Recommended Species for Green Infrastructure in the Caribbean

Rain Gardens Site Plan_2016_JJTS

 

The work described herein produced a list of 87 species recommended for use in the design of rain gardens, bioswales, and bioretention cells in the Caribbean Islands.  Plant palette selection for green infrastructure projects in the world tropics is an area of ongoing research that still needs significant work.  Recommended technical specifications for the soils, topographic profiles, and hydraulic structures for water-focused green infrastructure in the tropics are now found in several publications, however, recommendations regarding the plant palette are almost non-existent.  This publication is intended as a useful starting point.

See PDF document link below:

Recommended Species for Rain Gardens-Bioswales-Bioretention Cells in Puerto Rico and Caribbean Islands_Jose J Terrasa-Soler_2016

 

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Nature working for the city: Perspectives on ecological urbanism

Landscape architecture as an occupation, and later as a profession, has only 300 years of history; as a particular human activity, though, it essentially dates back to the emergence of humanity itself.  This activity of human beings – to change their environment for their own survival, prosperity and enjoyment – definitely predates the construction of buildings and contains within itself the intellectual exercise of self-definition.  The modification of the environment by humans, today as 25,000 years ago, always involves some definition or concept of nature in relation to humans.  That is why landscape architecture, and “landscape” itself, is always and primarily a cultural expression.  And nowhere can we see this expression more clearly than through the history of nature in the city.

If we take the book of Genesis as an allegory or interpretation of prehistory, Adam and Eve’s exit out of the Garden of Eden comes to represent the first definition of nature as “other” in the Western tradition.  And, perhaps, the Tower of Babel is the symbol of the “abandonment of nature” by humanity.  However, reconciliation already appears in the form of the “garden-mediator” in the first successful cities that emerged in the Valley of the Tigris and Euphrates.  This “garden-mediator” represents the longing to reengage a domesticated nature and may in many ways have performed the interlocutory role in this new, urban relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

Later, in the Roman city, urban nature takes the form of the civic garden, a space that allows its citizens to conduct the affairs of the polis in a relaxed and familiar context.  And in the medieval town nature is now found in an even more intimate form, enclosed in the walls of the hortus conclusus – a private and safe space for contemplation.

The great cultural changes of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment also transformed the human relationship with the rest of nature in the city.  The great voyages of “discovery” caused a revolution in the understanding of nature and the new trade flows created an urban bourgeois class that delighted in the parks of the mercantile city.  These new large parks in Europe represent not just the material but also the intellectual affluence of bourgeois society and a new theatrical form to display the “dominion” of humans over nature on all corners of the Earth.

Subsequently, the industrial city appeals to nature as savior of the mental and physical health of its citizens.  In this great hygienic enterprise to improve and humanize the industrial city, landscape architecture is born as a profession, championing a reinterpretation of nature as a source of health and wellness, not as a savage that needs enculturation.  This is the time of the Garden City movement and projects such as Central Park (NYC) and the Emerald Necklace (Boston), designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.  By the time the great wars are over the modern city is born and, dazzled by technology as panacea, the city relegates nature (again) to a mere theatrical background and assigns it the role of the hortus ludi – the garden of play and pleasure.

In the late 20th century, in the aftermath of the rejection of modernism in architecture in the 1950s and of the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s, landscape architects and urban designers pondered a new way to see nature in the city.  What if, instead of being merely a “decoration” or the “stage” for relaxation, urban nature actually plays an important role in the city?  What if humans and wildlife could actually coexist in the city for their mutual benefit?

In parallel to these cultural movements, ecology also begins to see in the city the same natural systems that it studied in remote ecosystems.  Visionaries appear, such as Ian McHarg, who wrote the famous book Design with Nature (1969), and even new scientific disciples emerge, such as landscape ecology and urban ecology.

All this evolution of thought and cultural attitudes brings us to the contemporary vision of the ecological city – the city that is planned, designed, built, and operated as what it actually is – an ecosystem.  Nature in the eco-city does not exist merely for the pleasure of the human eye or as theatrical scenery or as decoration for buildings – it exists to perform a job, multiple jobs, actually.  In the ecological city, landscape is the urbanizing medium, the synthesizer and generator of new city fabric (whether it is an addition to or a restructuring of old city fabric).  And “landscape” is understood as the particular and identifiable socio-eco-cultural context where human life occurs; it is not merely vegetation – it is the set of social, natural, and cultural (built) systems that serve as the human environment (and as environment for wildlife or the non-human life of the city).  In the ecological city, landscape is undistinguishable from the city and the natural and cultural (built) exist as a cyborg (living being which is half human and half robot).  In this hybrid condition of the ecological city even buildings and structures are also wildlife habitat.

Fig 1

The eco-city is part of its landscape context and landscape is its urbanizing medium.  Landscape is the synthesizer and generator of new eco-city.

 

This concept of the ecological city, as a cyborg or hybrid between the wild and the constructed, is part of a new eco-functionalist view of the city and a post-conservationist view of nature.  The “natural” elements of the city (or the “wildlife” in it), either on purpose (by design) or not, perform multiple functions that benefit human life.  The organisms that inhabit even the channeled and piped urban river known as the Río Piedras, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, help to oxygenate its water, reduce excess nitrates and phosphates, and reduce water temperature, among the many other services they perform.  These many wild organisms in the Río Piedras not only improve the environmental conditions for humans swimming in the San Juan Bay Estuary but also allow other wildlife to colonize the river and enable them to persist in the city as well, increasing overall biodiversity and improving the overall ecological functioning of the city.

The post-conservationist view of nature holds that, while “nature reserves” are always needed, it is important to recognize that urban and peri-urban nature performs important ecological functions that in many cases are equivalent or superior to those carried out by nature in “reserves.”  In Puerto Rico, we have researchers, like Dr. Ariel Lugo, that have recently focused on the ecological value of urban and peri-urban nature and have shown that the ecological functions it provides are often equivalent to comparable “pristine” ecosystems.  Therefore, it is not enough to preserve wildlife in “reservations,” but urban and peri-urban wildlife also needs to be conserved for a better human environment and to increase the overall biodiversity of our islands.

The ecological functions provided by urban nature are very many and they make life, human and nonhuman, possible in the city (1).  We generally focus on vegetation, but the richness of microbial life in an urban soil, for example, is essential for it to be productive and effective in reducing the levels of pollution that we often see in the city.  The possibility of stormwater infiltrating urban soils and flowing through them, instead of being intercepted and taken quickly to the sea, increases their fertility and enhances their functioning.  In fact, the enhancement of the city’s hydrological cycle supports all of the vital functions of urban nature and increases the overall resiliency of the city.

The ecological city requires for its operation that urban nature is well “tuned” to the social and built (cultural) systems of the city.  The cyborg condition of urban nature – both dependent upon but also contributing to the functioning of built systems – requires a “fine-tuning” that only good design can provide.  Green infrastructure, for example, is just that – a combination of live and constructed elements that together provide greater social benefit and allow greater biodiversity in the city (that a greater number of species are able to coexist).  Put in another way, green infrastructure is “nature designed” doing work in the city.

 

Fig 2

The hybrid or cyborg nature of urban natural systems in the eco-city requires the careful calibration between living and constructed elements through good design.

 

Green infrastructure – whose function is not merely to manage stormwater runoff, but is in fact much more than that – has become the preferred instrument for achieving the objectives of the ecological city or ecological urban design.  For green infrastructure it is meant any system that performs an urban function (transportation, waste removal, temperature control, removal of air pollutants, power generation, stormwater management, etc.) in which active biological organisms participate, and that generates multiple benefits.  In contrast, ordinary infrastructure (or gray infrastructure) always performs a single function.  The well-known and extremely popular High Line in New York City is a great example of green infrastructure not related to stormwater management.  The High Line is not just a transportation corridor but a whole park in the air that inserts nature into the city through a raised platform (former elevated train).

Green infrastructure reaches its full potential in the ecological city when it performs multiple functions simultaneously (2).  Green infrastructure should not simply provide a service, like any other element of infrastructure, but must also create better urban spaces and allow human contact with nature.  In this sense, green infrastructure represents the ideal of the ecological city in enabling urban functions in a friendly way towards wild urban nature and providing a vehicle to restore ecological functions long lost through traditional urban development.

Fig 3

In the green infrastructure plan prepared for La Parguera (see Note 2), the analysis of existing conditions was very important to achieve a balanced design between natural and built systems.

 

At the end of the day, the vision of the ecological city is about creating the right conditions for the coexistence of humans with the rest of nature, in a classical mutualistic relationship.  The hybrid condition of the ecological city also makes it more resilient – better able to flourish under changing conditions (3).  And these changing conditions have already arrived (or have been accelerated) by global climate change.  If our cities do not move to the eco-city model, with modest but steady green infrastructure interventions, it will be very difficult to face the future that our own human activity will bring on the planet.

 

NOTES

  1. See: Forman, Richard T.T.  2014.  Urban Ecology: Science of Cities. New York: Cambridge University Press.  http://www.worldcat.org/title/urban-ecology-science-of-cities/oclc/855977609
  2. See: Terrasa-Soler, J.J., M. Bingen, and L. Lugo-Caro.  2015.  The Caribbean Landscape Cyborg: Designing Green Infrastructure for La Parguera, Puerto Rico.  Chapter 20 In:  Czechowski, D., T. Hauck, and G. Hausladen, eds.  Revising Green Infrastructure: Concepts between Nature and Design.  London: CRC Press / Taylor & Francis.  488 p.  http://www.worldcat.org/search?q=isbn%3A9781482232202
  3. See:  Topos The International Review of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, Issue number 90 (2015), Resilient Cities and Landscapes. http://www.toposmagazine.com/topos-90-resilient-cities-and-landscapes/

 

Originally published in Spanish (on 29 June 2015) at: https://jterrasa.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/la-naturaleza-haciendo-trabajo-en-la-ciudad-perspectivas-para-la-ciudad-ecologica/

 

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Los árboles en el diseño urbano

Condado Beach

 

Una breve nota sobre el uso de los árboles en el diseño urbano, con especial referencia a Puerto Rico.  Ver PDF adjunto:

Árboles en el Diseño Urbano (Terrasa 2014)

 

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La naturaleza haciendo trabajo en la ciudad: perspectivas para la ciudad ecológica.

La arquitectura paisajista como oficio, y luego como profesión, tiene apenas 300 años de historia, pero como actividad humana se remonta esencialmente al surgimiento mismo de la humanidad. Esta actividad del ser humano de modificar su ambiente para su propia supervivencia, prosperidad y disfrute es definitivamente anterior a la construcción de edificios y encierra en sí el ejercicio intelectual de autodefinición. La modificación del ambiente por el ser humano, hoy igual que hace 25,000 años, siempre implica alguna definición o concepto de la naturaleza en relación con el ser humano. Es por esto que la arquitectura del paisaje, y el paisaje mismo, siempre es ante todo una expresión cultural, cosa que vemos claramente a través de la historia de la naturaleza en la ciudad.

Si tomamos el relato de Génesis como una alegoría o interpretación de la prehistoria, la salida de Adán y Eva del Paraíso Terrenal representa esta primera definición de la naturaleza como “otro”, por lo menos en la tradición occidental. La Torre de Babel es quizás el símbolo del “abandono de la naturaleza” por parte de la humanidad. Sin embargo, la reconciliación con ella aparece ya en las primeras ciudades exitosas como Babilonia en la forma del “jardín mediador” – el jardín que representa el anhelo de recuperar la naturaleza perdida domesticándola y que de muchas formas media la relación entre ser humano y el resto de la naturaleza. Posteriormente en la ciudad romana, la naturaleza urbana toma la forma del jardín cívico, ese espacio que permite conducir los asuntos de la polis en un contexto relajado y familiar. Y en la ciudad medieval la naturaleza está encerrada en los muros del hortus conclusus – espacio privado y seguro de contemplación.

Los grandes cambios culturales del Renacimiento y la Ilustración impactaron también la relación con la naturaleza en las ciudades. Los grandes viajes de “descubrimiento” causan una revolución en el entendimiento de la naturaleza y los nuevos flujos comerciales crean una clase urbana burguesa que se deleita en los parques de la ciudad mercantilista. Estos grandes parques burgueses de Europa representan la afluencia, no sólo material sino también intelectual, del momento y una nueva forma teatral de exhibir el “dominio” sobre la naturaleza de todos los rincones de la Tierra.

Posteriormente, la ciudad industrial recurre a la naturaleza como salvadora de la salud mental y física de sus ciudadanos. En esa gran empresa higiénica de mejorar y humanizar la ciudad industrial, nace la arquitectura paisajista como profesión y proyecta una reinterpretación de la naturaleza como fuente de salud y bienestar, no como el salvaje que necesita inculturación. Así surgen movimientos como la Ciudad Jardín (Garden City) y proyectos como el Central Park (NYC) y el Emerald Necklace (Boston), diseñados por Frederick Law Olmsted. Ya la ciudad moderna, deslumbrada por la tecnología como remedio universal, relega la naturaleza urbana a un segundo plano y le asigna el rol del hortus ludi – el jardín del juego y el placer.

A finales del siglo 20, y como secuela del rechazo al movimiento moderno en la arquitectura de los años 1950s y el surgimiento del movimiento ambientalista en los 1960s, los arquitectos paisajistas y diseñadores urbanos se plantean una nueva forma de ver la naturaleza en la ciudad. ¿Qué tal si en vez de ser meramente un “adorno” o el escenario para estar “relax”, la naturaleza urbana tiene una función importante? ¿Por qué no pueden cohabitar en la cuidad, para su mutuo beneficio, el ser humano y la vida silvestre?

En paralelo a estos movimientos culturales, la ecología también empieza a ver en la cuidad los mismos sistemas naturales que estudia en ecosistemas remotos. Aparecen visionarios como Ian McHarg, quien escribió el famoso libro “Design with Nature” (1969), y finalmente aparecen disciplinas nuevas como la ecología del paisaje y la ecología urbana.

Toda esta evolución de pensamiento y actitudes culturales nos trae a la visión contemporánea de la ciudad ecológica – la ciudad que se planifica, diseña, construye y opera como lo que en realidad es, un ecosistema como cualquier otro. En la ciudad ecológica la naturaleza no existe meramente para el placer del ojo humano o como aderezo escenográfico o como adorno de edificios sino que existe para realizar un trabajo, múltiples trabajos en realidad. En la ciudad ecológica el paisaje es el medio urbanizador, ordenador y generador de nueva ciudad (ya sean adiciones o reestructuraciones de la ciudad vieja). Y por paisaje se entiende el ámbito socio-eco-cultural particular e identificable donde ocurre la vida humana; no es meramente la vegetación – es el conjunto de sistemas sociales, naturales y culturales (edificados) que sirven de ambiente humano y de ambiente a la vida silvestre (o vida no-humana) en la ciudad. En la ciudad ecológica el paisaje es parte integral de la ciudad y lo cultural (edificado) y natural existen como un cíborg (ser vivo mitad humano y mitad robot). En esa condición híbrida de la ciudad ecológica hasta los edificios y estructuras son hábitat de vida silvestre.

Fig 1 La ciudad ecológica se enmarca en su contexto paisajístico y en ella el paisaje es el medio urbanizador, ordenador y generador de nueva ciudad.

Este concepto de la ciudad ecológica, como este cíborg o híbrido entre lo silvestre y lo construido, es parte de una nueva visión eco-funcionalista de la ciudad y de una visión post-conservacionista de la naturaleza. Los elementos “naturales” de la ciudad (o la vida silvestre en ella), sea a propósito (por diseño) o no, realizan múltiples funciones que benefician a la vida humana. Los organismos que habitan un río canalizado y semi-entubado como el Río Piedras, por ejemplo, ayudan a oxigenar el agua, disminuir excesos de fosfatos y nitratos y reducir la temperatura del agua, entre muchas otras cosas. No solamente mejoran las condiciones ambientales para los seres humanos que nadan en el Estuario de la Bahía de San Juan sino que permiten que otros organismos colonicen y subsistan en la ciudad también, aumentando la biodiversidad general y mejorando el funcionamiento ecológico de la ciudad.

La visión post-conservacionista de la naturaleza se refiere a que si bien siempre son necesarias las “reservas naturales”, es importante reconocer que la naturaleza urbana y peri-urbana realiza funciones ecológicas importantes y en muchos casos equivalentes o superiores a las que realiza la naturaleza de las “reservas”. En Puerto Rico tenemos investigadores como el Dr. Ariel Lugo que se han enfocado recientemente en el valor ecológico de la naturaleza urbana y peri-urbana y han demostrado que las funciones ecológicas que proveen son equivalentes en muchos casos a ecosistemas “prístinos”. Por lo tanto no es suficiente conservar la vida silvestre en “reservas” sino que la vida silvestre urbana y peri-urbana también hay que conservarla para alcanzar un mejor ambiente humano y aumentar la biodiversidad general del país.

Las funciones ecológicas de la naturaleza urbana son muchísimas y hacen posible la vida, humana y no humana, en la ciudad (1). Generalmente nos enfocamos en la vegetación, pero la riqueza microbiana de un suelo, por ejemplo, es imprescindible para que sea productivo y efectivo en disminuir los niveles de contaminación que muchas veces vemos en la ciudad. La posibilidad de que las aguas de lluvia infiltren los suelos urbanos y fluyan a través de ellos, en vez de ser interceptadas y llevadas rápidamente al mar, aumenta también la fertilidad y funcionamiento de los suelos urbanos y apoya todas las otras funciones vitales de los sistemas naturales urbanos.

La ciudad ecológica depende para su funcionamiento de que la naturaleza urbana esté bien “sintonizada” con los sistemas sociales y culturales (edificados) de la ciudad. La condición de cíborg de esa naturaleza urbana – dependiente de pero contribuyente a la función de los sistemas edificados – requiere un “fine tuning” que sólo puede proveer el buen diseño. La infraestructura verde, por ejemplo, es precisamente eso: la conjunción de elementos vivos y edificados que juntos proveen un mayor beneficio social y que permiten una mayor biodiversidad en la ciudad (que coexistan una mayor cantidad de especies). O dicho de otra forma, la infraestructura verde es “naturaleza diseñada” haciendo trabajo en la ciudad.

Fig 2La naturaleza híbrida o de cíborg que tienen los sistemas naturales urbanos requiere la calibración minuciosa entre elementos vivos y edificados por medio del diseño.

La infraestructura verde – que no meramente es para manejar la escorrentía pluvial sino que es muchísimo más – se ha convertido en el instrumento preferido para alcanzar los objetivos de la ciudad ecológica o del diseño urbano ecológico. Por infraestructura verde se entiende cualquier sistema que realiza una función urbana (transportación, remoción de desperdicios, regulación de temperatura, remoción de contaminantes en el aire, generación de energía, manejo de escorrentía pluvial, etc.) en el que participan activamente organismos biológicos y que genera múltiples beneficios. La infraestructura común y corriente (o infraestructura gris) siempre realiza una sola función. El conocido y extremadamente popular High Line de la ciudad de Nueva York es un gran ejemplo de infraestructura verde no relacionada al manejo de escorrentía pluvial. El High Line no sólo es un corredor de transportación sino todo un parque en el aire que inserta la naturaleza en la ciudad a través de una plataforma elevada (antiguo tren elevado).

La infraestructura verde alcanza su máximo potencial en la ciudad ecológica cuando hace múltiples funciones simultáneamente (2).   La infraestructura verde no simplemente debe proveer un servicio, como cualquier otro elemento de infraestructura, sino que debe también crear mejores espacios urbanos y hacer posible el contacto humano con la naturaleza. En este sentido, la infraestructura verde representa el ideal de la ciudad ecológica en que permite las funciones urbanas de una forma amigable con la naturaleza silvestre y provee un vehículo para restaurar funciones ecológicas perdidas por el desarrollo urbano tradicional.

Fig 3En el plan de infraestructura verde preparado para La Parguera (ver Nota 2) el análisis de las condiciones existentes fue muy importante para lograr un diseño balanceado entre sistemas naturales y sistemas edificados.

Al fin del día, la visión de la ciudad ecológica se trata de crear las condiciones para que el resto de la naturaleza prospere en la ciudad junto al ser humano, en relación clásicamente mutualista. La condición híbrida de la ciudad ecológica la hace también más resiliente – más apta para sobrevivir condiciones cambiantes (3). Y esas condiciones cambiantes ya llegaron (o se han acelerado) con el cambio climático global. Si nuestras ciudades no se mueven al modelo de la ciudad ecológica, con intervenciones modestas pero constantes de infraestructura verde, será muy difícil asumir el futuro que nos traerá nuestra propia actividad humana en el planeta.

Notas:

  1. Ver: Forman, Richard T. T. 2014. Urban Ecology: Science of Cities. New York: Cambridge University Press. http://www.worldcat.org/title/urban-ecology-science-of-cities/oclc/855977609
  2. Ver: Terrasa-Soler, J.J., M. Bingen, and L. Lugo-Caro. 2015. The Caribbean Landscape Cyborg: Designing Green Infrastructure for La Parguera, Puerto Rico. Chapter 20 In: Czechowski, D., T. Hauck, and G. Hausladen, eds. Revising Green Infrastructure: Concepts between Nature and Design. London: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis. 488 p. http://www.worldcat.org/search?q=isbn%3A9781482232202
  3. Ver: Topos The International Review of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, Issue number 90 (2015), Resilient Cities and Landscapes. http://www.toposmagazine.com/topos-90-resilient-cities-and-landscapes/

 

 

 

 

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Landscape as Planes of Continuity

Landscape as planes

 

Landscape can be conceived as a series of continuing planes in space and time. Discontinuities or wrinkles in continuity might be found, but there is always at least one plane in which there is continuity in the landscape. The work of the landscape architect is to modulate those planes of continuity and discontinuity to transmit an idea, to create an aesthetic effect, to create more continuity in the landscape, to repair the landscape, or to reveal other planes in the landscape through discontinuities that reveal them or through new connections that give rise to new continuities that were not there before. By understanding the landscape in terms of continuous and sometimes discontinuous planes, the landscape architect, through the exercise traditionally known as site analysis, can reveal or discover those planes of continuity and those planes of discontinuity and then, given a concept or an idea, develop a conceptual design of how those planes will be related and modulated in the new landscape to be created.

 

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New Book on Green Infrastructure

20140802-115937-43177307.jpg

The book “Revising Green Infrastructure: Concepts Between Nature and Design” will be published in December 2014 by Routledge/CRC Press, London. It provides a fresh look at green infrastructure from the perspective of landscape architecture. Contributors come from all corners of the globe and the editors are members of the landscape architecture faculty at the Technological University of Munich, Germany.

I wrote a chapter of this book with colleagues Mery Bingen and Laura Lugo entitled: “The Caribbean Landscape Cyborg: Designing Green Infrastructure for La Parguera, Puerto Rico”. It tries to provide a tropical and Caribbean perspective of contemporary green infrastructure design in a field dominated by temperate-climate projects.

More information available at the following websites:

Routledge

Amazon

http://envirodesignstudio.com/forthcoming-book-on-green-infrastructure/

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Molecular Landscape Architecture (Paisajismo Molecular)

To Richard T. T. Forman, with great admiration and respect.

Even though during the last 200 years the visual aspects of the design and construction of landscape have predominated, that definitively had not been the case during the rest of human history. Landscape has a utilitarian dimension that, while not completely absent at any time in history, only recently has it been recovered and reinterpreted. Perhaps this has to do with new definitions of landscape and the new spheres of influence of landscape architects. The utilitarian, however, does not have to be at odds with the beautiful, and even a utilitarian landscape such as a vineyard has a great potential for beauty and cultural expression. This reinterpretation of the utilitarian in landscape is at the heart of the recent transformation of the discipline.

The transformation of landscape architecture, which has been from the inside out through the reflection and writings of James Corner, Elizabeth Meyer, and George Descombes, among many others, is also about the response of the discipline to new technologies and cultural demands. A discipline that originated professionally as a calling to “humanize” cities, is now called back to do the same 200 years later, as the world’s population increasingly moves to the cities. These cities are now much denser hi-tech conurbations that must be continuously more efficient and in harmony with their natural context.

Greater understanding of how ecosystems work and how human activities affect them is also a great influencer of contemporary landscape architecture. Ecologists teaching at design schools, such as my mentor Richard T. T. Forman, have influenced the recent generations of landscape architects and have convinced them that landscape architecture must move beyond the purely visual result and towards a complex experience of the phenomenological. It is not that the discipline must abandon its visual methods and traditions, but that the outcome of design must have import beyond the visual experience by truly embracing the complexity of systemic processes, including sociological ones.

As we understand better the immense complexities of urban ecosystems, where natural, built, and social systems interact in myriad ways, the landscape architect must handle new technologies and new meanings, far beyond the ones learned at their old design school.

The increasing availability of information, complex models, and analysis of urban ecosystems and urban sites will make possible in the near future a never before seen sophistication in the design of urban landscapes. One way to look at it is as if the palette of the landscape architect is continuously expanding. This palette increasingly includes non-visual elements and abstractions of processes that will have an enormous impact on the quality of human space in future cities.

Perhaps it is time to develop a Molecular Landscape Architecture – a landscape architecture that can predict the impact of soil selection on a future plaza, and derive a perfect recipe for this new soil, down to the molecular level. A landscape architecture that can predict the successional path of a group of plants, selected by their genetics, such that in 25 years the ecological services of that particular urban forest patch can be maximized. A landscape architecture that can foresee the effects of global climate change such that a new malecón can be designed to last at least a 100 years. A landscape architecture that explores and takes advantage of new, synthetic, “intelligent” materials. A landscape architecture that can design better and better green infrastructure, cyborgs that harmoniously combine the biological and the mechanical, such that energy can be harvested, polluted rainwater can be cleaned, and the heat island effect can be mitigated in our cities.

Nature is always greater than us because we are just a tiny part of it, although, as we now know, we can shake the rudder of this boat in more than one way. Molecular Landscape Architecture is not about “controlling” nature; that is a futile enterprise. It is about utilizing new technology to design better, both for humans and for the rest of nature, by taking into account the fundamental ecological patterns and processes of the landscape, even in our urban landscapes. It is about taking advantage of the microscopic and molecular properties of landscape materials, and understanding how they affect the phenomenological scale. It is about recognizing that the microbial flora in the soil might have as much an impact on the beauty and functionality of a landscape as the pavers that are chosen for it. It is about understanding that by prescribing a particular soil mix and particular construction and installation requirements, among other things, microbial flora in the soil can be predicted and the initial conditions of a successful landscape can be specified.

Our current ability to manipulate molecules and DNA is the same ability to steer whole ecosystems, one molecule at a time. A Molecular Landscape Architecture is the same old art-and-science that we were taught in design school but with additional tools to better predict future outcomes that depend on the performance of complex systems; to better design the initial landscape conditions that will result in a better investment; to better respond to current cultural values and demands; to better express the current understanding of “nature” as something we are inextricably connected to; and so on. Our drawings and models are no longer sufficient. We are in the midst of expanding our horizon as designers because we have new analytical tools and an expanded palette of design elements to choose from.

However, we have to team up with other professionals and take the lead. If we lock ourselves up in our studios, some other profession will take our future. We need to be talking to ecologists that work on applied research and urban ecology; we need to talk to hydrologists; we need to talk to materials scientists, soil scientists, and plant geneticists; we need to talk to sociologists and social psychologists; and so on. We need to look at design interventions not as final conditions but as experiments in prescribing initial conditions. We need models that we can test experimentally. And as experiments, we need to look at the results from design interventions and learn from those results.

Molecular LA_diagram1

Molecular Landscape Architecture might be the future, the not too distant future, of our discipline. But we need to embrace a systems approach to design that goes well beyond lip service and that dives deep into the complexity of an experimental design culture. We have eager partners waiting at the door; some of them have been with us all along. Just ask Richard T. T.

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