Designing Constructed Ecosystems for a Resilient Future
June 11, 2016
Landscape Architect, space2place design inc
This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. Emerging leaders from LAF’s Olmsted Scholars Program were asked to write a 1,000-word “Declaration” of leadership and ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time and the next 50 years. Select Declarations were then presented at the Summit during the Emerging Leaders panel.
Designing Constructed Ecosystems for a Resilient Future
As landscape architects we must become deliberate and skillful designers of constructed ecosystems. For too long we have manipulated ecosystems — altering the flows and cycles of water, materials and species — without adequate ecological knowledge, and without understanding the broader harm, or benefits of our actions. We have designed landscapes to provide short-term benefits to the human species only, forgetting that our ultimate well-being and quality of life depends on resilient, functional ecosystems.
In the same way that we’ve adopted low impact development practices and native planting, we must now embrace a rigorous new approach to ecological design, particularly in the context of constructed ecosystems. As landscape architects we are well-positioned to lead the design of constructed ecosystems in the coming century due to our expertise in working across disciplines and scales, and I believe our role will be strengthened by embracing the following propositions.
Designing for ecosystem services
In the current era of rapid global change we must learn how to design landscapes for ecosystem services — creating regenerative natural systems that produce clean water, fertile soils, and that support a rich web of species, including humans. These services are being rapidly lost due to accelerated climate change and conventional patterns of development.
We must also be mindful that designing ecosystems is inherently political, and one with important ethical considerations. Choosing which services we want ecosystems to provide, and to whom, is a subjective decision. While our role in manipulating ecosystems is not new — after all, humans have hunted large predators to extinction, cultivated shellfish, and changed plant communities using fire for millennia — we need to recognize a moral responsibility to maintain the production of ecological services that may not be of direct benefit to us personally. By definition, ecosystem services benefit humans — but they also support the 9+ million other species with which we share the planet.
Adapting to climate change
We must work more strategically across scales and move beyond abstract ideas of ecology in order to help human and non-human communities adapt to our changing climate.
Advocating for the protection and re-establishment of regional ecological networks will be increasingly important to support species migration and adaptation. We simultaneously need to work with planners and ecologists to translate regional priorities into site specific, on-the-ground design decisions. Constructed ecosystems within these networks can support biodiversity and contribute to the resilience of larger ecosystems.
Landscape architects will also play an increasingly critical role in an era of temperature and precipitation extremes by helping to moderate climatic effects through local microclimate improvements.
Our creative problem-solving skill set will also be important in helping coastal areas adapt to sea level rise. Instead of implementing single-function solutions such as seawalls and dikes, we must encourage adaptation in a way that regenerates productive intertidal ecosystems and increases the resilience of coastal communities — both human and non-human — over the long-term.
Finding synergies with engineered ecological processes
Within built environments our greatest opportunity for creating constructed ecosystems is by finding synergies with engineered ecological processes, such as stormwater management and wastewater treatment systems. Urban infrastructure is still largely based on single-purpose hard engineering solutions designed to serve functions formerly provided by our ecosystems. Moving from single-purpose grey infrastructure to multi-purpose green infrastructure provides us with the opportunity to design constructed ecosystems that provide a broader suite of ecosystem services. New or restored urban aquatic ecosystems, for example, can be constructed to capture, filter and convey rainwater, while recharging groundwater, creating ecological corridors, moderating temperature extremes, and creating inviting places for people to enjoy.
Reconnecting people with nature and fostering ecological literacy
Increasing the resilience of our societies also requires us to design our cities in a way that supports a meaningful connection between people and nature. The steady migration of people into cities requires us to bring nature into the cities as well.
Giving people the opportunity to experience natural phenomena in their daily lives — such as fish spawning in the city, or beavers building a dam in an urban wetland — can foster ecological literacy by helping build an understanding of our interconnected world.
Improving people’s access to designed ecosystems can also help cultivate an environmental stewardship ethic, such as by increasing people’s understanding of the need to conserve and regenerate ecosystems outside of city boundaries.
These experiences also help build people’s understanding of place — of where they are situated within the world, how that landscape was formed, what plants and animals it supported, which people have depended on this land, and what role it played in the development of our cities.
Embracing evidence-based planning and design
Accomplishing these ambitions requires us to improve our understanding of ecosystem processes and ecosystem development over short- and long-term time scales. Increasing our collaboration with ecologists can help us translate scientific evidence into tangible design principles, and can help us set priorities for new ecological research. Basing our plans and designs on the best available evidence enables us to build on lessons learned and use limited resources effectively.
While some of these ideas are not new to our profession, we must be more ambitious in advocating for their implementation. We need to position ourselves to lead multi-disciplinary design teams and to extend our influence across all levels of government.
Together with allied professionals in planning, ecology, engineering, and public health, among others, we are well-equipped to synthesize diverse ideas from a variety of fields and translate complex regional goals into tangible on-the-ground design responses. Landscape architects are uniquely suited to achieving these ambitions as we embody a profession that has, at its foundation, the objective of articulating hopeful visions for the future.