This time of year is always a gift to us pale and cabin-fevered northeastern folk, (or to anyone in the high-latitudes who just suffered months of solar deficiency). The sun is steadily increasing its arc through the sky, which means that for the first time in a long time, I’ve been outside with exposed skin, and I like it. A lot (hence the lack of recent blog posts).
The daffodils and crocuses are hurrying, stretching up their little green fists and smiling into the warm air. The snow is sneaking away back into the darkness, conceding until its return next winter. Its retreat reveals the earth underneath, and where there was a white blanket appears new textures: a patchwork of forests, streams, boulders, footpaths and wetlands, and of course, the ever-present American lawn. So, this time of year while I’m laying in the still wet and cold grasses that surround our built environment, I’m thinking about lawns.
I wonder about how we’ve come to be married to the idea of a lawn, bound by the shackles of maintenance until death do us part. As a student of ecological design, lawns violate some very important design principles, of which I’ve become a disciple. They demand constant energy and material inputs, they decrease biologic diversity and erode soil, they have no useful outputs, and they work against nature, or at least the existing ecology. Yes, they are wonderful for frisbee and cartwheels (I will never demote the importance of such activities), but overall, the American lawn has expanded into an omnipresent landscape of ecological degradation and wasted energy.
Through some poking around on Wikipedia, I’ve since learned that lawns originated in North America via our admiration of England’s wealthy upper class, whose estates featured cascading manicured fields and sweeping green lawns. Thomas Jefferson eventually accomplished this luxurious aesthetic at Monticello, though at today’s lawn standards it was sub-par, since grass seed blends were not readily available and scythes were used to mow. But with persistence, imported and modified seeds, and improved mower technology, the American lawn was born. And thus it became a staple to the Post-war suburban landscape. Levittown, NY has become the archetype for this kind of development, as it was the first mass-produced surburb. Abraham Levitt, the designer and builder, so eloquently summarized this trend, “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.”
And so, through the decades and different development trends, toxins and pesticides, water shortages and contamination, ecological and financial crises, the American lawn lives on. It proudly parades each of its bladed flags throughout the northeastern highlands, the midwestern prairie, the muggy southeastern marshlands, the dry western deserts, and moist and temperate pacific northwest. No matter the eco-region, you can be sure to fine the same blend of Bermudagrass and Kentucky Bluegrass.
I posit this: an evolutionary move away from a strenuous and destructive landscape that continues to consume our precious resources. Instead, lets move forward to one that is productive and regenerative, that will continue to renew without persistent human inputs.
To do this, I think a paradigm shift is in order; one that shakes the notion of lawns as symbols of a higher status. This may be a bit difficult, since status the foundation on which the lawn was so heartily embraced and thus became indoctrinated within the national landscape. And there are still archaic connections between poverty and food growing, with persistent yet subtle stereotypes existing against farmers and gardeners.
Slowly, the change is happening. There are groups such as Food not Lawns, who works with communities to turn grassy backyards into highly productive community spaces. Usually, these are done through organized permablitzes (seems like lots of fun!)
And by golly, even the Wall Street Journal posted an article about the current trend in suburban development. “The trend has its roots in the growing distaste for prototypical suburban sprawl: mile after mile of look-alike homes broken up by the occasional park. The sustainability movement, with its emphasis on conservation, preservation and local food production, has helped, too.”
So yes, it is exhausting to see lawn after lawn in the typical American landscape. But, its more refreshing to see the changes that are beginning to happen, and the growing community of like-minded folks who seek to find a deeper connection with their eco-region.
In my current studies, and in pursuit of my Ecological Design certificate, I need to develop a practicum project. It can be anything, so long as it includes a design process and incorporates ecological design principles.
Sure, I have lots of things in mind: a permaculture garden design for my partner’s parent’s new home, a permaculture garden design for a friend in New Jersey, a permaculture garden design for my dad’s tiny backyard in downtown Stamford, a permaculture garden design for my landlady’s newly acquired undeveloped property….
Catching a theme here? All are permaculture garden designs, all are not for me. Writing down these projects, I get excited; there’s lots of work to be done out there, and people are receptive to hosting regenerative intentional ecologies on their properties! But then, I would inevitably have to detach myself from these projects once completed, and not see the whole system change through time. Also, I’m not ready to experiment in someone else’s turf, even though I trot around thinking that I could. Also, I’ll leave the permaculture garden designs to the PDC class.
So, here’s the real challenge: Design for a twenty-something, semi-nomadic, motor vehicle-dependent, poor, and unsure about the future but enthusiastic anyway, who wants to practice her preaching in a way that allows her to be flexible and mobile, yet ecologically regenerative.
Hi. My name is Emily, and my life is my new design challenge. I’ll intrepidly enter the foggy area of permaculture design, where the solutions are unclear for those who don’t have land or a fat budget. I’ll arm myself with books and naive confidence, and try to be the regenerative designer that I’d someday like to be. I’ll drive off in my car, into the sunset, with comfrey and apple trees growing on the pavement where my tires once were, and elderflowers and honeybees flowing from my tailpipe.
But really, any pointers that I can get would be greatly appreciated. I’m not sure how I’ll approach this challenge. I can be cute, and accumulate mini caricatures of productive design techniques (like a goldfish aquaponics tank, a mini microgreens bed, a tupperware vermiculture bin, plastic bag mushroom cultivation, all that fun stuff…) Or I can approach it from the conceptual root, and re-design my life so that I minimize this time in limbo, and get down to business sooner.
Again, I’m welcoming input.
This post is a critique of the “No Impact Man” experiment, and not necessarily of eco-stunts (of which there are many). I reject this isolationist view of ecological health, and much prefer to be a Pro Impact Woman.
So, I’ll jump right in by saying that I respect, truly, what people like Colin Beavan are doing as a reflection on the current environmental crisis. I will never scold someone’s desire to reduce their negative impacts on the environment. I also don’t want to downplay the importance of bringing global environmental challenges into the awareness of the general public. His work got folks thinking about their relationship to objects, to nature, each other, the world. And that’s certainly nothing to shake a stick at.
And I will also concede that the website has made it clear that the experiment was more “No Net Impact,” and that does imply the acknowledgement of some impact, inevitable by simply staying alive. But still: I’m very disappointed to have tag-lines and buzzwords such as “no-impact” being thrown around in the environmental movement. I’m going to make a case here for “pro-impact,” and hopefully through this positive human-ecology terminology, gain more public support. Speaking of public support, does it really help the cause to self describe as, “a guilty liberal who attempts to save the planet”? *slaps forehead*
And as for the guilt associated with generating waste, again, I don’t want to stand in someone’s way if they’d like to eliminate their landfill waste input. Beavan, when describing his motivations for the lifestyle experiment, said that he wanted to, “find a way to encourage a society that emphasizes a little less self-indulgence.” Fine, I’ll stand with you there, sort-of.
But I would seriously question someone who wastes energy trying to eliminate “waste.” Not one system has zero-output; be it ecologic, social, material, energetic, etc. An output, once holistically understood, is not characterized as a waste, but as a resource. Officially, waste is an excess of an unused resource. Similarly, “consumption” has become a dirty word among many environmentalist groups. And I’ll make the same argument, that no system can survive without some form of consumption. One system consumes the output product of another, and so on.
So, why would we expend our precious energy trying to eliminate the essential elements of how we operate? The problem isn’t “self-indulgence,” we shouldn’t slap ourselves on the wrist for consuming and creating wastes. The problem is the nature of the wastes we produce, and the source of our consumption. Our wastes are toxic, and what we consume has been removed from our awareness. We should instead look to improving our relationship with what we consume and produce, so that we understand their source and destination, respectively. With a more mature relationship to these elements come transparency and awareness, so as to make better decisions. It’s not about ending a linear relationship all together, it’s about bringing it full circle.
And, humans have physiologically evolved as integral parts of the ecology, just as an ecology can prosper under our stewardship. It doesn’t make us healthier to remove us from the ecological contexts that we co-evolved in. We are literally hard-wired to be involved with nature. One example being how our anxiety levels decrease and seratonin levels increase when we interact with soil. And so, it doesn’t feel good to be shamed in light of our shortcomings, and tip-toe around, trying to be a “No Impact Man.” Post Earth Day environmentalism imposes a dichotomy of Humans and Nature, and no sir, I don’t like it. I think it would be far more productive to accept responsibility for our impact, and to enjoy the positive aspects of it. That makes humanity a robust and integral part of the participatory ecology.
Ecological design will try to account for human needs and outputs within the context and appropriateness of place, and bring these elements into a regenerative cycle within the ecology. Successful, regenerative design solutions have allowed humans to consume and output in a healthy, productive way. Ecological design acknowledges and celebrates participatory ecology.
I, along with my fellow stewards, will choose to be a “Pro-Impact Woman, (or Man).” Wherein I won’t deny my consumption or waste, but instead embrace it as part of something larger than myself. And I will try to re-cycle it into the ecology, productively and beautifully.
We are ecology. Accepting that responsibility and increasing our positive impact should be where we exercise our precious human energy, as opposed to shaming our existence and discouraging human-nature interactions in the process.
I don’t really need to start this post describing the why suburban sprawl is an ugly thing, visually and environmentally (although I must admit to a strange hypnotic allure that aerial photography of subdivisions have). It’s a phenomena described in almost any enviro-themed literature, and an iconic image of the destructive American lifestyle. So, we all know what’s going on. And I always feel down and a little depressed when I think about how bad something is, especially when whole-communities and ecological health are at risk. Let’s skip it, shall we?
Instead, I’d prefer to start talking about the alternatives to suburban sprawl. There’s a key concept here; we don’t have to stop growth, we just need to have a better design for it. Ecological designers aren’t necessarily interested in strict land preservation, or ending population growth. They’d like to integrate human and ecological communities in an intelligent way, so as to promote healthy growth for all individuals.
I think its best to describe this design philosophy through talking about case-studies of what designers and communities have done to replace the car-oriented, cheap, and poorly designed modern suburban communities around the country. First, let’s head to Lexington, KY.
The landscape architecture firm, WRT finished the master plan for The Parklands in the city of Lexington, which is a drastically different form of development than the area has seen in decades. The park is an extensive system of urban trails, waterways, and a park drive connecting different area. It will save the 20-mile corridor that borders the city from conventional suburban development, and instead create a space with waterfalls, wetlands, canoe pond, a ropes course, rock climbing, a dog park, playgrounds, and sports fields.
Although no one will live on the property, it is still a statement about smart development. It also showcases how the urban ecological movement can mean more than land preservation. WRT said this about the project, “The Parklands is not a preservation project – the client’s intent has been to place people in nature, and to proactively use open space as an agent in shaping future regional development on a county-wide scale.” I like this idea quite a bit, where the integration of human and natural communities are integrated. See my older post on Urban Regeneration. And although there isn’t room for residences, parks such as this lend themselves to adjacent high-density neighborhoods. Those folks won’t need their own lawn or pool, since there is a massive one for free just down the road!
This concept has been termed “new urbanism” by many, including National Geographic in their nifty little interactive new online suburb. And it’s getting quite a bit of attention from landscape architects and communities, as in the case of the Serenbe Community outside of Atlanta, GA.
Serenbe Community is a new urbanism model for sustainable living, as its creators describe it. The master plan includes commercial zones within “Main Street” style pedestrian paths, interconnected hamlets which include space for 2,500 residents, and agricultural zones, with farm-to-table restaurants within the community. It is a response to typical suburban sprawl seen in area surrounding Atlanta, and as their website describes, “Serenbe’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate how development can accommodate the need for housing with minimal impact on nature—Serenbe’s land plan call for a preservation of at least 70% of the acreage, while accommodating as many or more people as traditional subdivision-style development, which would
disturb nearly 80%.”
Lastly, Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter argues the need for transit villages in Southern California, which is another solution to the seemingly inevitable growth of suburban communities. They said this, “the basic idea is to build shops, housing, and offices together in areas that are well served by public transportation, much like older downtown districts. In the updated transit village version, moderate- to higher-density development is directed to areas within an easy walk of subway and light rail stations as well as areas with quality express and local bus service. Special attention is given to pedestrian comfort and safety in designing streets.”
So, I see that more people are thinking about the suburban lifestyle, and watching the frightful patterns that have developed as a result of growth and poor design. These designs, as alternatives to sprawl, can be region-specific, and address or accommodate the communities that envision them. Thus, they can incorporate the growth and health of the human community, while respecting the ecological communities around them.
Dr. Richard Jackson, Professor and Chair of Environment Health Sciences, UCLA, said the built environment in the U.S. was designed in a way that is "fundamentally unhealthy" in a talk at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The environment is now making it difficult for people to achieve well-being. It's getting so bad that this generation growing up may be the first in American history that has "a shorter life span than their parents." Communities have to be redesigned to "make us all healthier - young or old."
The industrial age for many cities was a transformative one, for many reasons. But of particular interest is the storm water, wastewater, and plumbing technologies that were developed during this time.
There are many criticisms of these systems, although I have to hand it to those guys, it was innovative for the time. In those industrial times, efficiency and production were prioritized, without any consciousness of environmental impacts. Needless to say, these systems are ineffective and wildly outdated. New York, for example, has a combined storm water and sewage treatment system. So, when there’s moderate storm, the system overloads with run-off from the streets. And to prevent infrastructure damage, the city releases untreated combined sewage and urban run-off into the New York Harbor. It’s really awful, and stinky. A big no-no.
Many cities across the world are acknowledging the many problems associated with poorly designed and ill-fitted water systems. At the same time, municipal leaders are noticing the positive impacts of green infrasture and regenerative spaces. The combination of these two design challenges, to increase public green spaces and improve water infrastructure, has got engineers and designers mutually excited. And many communities are already enjoying the new projects and parks that it has created.
Let’s jump into an example that’s close to home. In Yonkers, NY (where yours truly has familial roots), the Saw Mill River was once a wild tributary, running its course through the Taconic landscape. But with the rise of New York’s industry, the river became quickly polluted and no longer viewed as a resource, but a lifeless waterbody that took up valuable space and posed flood threats. It was channelized and buried in a concrete casket, where housing and commercial developments now stand. This river cuts through downtown Yonkers and borders the Bronx. But you wouldn’t have guessed it.
The Saw Mill River Coalition and the City of Yonkers started a project in December 2010, called the Saw Mill River Daylighting project. The design process included community charrettes and inputs from leaders in education, community gatherings, and urban revitaliztion. With its completion, the city will resurrect the waterway, releasing it from the massive culvert that currently contains it. A community park will be part of the evolution from car-oriented downtown commercial zones to pedestrian-friendly community spaces. Not to mention the potential habitat restoration.
There are similar projects, like the Cheonggyecheon River Project in Seoul. This South Korean city remembered the once-revered, flowing waters of the river, that had been buried as a massive storm drain and sewage pathway. The river was recently re-opened, and the storm drains were modernized to allow the river its freedom. There is now a three-mile park that parallels the banks, with both community spaces and riparian habitat buffers. It was one part in a huge urban renewal project that began in 2003. Go Seoul!
In Vancouver, municipal leaders uncovered the Spanish Bank Creek, which at one point was an important waterway for salmon before it was culverted. But the removal of infrastructure and the creation of parks along the banks has lead to “restored riparian habitat that has attracted species such as river otter, mink, eagles and heron; and annual spawning returns occurring since 2001.”
I’m really enjoying this trend in urban waterway revival. I think that a community’s interest in the forgotten rivers, and the energy spent on bringing these sacred places back to life, is a reflection of a changing consciousness. Of course, there are ecological, communal, micro-climatical and financial incentives to complete these projects. But I’d like to think that there is something more. I think that the connection between nature and human communities is finally breaking through the concrete.
All design can, and should, be active engagements with the living processes that surround them. Andy Goldsworthy, who has dramatized natural processes and brought them to the public eye, embraced engaging with nature and celebrating its beauty. He once said this,
“Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap when I work… When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave, these processes continue.”
In a similar way, ecological design brings forth the natural processes that they are designed within. Conversely, conventional designers have made it their mission to hide natural processes, so we lose that awareness of our interconnectedness with nature. While within the confines of current structures, people can not sense the wind direction, feel the climate change seasonally, they lose orientation within their environment. Building technologies are also removed from sight, including the pipes and wires that bring in electricity, food, fuel, and water.
This invisibility of nature has worked itself into a nasty cycle, where these systems (waste, energy, food, water, sewage) become increasingly hidden, and so our ability to understand them decreases. Thus, we lack the general creativity to question their functionality. Sim Van Der Ryn says, “As nature has receded from our daily lives, it has receded from our ethics.”
But incorporating natural processes into the aesthetics of a design is quite powerful, since our awareness and imagination is restored within nature. The built environment is a powerful silent force in daily life, and those designs that articulate, visually, a connection with nature can imply that we has humans must do the same. Design, after-all, transforms awareness.
It is also about bringing nature back into our daily contexts. The dichotomy of “Nature” and “Humans” is a destructive one, since it allows us to conveniently assume that our actions have no affect on the elusive and wild “Nature” that we cannot see. But nature is just as subtle as it is grand, and by weaving it back into our daily interactions, it becomes less of an abstraction. It gives us our sense of place.
The landscape architect Robert Thayer has theorized a new kind of building aesthetic, which informs people about the symbiotic relationships between culture, nature and design. It is called visual ecology, an it promotes design that:
- demystify complex natural processes
- expose natural systems that are often hidden
- emphasize our connections to nature
- increase awareness of the abstractions we impose on the landscape
Berea College in eastern Kentucky is the first university to host an eco-village, designed for student housing, campus childcare, and low-income family housing. It’s design, like so many other ecological designs, exposes natural processes in such a way so that the entire community can continue to learn and interact with the ecology around them. Their systems include an Ecological Machine and constructed wetland for processing greywater, rainwater collection for irrigation of the community gardens, and permaculture food forests. The energy systems are also on-site, with PV arrays, ground source heat pumps, wind turbines, and passive solar design.
And the overall design for this community incorporates the visual acknowledgement of the system components. Residents see the source of the inputs of food, water, and energy. Thus, they can understand the natural processes that drive and create them. Likewise, they understand the impacts of their outputs, like sewage and greywater, (in fact, they put the greywater treatement ponds alongside the childcare facilities!) They then design so that these resources are brought back into the whole system, and thus engage in participatory ecology.
Making nature visible in design reflects a new paradigm, where humans and nature are finally united. Nature and culture, or the natural and built environments, can each be celebrated in the expression of the other.