Perspectives on Ecology and Design

Love and hate might very well describe the relationship between the professional fields of landscape architecture and ecological sciences: Since the creation of Frederic Law Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens in Boston, knowledge about natural functions has been essential for landscape architecture, although some of us occasionally consider ecological design an excuse for a lack of creativity.



The book Projective Ecologies, a collection of essays edited by Chris Reed and Nina Marie-Lister, opens up a new chapter in this discussion, forging a new path for American landscape architecture which builds upon landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism. The overall hypothesis of the book is that ecology in North America historically provided the scientific basis for nature preservation, protecting zones with minimal human impact for the next generation. Opposing the economically very successful American New Urbanism, Landscape Urbanism and Ecological Urbanism defined the concept of landscape as having a focus on process and systems thinking instead of the former focus on pastoral images. This newly defined concept of landscape is leading to an integrated planning and design approach, and replacing architecture as the building block for urban development. Landscape architecture will not just provide decorative open spaces for historic-looking, cute architecture, but will be the dominant factor in urban and suburban development. This approach is supported by a new understanding of the role ecological sciences play. The authors point out that natural disasters like forest fires and hurricanes require new responses and foster the understanding of nature as a dynamic system. The old ecological theory of a climax community is being replaced by the understanding that resilient systems are permanently changing and adapting. Further, ecological science has shifted its attention from merely analysing the negative human impact on remote natural systems towards investigations about the interaction between humans and their environment, as expressed in the concept of ecosystem services. Improving the quality of human life in urban agglomerations is now seen as having a close relationship to fostering the services provided by natural systems. The essays in the book discuss how such an integrated approach can inform landscape architecture and environmental planning.


haa flows_cs2
The concept for the adaptive reuse of abandoned property in Detroit by Stoss does not offer one specific or final solution, but rather an inter-active network is proposed that has the capacity to reinvent itself over and over again (also see Topos 84).

The book is organised into five themes: (1) foundations, evolutions; (2) emergent ideas, ecological thinking; (3) anthro-ecologies, hybridity; (4) ecology, cities, and design; and (5) paths forward. Eight new texts and six reprints are offered for discussion. Each topic area of investigation is complemented by graphics and diagrams illustrating how these abstract concepts can be incorporated into the planning and design process. The rather eclectic collection includes iconic texts like Ecology and Planning (Holling and Goldberg, 1972) and provocative new essays like Design Thinking, Wicked Problems, Messy Plans (Westley and McGoan, 2014). The editors invite the reader to enter the dialogue between design and ecology from many different approaches, however, they do see a common train of thought. The outcome of this dialogue is a new understanding of design: The designed landscape is not a definite gestalt anymore, but rather a spatial system that keeps on developing, as illustrated by Stoss/Chris Reed’s example Productive Ecologies in Detroit. Their concept for the adaptive reuse of abandoned property does not offer one specific or final solution, but rather an interactive network is proposed that has the capacity to reinvent itself over and over again. Talking about the design process, we learn that any final design stakeholders may approve of might only be one of many steps towards a possible future.


Tomás Folch and Chris Reed, after Tomás Folch, Amna Chaudry, Lauren McClure, and Sara Newey. Oyster Reef Flows. 2011.

This is a new chapter for American landscape architecture. Olmsted’s design for Boston’s Back Bay Fens illustrated the successful integration of environmental knowledge when developing a landscape concept. Projective Ecologies goes much further, questioning the meaning of the design process and the role of the designer. Facilitating possible future change is more than creating presumably resilient landscapes, it is a design process inspired by an ongoing interaction between ecology and design.



Chris Reed, Nina-Marie Lister (eds)
Projective Ecologies
Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Actar Publishers, New York 2014.