Category Archives: science

International Urban Wildlife Conference

In early June I was in San Diego for the 2017 International Urban Wildlife Conference.   This was my first time at this particular conference, and it was fascinating to experience the breadth of ideas, and the urban focus on wildlife.  It’s something that we as designers care about, but struggle with implementation that truly provides actual value.

This is predominately at conference with a science focus,  drawing from government, academia, and NGOs spanning policy, implementation, research, and more. As a participant, I definitely felt like a fish out of water in such a science-focused crowd, however, the opportunity to connect with scientists and researchers provides a unique context and some perspective (both ways) on how we can communicate better.

One highlight for me was the opening plenary by Nancy Grimm, a “Professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences and a Senior Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University” who discussed the work around the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER).

Aside from some of the work, she shared a model of socio-ecological systems, and the shift towards more human influence and impacts in their research.  “Our conceptual model illustrates our understanding of urban socio-ecological systems. In CAPIV we are focusing on urban infrastructure as a bridge between the biophysical and human/social components of the system. Urban infrastructure includes green, blue, turquoise, gray, and human/social infrastructures in the city”  Grimm also called on better collaboration between designers and scientists, which was a great way to kick the conference off.

Another interesting narrative told by a few speakers focused on the presence of large predators in cities, none more photogenic, or shall I say charismatic, megafauna.  The Southern California focus meant more than a few stories about P-22, the mountain lion currently living in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and the tension between people who embrace urban predators and those that consider them a nuisance.

Multiple tracks included information on large mammals, coyotes, and new approaches to addressing human-wildlife interactions that are not just focused on negatives.  Certainly the theme of what habitat?” came up throughout, as the urban focus meant shared spaces between many species, which has positive benefits but also negatives, and guides much of the research in terms of adequate path size and connectivity and species specific interactions in fragmented urban areas.

This larger discussion were some interesting sessions on habitat connectivity and corridors, which included some interesting wildlife crossings, include a significant new project in Pima County, Arizona , near Tuscson, that took almost 30 years to be realized, showing the need for persistence.  The project included an overpass and underpass, seen under construction below:

The educational aspects and programs also occupied a good amount of the conference, with outreach and wildlife information, educational programs for children and schools, along with tracks on Citizen science, information sharing hubs, and collaboration.

The session I was part of was the final day, and was entitled “Dysfunctional urban biodiversity planning: Take home messages for (and from) ecologists and planners/designers.”  Convened by Mark Hostetler, from University of Florida it drew a multi-disciplinary panel of ecologists, planners, designers with a general focus on better communication, barriers and opportunities for how to achieve greater (and more frequent collaboration) .

In addition to Mark, who shared his online tool “Building for Birds”, speakers include Paige Warren from University of Massachusetts-Amherst, presenting on “Governing for Diversity”,  David Drake from University of Wisconsin-Madison discussing “Proactive Wildlife Management”, David Maddox from The Nature of Cities focusing on “Shared Values”, Jeffrey Brown from Rutgers University discussed “Optimal Sizes of Bird Habitat”.  From the planning side, Steve Hofstetter from Alachua County, Florida, gave perspective on Planning and Ecology, Travis Longcore from USC School of Architecture talked about “Corridors”, Sarah Jack Hinners from University of Utah elaborated on “Ways of Knowing/Doing” in interdisciplinary work, and from Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan, Keitaro Ito discussed Collaborative Ecological Design.  You can get a feel for the conference as a whole, download the abstracts for more info here.

My talk was entitled “Crossing the Science/Design Divide”, and touched on a variety of topics include experiences working with ecologists, access to research, real vs. boutique outcomes, habitat pros and cons, and novel ecosystems.  The summary included some examples of firms and groups with high levels of integration and collaboration, such as Andropogon Research,  landscape ecology resources for designers, evidence-based design approaches borrowed from healthcare, more ecological integration into rating tools like SITES, and habitat-specific certification via Salmon Safe, to name a few.  I will post on something a bit more detailed about my session and some of the takeaways.

It’s heartening to see the shift to incorporation of social systems into ecological research, a vital component for truly integrated urban wildlife management.  Our session and others highlighted some great opportunities and continuing challenges we face in truly integrated habitat into planning and design in the urban realm.

Introducing Hidden Hydrology

Regular readers of the blog know of my long-time passions of both Vegitecture and Hidden Hydrology, which both dovetail nicely into the larger themes of Landscape+Urbanism.  While the L+U blog has been relatively intermittent, I’ve been hard at work developing a new website and blog for the Hidden Hydrology project. The goal is to culminate the work in some form of publication, but regardless, it seemed time to focus on that element in it’s own.  I’m also giving a talk at the Washington ASLA conference in Spokane later this month (April 21), so excited to share more to a broader audience.  Simply put, the project is summarized as:

“Exploring lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams. Connecting historic ecology + the modern metropolis.”


Without going into too much detail that may be gained by going to the site itself, the project is broken down into four sections.  The first section gives a quick overview of hidden hydrology and links to some of my original inspirations, including Anne Whiston Spirn and David James Duncan, along with an early, evocative map of Portland, along with the amazing historical ecology around the book Mannahatta.

A bit longer summary gives some context for the endeavor:  “At the basic level, hidden hydrology is the buried, piped and disappeared waterways that flow under our urban areas.  Development has driven underground these surface streams that used to weave through our cities – and with them we’ve lost the connection to natural systems, and robust ecological habitat that urban waterways can provide.  Beyond just focusing on pure daylighting and restoration, the exploration, mapping, and study of hidden hydrology offers new ways to conceptualize a range of interventions that reconnect us to our history and offer glimpses of solutions for the future.  It’s a broader concept of ‘restoration’ that looks through lenses of art, landscape architecture, urban ecology, and planning to define ways to celebrate, connect and regenerate our places.”


The second section are links to many of the resources available, including precedents, projects, and resources from around the globe.  While linking to the other pages, I’m also providing links to some of the posts, including a diverse mix from Rome to London, San Francisco to Lexington, Kentucky.  The range of projects isn’t limited to projects, but encompasses art, mapping, poetry, literature, dance, stream daylighting, films, community engagement, and history.

A couple of highlights, including the project “Ghost Arroyos” in San Francisco:

Or the cool mapping work of David Ramos in DC at Imaginary Terrain.


The third is an ongoing exploration of themes in a more expanded format, the site is built aroud a blog that has delved into some of the resources, and projects, but also allows for some rumination and coverage of original project work.   Of the 25 or so posts to date, many have covered cities and projects, expanding to case studies and deeper investigations.   These include projects inspired by hidden hydrology (such as Town Branch Commons in Lexington, top below), as well as historical maps and photos referenced in a literary context (Iain Sinclair’s ‘Swimming to Heaven’), and more in depth historical ecological studies (San Francisco Estuary Institute) to show a few.

1854 — The Corporation of London workmen repairing the Fleet sewer, south of Fleet street under the direction of Mr. W. Haywood. The sewers carried 87,000,000 gallon of water daily in 1854. — Image by © CORBIS

The diversity is what surprised me, to different tendrils which weave beyond just mapping but into a multitude of subjects.  An early post on the site, is illustrative of this concept, and is still one of my favorites, focused on the novel by Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines and it’s use of the hidden hydrology of Indianapolis to tell a futuristic narrative of modern day slavery.

An excerpt from the novel explains this in a bit more detail.

“I cleared the trailer park and passed a jumble of picnic benches and playground equipment and stepped carefully down the slope of the ravine and swung the heavy beam of my flashlight along the creek.  Now it was clear, with the water swollen by the rains, the direction the brown water was still flowing.  The black mouth in the base of the shallow hill was an entrance, not an exit.  This low little trickle of mud water was a kind of rivulet, a poor cousin of a creek, and this spot behind the motor court is where some long-ago engineer had diverted it.
The creek was called Pogue’s Run. I’d found it on the map. I’d looked up the story.  This small waterway was discovered at the turn of the century – the eighteenth turning into the nineteenth — discovered and named and recorded, penciled in on early maps, when the city was not yet a city — when it was a gathering of huts, a stopping place on the way to other places.  The small river was inconvenient for the city fathers and the grid they’d drawn.  So they did just as Mama Walker said: they ran it underground.”

Beyond the fringes of hidden hydrology include some diversion into the very cool Atlas of Oblique Maps, a fascinating set of historical climate maps from the 1850s, and the ever popular Fisk maps of the evolution of changes to the Mississippi River.


The fourth, which is more of a long-term is projects, is still in nascent stage, but offers the potential to showcase original work around Hidden Hydrology, specifically in Portland and Seattle, but encompassing some other miscellany as well.  Currently it highlights some early presentations, as well as base-mapping of the Cadastral Survey for each city, the springboard for further analysis.

The Mississippi maps inspired me to use some of the documentations to animate the changing course of the river within the valley over the last 4000 years.  These more


There’s a ton of great information out there, yet it’s an area of study that seems relatively untapped and full of potential.  If you’d like to contribute, know of some great case studies, and have the bug for historical maps, and how these can inform ecological design today, give a shout.  In the interim, check out the site and follow @hiddenhydrology on Twitter.

And stay tuned for some more explorations here at L+U related to urban ecology and habitat, and more posts on some recent vegitecture, as I am working on some related projects and doing some more focused research in these realms.




Hortum machina B

Really like this experimental project (spotted on a post on Architects Newspaper) by Interactive Architecture Lab.  Called Hortum machina, B it’s a “rolling ecological exoskeleton” in the shape of a geodesic dome, the “half garden, half machine” hybrid is able to move through the environment using plant electro-physiology to drive the machine.  The idea of plant intelligence is worthy of a much more expansive post, but the execution here is quite brilliant.


A quick breakdown of the idea, from the Interactive Architecture Lab website:

“Electro-physiological sensing of the state of individual plants collectively and democratically controls decision-making of the orientation of the structure and its mobility. In the near future context of driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of intelligent robotics co-habiting our built environment. Hortum machina B is a speculative urban cyber-gardener.”



You get a feel for the scale of it here, which is part of the beauty.  The idea that these are larger than life, which gives them added presence.


There’s some more detailed ‘making of’ description, which delves into the prototyping, and further exploring the engineering and programming.



The controls are programmed using  Arduino, a scalable and programmable platform for hardware and software to make interactive objects.  Click on the screen capture below, and you can see the communication of ‘getting messages’ from the plant things like temperature, vibrations, humidity, lighting – and then being able to use that ‘intelligence’ for driving actions.


All Images above are credited to Interactive Architecture Lab – and accessed direct from their website or from the Architects Newspaper post.  Also, check out this video with it in action – more videos on their Vimeo page and website as well.

Hortum machina, B from Interactive Architecture Lab on Vimeo.

PA35: Going Live

I was really excited to receive the latest version of  Pamphlet Architecture, published by Princeton Architectural Press.  While I’ve not seen all of them, i do have at least a dozen, and they offer focused snapshots of theory and practice both as well as a longitudinal section of though spanning decades.  My first experience was PA15: War and Architecture featuring Lebbeus Woods, which i picked up as an undergrad and was blown away.  I’ve since picked up issues sporadically, including the great PA21: Situation Normal featuring the work of Lewis.Tsrumaki.Lewis (1998), PA23: Sites of Trauma with Johanna Saleh Dickson (2002),  PA28: Augmented Landscapes by Smout Allen (2007), and PA30: Coupling featuring work and thoughts by InfraNet Lab and Lateral Office (2011).

The most recent version, PA35: Going Live: From States to Systems, was published earlier in November, edited by Pierre Bélanger and featuring work from his design research arm opsys.


I thought Bélanger’s  essay ‘Synthetic Surfaces’ in the Landscape Urbanism Reader, was interesting, and was interested to see the work as well from he and others around this topic.  For starters, some context, via the blurb snipped below on Amazon:

“”If landscape is more than milieu or environment, and encompasses a deterritorialized world, then it is the contested territory, hidden actor, and secret agent of the twentieth century. Stemming from the early work of some of the most influential landscape urbanists–Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Benton MacKaye, Patrick Geddes–this mini manifesto explores underdeveloped patterns and unfinished processes of urbanization at the precise moment when environmentalism began to fail and ecology emerged between the 1970s and 80s. Informed by systems thinking from the modern atomic age, this slim silver pamphlet takes inspiration from Howard T. Odum’s big green book A Tropical Rain Forest and brings alive the voices of a group of influential thinkers to exhume a body of ideas buried in the fallout of the explosion of digitalism, urbanism and deconstructivism during the early 1990s. Catalyzed by Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor meltdown, a counter-modernity and neo-urbanism emerged from the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of South African Apartheid. What happened during this concentrated era and area of change–across design, from architecture to planning–is nothing short of revolutionary.” 

PA35_screen pp34-35

The opening essays start provide some more context, and the crux is really what is said about the timing of the emergence of ecology in the 70s and 80s and how this is now fully integrated, after almost 50 years, into practice.  I do want to find a copy of Odum’s ‘A Tropical Rain Forest‘ after reading the introductory info – perhaps the biggest gem this small volume offers.

Readers should be warned, this is not a trifle, but a dense exploration with a number of unexplained references and jargon – the kind of stuff that makes people roll their eyes and dismiss academic posturing as oh so much BS.  Frankly the intro is probably one of the most annoying passages I’ve read in a while and the first sections were equally obtuse.  It evens out a bit as you continue, but coupled with way too small text and only black and white imagery, it’s a bit of a slog.  As in not enjoyable to read or engage in.

PA35_screen pp18-19

PA35_screen pp36-37

So if you’re still with me – check out the diagrams, and maybe read a section or two.  When you get into them, are quite beautiful and the text has value – exploring some of the themes of landscape and infrastructure from Keller Easterling and Sanford Kwinter.  Go to well lit room, with a magnifying glass and a lot of coffee and have fun.

PA35_screen pp38-39

PA35_screen pp48-49

I was initially put off by the reliance on only black and white imagery, as it seems anachronistic, more of a trope than a reason for its use in this particularly context.  But they work and the idea of communication that transcends color – in these densely packed montages attempt to communicate a ton of info – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Probably the best part of this volume – sometimes it’s amazing and you find yourself staring at a page for way too long.  If they were 2x as big it’d be even better.

PA35_screen pp58-59

So as far as the takeaway for he at this point, I’m really intrigued by the graphics, and some of the experimentation.  While i was initially put off by the black at white imagery, as i mentioned, but after looking at it multiple times, and viewing digital images, it does have a quality that perhaps obscured by our typical splashes of color.

Even as a pamphlet – the writings, well, I feel would have benefited greatly from a tougher editor that reined in some of the language and obscure references.  I’ve read enough academic and dense writings that i can muddle through the most difficult, so  I definitely don’t need my hand held. But there were so many opportunities to add one small explanation of a concept, rather than just leave the reader hanging, or googling, to understand some obscure reference or word choice.  Belanger’s other writings didn’t seem so hard to parse.  This was exhausting.

PA35_screen pp70-71

If you read it let me know what you thing.  Got some ideas or thoughts.  Let me know.

LA+ Journal

A fine addition to the ranks of landscape architecture journals that recently emerged is LA+, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture, from the Penn.   From the website, the journal is billed as the “…the first truly interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. Within its pages you will hear not only from designers, but also from historians, artists, lawyers, psychologists, ecologists, planners, scientists, philosophers, and many more besides. Our aim at LA+ is to reveal connections and build collaborations between landscape architecture and other disciplines by exploring each issue’s theme from multiple perspectives.”


Interest piqued.  And they were nice enough to send me a copy of their inaugural issue, WILD which explores the concept of WILD and its role in design, large-scale habitat and species conservation, scientific research, the human psyche, and aesthetics.”  


Impressively curated and designed, this is a journal you keep around in your library long-term, for a follow-up read or to peruse the beautiful imagery.  As an introduction on the website, a short thesis on issue one:

“Wildness has long occupied a romantic and somewhat dormant position in the discussion of landscape theory and practice.  However, current initiatives aiming to “rewild” rural, urban, and suburban environments attest to its renewed significance.   It is no longer just a question of saving or protecting wilderness, but one of how we can design novel ecosystems that stimulate the emergence of new forms of biological and cultural diversity.”

The list of contributors is massive, and the breadth of topics ranges from the general, such as Mick Abbott’s ‘Practice of the Wild: A Rewilding of Landscape Architecture’, to the global, such as Richard Weller’s ‘World P-ark’, to the site-specific, like Mousseau & Moller’s ‘Landscape-Scale Consequences of Nuclear Disasters.”  I offered to do a review of the issue, and realized quickly that it was no simple task due to the amount of material contained within (which alas, i’m still reading with much enjoyment).

Thus, it is far more that can be elaborated on in terms of full reporting on every essay.  For that, order a copy and enjoy the density of information. Here’s a few snippets and thoughts of my own, in relation to landscape architecture practice and how the explorations of this concept seen through the interdisciplinary lens.


The concept of the wild is present in our conception of landscape architecture practice at many scales.  The vision of a global park (or Ark) as Richard Weller discusses, provides the context for connected ecological corridors that connect globally across countries and continents, providing a shared concept of our earth that hopefully transcends borders.  As mentioned, a north/south and east/west route “… could catalyze global cooperation and environmental investment to help augment connections between fragments along the way.” (16)

To look at the controversial and compelling issue of rewilding, as Adela Park does, is to investigate our core relationships about native-ness, genetic engineering, and our role in not just preserving, and enhancing but in recreating extinct systems as well as creating new natural systems.  The ability to connect or open up large swaths of land as wild spaces are tame in comparison to global examples like the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands and the Pleistocene Park in Siberia, both of which plan the creation of lost landscapes left in a state of unmanagement.  As mentioned, “…landscapes such as Oostvaardersplassen – created almost entirely by scientists – embody the very indeterminacy and self-organizational potential that has been so much a part of recent landscape architecture discourse. “ (8)


The topic of wildlife and habitat is at play throughout, with the synergistic and conflicted relationships between humans and animals accentuated in multiple ways.  We want interaction with nature at a distance, such as the artistic wildlife viewing structure, the Reindeer Pavilion covered in Claire Fellman in ‘Watching Wild’.  We also want interaction through consumption as investigated in ‘The Taste of the New Wild’ by Orkan Telhan.

A popular strategy to engage the wild is through provision of wildlife crossings of busy roadways . as outlined by Nina-Marie Lister in ‘Xing: New Infrastructures for Landscape Connectivity,’ a movement growing in popularity worldwide and the knowledge of interdisciplinary approaches to what works is shaping the design of these systems.


The ability to predict and proactively engage with the ‘wild’ in this context, offers a new area of interest for designers and integrated teams.  As Lister mentions:

“By redesigning the road for two clients – animal and human – wildlife crossing infrastructure presents a timely opportunity to communicate both the problem and the solution to the public.  In this endeavor, landscape architecture has a significant new niche and a potent role role in designing safer roads with new infrastructures that are visible and legible, even beautiful.  Widespread deployment of this new typology of landscape infrastructure may ultimately change the way we move and live, and with this, reconnect landscapes and habitats through inspired design.” (50)

A specific topic of interest in our northwest fire season, it was interesting to read Steve Pyne’s essay ‘Firescaping’, which provides a meditation on fire as part of our ongoing landscape, and how to think differently about our relationship to fire, and the implications and opportunities of this in the context of global climate change.

As he mentions, “We can protect our built landscape where it abuts the wild… After all, our cities used to burn as often as their surroundings; now they don’t.  The same methods, adapted, can work along the fractal frontier of exurban settlement.” (97) With much of the west currently burning, the concept of wild does hit home with multiple meanings – directly related to design and management of landscapes.


As I mentioned, lots more content to devour, thus a full accounting of the contents of the first issue of LA+ would occupy multiple posts.  Look out for some follow-up on some topics of interest expanding upon these and other themes,  and if you’re interested, submit your work in their most recent call for papers.

And highly recommended to get a subscription to this to journal for topical, integrated ideas that shape the fabric of landscape architecture and urbanism.

PE 1: Parallel Genealogies

As mentioned, it would be worth while to explore some essays of the Projective Ecologies book, and what better way to start than with the introductory essay by Reed and Lister, Parallel Genealogies.

The terms ‘ecologies’ and ‘ecosystems’ are co-opted for a variety of uses today beyond event these, which could lead to the eye-rolling misappropriation and leave us scrambling for a different term.  The word/concept is by nature cool.  It sounds cool, it’s integrative and connective, holistic and systemic, so of course it will be integrated into the lexicon to describe such things as media ecosystems, startup ecosystems, digital ecosystems, and others, predominately in the tech world.  Our gut reaction is to say ugh and come up with something new – resilience, regenerative, biophilic, etc. that hasn’t been corrupted, but ecology, in the true sense and applicablility, is still a valid construct.  I say rather than abandon it, we take it back.

H.T. Odum. Energy and Matter Flow through an Ecosystems, adapted from Silver (p.25)

The parallel genealogies of the title are woven around ecology, and the interconnections between the natural sciences, the humanities and design.  These are broken down in turn, evolving the concepts from scientific roots of ecosystem and population ecology, through the connections of ecology to environmentalism which has led to it’s more popular usage.  The crux is a shift from, linear, deterministic ‘climax’ models to more of a focus on “open-endedness, flexibility, resilience, and adaptation… ecosystems are now understood to be open systems and behave in ways that are self-organizing and that are to some extend unpredictable. ”  In that vein (25):

“…change is built into living systems; they are characterized in part by uncertainty and dynamism.”

This makes it more difficult to understand, but infinitely more interesting, as things change and move in systems, leading to conceptual metaphors like mosaics which are compelling to scientists and lay-people (especially designers).  The application of ecological principles – beyond mere observation – implies the agency of humans, thus making our impacts become impossible to ignore.  We also tend to want to act in healing degraded areas, which requires sufficient data to make the correct course corrections.


Do we possess, or can we possess, adequate information to counterbalance the human-impacted changes in climate that have (Katrina, Sandy) and will influence millions?  We can’t not act, but with what information and certainty?  As the authors point out, the concept shifts “toward complex system thinking is to realize that we cannot manage whole ecosystems; rather, we can manage ourselves and our activities… [which] will have profound implications for the way we design.” (27)

The second genealogy focuses on the humanities (which i would maybe broaden to include many social elements) in solidifying our connections to the natural world.  Similar to deterministic linear ecological models, the way we live and govern ourselves, as in the text, quoting Botkin: “our management practices must adapt themselves to this new scientific understanding of the world – that principles of order, control, and limits will eventually doom the very things we want to protect.” (29)


Our connection to nature, or the wild, is slipping somewhat in an age of hypercommunication and technological fascination, which is maybe an extension of our overcoming the fear of the wild by naming, and then taming what we once feared.  Or maybe we just stare at phones too much.  In perhaps a counterargument to the naming of places, is the idea of experience, as argued by Neil Evernden, in The Social Creation of Nature’ where “…he argues for qualities, as opposed to nameable things, that might describe that which exists beyond human control.”  (30)

“Wildness is not ‘ours’ — indeed, it is the one that that can never be ours.  It is self-willed, independent, and indifferent to our dictates and judgements.  An entity with the quality of wildness is its own, and no others’s”

And finally with design, and the historical origins of ecological planning traced in the modern sense to McHarg in the 1960s (but built on many, many others before him).  The quantitative as a design strategy was, and indeed still is, somewhat of a foreign concept, that has weathered the art v. science debates, but did galvanize a concept of designing with nature that still evokes joy when spoken aloud.  The language of the ecological – still vivid today – evokes visions that easily spur design intention.  R.T.T. Forman gave a new language to landscape architects, thinking about “matrices, webs, and networks… characterized by adjacencies, overlaps, and juxtapositions.”  This took us beyond the simple overlay into the concept of change and flux, or as mentioned “Adaptation, appropriation, and flexibility, which became understood as the hallmarks of ‘successful’ systems.” (33)

The examples start to emerge, with no perfect exemplar but many worth studying for elements or processes worthy of emulation.  The work of Haag, Hargreaves, and numerous earthwork artists used the armature, language and symbolism of nature into works, and also left (gasp) things unfinished somewhat, with slight references to indeterminacy, which dovetailed so well into the best aspects of landscape urbanism theory.  Thus the spatial fields of  Koolhaas/OMA  at Parc de la Vilette, or the work of Desvigne and Dalnoky, which “set out strategies in which growth, succession, and careful editing of newly planted urban or industrial forests could be seen to reintroduce environmental dynamics into sites and projects that had erased – or at least significantly dampened – ecological effects.” (36)


It’s not a hands-off ecological succession, but strategic ‘curation’ that works for the ecological and the cultural, and the binary notion of nature and human.  This led nicely into works by Allen, Corner, and further competitions such as Downsview Park, Freshkills Landfill, and others to solidify an interdisciplinary, graphically rich, and temporally based approach to landscape architecture.  While the framing of it and subsequent labeling as landscape urbanism may have not stuck in it’s original sense, the literature of LU is the best that’s come out of the profession in a decade.  My opinion is the book we’re reading is the next iteration (or maybe continuation) of that concept.

Beyond the theoretical, the shift toward application of these projects (not just competitions but works being built) offers a validation of the action-oriented approach that connects ecology, humanity, and design in ways that have rarely been accomplished.  New approaches, ecological awareness, understanding of hybrid and novel ecosystems, the role and result of humans as parts of these system –  coupled with new technology – leads to a new urban ecological paradigm.  The book, and this first essay, continues the conversation, “toward a more rigorous, robust,  and relevant engagement across the domains of ecology and design – one to be fully explored in the coming years.” (38)

I’ll probably skip next the Corner essay as it has been covered extensively (but feel free to comment or guest post welcome!) – and jump to Hight’s essay on Designing Ecologies.  Stay tuned and comment on your thoughts on this essay below.

Urban Ecology

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Urban Ecology: Science of Cities by Richard T.T. Forman (Cambridge University Press, 2014).  Since arrival a couple of days ago, i have not been disappointed, and this shapes up to be one of the most up to date resources for ecological principals applied to urban areas to date.


Forman needs no introduction to anyone who has engaged in landscape ecology, which his seminal writings such as ‘Landscape Ecology’ (with Godron, 1986), ‘Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions’ (1995), more recent ‘Urban Regions: Ecology and Planning Beyond the City’ (2008).  He also was involved in one the most accessible handbooks that should be on every designers shelf, ‘Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning’ (with Dramstad & Olson – 1996).  That is merely a snapshot of the multitude of papers and books he has been involved in.  The connection to urban areas i think is notable, and perhaps due to a long standing appointment teaching urban ecology through the Harvard Graduate School of Design, there is a connection to design and planning in a way that is not captured in typical ecological literature.  As we expand cities and continue to look for ways to connect design and planning with science, it becomes more and more vital for these elements to work in tandem.

In the books Foreward, Mark J. McDonnell elucidates this point in reaching our goal, by “incorporation of ecological knowledge and principles into the management and creation of cities in order to develop healthy, livable, sustainable, and resilient urban ecosystems.” (ix).  He goes further in explaining the disconnect:

“…there has been a mismatch between the questions that planners, designers, and decision-makers are asking urban ecologists, and the questions that urban ecologists are asking to advance the science of urban ecology.” (x)

To achieve this, we need to get on the same page, or more concisely, to align the questions practitioners need answered with the research that is being conducted.  While it is inevitable that reductive techniques will continue to guide science by definition, creating small snapshots of data, there needs to be a middle ground where funding is available for applied research, and holistic study.  At the very least, better channels of communication are the key, as McDonnell mentions:  “Recently, there have been calls within the discipline of urban ecology to bridge the gap between basic and applied urban ecology research by increasing the interactions between scientists and practitioners, by adopting a comparative approach to the study of cities and towns, and by identifying more general principles regarding the effects of urbanization on ecological patterns and processes.” (x)

In the Preface, Forman continues this line of thinking, mentioning the needs for our now fully urban “Homo sapiens urbanus” develop applied theory, and to “catalyze urban ecology as accessible and appealing” (xiii).  Urban Ecology is the framework, building on the essential aspects of interactions with organisms and their environment to a more expansive concept of urban ecology (xii):

… Interactions of organisms, built structures, and the physical environment, where people are concentrated.

He mentions in this context the connection to the scholarship and history of landscape ecology at the core, and much as the nascent theories of Landscape Urbanism and Ecological Urbanism called for – applications beyond just parks and green spaces, but to “…ecologically explore the entire urban area – streets, walls, lawns, industrial sites, sewer systems, artifact-rich soil, aerial components, roofs, commercial centers, parks, dumps and much more.” (xii-xiii)  This more expansive ‘urban nature’ is instructive, a point of which seemed to mystify those whom didn’t understand the central tenets Landscape Urbanism, into thinking that landscape = green space, which of course meant modernist ‘towers in the park’ and green space at the expense of urban vitality.  Perhaps the use of urban ecology in place of landscape urbanism gives a more scientifically grounded and less apt to misinterpretation, but to me they are part of the same family, as they are derived from flexibilty, change, and understanding of complexity.

It also allows us to connect to scale, as the interconnectivity of issues and opportunities changes with grain size and resolution, and incorporate mechanisms of growing, shrinking, and polycentrism with “perspective from city to urban region” (xiii) which Forman explored in ‘Urban Regions’, and now moves into a smaller scale.  This is explained as:

“…peeling back our familiar human layer reveals the fundamental natural and built patterns of a city, how it works, and how it changes.  Lots of lucid patterns and processes appear.  The world of eternal flow, especially in urban networks, emerges.” (xiii).

The book offers some hope to reconciling this disconnect and opportunity of a urban focuses ecology that is interdisciplinary in order to better approach our current complexity of the modern city.  More on this as i delve into the chapters in depth.

Bio-inspired Design

The latest issue of Zygote Quarterly, an online journal with a focus covers Bio-inspired design, and offers another opportunity to explore this topic (and the back issues as well).  A really beautifully illustrated online magazine, ZG is worth delving into in depth, but also sitting back and and in this case, getting into a bit of depth on the topic.

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An essay that gets me excited about the concept is the opener from Tom McKeag, Case Study Auspicious Forms, which tracks the process of engineering a Japanese bullet train to attain high speeds with less noise on the track and when entering tunnels.  The breakdown of process looking both at the serrated wings of owls in creating ‘quiet’ air flow, to the specific beak orientation of a Kingfisher influencing nose shape to lessen sonic booms in tunnels is a fascinating exploration of how traditional engineering can look to nature for solutions.  The concept of natures patterns applied to the unnatural is the major benefit of bio-inspired design.

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The nature inspired engineering is relevant to Buckminster Fuller and the application synergistic patterns, and notably his calling card, the ultimately scalable and strong modular geodesic structure.  These geodesic structures area also found in nature, such as the eyes of insects (below) or the bones of birds – nested, scalable triangular structures that can be combined build infinite structures with stability and strength far greater than their perceived mass.  As mentioned, Fuller the biological provides not a pattern to mimic but the answer:

“Unlike many biologists, Bucky insisted that his “energetic-synergetic geometry” was ‘natural’ in the sense that it was there, all worked-out, as a mathematical principle employed by Nature to give optimum advantage to the system.”

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Fuller would be ones of the forerunners, obviously, of biomimicry, due to his understanding and application of natures rules and strategies.  This continued a long-line of thinkings throughout history who have looked to nature to inspire them, such as Leonardo da Vinci, or Antonio Gaudi, to name a couple.  The engineering/product angle is what i think is most applicable and successful biomimicry path, with the gecko-foot inspired fasteners (above) being perhaps the touchstone of that nature to useful product transition.

Outside of the realm of the mimic is the concept of blending of art and science, which is captured perfectly in the work of and featured prominently throughout ZG such as the biological art of David Goodsell, who captures scientific processes in beautiful and simple illustrations.

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The challenge then lies in the differentiation of the biological (ecological) from the biomimicry and the bio-inspired, all of which inform and apply to design but existing in gradations from actual nature to abstract nature.  The one essay that focuses more on the design side is an interview with Thomas Knittel from HOK, a firm that has been intimately nested in the Biomimicry world more than most firms.  His work on Project Haiti, below, is indicative of the bioinspired approach.  “Bio-inspiration is in the variable second skin forming a building boundary layer to reject heat and harness natural ventilation.  A wooden branching support structure facing the courtyard is based upon patterns in nature and observed by da Vinci and Fuller and, more
recently, Bejan’s constructal law. I will admit our solution is not pure, but it serves the building
functionally and metaphorically. What better place to display mother-daughter branching?”

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The other notable element that HOK has done is the Genius of Biome design resource, which desribes “…how lessons from the temperate broadleaf forest biome, which houses many of the world’s largest population centers, can inform the design of the built environment.”

Additional essays touch on topics such as Biomemetics, the connections between Engineering and Biology, and additional study on Bucky Fuller and his nature-inspired design strategies, but i will leave you to explore on your own.

Perhaps because these essays aren’t trying to over-reach and frame Biomimicry as a new approach to landscape ecological design and urbanism, they are more inspirational and less frustrating in this way.  Can biomimicry really truly be a methodology for landscape architecture and ecology?  I’m not sure, as the medium and the method are too closely aligned to make the jump to mimesis – so perhaps the concept of ‘bio-inspired’ is perhaps a better metaphor with less baggage, and a truer sense of the concept of design with nature.

Ecology & Landscape Architecture

A great post on the The Dirt from a couple of months back delves into a topic near and dear to my thoughts on landscape architecture and urbanism – particularly how do we blend science and design in meaningful ways.  The article “Teaching Ecological Restoration (Not Restoration Ecology) includes the new Temple University concentration in ecological restoration as part of their dialogue, namely that there must be application ‘on-the-ground’ of ecological principles.  As noted by Temple faculty John Munro, he’s concerned that the Society for Ecological Restoration “…is moving away from its focus on practical, on-the-ground, ecological restoration projects in favor of more passive, “academic research on restoration ecology.” and that, “many restoration ecologists can no longer “see the forest for the statistics.””.

The issue of relevant knowledge for practitioners is valid, as a typical undergraduate program is going to focus on the fundamental items that a student needs to gain a thorough and holistic understanding of the profession.  Further refinement and advancement (specialization) happens through on-the-job experience and continuing education, as well as more formally through masters and PhD studies, where advanced research methods, both quantitative and qualitative are added to the toolkit.  There is a limit in practical terms, as the education and specialist knowledge takes away from one’s general knowledge base, and is the preferred role of landscape architecture to be the experts or the synthesizers of information?


The article quotes Emily McCoy from Andropogon, stating that: “landscape architects are finally beginning to take seriously the idea of measuring ecosystem function.” They are also beginning to “take the best scientific information and apply them to landscape design.” This is challenging because landscape architects are not trained in statistics so can’t truly understand landscape function. This means they need to work with restoration ecologists or environmental designers.”

Although i might take issue at the lack of statistics education equating to “can’t truly understand landscape function.” I get the intent, and this reference to statistics is a good one.  Many (most?) types of research rely on some sort of applied research methods, particularly sciences.  Statistics is often used, but very few landscape architects have this level of knowledge.  We may begin to integrate these methods in LA education, but it will still be a far cry from the amount of work (just in general hours of class time and training) required to perform and understand, as advanced level statistics is not for the faint of heart.


Do we want that knowledge, or do we, as mentioned, look to work more with the appropriate scientists, in order to provide the right mix of art and science required for complex contemporary work.  If we need that level of expertise, where does the trade-off come in other things we are taught?  Probably a question for the CELA members, but I guess in the end, it comes down to the questions we are asking in our design processes those we lack answers for.  As McCoy mentions, they at Andropogon seek additional knowledge from experts for:

“…soils and soil biology (here, they are interested in “how what’s under the ground affects what’s above the ground”); habitat (“how do we define this?”); native plants (“can they succeed on green roofs?”); climate change; urban heat islands; assisted migration; and plant provenance and ecotypes.”

As a graduate of a State school with a very specific and finely honed technical basis, I had a concentration) in Natural Resource management (this was North Dakota State University where i graduated in 1997).  While it wasn’t as refined in terms of how the information related specifically back to design, and in modern terms wasn’t ecological restoration, it was a preliminary ‘ecological’ education that immersed us in systems, soils, plant ecology, biology, and other natural sciences.  And it was hard for non-scientists to jump in, as these classes were taught by science professionals, and they didn’t dumb down the content for us designers because they were teaching future scientists.  It was up to us to keep up, and many failed miserably.  I also had one introductory statistics class in undergraduate education, which was a good overview of how statistical methods work, what methods are out there, and what problems they can be applied to.  Did it make me able to perform complex statistical models?  No way, but it did give me general understanding of what is possible.


Later, in my doctoral studies in Urban Studies we learned in much greater detail a number of research methods and tools, with quantitative and qualitative requirements, including statistics, part of the basic core knowledge.  It was assumed that we were all going to be researchers and scientists, and thus a fundamental skill to have to conduct and interpret research.  I gravitated, like many designers I imagine, to GIS based spatial statistics as preferred methodology, because they are both easily applicable at various scales (from the site to urban region), and more easily grasped. That said, there are a number of social- or biological-science specific methods that would be applicable to landscape architecture and ecological design that may not be spatially based.

One side of the equation is designers understanding the tools and methods (or applying these) relevant to the sciences.  In this case, the other side of the coin is the innate question of legibility and communication (or dare I say relevance) from scientists working on research and how this applies to research.  Ideas need to be able to inform practice, and be accessible to new audiences beyond the academic cycles.  This means certain types of research that stems from actual design questions, monitoring of projects through post-occupancy evaluation, etc.  One benefit of these higher level collaborations is the blending of creative communication and graphic knowledge with the sciences – which makes ideas and concepts more accessible to designers and clients.  Another is perhaps more access to the research (both intellectually and in terms of $$$) as it is often difficult and costly to be up on the latest trends and issues if you are not in academia.

As Patricia Kemper mentions, surveys of master’s level LA program students shows that “while landscape students are getting exposed to the concepts of ecological restoration, they are not typically being taught nuts and bolts of ecological restoration practice.”  What those nuts and bolts are is fundamental to an educated and relevant set of future professionals?  Err to the side of broad education w/ exposure to a wide array of subjects and we are marginalized for lack of technical specialist knowledge.  Err on the side of ecological specialization and we becomes very skilled at a few things, but suffer from lack of relevance to wider issues.

A dilemma for us all as we grapple with what to learn and to what degree, particularly in professions such as landscape architecture and urbanism that require on many levels a broad foundation of knowledge.  What you were required to know as a professional has changed much since i started school over 20 years ago, and will continue to do so.  The conversations of art versus science has quieted somewhat and there is now shared concept that both are important.  We’re still figuring out the integration (consilience) but that will continue to evolve.  Does the pendulum swing too far back towards science and causes us to lose the fundamental unique perspective we bring to projects? I hope not, as we definitely need additional knowledge to stay relevant, but we also do best as unifiers and synthesizers, big-picture thinkers, problem solvers, and visionaries.

A Bit on Biomimicry

Since reading Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry back in 1997, I’ve been simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by the conceptual positioning and posturing of the proponents of biomimicry. Don’t get me wrong, i think the idea of biomimicry has much potential in design, particularly product invention, industrial design, and architecture. What i have a hard time wrapping my brain around is how to differentiate biomimicry (emulating nature’s processes for application to objects – products, buildings, etc.) with the seemingly similar ecological design (emulating nature’s processes for application to the landscape).  The former is a new and exciting field or inquiry that can expand our thinking about solving problems.  The latter is an older and exciting field that continues to expand our thinking about solving problems.


I often struggle with the inherent conflict in determining the specifics applications in a landscape setting.  Beyond the idea that ‘everything is nature’, we’re talking about a broader idea of applicability to the practice of landscape architect that includes context.  The goal of landscape architecture is broad, but the tools we use, and the products we create, are often so closely aligned as to blur the boundaries between agency and ecology.  The continuum of built work goes from the very natural (restoration) to the very urban (plazas), and means we construct everything from systems to objects, and often, much of both simulateously.


It’s hard to separate process from product, and the use of living elements in designs (rather than static materials) complicates this further. It’s hard also to separate scope – as the milieu of landscape is vast and sometimes all-encompassing. This dilemma is perhaps less of an issue in the very urban, but as we expand sites to provide multiple overlapping functions of ecology and utility, it becomes harder to, particularly as we get into restoration.  The on-going discussions about the pastoral mimicry of Olmsted (and Picturesque English Gardens)  that was highly constructed, such as Central Park (below) or the Back Bay Fens (above) and is now mistaken for ‘nature’ as elaborated by Spirn (and covered in an old essay of mine here).


This isn’t to say that biomimicry is not relevant to the profession and context of the landscape.  To me it’s a given, but the language to explain the connection is still escaping my grasp.   It is more of a stretch to say ‘I used biomimicry to determine the natural flow patterns of this site’ rather than ‘I used biomimicry to make glue inspired by the gooey outer layer of a slug’.  One to me is clearly biomimicry (nature process inspires biological approach to product design).  The difference i think is that the leap from natural precedent to ‘product’ is easier than from natural precedent to natural analog as landscape.  The natural flow patterns of the site are there for the revealing and part of good site context/analysis, and looking to historical origins for inspiration is just good design (or competent design i should say).  Restoration, if that is the goal of a site, uses other models and precedents of successful healthy waterways, functions, vegetation.  It is a form is mimicry in a sense, but isn’t that was all landscape architecture is?  Or is it not mimicking nature when your output IS that same nature?


I’m also not saying that the proponents of biomimicry don’t willfully admit this nuance, but it’s often the case as someone positioning this ‘new’ and ‘improved’ process as some improved methodology, when in fact it’s not new or improved. I dug up some info that seems relevant for some context in furthering this understanding. Per the Biomimicry 3.8 website.

“Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”

The 3.8 stands for the “more than 3.8 billion years that life has been adapting and evolving to changing conditions on the planet since the very first life forms emerged.” The other informational website from Biomimicry 3.8 is AskNature, which, according to the site, is an “online inspiration source for the biomimicry community. Think of it as your home habitat—whether you’re a biologist who wants to share what you know about an amazing organism, or a designer, architect, engineer, or chemist looking for planet-friendly solutions. AskNature is where biology and design cross-pollinate, so bio-inspired breakthroughs can be born.”

biomimicry_primerThe looking to our long history for ideas and inspiration is great.  The difficulty for me is resolving the idea of looking to nature for process and patterns (which has been happening for milennia and is inherent in site observation, i.e. genius loci) to this ‘new’ science of emulation (which to me is what designers have also been doing for milennia using nature as model). The proponents of biomimicry have done a reasonably good job of communicating the concept and some of it’s limitations. They’ve also done a great job of marketing what are age-old concepts into a ‘new’ discipline or approach (or at least a money-making endeavor).

Benyus has a Primer on Biomimicry with some more concrete discussion and examples, as well as connections to other disciplines and movements.  The language of learning from nature and humility are good reminders to think outside our anthropocentric viewpoint.  As mentioned:

“The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with:  energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, collaboration, and more.”

As we look for inspiration and ‘new mentors’ to guide us, we can bring in other methodologies (such as Cradle to Cradle design or Living Building Challenge), and that all of the interwoven theories are complementary.  The difference in emulation vs. copying is mentioned as well by Benyus:  “Biomimics may study a spider to learn about sensing, fiber manufacturing, adhesion, or tensegrity, but we are not actually trying to recreate the spider.  What we’re trying to emulate are the design principles and living lessons of the spider.”  Again, this brings up context – as in landscape the system and materials are the product of the design – so it’s more difficult to reconcile this, because we are actually trying to recreate the spider in that case.

There are three levels that are mentioned as well, which is instructive.  The first is mimicking of natural form.  The second is to mimic natural process, or how something is made.  The final level is to mimic natural ecosystems, which brings in the larger context and connections with other systems. The end result is essentially a determination of fitness, where the outcome is more self-sustaining and regenerative that other options.

Other distinctions are made between biomimicry and the subjects of bio-utilization (harvesting and using biological products) and bio-assisted technologies (which “involve domesticating an organism to accomplish a function”).  Biomimicy is to consult, not to co-opt, and to contribute to, in the words of Wes Jackson, “a deepening conversation with the organism.”  The concept of precedent is vital as well, and acknowledged by Benyus in the primer.

“…biomimicry was not new to the human species; in fact there was a time when our very survival depended on noticing and mimicking successful organisms… this latest appearance of biomimicry is not an invention, it’s a remembering.”

There’s a history of this work past the indigenous, to include designers like da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frei Otto, Gaudi, Olmsted, and Bucky Fuller.  The lack of a coherent body of scholarship and study meant this was singular geniuses working in isolation, one-off cases rather than movements.  The goal and the desire now is consolidation of thought, framing biomimicry as a force and cultural meme.  It is also relevant and perhaps more appropriately interwoven into landscape architecture and urbanism because it deals with many of the same issues, namely the nature/culture dialogue.


One specific element that i remember loving from the original book, is the concept of perennial agriculture (a la Wes Jackson), and the ability to ‘grow food like a prairie.’ This makes a lot of sense and is exciting as a biomimicry project – and perhaps has analogs in landscape architecture through outputs like permaculture that can be applied to provide productive sites and more self-sustaining plant palettes. vk_polycultureOther examples, such as the Nature’s Strategies for Managing Stormwater in the Willamette Valley: Genius of Place Project Report provide more context for this – but in execution don’t really capture (or at least only scratch the surface of) what the potential is.  I’m going to post separately on this report later, but it’s instructive on the gaps between determining ‘functions’ that exist in nature and translating them into solutions – rather than just employing them.

One case from the workshop was the function of downed wood,  and the function that it provides for water management.  If you study the function, as seen the diagram from the report below, you get a good sense of what’s happening in nature as a baseline.


There was a perceptual disconnect between the idea of adapting this to a new thing (perhaps a in situ filter using the ideas of long-hollow cells) rather than just justifying why we would place or keep in place downed wood as part of a design.  there’s no need to mimic something when it’s possible to use the actual thing – which is again part of the issue of applicability in landscape settings.  The conversation spun around this (let’s place wood in cities) but was harded to get to new ideas generated from the discussion.  You probably won’t propose laying  dead wood laying around an urban plaza… but perhaps you could add the additional storage and transport potential into a bio-inspired piece of site furniture.

To say that we’re trying to mimick the function of the pre-development condition, in this case temperate rainforest.  If that’s the case, is it biomimicry to look to the function of a forest for evaporation, infiltration, etc. and try to capture this – much as is done in pre-/post- engineering calculations?   Would the concept of say, a green street bioretention facility be ‘biomimicry’ for using a wetland metaphor in an urban context?  Does a green wall mimic a vegetated cliff face to provide shading and cooling?


I think the direct connection of biomimicry to landscape architecture is the next step – so finding case studies specific to the scale and context appropriate to our work.  The root of bios (life) and mimesis (imitation) is a simple analogy that can be integrated into a number of processes – so i think the issue is that the concept has now become the brand (as things will go).  So maybe it’s just semantics and we’re all, as landscape architects or bio-inspired designers, scientists, inventors and engineers, biomimics?