiversity, I don’t think there is yet a city in the world that really stands out and has taken a substantial city-wide approach that has resulted in design innovation. It will happen. As they do with culture, cities will soon compete to be the most biodiverse. The conception that cities are ecosystems, and that cities could be incubators for more than human life is a major shift in thinking, and while landscape architecture has a strong history of working with people and plants, it has almost completely overlooked the animal as a subject of design. That said, we shouldn’t romanticize the city as an Ark or a Garden of Eden. The city is primarily a human ecology, and the real problem of biodiversity lies well beyond the city’s built form. Where cities impact biodiversity is through their planetary supply chains, so they need to be brought within the purview of design.

Singapore is a case in point. Because it developed the Biodiversity Index, Singapore has been able to tally its improvements with regard to urban biodiversity and tout itself as a leader in this area. Many other cities are adopting this tool and this is good.

But this is also where things get tricky, because whatever gains Singapore can afford to make in its urban biodiversity need to be seen in light of the nation’s massive ecological footprint.

I mean, Singapore can make itself into a garden because the farm and the mine are always somewhere else. I would call Singapore a case of Gucci biodiversity, a distraction from the fact that they bankroll palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, the last of the world’s great rainforests.

That said, every city is shot through with contradictions. The question then is to what degree do the designers play along or whether they can make these contradictions the subject of their work, as opposed to its dirty little secret. The Gardens by the Bay project, for example, is a brilliant case of creating a spectacle and keeping tourists in town for an extra day, but it’s got nothing to do with biodiversity beyond the boundary of the project.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore / istockphoto.com

The late E.O. Wilson and other biologists and ecologists have also called for protecting half the Earth’s lands and oceans. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) split the difference in their recent report, calling for 30-50 percent to be protected. What are the extra benefits to protecting 50 percent? What does this mean for the planning and design of existing and future human settlements?

I’d trust E.O. Wilson or better still, James Lovelock, with the calculation for a healthy planet, but the dualism of humans here and biodiversity over there that tends to come with Wilson’s notoriously puritanical position is problematic.

The world is a novel, highly integrated, human dominated ecosystem, and design has to work at improving the symbiotic nature of that condition. Each site needs to be assessed on its own biological and cultural terms as to what can be more deeply integrated or what should be separated out; what has to be actively curated and what can be left to its own devices. As Sean Burkholder and others have pointed out, this means designing time as well as space.

The thing with Wilson is where exactly would his 50 percent be? He never really explained it in spatially explicit terms. Half Earth means another 34.5 percent on top of what we currently have protected. As a priority, it would have to comprise any unprotected forest or other areas of remnant vegetation and whatever can be clawed back in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

The World’s 36 biological hotspots. Image by Rob Levinthal. Courtesy Richard Weller

But the numbers don’t really add up. About 40 percent of the Earth’s ice-free earth is currently used for food production, 30 percent is desert, and 30 percent is forest – although “forest” is a loose term, and some of that already overlaps with protected areas. Given that the global foodscape is and will probably continue expanding, 30 percent total protected area seems more reasonable than 50. It is my belief that design, if given the chance, can weave viable biodiversity through the contemporary agricultural landscape whilst maintaining overall yield.

Even 30 seems a stretch, because if you project the expansion of crop land by 21st century population growth, we need most of the planet to feed people, so something has to give. Either we massively increase yields from the current agricultural footprint or biodiversity gets pushed further into the mountains. Or billions starve. The prospect of us reducing the planet to a monoculture is very real and very scary on every level.

To your question, the benefits would be that by more or less doubling the current conservation estate, we could create larger patches in the hotspots and seek to achieve connectivity between the existing fragments of protected areas. As landscape ecology teaches, it is only with larger patches and substantial connectivity that we can create a truly resilient and healthy landscape. The problem is of course that the patches and corridors have to be reverse engineered into hostile territory. Human settlements and agriculture have to make way for larger patches and greater connectivity and planned around it. To turn the whole thing on its head, human settlements and human land uses have to protect the global conservation estate. Easy to say.

Biodiversity loss is often considered a result of the climate crisis. But there are other issues also driving increased biodiversity loss and extinction rates worldwide, such as increased development in natural areas, the spread of transportation systems, and pesticide and chemical use. How do explain the relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss?

When people hear “biodiversity” they almost invariably think of charismatic megafauna, but as you indicate, the problem runs deeper and at a much finer grain. Of course, we are now obsessed with chasing every carbon molecule, but for life on and in the land and its waters, the problem is also excess manufactured nitrogen along with other toxins. Ironically, despite ultimately killing microorganisms upon which soil health depends, industrialized fertilizers have slowed the rate of deforestation that would have occurred had the world tried to feed itself without industrial fertilizers because they have, at least in the short term, increased yields.

The main problem from a spatial planning and land use perspective is that species increasingly need to migrate so as to adapt to a changing climate but they find themselves trapped in isolated fragments of protected areas or stranded in unprotected scraps of remnant habit.

There is another part of this though, and that is that the entire discourse and politics of environmentalism is couched in terms of loss. But a truer picture perhaps is that as ever in the chaos of evolution, there will be winners as well as losers. I don’t think we know what is really happening or what will happen, so in that sense we need to design landscapes as insurance policies, as expressions of the precautionary principle where we just try to maximize the potential of life to evolve. In this regard landscape architectural research and design becomes less about finished projects, and more about conducting experiments based on both scientific and cultural questions related to biodiversity.

The Metatron at the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in Moulis, France is a good example. The Metatron is an experimental field of 48 enclosures in which species composition, temperature, light and humidity can be controlled. Each enclosure is connected to the others via small passages that can also be controlled. In this way, the Metatron is a simulator of landscape dynamics, a model microcosm in which each enclosure is understood as a “patch” and each connector a small simulation of a landscape “corridor.” Since 2015, given the limitations of its size, experiments have focused on studying how small species like butterflies and lizards move through the system, but many more species could be studied using a similar system at larger scales. In essence, the Metratron is learner’s kit, helping us understand how best to reconstruct landscapes at scale.

The Metatron. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller

Your own research, including the ASLA-award winning Atlas for the End of the World, documents how areas at the edge of sprawling cities around the world are increasingly colliding with biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as highly valuable reservoirs of diverse and endemic species. What are the implications of your research?

By conducting an audit of land use and urban growth with regards to CBD targets in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Atlas set the scene for my two current research projects.

The first is the Hotspot Cities Project and the second is the World Park Project. A hotspot city is a growing city in a biodiversity hotspot – the 36 regions on Earth where endemic biodiversity is most diverse and most threatened. We’ve identified which of these cities —over 90 percent— are sprawling on direct collision courses with remnant habitat harboring endangered species.

Hotspot Cities: Each yellow dot represents a city growing in direct conflict with endangered species. Image by Chieh Huang. Courtesy Richard Weller
Los Angeles in the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot. Red areas indicate conflict between growth projected to 2050 and the range lands of endangered species. Image by Nanxi Dong. Courtesy Richard Weller

In our mapping we identify the conflict zones between development and biodiversity and then we conduct design case studies as to how the conflict could be mitigated. The argument is that destructive sprawl is not a fait accompli, and designers—especially landscape architects skilled in urban design— can create credible alternatives by taking a holistic, city-wide perspective. This research especially draws attention to peri-urban landscapes that are largely overlooked by the profession, because the design dollar has mainly been invested in city centers.

The World Park Project is a big vision for a new form of conservation landscape, one that actively involves humans in its construction. It’s an answer to the question of where those 150,000 Central Parks should be, as I mentioned earlier.

The idea of the World Park begins with the creation of three recreational trails: the first from Australia to Morocco, the second from Turkey to Namibia, and the third from Alaska to Patagonia.

Passing through 55 nations, these trails are routed to string together as many fragments of protected areas in as many hotspots as possible. The trails are catalysts for bringing people together to work on restoring the ecological health of over 160,000 square kilometers of degraded land in between existing protected areas.

In this way, the Park is about building a coherent and contiguous global network of protected area. It addresses the two biggest challenges facing global conservation today: ensuring adequate representation of biodiversity in protected areas and connectivity between those areas. It sounds crazy, but forging connectivity at this scale is just what we do for every other form of global infrastructure. Humans build networks, and it’s high time to build a green one.

The World Park Project: 3 trails through biodiversity hotspots at a planetary scale. Image by Madeleine Ghillany-Lehar

I was expecting derision from design academics about World Park, because “going big” is generally seen as neo-colonial or megalomaniacal. I was also expecting world weary eye-rolling from the conservationists or outright rejection of the idea because it would suck the oxygen out of their own efforts, but generally the reaction has been very positive.

Most people, particularly in the NGOs, have reacted like “wow – this is exactly what we need right now.” They know they can’t just keep adding more fenced-off fragments of protected area to meet UN targets. There are now so many conservation efforts going on but they are all disconnected from one another. A World Park could galvanize these efforts into something that is greater than just the sum of its parts.

In any event, my research team (Alice Bell, Oliver Atwood and Elliot Bullen) have completed the mapping of the Park’s territory. Now I’m talking with UNESCO about how we might move the idea to a proper feasibility study. Realistically, nothing will happen unless the major NGOs adopt it, along with some philanthropic champions and the relevant ministers in those nations whose sovereign territory is involved.

Only half-jokingly, I think Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson should bring their toys back to earth and take this on. Musk could fund the African trail, Bezos the Americas, and Branson would pick up the Australia to Morocco piece. At current landscape restoration rates, I worked it out at about $7 billion.

That’s an expensive park, but the better question to ask is not what it costs but what is it worth? For a mere $7 billion a World Park could provide investment in impoverished landscapes. It could provide meaningful experiences and jobs for lots of people. Above all, it would be a profound sign of hope that humanity can work together to be a constructive force of nature instead of its executioner.

Lastly, how can landscape architecture academics and practitioners better partner to address the twinned biodiversity and climate crises? What additional research is needed to better weave biodiversity considerations into broader climate solutions?

Well, as someone who has spent a lifetime in both the academy and practice, I would really like to take this opportunity to attest to the value of both. I think it’s a problem that the academy demands young faculty have PhDs but not necessarily any practice experience. Just as I think it’s a problem that certain elements of the profession become anti-intellectual over time and associate this with being savvy professionals.

Academics have the luxury of formulating research questions and methods, whereas practitioners are generally making it up on the run and learning by doing. These are both entirely valid ways of forming knowledge, and they actually need each other.

My work over the last decade has been very big picture, but it means nothing unless it can translate into design. So I think there are two forms of design needed right now with regard to biodiversity and they both bring academics and practitioners together.

The first is taking on a whole-of-city scale and considering the city as an incubator and protectorate for biodiversity and offer plausible scenarios as to how the city’s growth can be best managed to minimize negative impact on existing biodiversity. Until city authorities pay properly for this work, the academics have to act as the start-ups. They can form interdisciplinary teams to find research funding to do this work, preparing the way, as it were, for practitioners to come in and realize specific projects.

Which brings us to the second form of design — the project scale. Take any project at any scale and ask how to approach it if your client was every living thing, not just humans, and then work as if your life really depended on serving all of them – which, incidentally, it does! To answer this takes both time and levels of knowledge beyond landscape architects irrespective of whether they are in the academy or in practice. We are very accomplished at designing for humans but still have everything to learn if we consider biodiversity as our client.

In terms of both professional and academic practice, the role of the landscape architect, now more than ever, is to bring the world of development and the world of conservation together over the same maps and serve as a negotiator.

It sounds like a platitude, but it goes to the core of our job description, and it’s never been more important. There has never been more at stake.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1-15, 2022)

Colorado Mountain Park System, Denver, CO, 2014. / Barrett Doherty, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The TCLF Will Honor Frederick Law Olmsted, the Father of Landscape Architecture, with a New Digital Guide Ahead of His 200th Birthday — 04/14/22, Archinect
“The 20th in the TCLF’s series of ‘What’s Out There’ guides, this edition gives equal weight to the 30 National Historic Sites and hundreds of other lesser-known designs associated with Olmsted, including Vermont’s Shelburne Farms and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which he long held to be his masterpiece.”

New Research Highlights the Role of Green Spaces in Conflict — 04/14/22, University of British Columbia
“Green spaces can promote well-being, but they may not always be benign. Sometimes, they can be a tool for control. That’s the finding of a new paper that analyzed declassified U.S. military documents to explore how U.S. forces used landscapes to fight insurgency during the war in Afghanistan.”

James Corner Field Operations’ Tunnel-topping San Francisco Park Is Set for July Debut — 04/13/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Visitors to Presidio Tunnel Tops will find winding cliffside trails, picnic areas, extensive gardens and meadows filled with native vegetation, a 2-acre natural play area for children dubbed the Outpost, and several elevated overlooks offering sweeping city and bridge views. The new swath of parkland will fuse back together the waterfront and Crissy Field, a former air field that now serves as a popular recreation hotspot, with the Presidio’s bustling historic Main Post.”

Why JW Marriott Is Planting Edible Gardens in Every One of Its Hotels — 04/13/22, Fast Company Design
“The terrarium was designed by Lily Kwong, whose eponymous landscape design studio has previously worked with H&M, St-Germain, and the French fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra (who is also her cousin). The terrarium is part of a broader initiative called the JW Garden, for which the hotel chain plants fruits, vegetables, and herbs to use in its kitchen and spas.”

Green Transportation Projects Face Costly, Time-consuming Environmental Reviews — 04/13/22, The San Francisco Examiner
“Transit agencies across California are ready to move forward with more than three dozen green transportation projects, ranging from bus rapid transit lines to bike lanes. But unless the Legislature takes action, these projects could be mired in years of costly, time-consuming analysis and lawsuits on the basis that they are bad for the environment.”

Special Report: U.S. Solar Expansion Stalled by Rural Land-use Protests — 04/07/22, Reuters
“Solar currently makes up 3% of U.S. electricity supply and could reach 45% by 2050 to meet the Biden administration’s goals to eliminate or offset emissions by 2050, according to the Department of Energy. To get there, the U.S. solar industry needs a land area twice the size of Massachusetts, according to DOE. And not any land will do, either. It needs to be flat, dry, sunny, and near transmission infrastructure that will transport its power to market.”

Latest IPCC Report Highlights Opportunities to Stave Off Worst Climate Impacts

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Awward. Changchun Culture of Water Ecology Park, Changchun, China. SHUISHI / Pan Shuang

ASLA urges governments to focus on cities and nature to meet climate goals.

The third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change — which was created by nearly 300 scientists in 65 countries over the past seven years, finds that cities are a significant contributor to global emissions.

Recent estimates place cities’ share of global emissions at more than 70 percent. With expected population growth, existing and future cities can either be the primary source of future warming or a key solution.

According to the IPCC, if little is done, future cities could contribute 40 billion metric tons of emissions each year by 2050. But by taking important steps starting this decade, that number could reach as low as 3 billion tons.

“Landscape architects are systems designers. We are already designing the next generation of park, transportation, and water infrastructure needed to make this transformation happen. But we need more policymakers to prioritize these changes,” said ASLA President Jeannie Martin, FASLA.

“Landscape architects plan and design walkable environments that are central to reducing urban energy demand and emissions. This work has involved partnering with planning and design professions to pair public transit with transit-oriented development, and integrate Complete Streets, which offer safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle access, and trails and greenways,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Awward. The Bentway. Toronto, Ontario, Canada
PUBLIC WORK Office for Urban Design & Landscape Architecture / Nic Lehoux

Designing with nature is also critical to achieving broader urban climate goals. Landscape architects integrate green infrastructure in the form of parks, green roofs, green streets, rain gardens, and bioswales. As the IPCC notes, these strategies not only sequester carbon but also manage stormwater, reduce urban heat islands, increase biodiversity, and improve health and well-being.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Awward. Repairing the Rift: Ricardo Lara Linear Park. Lynwood, California. SWA Group / Bill Tatham, David Lloyd, SWA Group

“We design cities to include living systems. Landscape architects store carbon by incorporating diverse ecologies into the urban landscape. This also helps cities become more resilient to climate impacts,” said Scott Bishop, ASLA, Chair of the ASLA Climate Action Committee.

The IPCC’s latest report calls for preserving existing ecosystems outside cities that store carbon as well, such as forests, prairies, peatlands, mangroves, and wetlands. But notes that these ecosystems are also increasingly threatened by rising temperatures, wildfires and other climate impacts, and sprawl.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya Ciy, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

Renewable energy now powers nearly 40 percent of global electricity, with wind and solar now making up 10 percent of the total. The IPCC report finds that since 2010, the cost of solar panels has decreased by 85 percent and wind turbines by more than 50 percent. Still, governments and companies need to spend an estimated $1.8 to 3.6 trillion each year on renewable power, approximately 3-6 times the current amount, to reach climate goals.

Landscape architects can help plan an expansion of wind and solar across our landscapes in a way that supports ecological restoration and provides greater community benefits.

Solar Strand at University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY. Hood Design Studio / Image: Douglas Levere

Yosemite Shaped Olmsted’s Vision of Public Parks

Yosemite National Park, California / MarcPo, istockphoto.com

There are many explanations as to how the idea of National Parks originated. One theory is it spontaneously arose around a campfire in Yosemite National Park. Another is that conservationist John Muir or President Teddy Roosevelt came up with it. But in a new book, Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea, Ethan Carr, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Rolf Diamant, a professor at the University of Vermont, argue that the work and writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, inspired the creation of parks to benefit the public.

In an online discussion organized as part of Olmsted 200 and moderated by Sara Zewde, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, they argued that instead of considering National Parks distinct from urban parks, they should both be understood as part of the same broad movement towards public spaces. And Olmsted was a key figure in advancing this movement.

In 1864, when Olmsted was invited by the state of California to chair a commission on the Yosemite land grant, he was already an “important public intellectual,” Carr said. He was well-known for his opposition to slavery and the cotton plantation economy of the South. In California, they knew of his work with Calvert Vaux on Central Park in New York City and his prior work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Olmsted came to Yosemite with the idea that parks were a way to “renew the Republic” after the destruction and division wrought by the Civil War. And while Central Park in New York City and Yosemite National Park are wildly different parks, they shared a common purpose for Olmsted — to expose the general public to landscape beauty. He believed this form of natural beauty wasn’t just aesthetic, but “necessary for public health,” Carr said.

Yosemite National Park, California / Tanarch, istockphoto.com.
Central Park, New York City / MargaretW, istockphoto.com

Prior to public parks, landscape beauty was accessible to the very few who had grand estates. But while the first public parks benefited more of the U.S. population, they also had negative impacts. To make way for Central Park, the New York City government displaced Seneca Village, a Black community. At Yosemite, indigenous communities who had cared for the landscape for thousands of years were also eventually pushed out. These actions were justified as part of a “doctrine of public interest.” These landscapes were viewed as part of “public health infrastructure,” like water and sewage projects.

For the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, public parks had a purpose — to help “reforge a national identity out of war.” Carr argued that in the climate of the time, calling for great public parks was a “radical political act.” Cities at the time were urban, diverse, and industrial. They were widely criticized by the South.

Cities “had to work as a concept,” or the entire vision of Northern cities as superior to the South would be untenable. Central Park, which was initiated in 1857, was a proof point that Northern cities weren’t foul, polluted places, but could instead create landscape beauty. One newspaper called it the “big artwork of the Republic.”

Central Park, New York City / Orbon Alija, istockphoto.com

While the late 19th century conception of landscape beauty can now seem “dated and elitist,” Carr argued the ideas behind the term still ring true. What Olmsted and others were talking about was the biophilic connection humans have to nature and the human health benefits that arise from being in nature. Today, we discuss children suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder, but in the late 1800s, the issue was presented as a lack of common access to landscape beauty.

Central Park, New York City / WillEye, istockphoto.com

The 1865 report commissioned by the state of California about how to shape Yosemite National Park didn’t form the basis of National Parks, but it included Olmsted’s core argument for public parks in general — the “justification to act” by governments at all levels.

Rolf Diamant provided additional context about the era in which Yosemite was preserved.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, an effort was underway to create a new national identity that could bridge the divisions between North and South. In 1862 and 1863, a system of national banks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were formed. The Homesteading Act also passed in 1862, accelerating the settlement of western territories, giving each family 160 acres of land.

And a decade later, this same desire to legislate a new shared America led to the Yosemite National Park Act, the land grant preserving the Yosemite Valley “in trust for the whole nation.” The legislation enshrined the idea that U.S. citizens are “entitled to enjoy spectacular landscapes,” Diamant explained.

To gloss over the divisions between North and South, a new narrative was formed based in the “untrammeled nature” of Yosemite and other seemingly pristine Western landscapes. Of course, this narrative, which was also forged by John Muir and President Teddy Roosevelt, required “forcing out Native Americans” and ignoring their claims to ancestral lands.

Diamant argued that Olmsted’s role in creating the argument for preserving Yosemite and other Western landscapes was later brushed over in prevailing narratives because he was too closely associated with anti-slavery causes and the very urban Central Park of New York City. He was simply too divisive a figure for the new narrative.

Amid a new rising narrative in the South — the revisionist “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, the rest of the country was focused on reconciliation — “it became a national obsession.” As a result it’s possible that “history and the legacy of Olmsted became decoupled.”

In the Q&A, Zewde wondered whether Central Park was as central to public park history as many landscape architects believe.

“Central Park represented an investment in the creation of a new park at a scale previously unseen before. While the park displaced Seneca Village, it was the beginning of something,” Carr said. Immediately after its creation, cities across the country took up their own significant park building projects.

The Mall at Central Park, New York City / zxvisual, istockphoto.com

Together, Central Park and Yosemite are “public parks that captured American imagination.” They also led to the forming of new institutions — the National Park Service and hundreds of state and city park systems. While the origin of these places are not without “faults or flaws,” they succeeded in helping to reframe American identity.

The flip side of this pervasive new narrative rooted in a falsely pristine West was the dispossession of Native Americans from their land. In his analysis of Yosemite, Olmsted made almost no mention of the Native Americans who had called Yosemite home for generations. “They were outside his view of the world; it’s his blind spot.” That blind spot would also help to create a legacy of displacement through public land and park acquisition.

Olmsted Point at Yosemite National Park / Supercarwaar, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia

Also, ironically, the meadows of Yosemite Olmsted and others so enjoyed and which reminded them of England, were actually the result of “deliberate burning by the Native Americans who lived there,” Carr said. What Olmsted and others thought was untouched was actually a “cultural landscape managed for thousands of years.”

The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation on their homeland at Yosemite National Park / National Park Service
The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation on their homeland at Yosemite National Park / National Park Service

There had been complaints that the Native American lit fire to the landscape and didn’t know how to manage it. But when Americans took over the ownership of Yosemite, they found trees kept intruding on the meadows and had to be cut down to preserve the views. This is something that would have been accomplished with periodic burning. And ecologists now understand the wisdom of Native American landscape management practices.

The concept of pure National Parks became a “white middle class vision” and part of the mythology of the country. The vision led to “problematic marketing” of the West and its formation, Carr argued. “This is a narrative that we can’t continue. We can’t cling to early 20th century stories.”

A new, inclusive story about National Parks, both rural and urban, must be told, including Native Americans and Buffalo Soldiers, “U.S. colored troops” who played a key role preserving early National Park landscapes and helped build support for the rights of African Americans.

Buffalo soldiers at Yosemite National Park, 1899 / National Park Service

The story of National Parks is really a story about federalism. Olmsted came down on the side of increased public investment in infrastructure, which he believed included parks. Debate over the past few decades about raising fees to access National Parks and private fundraising to maintain them are an evolution of earlier debates about what should be for the public benefit and how those benefits should be financed. For Carr, another form of the debate is the continuing battle over voting rights for all.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16-31)

Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., designed by Beatrix Farrand / Jane Padelford, ASLA

Meet the Unsung Heroine of the Nation’s Most Celebrated Gardens — 03/29/22, Fast Company Design
“During a five-decade career based in deep horticultural knowledge and a style-agnostic approach guided by detailed interaction with her clients, Beatrix Farrand came to be one of the most famous landscape designers in the world. It’s an unlikely tale told in the biography Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect, by Judith B. Tankard, out today from Monacelli Press. If some consider Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted the father of American landscape architecture, Farrand could easily be called the mother.”

Turning Cities Into Sponges to Save Lives and Property — 03/29/22, The New York Times
“Around the world officials are moving away from the traditional, hard infrastructure of flood barriers, concrete walls, culverts and sewer systems, and toward solutions that mimic nature. They are building green roofs and parks; restoring wetlands, swales and rivers; digging storage ponds; and more. Such projects — called by various names, including sponge cities, porous cities or blue-green infrastructure — also improve city dwellers’ quality of life.”

A Rogue Leader’s Plan for the Heart of Budapest — 03/26/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“The project is a way for Orban to put his mark on Hungary’s imposing capital, a city that since the end of communist rule in 1989 has grown into a confident, more cosmopolitan mix of foreign students, cuisine from around the world and yet with strong Hungarian identity rooted in its 19th century architecture. But, as ever with such urban revamps, there’s controversy, and in Hungary it’s political as well as historical and financial.”

Report: Over Half of U.S. Waters Are Too Polluted to Swim or Fish — 03/24/22, High Country News
“Back in 1972, U.S. legislators passed the Clean Water Act with a 10-year goal: Make it safe for people to fish and swim in the nation’s waters. Fifty years later, around half of all lakes and rivers across the country that have been studied fail to meet that standard, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C. watchdog and advocacy nonprofit.”

Gary Hilderbrand Is the New Chair of Harvard GSD’s Department of Landscape Architecture — 03/23/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘Gary’s sensibilities as a teacher and as a practitioner are one and the same—his unyielding efforts to reconcile imminent, often intractable forces of urbanization with ecological sustainability, cultural history, vegetative regimes, and thoughtful kindness are central to his pedagogy and practice both,’ said Sarah M. Whiting, dean of the Harvard GSD.”

Father Figure: Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Celebrated as Originator of U.S. Public Parks System — 03/19/22, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“April 26 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and Olmsted 200 is a movement celebrating his vision — a vision that included public parks for all people. He believed that parks are an important part of any community. Not only do they provide a gathering place for family and friends, but they improve air and water quality, protect the groundwater and provide a home for birds and animals.”

New Book on Megaregions Provides a Framework for Large-Scale Public Investment — 03/17/22, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
“Written by planning scholars Robert D. Yaro, Ming Zhang, and Frederick R. Steiner, Megaregions and America’s Future explains the concept of megaregions, provides updated economic, demographic, and environmental data, draws lessons from Europe and Asia, and shows how megaregions are an essential framework for governing the world’s largest economy.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 1-15)

The Beach at Expedia Group, Seattle, Washington. Surfacedesign / Marion Brenner

The Next Level in Sustainability: Nature Restoration — 03/15/22, The New York Times
“Landscape architects from Surfacedesign in San Francisco focused on extensive natural habitat restoration for the project, a former industrial site that at one point was two piers in Elliott Bay filled in with garbage. That meant meters-deep soil replacement to ease the seeding of native plants, grasses and a coastal meadow.”

Atlanta Takes Major Step Forward in Establishing Its First Park with Chattahoochee River Access — 03/15/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Per New York- and New Orleans-based landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE, which is leading a multidisciplinary design team for the effort, Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to ‘reunite the River with the Metro Atlanta Region and link suburban, urban, and rural communities into a continuous public realm that centers the River as a regional resource.'”

From One Parking Spot to 100 Public Parks: The History of San Francisco’s Street Transformation — 03/11/22, Fast Company Design
“In January 2020, San Francisco realized a long-envisioned goal of eliminating cars from 10 blocks of its central commercial corridor, Market Street. Improvements at intersections were installed to make the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Within the first two months, bike and scooter usage increased by 25%, and bus travel speeds went up an average of 6%.”

The Case for Preserving Spontaneous Nature in Cities — 03/10/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“From roadside weeds to accidental gardens, cities are full of significant natural spaces that don’t get their due, argues Matthew Gandy in a new book.”

An Architect Who Mixes Water and Nature to Build Resilience — 03/07/22, The New York Times
Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA: “There are many benefits to being a woman; particularly the connection to nature. I think with motherhood, the cycles of the body, we’re more in touch with nature in our bodies and our hearts.”

Landscape Architecture Is All About Finding Balance with NatureOutside Magazine
“As a landscape architect, Ryley Thiessen understands that finding balance is key. While his work requires him to design four-season resorts around the world—and make them accessible and enjoyable for all visitors—he never wants to take too much from nature.”

ASLA and WxLA Partner to Celebrate Women’s History Month

WxLA

WxLA and ASLA are partnering for Women’s History Month with a new series, WxLA Wednesday Walks. At 12pm on Wednesdays, fierce women leaders in landscape architecture across the country will give Instagram Live tours of places they have designed.

Inspired by civic action, equality movements around the world, and the personal experience of its founders, WxLA emerged in 2018 as a vocal advocacy initiative for gender justice in landscape architecture. WxLA raises awareness of the challenges that prevent women from reaching their highest potential, illuminates the barriers to women, provides strategies for change, and celebrate new models of working.

ASLA 2021 Professional Communications Honor Award. WxLA – Champions for Equality in Landscape Architecture / Jeri Hetrick

ASLA President, Eugenia Martin, FASLA, kicked-off the celebrations with a video message.

Throughout the month of March, join us on Instagram for live tours and Q&A’s with the designers. The first tour by Signe Nielsen, FASLA, founding principal at MNLA, on March 2 offered an exclusive look at Little Island in New York City.

Make sure to follow @NationalASLA on Instagram. ASLA and WxLA have many more amazing women and landscapes lined up for the rest of the month, with more being added!

3/2 – 12pm EST
Signe Nielsen, FASLA
MNLA
New York

3/9 – 12pm MST
Allison Colwell, ASLA, and Michelle Shelor, ASLA
Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture
Phoenix

3/16 – 12pm CST
Hana Ishikawa, AIA
Site Design Group
Chicago

3/23 – 12pm CST
Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA
Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
Austin

3/30 – 12pm EST
Christine Hite, FASLA
Dix.Hite + Partners
Orlando

Learn about ASLA’s past Women’s History Month celebrations and other heritage month celebrations.

Latest IPCC Report: “Safeguarding and Strengthening Nature Is Key to Securing a Livable Future”

ASLA 2019 Professional Landmark Award. Crosswinds Marsh Wetland Interpretive Preserve. Sumpter Township, MI. SmithGroup / Aaron Kiley

ASLA is deeply concerned by the latest scientific findings outlined in Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the second research assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and supports the increased global focus on restoring ecosystems and implementing “climate resilient development” practices to help more vulnerable communities stave off the worst impacts.

“This is the direst warning yet from the IPCC, and only reiterates to us the critical importance of our shared vision, which guides our work — to plan and design healthy and resilient communities for all,” said ASLA President Eugenia Martin, FASLA. “Working closely with other planning and design disciplines, we must accelerate our collective efforts to protect and restore natural systems and help communities get onto more resilient pathways. We must help communities around the world get ready for a much different world in 2100.”

“Landscape architects have been increasingly alarmed by the climate impacts they have heard from communities, researched, and witnessed themselves. The vast majority of practicing landscape architects surveyed last year have been actively educating their partners about the need to adopt climate resilient practices to address extreme heat, flooding, and other increasingly dangerous impacts immediately,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen. “We are committed to advancing resilience strategies that will help communities not only in the U.S. but also internationally.”

This latest IPCC review of climate science, which was approved by 195 countries, finds that approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people, or nearly half of the global population, now live in places highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 1.5 to 2 billion people live in areas facing water scarcity. Up to 1 billion people are now at risk from sea level rise. And as temperatures incrementally increase, climate change will put even greater numbers of people at risk.

Many expected climate impacts are now “increasingly irreversible” and worse than anticipated even a few years ago. All regions of the globe will be impacted by increasing temperatures and extreme weather events, with the highest impacts in regions that are already among the most vulnerable. For example, the report finds that between 2010 and 2020, 15 times more people died from floods, droughts, and storms in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America than in other parts of the world.

In North America, the report outlines a range of expected climate impacts:

  • Increased deaths, illnesses, and mental health impacts from rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and climate change-induced hazards.
  • Increased degradation of land, coastal, and marine ecosystems, including loss of biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and their protective benefits.
  • Reduced availability of freshwater, which could not only impact communities but also ecosystems, and degraded water quality.
  • Increased risk of food and nutritional insecurity through changes to agriculture, livestock, hunting, fisheries, and aquaculture productivity and access.
  • Increased risks to well-being, livelihoods, and economic activities from cascading and compounding climate hazards, including risks to coastal cities, settlements, and infrastructure from sea level rise.

According to the report, a key solution to addressing all these challenges is increasing investment in vitally important ecosystems. “Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life critical services such as food and clean water,” argues Hans-Otto Pörtner, IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair, in a press release.

But given human health, well-being, and livelihoods depend on the services provided by ecosystems, there is also significant concern that natural systems themselves may fail to adapt to rising temperatures and other climate impacts, undermining all other efforts.

The report states: “Increased heatwaves, droughts, and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage.”

Up to 14 percent of all species, depending on degree of temperature rise, also now face “a very high risk of extinction.” ASLA believes these latest findings show the critical need to increase investment in protecting biodiversity through supporting ecosystems and their restoration, greater ecosystem connectivity, and species migration corridors.

While global campaigns to protect and enhance 30 percent of terrestrial and marine ecosystems have gained momentum, the IPCC instead calls for “restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving” 30 to 50 percent of “Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats.”

What the IPCC calls “climate resilient development,” which combines climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, can also help communities reduce their vulnerabilities to anticipated impacts. This would involve the rapid transformation of the global energy system to renewable sources, along with significant investments to help communities adapt to the challenges now faced.

ASLA 2021 Professional Research Award. Ecoregional Green Roofs: Theory and Application in the Western USA and Canada. Bruce Dvorak, ASLA

The report highlights cities, particularly inequitable ones, at high risk of climate impacts, but also notes that urban systems provide opportunities to dramatically increase resilience.

Green infrastructure and ecosystem services, sustainable land use and urban planning, sustainable urban water management, improved water efficiency, integrated coastal zone management and coastal defenses – all areas in which landscape architects plan and design solutions – are highlighted as key adaptation solutions in the report, and many also have high climate mitigation benefits.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. Orange Mall Green Infrastructure. Tempe, Arizona. COLWELL SHELOR LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE / Arizona State University
ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. From a Concrete Bulkhead Riverbank to a Vibrant Shoreline Park—Suining South Riverfront Park. Suining City, Sichuan Province, China. ECOLAND Planning and Design Corp. / Arch-Exist Photography

ASLA agrees with the IPCC’s assessment that global adaptation efforts to date have often been limited and short-sighted. The report’s authors write: “Most observed adaptation is fragmented, small in scale, incremental, sector-specific, designed to respond to current impacts or near-term risks, and focused more on planning rather than implementation.” Adaptation efforts are also highly inequitable, with far more investment in developed countries.

ASLA believes it’s important to partner with all communities to provide comprehensive, equitable, and long-range climate adaptation planning. Landscape architects understand the connections between climate, human health and well-being, ecosystems, and biodiversity, and can help communities better understand to reduce their risks. We must plan and design with nature to protect ourselves.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16-28)

Drying lake bed / istockphoto.com

5 Takeaways from the Latest United Nations Climate Change Report — 02/28/22, The Washington Post
“The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a warning letter to a world on the brink. A sweeping survey of the most advanced climate science on the planet, it recounts the effects rising temperatures are already having and projects the catastrophes that loom if humans fail to make swift and significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.”

A Bike Plan Revived: Adding a Path to the Olmsted-designed 33rd Street Greenspace — 02/28/22, Baltimore Fishbowl
“The city’s broader goals are to create a safe, well-used trail that makes the best use of the historic, picturesque median designed by the Olmsted Brothers (named a local landmark, along with the Gwynns Falls Parkway median, in 2015) and improves traffic and pedestrian safety at intersections.”

Best Apps for Urban Planning in 2022 – 02/28/22, Planetizen
“Mobile apps continue to redefine the practices of planning—urban planning, regional planning, transportation planning, community planning, and rural planning included.”

How ‘Solar Canals’ Could Help California Survive a Megadrought — 02/25/22, Fast Company Design
“In that 2021 study, we showed that covering all 4,000 miles of California’s canals with solar panels would save more than 65 billion gallons of water annually by reducing evaporation. That’s enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people.

How a Philadelphia Road Redesign Went off the Rails — 02/23/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“It isn’t uncommon for complete streets projects to become lightning rods for arguments about gentrification, says Leah Shahum, the founder and executive director of the Vision Zero Network, which pushes communities to adopt a goal of eliminating traffic deaths.”

Biden: Infrastructure Plan Gives $1B for Great Lakes Cleanup — 02/17/22, U.S. News and World Report, Associated Press
“The $1 billion for the Great Lakes from the bipartisan measure enacted in November, combined with annual funding through an ongoing recovery program, will enable agencies by 2030 to finish work on 22 sites designated a quarter-century ago as among the region’s most degraded, officials said Thursday.”

The Beauty of Nature’s Functional Designs

Wild Design: Nature’s Architects / Princeton Architectural Press

The new book Wild Design: Nature’s Architects by science writer and essayist Kimberly Ridley is a slim, charming look at some of the most interesting results of billions of years of evolution — the beautiful and always highly functional forms of plants, fungi, insects, spiders, avians, and mammals. Through more than 70 well-curated antique illustrations, along with thoughtful and concise essays, Ridley tells stories of the wondrous diversity of natural forms.

As Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute, explained in an ASLA interview, “life has been on the planet for 3.8 billion years, and, in that time, it has learned what works and what lasts here on Earth. That’s a long line of good ideas and unprecedented longevity. What doesn’t work is recalled (made extinct) and what does work is optimized with each generation. Natural selection prizes those things that work best in place as well as those that create conditions conducive to life.”

These kind of ideas clearly inspire Ridley, who urges the reader to “notice nature’s creative genius.” She worries that “staring at our phone and computer screens, we isolate ourselves from the wild world, cutting ourselves off from a powerful source of inspiration, delight, and wonder.”

But beyond the power of nature to improve our spirit and sense of well-being, we must also pay closer attention to nature for even more important reasons. With the world becoming more fixated on technology, and development diminishing more wild places, the inspirations provided by nature can sometime feel less immediate and resonant. This not only impacts our well-being and ability to be optimistic, but also our ability to be passionate stewards and grow the next generations of Earth protectors.

As we face worsening biodiversity and climate crises, both a result of a fundamental disconnect with nature, Ridley argues we must take a “deeper look at the wild inventiveness all around us” because “it may be key to our survival.”

On the positive side: the specific needs of trees, plants, insects, birds, and animals have shaped the design of gardens and landscapes for thousands of years and inspired countless paths, features, and spaces. Landscape architects and designers have been leveraging and mimicking nature’s designs before there were even terms like biomimicry and biophilic and ecological design.

And in the past few decades, with the growth of the biophilic and ecological design movements, there has perhaps been an even more intentional effort to maximize the benefits of nature and create cities, landscapes, and buildings that function more like ingenious living systems.

Wild Design will encourage any designer who looks to nature for ideas and systems thinking and cares about the continuation of natural systems and, in turn, humanity.

Ridley examines the microscopic wonders created by diatoms, minute algae, and radiolarians, marine zooplankton. She explains that these tiny life forms “use their cell membranes as molds to create mesh frames of hardened silica–structures that are remarkably durable.” It easy to see these forms inspiring new kinds of efficient protective materials.

Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, 1904. Gotha: Bibliographisches Institut

In a section on “fabulous fungi,” Ridley explains that fungi are in a separate kingdom from plants, with more than 200,000 known species and an estimated 5 million more that scientists have yet to catalog. They provide two critical functions: they act as “demolition crews,” breaking down dead plant material, which is vital to the health of any forest; and also form networks — a prime example being mycorrhizal fungi, which help trees and plants absorb nutrients and water and communicate risks. This latter kind of fungi forms the basis of a subterranean “world wood web” scientists have only recently begun to understand. Ridley argues that “terrestrial life wouldn’t exist if not for these bizarre and ancient beings.” Landscape architects can design with fungi to improve soil and ecological health and better sequester carbon. We can also learn from fungi how to design resilient, adaptable networks and systems.

A Morel mushroom / Berthold Seemann, Journal of Botany, 1863. London: R. Hardwicke

“Plants are the design wizards of the natural world,” Ridley writes. Seemingly like magic, they use sunlight to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars they live on while generating the oxygen the rest of us rely on. Scientists have organized the approximately 400,000 species of plants into four groups: mosses and liverworts, ferns, coniferns, and flowering plants. As Ridley describes, trees have inspired everything from Greek and Roman columns to the vaulted ceilings of medieval churches. Throughout history, landscape architects and architects have been drawn to designing with trees and plants and incorporating woods, one of the most sustainable, carbon-sequestering materials.

Types of trees / Oscar Réveil, Le Règne vegetal, 1870. Paris: L. Guérin
Conifer trees / William Curtis, Curtis’s Botanical magazine, 1790. London: T. Curtis
Sunflowers and daisy family plants / Oscar Réveil, Le Règne vegetal, 1870. Paris: L. Guérin

In a section on arthropod engineers — spiders and insects — Ridley argues that “despite their miniscule brains,” these beings have “solved some of the most complicated problems in architecture and engineering” — and offer a model of efficient and sustainable uses of resources. As Darwin noted, a honeycomb created by bees is “absolutely perfect in economizing wax and labor.” And centuries before, in 36 BC, Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro proposed what came to be known as “honeycomb conjecture,” arguing that “dividing a flat plane into equal hexagons is the most efficient way to pack the most surface area into the smallest perimeter.” Exploring the amazing structures designed by bees, along with spiders, termites, and ants, we can learn from some of the original master designers how to build resilient, pre-programmed structures using natural materials.

Honeycomb / Henri de Saussure, Études sur la famille des vespides, 1852. Paris: V. Masson
The web of the labyrinth spider / Henry C. McCook, American Spiders and Their Spinning Work, 1889. Philadelphia: Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia

Additional chapters explore the varied and surprising nests birds design, and the elaborate tunnels and dens formed by prairie dogs and beavers. Birds can inspire all designers practicing in our era of increasingly limited resources: they constantly re-use what they find, crafting only what they need. For example, an adaptive Carolina wren will either create a dome-like nest in open cavities 3-6 feet off the ground or simply design a nest out of abandoned “clothespin bags, plant pots, boots, bags, and even the pocket of a jacket left outside.”

Nest of a Carolina wren / Howard Jones, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, 1886. Circleville.