The Atlas for the End of the World

What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Seen from 28,000 miles away, the earth is beautiful. But its beauty is deceptive. We don’t see the 5 billion tons of surplus carbon we pump into the atmosphere every year, our toxic waterways or our sprawling megacities and the vast fossil fueled monocultures of cattle and corn that feed them. Most importantly, we don’t see the global archipelago of protected areas into which the world’s genetic biodiversity is now huddled. On this Earth Day, 2017 we are launching a new atlas dedicated to examining this archipelago in detail. It’s called the Atlas for the End of the World.

The first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World) was published in 1570 by the famous book collector and engraver from Antwerp, Abraham Ortelius. With his maps Ortelius laid bare a world of healthy – we can now say “Holocene” – eco-regions ripe for colonization and exploitation. Lauded for its accuracy, the Theatrum quickly became a best seller.

Frontispiece of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) – the world’s first Atlas by Abraham Ortelius. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Despite its apocalyptic title, our new Atlas is not about the end of the world per se; it is about the end of Ortelius’ world, the end of the world as a God-given and unlimited resource for human exploitation and its concomitant myths of progress. On this, even the Catholic Church is now clear: “we have no such right” says Pope Francis.

At face value, atlases are just books of maps. The maps in the Atlas for the End of the World are however, quite specific. They specifically show the difference between the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity targets for achieving 17 percent (global terrestrial) protected area by 2020 and what is actually today protected in the 398 eco-regions, which comprise the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.

The so-called hotspots are regions agreed upon by the scientific and conservation communities as the most important and the most threatened biological places on earth. They are also places of exceptional linguistic diversity, much of which is also predicted to disappear by century’s end — suggesting perhaps, that the fate of nature and the fate of culture is one and the same. Many of the hotspots are also bedeviled by poverty, violence and corruption.

The world’s biodiversity hotspots. The green areas have met United Nation’s targets of protecting 17 percent of their total area the orange areas have not. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

When my research assistants and I began this mapping project in 2013, the world’s terrestrial protected area total was hovering at 13.5 percent. Recent figures (2015 data) suggest a total of 15.4 percent. That’s 20.6 million square kilometers of land distributed across more than 209,000 sites in 235 different countries. So, with 15.4 percent already secured, only an additional 1.6 percent protected area is needed to satisfy the Convention’s 2020 target. This amount might seem paltry, but 1.6 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is 2.3 million square kilometers, the equivalent of nearly 700,000 Central Parks. That’s a Central Park stretching 70 times around the world! The research question we asked was where exactly should this additional protected land be?

To meet UN protected area targets over 700,000 Central Parks need to be added to the world’s protected area estate. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

According to the Convention, we can’t just fence off 1.6 percent of Siberia, or some other place, and then say we’re done! The crucial words in the small print of the Convention are that the global protected estate must be “representative” and “connected.” In theory, this means 17 percent of each of the world’s 867 eco-regions should be protected and connected.

The Atlantic Forests hotspot serves as an example. Currently it has only 8 percent of its territory under protection. Furthermore, when we break the hotspot down into its 15 constituent eco-regions, we find that 9 fall short of reaching 17 percent representation.

An example of one of 35 of the world’s hotspots: The Atlantic Forests / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

In total 21 of 35 hotspots currently fall short of reaching the 17 percent protected area target. More specifically, 201 of their 391 eco-regions fall short. With the new Atlas, any nation can know how much land needs to be protected and where if it wants to meet its obligations under the Convention. This is not to say that blanket targets are always appropriate on the ground, but, it’s a start.

In addition to identifying these protected area shortfalls, the critical nexus this research addresses is the global tension between food production, urbanization and biodiversity. On the world map (below) are three squares. The first and smallest is the world’s current crop land. The second, in the middle, is current crop land plus current grazing land, plus what is thought to be the world’s further potential supply of arable land – a total of 50 percent of the earth’s ice-free surface area. These leave 50 percent of the planet’s land for other uses, exactly what E.O. Wilson has called for in his book, Half Earth. 50 percent seems like a lot, but remember that 33 percent of this land is desert – land which by definition is not suited to either biodiversity or agriculture. Subtracting the world’s deserts leaves 17 percent for biodiversity – precisely the amount demanded by the Convention.

The bigger cause for concern is however the large square on the right: the land area necessary to feed 10 billion people. The UN is now forecasting anywhere between 9.5 and 13.3 billion by 2100, so 10 is a conservative estimate. But these projected 10 billion consumers are not “average” global citizens; let us suppose they are people like us; who shop in supermarkets and eat more or less whatever they want, whenever they want. They are average Americans; people with a food footprint of 1.4 hectares each. 10 billion people consuming at this level would require a whopping 93 percent of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface. In this scenario, not only would all the world’s arable land be used for agriculture, but so too would the world’s deserts, plus some. After we’ve finished our burgers, a mere 7 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface would be left for biodiversity – for all practical purposes a mountainous zoo in the midst of a global monoculture of corn and cattle, hooked up to desalination plants.

The world existing and possible future foodbowl for 10 billion people / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

These proportions of land-use will likely change when global population drops, as it probably will in the 22nd century due to socio-economic influences associated with urbanization. The other mitigating factor would be if the bulk of food production shifted to the oceans, and/or if meat could be produced independently of ruminants entirely. Then, ecological restoration could take place on a scale commensurate with that which is needed to partially correct the earth system’s current imbalances.

The challenge will be to get through this century’s incredibly tight ecological bottlenecks and come out the other end with some ecosystems, preferably the hotspots, partially intact.

The second major area of this research concerns 422 cities in the world’s hotspots. We zoomed into each city of 300,000 people or more and superimposed their 2030 growth trajectory (as per Karen Seto’s work at Yale ). We then plotted remnant habitat and threatened (mammal) species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. What emerges are the flashpoints between future urban growth and biodiversity.

In the circular images of the cities in the Atlantic Forests hotspot, orange indicates zones of imminent conflict between urban growth and biodiversity. Alarmingly, 383 of the 422 cities in the world’s hotspots are on a collision course with unique and irreplaceable biodiversity.

Examples of some cities of more than 300,000 in the Atlantic Forest Hotspot (bright yellow and purple indicates immanent conflict with biodiversity). / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

And we are not just talking about a little bit of sprawl. If an extra 3 billion people move into cities by 2100, as is entirely likely, it means we need to build 357 New York Cities in the next 84 years, i.e., 4.25 New Yorks per year. Much of that growth will occur as both formal and informal sprawl in Africa, India and South and Central America, much of it up against biodiversity and much of it unregulated.

As documented in the Atlas our analysis suggests that most of these 383 cities that are encroaching on valuable habitat don’t have any semblance of as whole-of-city urban planning. This lack of planning at the city scale is also evident at the national scale: almost all the nations in whose jurisdiction the world’s hotspots lie don’t – in so far as we can tell – have national land-use plans incorporating biodiversity.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, each nation must develop a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. In practice, these tend to be platitudinous reports and most don’t take into account the 17 percent target for protected area. Most of the nations who are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity are also signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which demands that they prepare national climate change plans.

The Atlas for the End of the World lays the ground work for the 142 nations who preside over the world’s biodiversity hotspots to now view climate change, biodiversity, and urbanization as interrelated phenomena and plan for the future. To do so would be a new beginning.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylania School of Design. Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang collaborated with Weller on the Atlas as research assistants.

A New Strategy for American Sustainability

The New Grand Strategy / St. Martin’s Press

Back in 2009, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael McMullen tasked his staff to create a “grand strategy” for the United States. That job fell to Navy Captain Wayne Porter and now-retired Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, who later turned the results from the multi-year research study into a book: The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit at Serenbe, an agricultural community near Atlanta, Mykleby asserted that the United States is now deeply embedded in an “unsustainable global system” that makes it susceptible to shocks, particularly from climate change. In addition, we are stuck with a “20th century economic engine.” The way forward to future sustainability is found in walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and greater resource productivity. “We need to rebuild our own strength and credibility by setting a new example.”

Mykleby — who was described by Serenbe founder Steven Nygren as a “gentle giant with a big heart who can kill you with two fingers” — outlined in drill sergeant mode all the things that make our current global system unsustainable:

First, there is the rapid inclusion of many new consumers around the world. As the planet heads towards 9 billion people, we can expect to see a middle class of around 3 billion people. If they are consuming as Americans and western Europeans do now, we will need 4.5 Earths to maintain them. Second, climate change and increasing ecosystem degradation will reduce our access to resources and increase our vulnerabilities. And, lastly, there is a growing “infrastructure resilience deficit” — infrastructure worldwide isn’t set up to accommodate the anticipated population growth or coming nature-driven shocks.

(Mykleby also argued that using gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of progress is really enabling all this unsustainable global growth and needs to be replaced with a gross national happiness metric, like Bhutan’s. We’ve discovered in the United States that “more shit isn’t going to make us happier.”)

In addition to being embedded in an unsustainable global system, the U.S. is also stuck with an “obsolete 20th century economic engine,” defined by suburban sprawl, consumer spending, high-input agriculture, massive federal subsidies, and quarterly reporting and capital gains taxes. This engine is “extremely fragile.” Agricultural in particular is in a “perilous place,” given climate change. On top of all this, we have “political dysfunction.”

Walkable communities help rebuild American strength by increasing social ties, particularly inter-generational ones. As baby boomers downsize and want to age in place, they seek connections to others. Millennials can’t afford cars or don’t want them, so they are also want more walkable places. In fact, research shows “some 60 percent of the country seeks communities with the attributes of smart growth.” But given the market hasn’t met demand, people are still paying a premium to live in these places.

Food production will need to increase 60-70 percent in coming decades to meet the demand from a growing population, just as climate change accelerates and ecosystems are further degraded. The only way to achieve this is “100 percent regenerative agriculture. We need to restore our top soils.” (Mykleby didn’t further define regenerative agriculture in his talk, but we are assuming it involves permaculture, introducing perennial grain plants, and other sustainable farming practices).

Lastly, according to The Atlantic, some 70 percent of Indian cities have yet to be built. A similar number can be found for many developing world cities. And all our developed-world urban communities are in a continuous process of being rebuilt. As the global population heads toward 9 billion and concrete production already accounts for 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, we need “more advanced, resource-efficient, recycled building materials.”

If the U.S. “can get its ass in gear,” focusing on walkable communities, sustainable agriculture, and new housing materials will lead to a resurgence in jobs in the manufacturing, agriculture, construction, transportation sectors, and create the “economy of the future.” Mykleby also called for changing from a model of rampant material consumerism to an economy in which “we consume positive, meaningful experiences.”

While the path to sustainability is clear to him, sadly, the U.S. is now “doubling-down on the old economy. We are walking away from climate change, increasing inequality, and leaving international institutions.” As the supporters of the old business model hang on tight, they are setting us up to fail.

If you are unconvinced the U.S. is falling behind, Mykleby urges you to read China’s latest five-year plan, which aims to set the country on a “sustainable path, address social equity problems, and increase participation in international institutions.”

Watch Now: Inside the Landscape Architect’s Studio

Each year at the ASLA Annual Meeting, some of the world’s top landscape architects and designers explain themselves in front of audiences of hundreds. These designers give in-depth presentations, explaining the logic behind their designs and their latest projects. Now, ASLA has made these presentations available online for free. From the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in Chicago, you can watch more than 6 hours of videos:

Inside the LA Studio with DesignJones (see video above)

Join speakers Diane Jones Allen and Austin Allen as they discuss their years of professional and academic practice. They will share their experiences pursuing environmental justice projects, ground up approaches to planning and design, intricately linking Research and practice on all projects regardless of scale, and unique approaches to community outreach regarding critical social and infrastructure urbanism problems.

Watch Austin Allen, ASLA, associate professor, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, LSU, New Orleans; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal landscape architect, DesignJones.  Moderated by Jennifer Reut, senior editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Inside the LA Studio with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The leaders at MVVA see new projects as more than just business. Each design is an opportunity to challenge our assumptions, learn through experimentation, and grow both individually and collectively. In this session we will use case studies to explore the value of teaching and learning through practice as means to achieve design excellence.

Watch Chris Donohue, ASLA; Scott Streeb, ASLA, landscape designer; Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO; and Andy Wisniewski, ASLA, senior designer, all with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. Moderated by Shannon Nichol, FASLA, founding partner, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

Inside the LA Studio with Oehme, van Sweden & Associates

An award-winning practice, OvS has garnered international recognition for pioneering a systemic approach to sustainable design. The firm’s body of work illustrates what is possible when art, science, and environmental sensitivity equally drive the design process. Now, under its second generation of leadership, the partners will discuss the firm’s continued innovation.

Watch Sheila A. Brady, FASLA, vice President, principal; Lisa E. Delplace, ASLA, CEO + principal; and Eric Groft, FASLA, principal, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. Moderated by Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, president/CEO, The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Inside the LA Studio with Rana Creek Design

Rana Creek is a renowned ecological design firm specializing in landscape architecture, environmental planning, native plant propagation, landscape construction, and habitat restoration. This diverse team believes passionately in the mission to design and build landscapes that connect people, places, culture, and ecology.

Watch Blake Jopling, ASLA, project manager + designer; Marta Kephart, vice president and COO; Sina Yousefi, design associate; and Matthew P. Yurus, ASLA, principal landscape architect; and Paul Kephart, ASLA, ecologist, all with Rana Creek Living Architecture. Moderated by José Alminana, FASLA, principal, Andropogon Associates.

Most Popular Dirt Posts of 2016

India’s water crisis / National Geographic
India’s water crisis / National Geographic

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular Dirt posts of 2016. Extensive coverage of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration attracted the greatest interest. Thought provoking op-eds on the summit from University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) landscape architecture department chair Richard Weller, ASLA, and UPenn graduate student Billy Fleming, Student ASLA, were also widely read. (Speaking of which, The Dirt is always looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners. If interested, please email us at info@asla.org).

Also worth noting: innovative examples of ecological and biophilic design, along with the latest research on the health benefits of nature, drew readers. 

1) The New Landscape Declaration: Visions for the Next 50 Years

Over the next 50 years, landscape architects must coordinate their actions globally to fight climate change, help communities adapt to a changing world, bring artful and sustainable parks and open spaces to every community rich or poor, preserve cultural landscape heritage, and sustain all forms of life on Earth. These were the central messages that came out the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in Philadelphia, which was attended by over 700 landscape architects.

2) Has Landscape Architecture Failed?

In 1966, Campbell Miller, Grady Clay, Ian McHarg, Charles Hammond, George Patton, and John Simonds marched to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and declared that an age of environmental crisis was upon us and that the profession of landscape architecture was key to solving it.

3) 10 Parks That Changed America

PBS will broadcast a new documentary, 10 Parks That Changed America, on April 12th. Produced by WTTW in Chicago and featuring Geoffrey Baer, the show identifies the 10 most influential urban parks in the country, from the era of America’s early settlers to the present day.

4) Biophilic Cities Lead the Way to Urban Sustainability

“We need density but we also need connections to nature,” said University of Virginia professor Timothy Beatley, at an event at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to celebrate D.C.’s successful inclusion in the Biophilic Cities Network, a group of leading cities pushing for rich, nature-filled experiences in daily urban life.

5) 15 of the Best Instagram Accounts for Landscape Architects

Instagram is a great way to get inspired, but there are over 500 million active accounts, so who should you follow? For landscape architects, fresh ideas can be found from following other landscape architects, but also those outside the field: artists, technologists, illustrators, and designers.

6) It’s Time to Get Political

Social justice. Environmental stewardship. Enduring aesthetic beauty. An expanded role for landscape architects. These were the predominant themes in the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

7) Thomas Rainer: There Are No Mulch Circles in the Forest

Instead of laying down a layer of mulch to separate plants, let native plants grow into beautiful, layered masses, said Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, at the Potomac Chapter of ASLA Gala in Washington, D.C. Rainer believes it’s possible to both boost biodiversity and achieve beauty through the use of “designed plant communities.”

8) Best Books of 2016

There were so many great books this year that honing in on just ten favorites was too challenging. Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s The Dirt‘s top 15 books of 2016, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.

9) We Must Better Communicate the Health Benefits of Nature

While landscape architects, arborists, and park advocates, and an increasing number of mayors, planners, and public health officials, understand the presence of nearby nature in cities to be central to human health and well-being, the public seems to think of tree-lined streets, trails, and parks as “nice, but not necessary, add-ons,” according to a new report commissioned by the TKF Foundation and conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, a non-partisan research organization.

10) New Research: Students Learn Better in Classrooms with Views of Trees
What if what is outside a school’s windows is as critical to learning as what’s inside the building? A fascinating new study of high school students in central Illinois found that students with a view of trees were able to recover their ability to pay attention and bounce back from stress more rapidly than those who looked out on a parking lot or had no windows.

National Park Service Looks Ahead to the Next 100 Years

National Park Service Logo / WikiCommons
National Park Service Logo / WikiCommons

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” — Wallace Stegner, 1983

The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial this year and is ready to move into its next 100 years by restoring its crown jewels and also embracing new parks and a diverse range of visitors. At the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, NPS and the National Register of Historic Places: Landscape Initiative said, the service must “maintain natural, community, historic, and cultural elements” while upholding standards of excellence far into the future. The NPS now boasts of 412 units, including vast tracts of wilderness, important cultural institutions, monuments, and historic landscapes.

Susan Olmsted, ASLA, with Mithun explained efforts to restore one of the system’s jewels: the Mariposa Groves of giant sequoias in Yosemite. Her efforts are about “building resilience for this cherished place.” In the midst of one of the rarest ecologies in the world, there was a parking lot and a tram to accommodate all visitors. People were about to “love these trees to death.” Over a hundred years of fire suppression (natural fires were re-introduced in 1971) had also been a setback for the species. The health and well-being of the trees was put at the center of the restoration plan.

Mariposa Grove / Yosemite Conservancy Ted Soqui
Mariposa Grove / Yosemite Conservancy

Places like these, which feed into the national imagination and “elevate the human spirit,” are some of the most important elements of the NPS experience. The Mariposa Grove is now on its way back to a healthy and long future and will re-open next summer.

The National Mall, as tapis vert, is in many ways the opposite of the Mariposa Groves at Yosemite, but is no less important to the national imagination as the soaring heights of the giant Sequoia. We gather there for inaugurations and to hear the rallying cry of leaders calling for civil rights. It is, in a sense, the front lawn for all Americans. But with 30 million visitors a year and over 3,000 officially-permitted uses, it was in need of rehabilitation.

Michael Stachowicz is the only turf management specialist on NPS’ staff, and recognizes the importance of keeping the Mall green and healthy. The rehabilitated lawn was “designed for modern use while keeping its historic character.” Millions of feet over many years had caused serious soil compaction, terrible drainage, and patchy green. His rehabilitation efforts included thoughtful grading, specially-grown sod from seed, drainage systems, stormwater cisterns, and engineered soils. His maintenance policy has moved from “damage repair to damage prevention.” He acknowledged sometimes the best thing you can do is ask people to “keep off the lawn.”

The National Mall / Landscape Architecture Magazine
The National Mall / Landscape Architecture Magazine

Phil Hendricks, ASLA, Robert Peccia & Associates, offered his experience in the creation of one of the newest units in the system: the Waco Mammoth National Monument, in Waco, Texas, as well as his restoration work at the Flamingo Visitor Center and Campground in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Both parks refer back to well documented NPS styles guidelines. The original “park rustic” design was applied to Waco Mammoth, and the Flamingo Resort was restored to mid-century “Mission 66” style, even down to a new coat of flamingo-pink paint.

Interior of Mammoth Dig Shelter / Waco Parks and Recreation Department
Interior of Mammoth Dig Shelter / Waco Parks and Recreation Department

The NPS seeks to embrace a broader constituency of visitors across its ever expanding urban and natural landscapes, cultural heritage sites, and monuments. With its increasing embrace of public-private partnerships, it’s also finding the funding to continue into its next century. This land is your land, go out and see it.

The Road to Recovery May Be Green

The Green Road / Jared Green
The Green Road / Jared Green

Can spending time in nature help heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury? As suicides from PTSD sufferers only increase, the Institute for Integrative Health (TIIH) seeks out answers to this important question through their new Green Road project, which just opened at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed Military Medical Center, in Maryland.

In the middle of the vast medical and university campus, the Green Road takes patients, nurses, and staff down a zig-zaging path to a healing woodland garden, a beautiful 2-acre valley, which used to be a golf course, but now feels wild. The restored forest and stream are at the heart of the experience.

Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream bank / Jared Green

And these restored places are the source of the vista seen from two new, open-air cedar and steel pavilions.

Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green

The landscape was designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA, and his students at the University of Maryland.

The idea for the project came from retired U.S. Navy neurologist Frederick Foote, M.D., now a scholar at TIIH. His vision was to bring back an ancient idea: using nature to heal. As Foote explained, four different teams of scientists — from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Tucson; Benson-Henry Institute of the Massachusetts General Hospital; Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; and National Institute of Health Clinical Center, Pain, and Palliative Care Services — will undertake in-depth studies in the Green Road to “isolate where nature has the most effect.” Some $1.1 million in research will be conducted, all made by possible by the smart and impactful TKF Foundation, which provided some $1.1 million towards the $3.2 million project.

Walking down the path, one of the first things visitors notice are the massive logs strewn through the garden. At first, I thought their intention was ecological: to regenerate the soil and create habitat for small creatures. But, as Foote explained, the dead trees are also symbols of fallen soldiers. Often, soldiers experience PTSD because they have lost a close friend in battle. The logs are opportunities for those suffering with PTSD to remember those they’ve lost in a more gentle, natural way and connect death with the positive cycle of regeneration.

Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green

Throughout, the garden brings in elements that veterans, both with PTSD and without, identified were important to them. As Sullivan explained at the opening ceremony, design charrettes were conducted with 30 veterans to figure out how the natural beauty of the stream and forest could be enhanced to create a healing effect. “They wanted both a solitary place where they could get away and find solace nature, and a special place to meet others to commemorate those who had fallen, a place to get together with family and comrades.”

Stone Council Circle / Jared Green
Stone Council Circle / Jared Green

The landscape restoration was extensive. Invasive plants were removed and 58 new trees were planted, including river birch, pin oaks, and magnolias. Summersweet shrubs, which will bloom in summer, were planted in abundance. Still, the restored stream, done by Angler Environmental, is perhaps the major attraction. One bank was stabilized, trees were cut back, and the other eroding bank will be restored next.

Foote explained that “the Green Road features stone, water, trees, and animals. Through design, they are paired in new ways. We believe these paired natural systems can help heal PTSD.”

Stone fountain / Jared Green
Stone fountain / Jared Green

Foote looks to nature for solutions, perhaps because he has spent decades witnessing the failings of modern medicine to solve PTSD in wounded warriors. “We have been trying to heal people one organ at a time with pills and surgery.” But the problem is that PTSD “doesn’t respond to those treatments, so we need to try holistic approaches.”

That move towards holistic medicine — which the Greeks of ancient times and the Chinese of today still practice — has been a slog. “Our cultural obsession with technology means we underestimate holistic therapy.” Mainstream medical practitioners undervalue it, because, to date, it has been impossible to measure “whole body effects, mathematically.” They can only measure with confidence that this treatment or that pill yields results on this or that organ.

Foote sees the future in creating proof of the benefits of holistic approaches: a set of “whole body metrics” that could be used to test and measure the effect of these treatments for PTSD and other disorders. Foote wants to apply many technologies and approaches to forge these new metrics: genomics, which would look at which genes are turned on during PTSD and what can turn then off; artificial intelligence-based textual analysis of patients’ writings to categorize and diagnose their disorders; integrated biometrics of stress to measure physiological effects of suffering and also treatments; and big data analyses to find more accurate sub-groups for evaluation. Foote hopes the Green Road can help test these nascent “whole body metrics,” at least for the metrics and potential treatments related to exposure to nature. “I hope this becomes the national laboratory for studying how humans interact with nature.”

Trees and people / Jared Green
Humans and nature / Jared Green

His plan is that a group of 50 veterans, some suffering from PTSD and some not, will be studied in the Green Road. Their physiological response to the place will be measured in detail. “We could ask a group to spend an hour in the Green Road on a scavenger hunt, and then the next day, they could do the same on the streets and we could measure the differences in their responses.”

While the Green Road is a major success, the only criticism is that it’s hidden behind buildings and parking lots, and there is no signage to explain how to get there. It’s a good 15 minute walk from the medical facilities. For patients, it’s a destination, not a place to simply wander into. Walter Reed will need to further promote to ensure it’s well-used by the people who need it. Asked whether Walter Reed will actually prescribe patient time there or conduct horiticultural therapy sessions there, Foote seemed a bit pessimistic, pointing to limited budgets. “We need $2 million, $5 million to do everything.” But he does see the Green Road hosting events and therapeutic exercises.

His grand vision for sometime in the near future is beautiful: sufferers of PTSD will wear a device like a Fitbit that would measure whole body responses and would let them know when they are getting stressed and alert them to go spend time in a park. A fascinating mix of ancient wisdom and new technologies.

ASLA Launches Guide to Resilient Design

Resilient design / ASLA
Resilient design / ASLA

A new online guide launched today by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) explains how communities can better protect themselves from natural disasters through resilient landscape planning and design.

According to the guide, the goal of resilient landscape planning and design is to retrofit communities to recover more quickly from extreme events, now and in the future. In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multilayered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often the more cost-effective and practical solutions.

The guide is organized around disruptive events that communities now experience: drought, extreme heat, fire, flooding, and landslides. Biodiversity loss is an underlying threat also explored.

The guide includes hundreds of case studies and resources demonstrating multi-benefit systems as well as small-scale solutions. It also explains landscape architects’ role in the planning and design teams helping to make communities more resilient.

Resilient design involves working with nature—instead of in opposition to it. It provides value to communities, including:

Risk reduction: As events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, communities must adapt and redevelop to reduce potential risks and improve ecological and human health. It’s also time to stop putting communities and infrastructure in high-risk places. And communities must reduce sprawl, which further exacerbates the risks.

Scalability and Diversity: Resilient landscape planning and design offers a multi-layered system of protection, with diverse, scalable elements, any one of which can fail safely in the event of a catastrophe.

Multiple Co-Benefits: Resilient landscape design solutions offers multiple benefits at once. For example, designed coastal buffers can also provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities; urban forests made up of diverse species clean the air while reducing the urban heat island effect; and green infrastructure designed to control flooding also provides needed community space and creates jobs.

Regeneration: Disruptive natural events that are now occurring more frequently worldwide harm people and property. Resilient design helps communities come back stronger after these events. Long-term resilience is about continuously bouncing back and regenerating. It’s about learning how to cope with the ever-changing “new normal.”

In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multi-layered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often more cost-effective and practical solutions. In an age of rising waters and temperatures and diminishing budgets, the best defenses are adaptive, like nature.

The guide to resilient design has been strengthened through the expert guidance of Alexander Felson, ASLA, assistant professor, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale School of Architecture; Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and urban design, University of California at Berkeley; Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, graduate program director and associate professor, Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning; Nate Wooten, Associate ASLA, landscape designer, OLIN; and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean, Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape and Turenscape.

Explore the guide.

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 1)

LandscapeDeclarationLogo
New Landscape Declaration / LAF

After hearing 23 declarations on the first day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, panels of landscape architects on day two critiqued the declarations, delved into some of the important facets of landscape architecture — aesthetics, ecology, society, and innovation — and offered visions for what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years.

Aesthetics: Connect Through Creativity

The panel, which was led by Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a member of the LAF board of directors, essentially worried that the importance of “physical design, which engages culture and nature,” may be lost in the total quest for sustainability and restoring ecosystems. Their response was designed landscapes must be beautiful if we expect communities to love them and take care of them far into the future.

Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal of Claude Cormier + Associates, said aesthetics has always played a central role in landscape architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted was “focused on nature as an aesthetic experience.” For Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, Mikyoung Kim Design, it’s less about aesthetics, a term she dislikes, and more about the “process of creativity, which is methodical and conscious, and about tapping intuition, which occurs on a subconscious level.” But she cautioned that if landscape architects were “too creative, they risk missing the pressing global issues.”

In the context of the overall summit, this seemed like a shocking statement: “We can’t save the world, but we can address some major issues through design in contemporary ways,” argued Chris Reed, FASLA, founder of Stoss. “Design can move people’s hearts to create action.” Ken Smith, FASLA, principal of Ken Smith Workshop, largely concurred, arguing that “aesthetics matter. The qualitative aspects — the spaces, programs, forms — provide meaning to humans. Landscapes can delight, confound, confuse, excite us.” He pointed to the art world, where the “new is often ugly,” arguing that perhaps landscape architects also need to be pushing the boundaries on concepts of beauty. Meanwhile, Maria Goula, associate professor at Cornell University, asked: “do we need new aesthetics or perhaps multiple aesthetics?”

East River Waterfront Dog Run, NYC / Ken Smith Workshop
East River Waterfront Dog Run, NYC / Ken Smith Workshop

Ecology: Make Ecological Design Mainstream

“People will look at us and this time and say we just didn’t get it,” said Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, professor at University of California, Berkeley, referring to the many dangers facing our ecosystems and planet. Hill, who moderated the ecology panel, relayed how San Francisco’s city government momentarily fell into crisis when a senior official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated they expected a 6-9 feet sea level rise by 2050. While it was just one official’s personal opinion, San Francisco’s panicked response showed that “stronger sense of urgency is needed” in the push to adapt our ecosystems to the coming environmental changes. “Unprecedented instability is coming. The role of landscape architects is to think out the options and try not to panic.”

Ellen Neises, ASLA, an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania, said in this age of crisis, we need to move away from “sustainability propaganda in which ‘optimism sells.'” Instead, “designers need to provoke more.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and major force behind the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), rued that ecology is “still not mainstream in our profession.” He called for landscape architecture educators to “embed scientific rigor in the educational process,” and landscape architects to do the same in their design process. “Beauty and performance aren’t mutually exclusive. All forms of life matter.”

Shoemaker Green, University of Pennsylvania campus by Andropogon Associates / Tillet Lighting Design
Shoemaker Green, University of Pennsylvania campus by Andropogon Associates / Tillet Lighting Design

Brett Milligan, ASLA, University of California, Davis, argued that “if we do things to the landscape, they sometimes respond in some ways we dislike. We need a new, relational way to interact with the landscape.” Julie Bargmann, founding principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, urged caution against becoming too all-knowing about nature, arguing that “ecological models are slippery.” And Antje Stokman, International ASLA, professor at the University of Stuttgart, called for creating methods to encourage “direct community engagement with the environment,” particularly in environments characterized by heavy migration among both human and other species.

Society: Diversify and Co-design with Communities 

Deb Guenther, FASLA, partner at Mithun, led a discussion that focused on the twinned goals of increasing diversity in the landscape architecture profession and better reaching under-served communities. Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal at DesignJones, pointed to ASLA’s ongoing efforts to increase diversity through its annual diversity summit, which brings together emerging African American and Latino landscape architects, but also called it like she saw it: “if we truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” She pointed to the range of African American landscape architects doing important work, often under the radar. Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, professor at University of Washington, added that “landscape architects need to diversify their ranks or risk becoming a profession of colonialists,” coming in as white experts into communities of color.

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine

“Landscape architecture can diversify in the next decade or two,” because just look at the huge gains that have been made to bring in more women over the past 50 years, argued Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor at MIT. She explained her multiple decades of experience helping African American communities in Philadelphia unearth their own landscapes, explaining how “long-term commitments are needed to build trust.” She wondered whether landscape architecture programs, with their semester-long field projects, can truly engage and learn from communities in which they dip for a short time. Jones Allen concurred, arguing that “we have to be careful how we get students into these communities, but it’s important to get them out of their comfort zone of the studio and face real people with real issues. Students are learning.” Allison Hirsch, ASLA, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, was less positive, arguing that “landscape architects tend to avoid issues of inclusion; there are few community-oriented design practices.”

For Spirn and others, the solution is more equitable design processes rooted in co-design and a participatory process with stakeholders. The goal should be capacity building among communities. “Make the design process transparent, not opaque,” argued Spirn.

Innovation: Move Beyond the Discipline

Adrian McGregor, Internatonal ASLA, a founder of McGregor Coxall in Australia, envisions a “new economy that trades in carbon, which will raise underlying values of ecosystems,” eventually resulting in a new “NASDAQ for the environment.” The growing importance of sequestering carbon in the environment will “put landscape architects at the table.”

Andrea Hansen, founder of Fluxscape, wants landscape architects to “move beyond the discipline, embrace holistic thinking,” and embrace open data. But she added that increasing innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “increasing complexity; we must keep it simple when we communicate to expand our reach.” To realize this reach beyond the discipline, Marcel Wilson, ASLA, founder of Bionic, called for more experimentation and risks, even if they result in failures. “We must incentivize innovation; landscape architects have become too reactive.”

Liat Margolis, ASLA, director of the Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab), University of Toronto, appears to be doing what Wilson called and Hansen have called for, as she works to create the next generation of green roof technologies. “We need to discover different material composites, bridge performance gaps, and exceed current green design benchmarks through experimental design.”

Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) / Sandy Nicholson, University of Toronto Magazine
Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) / Sandy Nicholson, University of Toronto Magazine

And Karen M’Closley, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, similarly called for a “new set of sustainable design indicators, set-up pre-occupancy and post-occupancy surveys, and capture results in real-time.” Margolis finally asked: “where is the landscape architecture field’s think tank?”

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 2)

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New Landscape Declaration / LAF

The second day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation‘s New Landscape Declaration:  Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future offered critical responses to the 23 declarations delivered on the first day of the event and looked ahead to the next 50 years. Afternoon sessions were divided into five panels, each representing a different aspect of landscape architecture: academic practice, private practice, public practice, capacity building organizations, and emerging voices. Each panelist gave a short talk before engaging in a group discussion, addressing audience-sourced questions, and offering perspectives on what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years:

Academic practice: Maintain the value of the “long view”

“Academics combine teaching, scholarship, and service” while “taking the long view: looking back, then to now, and forward,” argued University of Illinois professor Elen Deming, ASLA, moderator of the first panel. The panel largely resisted responding to the more-urgent cries for action from the first days’ declarations, with Jacky Bowring, professor at Lincoln University, cautioning, “there is power and danger in the language we use.”

The academicians saw the future of landscape as both cultural art and applied science. While Anu Mathur, ASLA, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, championed “design as a field of inquiry” in which “design tools and techniques are our academic science,” Susan Herrington, ASLA, professor at the University of British Columbia, reminded the largely-professional audience that design schools “do not train scientists,” citing long hours in the studio. Yet a question from the audience concerning the rising costs of education revealed that a lack of scientific rigor in landscape architectural research limits access to external funding that could help lower escalating costs.

Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein
Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein

Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor at Syracuse University, spoke to the power of design writing and criticism in spreading ideas. Other panelists noted the academy’s global reach comes from the increasingly international students it recruits and where schools build partnerships.

Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, professor and chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University, delivered four points the panel saw as critical to the future of academic practice: 1) commit to frameworks of learning, 2) avoid binaries and ideologies, 3) encourage student thinking and action, 4) increase diversity and range of students.

Private practice: Lead through collaboration and deep expertise

The private practice panel was moderated by Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who emphasized that practitioners deal with the challenges of not only serving clients and achieving design excellence, but most also “run profitable businesses, all without harming the earth.” In their contribution toward a new declaration, the practice panel called for firms to become increasingly adaptable and gain deeper expertise.

Joe Brown, FASLA, consulting advisor at AECOM, insisted that “practices must respond to students’ ambitious ideals.” He later added that larger firms can act as teaching institutions as well, helping students achieve their new ideas. Thomas Balsey, FASLA, founder of Thomas Balsley Associates, agreed that in private practice, “a commitment to growth and evolution” can come from being open to what students bring. Through internships and the induction of recent graduates, Balsley offered ”student-led seminars” as a bridge between the ideas of the academy and the constraints of contemporary practice. Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, claimed “education in firms will be the biggest draw in future private practice.”

The panel addressed the importance of having both deep expertise and leadership skills as landscape architects manage complex, collaborative projects. Mark Johnson, FASLA, co-founder of Civitas, noted that being a leader isn’t just about being a “good generalist, but also an expert.” Balsley, who saw collaboration as the key for smaller firms to get big commissions, elaborated: “you need preparation and dedication to being an expert to be capable of collaborating.” Or as Gustafson put it, “to let landscape lead, you have to be the smartest person in the room;” but also be pro-active: “know your experts and demand what you need from them.”

Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Adding a more critical voice to the private practice panel was Keith Bowers, FASLA, founder and principal at BioHabitats. Noting he is often on the other side of these collaborations, providing ecological design services, Bowers re-asserted the importance of private landscape practices to lead by “turning around political and financial institutions.” He emphasized the importance of sticking to your environmental values and having “conviction, spirit, and humility in everything you do.”

Public practice: Change policy to achieve impact

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, led the public practice panel, which advocated for their important role in “defending and expanding” landscape’s role, all the while “creating places of experience that stick with people throughout their lifetime.” Acknowledging the stigma of bureaucracy, Nette Compton, ASLA, senior director of ParkCentral and City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, said to “young professionals: you can get a lot done at a young age;” her own rise in the New York City parks department being but one example.

Joking that landscape architects are a “shade-loving species,” Mark Focht, FASLA, former ASLA president and senior official in Philadelphia’s parks department, joined others on the panel in suggesting landscape architects must “push themselves out there” into positions of power and “demand design excellence for under-served communities.” This point was affirmed by Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, who noted that “private dollars rarely go into low-income places.”

Going one step further was Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture for U.S. General Services Administration, who encouraged landscape architects to be “infiltrators and insurgents,” using policy as a mechanism to deliver action. Citing his involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts to restore pollinators to health, Gabriel thinks re-conceptualizing policy through ecosystem services “is where our greatest future and capacity lies.”

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Hilltop Landscape architects
Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Rios Clementi Hale

Picking up on the Beth Meyer’s keynote speech and Martha Schwartz’s declaration from the first day of the LAF Summit, Edward Garza, CEO Zane Garway and former mayor of San Antonio, challenged landscape architects to “embrace the political world” and even to run for mayor.

Capacity organizations: Design a path to increased diversity

As demonstrated by the summit itself, capacity organizations like LAF play a crucial role in forging the future of landscape architecture. Having heard all the declarations and much of the audience and Q & A, the panel, which included representatives from the LAF, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architecture (IFLA), Public Architecture, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), acknowledged how important diversity is to the future of the profession. Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, announced a multi-organizational effort entitled Mirroring the Nation, which is meant to attract and support more minorities to the profession, so that “our profession might better mirror the population it serves.”

The panel also called for landscape architects to have more impact on a global level. Leading the cause was Raquel Penalosa, ASLA, who is using her position as President of IFLA Americas, to “work globally in the service of localities. We must be humble and listen” closely to what communities want. And IFLA president Kathryn Moore said the world’s tens of thousands of landscape architects can have more impact by forming an “interdisciplinary vision” based in “common values,” particularly given the field is one of the fastest growing worldwide.

LAF President Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, and Somerville debated a bit on whether a “new narrative” was needed to achieve greater public awareness, with Deutsch calling for an entirely new set of messages, and Somerville arguing that “we are making progress with our current messages among some groups — like the older, wealthier, and better educated — but need to better reach diverse audiences. We need to get the messages out where they need to be.”

Emerging voices: Promote the next generation

With the help of Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, the emerging voices panel assembled a group of recent LAF Olmsted scholars. An appropriate ending to a summit on “the future of landscape architecture,” these future leaders each wrote their own declarations, which they then presented to the 700-plus crowd.

Leading off was a 2015 University Olmsted scholar Joanna Karaman, Student ASLA. Now working as a landscape designer at OLIN, Karaman challenged landscape architects to “be honest about how we represent what we build.” Her work in time-based media (Karaman is also working on a film about and for the LAF Summit) seeks to bring power to the profession through the use of videos that can make more accessible the volatility and transformational potential of landscapes.

Following Karaman was Nina Chase, ASLA, senior project manager at Riverlife in Pittsburgh, who advocated for “capitalizing on the resurgence of fun” through short-term pop-up projects that can serve as prototypes and catalyze public participation. Embracing the mantra of “test before you invest,” Chase suggested that developing projects incrementally is both good for creating fun, but also for building resilience to climate change.

Scott Irvine, a 2015 University Olmsted scholar from the University of Manitoba, delivered a message from the Canadian plains, cautioning that landscape architects should beware of “becoming overly urban,” and that too often now, “regionalism stops at the edge of the city itself.” Another caution was issued by Timothy Mollette-Parks, ASLA, associate principal at Mithun, who argued that “landscape can’t be formulaic, and we must not lose our dedication as designers.”

Wrapping up the panel was the 2016 National Olmsted scholar, Azzurra Cox, Student ASLA, a recent graduate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, who called for landscape architects to engage in what she calls “critical ethnography: design as a humanist, political, and narrative act.”

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Thomas Rainer: There Are No Mulch Circles in the Forest

Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press
Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press

Instead of laying down a layer of mulch to separate plants, let native plants grow into beautiful, layered masses, said Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, at the Potomac Chapter of ASLA Gala in Washington, D.C. Rainer believes it’s possible to both boost biodiversity and achieve beauty through the use of “designed plant communities.” It’s possible to avoid creating a “weedy-looking mess,” but still harness the “adaptive ability of plants.” In fact, only by taking this approach can landscape architects and designers “reconstruct natural habitats in our cities,” which Rainer thinks should be their goal for the 21st century.

In the near future, Rainer sees a largely urban world dealing with the challenges of a changing climate. In the era of Anthropocene, there may be less pristine nature, which leaves cities and suburbs as a primary place to restore and reclaim ecosystems. “The loss of nature may represent a new beginning: an opportunity to re-wild our cities.” Rainer sees a future where skyscrapers have meadows, water treatment plants have wetlands, and highways are ecological.

So what’s holding all of this back? Rainer in part blames landscape architects and designers who are still pushing “formalistic arrangement of plants,” increasingly an anachronism in our world of biodiversity loss.

In a brief tour of landscape architecture history, Rainer explained that plants have long been used to “express order,” starting with the classical and French traditions. There was a pause in this approach with the English, pictureseque, naturalistic landscape style, which allowed for greater diversity of plant species. But that style lost favor amid the renewed formalism of Modernist landscape design, which “still dominates — with its mono-cultures of walls, carpets, stripes, and grids.” Modern formalism hasn’t been good for ecology. And while Rainer thinks that formalism may still have a place, more biodiversity must be introduced within this style.

All of those striking Modernist landscapes, and their contemporary variations, have had a “high impact on critters.” Birds rely on insects that rely on specific native plants. If you remove the plants from the equation, the whole ecosystem collapses. Today, “the lack of plant diversity is a real problem.” A way to introduce more diversity is through designed plant communities, which are “complex, adaptive systems” that require little maintenance. This new planting paradigm represents a shift from the Modernist approach of “plant as object” to a focus on “the power of systems.”

Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

If landscape architects and designers are worried how all this will look, Rainer points out that the High Line, with its wild yet artfully-curated sets of plants, is one of the biggest draws in New York City. Rainer thinks this is because “there is nostalgia for the lost wild spaces,” and people want to see them in cities. But beyond the beauty of Piet Oudolf’s planting schemes on the High Line, those plant communities are also more resilient because they are more diverse. Oudolf let the plants “naturally interact.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners

Sadly, too many landscape architects and designers still want to “mass, group, and separate” plants, instead of allowing the plants to interact. One recent LEED Platinum building achieved all its site-related credits by planting the plaza out front with just one native plant, which seems to completely miss the point. There, “plants were treated like a piece of furniture.” But in the wild, “plants are social and react to changes in their network. If you take them out of their network, they lose functionality and resilience.”

As an example of the resilience of nature, Rainer pointed to a strip outside his house in Arlington, Virginia, which gets inundated with salt in the winter and dog pee year round, but has a diverse, inter-mingled mass of 26 different “weed” species.

Hell strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to Garden.com
Plant strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to Garden.com

Too many landscape architects and designers also bring in generic soils and mulch, to ensure that “anything will grow there,” as opposed to using available local resources to plant layered native communities, which really act as “green mulch.” As Rainer notes, “you won’t find mulch circles in the forest.”

Rainer said bringing in too much soil and mulch runs counter to increasing biodiversity. “It’s actually the lack of abundance of resources that leads to increased diversity. If you look at landscapes with a great deal of infertility like desert landscapes, that’s where you’ll see diversity, and a harmony of plants adapted to place.”

Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona
Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona

Biodiversity can look designed and be beautiful. “We can reach a new intersection between ecology and horticulture. We can combine the best of the ecological plant traditions with the pleasing dynamics of aesthetic formalism. We can avoid weedy messes, but also let plant communities self-seed and move around.”