Landscape, Design, and the Renewal of Ecological Intelligence
By William McDonough & Michael Braungart
Imagine seeking revelations on the weedy edge of a K-mart parking lot. It may sound absurd on the face of it, but there is a long tradition of meditating on landscapes extremely antagonistic to life in order to understand life itself. In the Biblical tradition, the pilgrimage to the desert wilderness is seen as a journey to a barren, forbidding place that nonetheless offers a vision of renewal. “Going to the mountain” has become parlance for having something serious to think about. The inhospitable places of the contemporary world—brownfields, landfills, abandoned neighborhoods—are the work of human hands, but they too are natural landscapes with a revelatory power all their own. The expanse of asphalt surrounding a strip mall may express ignorance of the living Earth, but it is a shaping of land by earthly creatures. Like a beaver dam or an anthill, it is rich with information and metaphor about the relation between the laws of nature and the design of the world we inhabit. A lot of this information may be negative feedback—the asphalt heating up in the noonday sun, for example—but to ignore the signals of human presence is to miss an opportunity to engage the extremities of the landscapes we have created and, by design, to lay the foundation for their renewal.
Seeing hope in the extremities of the human world begins with our perception of landscape. For North Americans the landscapes most often associated with renewal are the iconic images of the sublime and distant wilderness. Wallace Stegner captured this sense of the wild in his “Wilderness Letter” of 1960. When Stegner wrote his famous plea for wild country, the daily lives of most Americans were so remote from the landscapes of mountain, forest, and tallgrass prairie he was obliged to appeal for the preservation of the idea of wilderness. If the wild was no longer the landscape against which we took our measure, nor even a place we knew, he wrote, “the reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.”
“We simply need that wild country available to us,” he continued, “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
He was right, of course. Wild places are sacred, and even infrequent pilgrimages to see them can inspire a sense of wonder and a reverence for life.
But perhaps we have taken Stegner too literally. Perhaps a distant wilderness, an idea of wild country, positions nature too far from our daily lives. Stegner himself was intimate with his surroundings; yet North Americans tend to think that true nature can only be found on the pristine, remote extremities of civilization and that these places have little to do with the everyday human world. Culture is here, nature far away. The trouble is not with protecting and preserving wilderness. It’s that the design of the world we inhabit—our communities, our workplaces, our economy—is so impermeable to nature it is all too easy to leave our reverence in the parking lots of national parks.
This separation from natural landscapes, our sense of looking in from the edge, is reinforced by the picturesque, the sense of the land as a static backdrop. But landscape has more lively meanings, too. Tracing the word’s deeper roots, the landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn finds meanings that suggest that landscape is in every sense our home. In Danish, German and Old English, she writes, “landscape associates people and place.” Land “means both a place and the people living there,” and the roots of scape suggest an active, sensual, aesthetic partnership with other life.
Indeed, writes Spirn, “all living things share the same space, all make landscape.” For humans, to dwell in a place, to cultivate soil or build a town, is to be a “co-author” of landscape with trees, wind, water, plants, and animals. A deep knowledge of the dynamics of these connections—the language of landscape—can create fluent dialogues with place. Absent contact with the natural world, however, the language of landscape is easily forgotten.
We live in a time when our dialogues with place are not very fluent. The discordant strains, some subtle, some ghastly, are written on the landscape. They may be unnoticeable without a sense of history, as in the enclosing of the central lawn of the University of Virginia in 1890, which compromised the openness of Thomas Jefferson’s design and obscured the school’s relationship to the surrounding countryside and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. In Jefferson’s original plan, notes Spirn, the open lawn “linked two sources of knowledge: books and nature.” Notes of discord may also sound an absence, as on the naked streets of cities where to plant a tree or to garden is to enter a Byzantine world of regulations designed to keep nature at bay. These are the more subtle expressions of dissonance. Others scream. There are, for example, the extremities of the worlds we protect and those we decide to waste: the majesty of Rocky Mountain National Park and Yucca Mountain, the proposed site of a future nuclear waste dump on sacred Shoshone land; the astonishing heights of Denali and the equally astonishing Fresh Kills, the 2,000-acre landfill on the marshlands of Staten Island, a mountain of trash so big it is the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard. And sometimes these landscapes are one, as on the hallowed slopes of Mount Everest where sherpas last year hauled out from a high-elevation Base Camp more than four tons of discarded oxygen bottles, garbage, and human waste.
None of us need look too far to see some element of these extremities; contemporary architecture recapitulates them in the built environment. Designers, architects, landscape architects, and engineers, after all, mediate the boundary between people and nature. Working with mass, membrane, and transparency, the designs of buildings and grounds are either responsive to place—which tends to engage people and materials in dialogues with the natural world—or exist in stark isolation from their surroundings. The latter is the industrial norm. Many architects today, for example, no longer rely on the sun to heat or illuminate buildings and consequently few know how to find true South, let alone converse with landscape. And so we find in our homes, cities, and workplaces the disconnection between culture and nature.
At its most extreme, this disconnection yields artifacts like Biosphere 2, a landscape co-authored not with the surrounding Sonoran Desert, but with a dream of outer space, a fantasy marriage between the worlds of EPCOT (Experimental Prototypical Community of Tomorrow) and ecology. Conceived to test the feasibility of a self-sustaining space colony, the glass and aluminum domes of the three-acre Biosphere 2 were built to re-create the Earth’s natural systems in a completely sealed-off, human-made world. As reported in The New York Times, “the aim was to have human inhabitants thrive in a miniature world made of sea, savanna, mangrove swamp, rain forest, desert and farm, the areas and atmospheres interacting to form a totally independent life-support system.”
In September 1991, the first crew of eight Biospherians was sealed inside the structure; as their first year drew to a close, recalled the Times report, things began to go awry. Air temperatures soared. Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels fluctuated wildly. Brittle tree limbs collapsed and desert became chaparral. All the pollinators died, as did 19 of 25 vertebrate species. The only insects to survive were katydids, cockroaches, and an exotic species of ant known as Paratrechina longicornus—the crazy ant—which swarmed over every ecosystem in the enclosure. During the second year of the crew’s stay, the complex needed to be regularly resuscitated with oxygen and by 1994 attempts at self-sufficient living were abandoned. Despite annual energy inputs costing up to $1 million, the regulation of biogeochemical cycles in a closed ecosystem proved to be more complex than imagined.
While the designers of Biosphere 2 hoped to create a hermetically sealed building—that was the purpose of their experiment—we can find this an instructive cautionary tale. In some imaginations the fantasy of Biosphere 2 suggests that we are actually capable of reinventing and controlling the natural systems that have evolved over billions of years to create life on Earth. Such a view treats us as little more than machines, which need only regulated nutrient flows to survive, but don’t need an unobstructed view of the sky, or the feel of a natural breeze on the skin, or the taste of fresh fruit from a nearby tree rooted in the deep, inimitable microcosmos of the Earth’s soil.
This is not to gainsay technology or scientific inquiry; both are crucial to the human prospect. But in these technologically marvelous times we would do well to consider what we intend with our technical innovations. The unexamined innovations of the Industrial Revolution gave us a civilization that uses technology to overcome the rules of the natural world and, along with astonishing wealth, we got a century of extraordinary ecological decline. Indeed, the enthusiasts of space colonies need only travel to the copper mines of Chile or the nickel mines of Ontario to find a landscape devoid of earthly life. Sadly, we don’t need to go so far to see the world’s unraveling.
Barren landscapes, however, are not the inevitable outcome of the human presence in the world. They are instead the result of design failures that express just how little we know of our place on Earth. But design can also express ecological intelligence, which is rooted in the intention to understand the nature of interdependence rather than the application of brute force. Attuned to the flow of natural processes, ecologically intelligent design, we could say, is the practice of the language of landscape, the performance of fluent dialogues with place. An ecologically intelligent designer, rather than shutting the world out, attends to the way nature works, seeking information from the unique characteristics of locale. The availability of sunlight, shade, and water; the subtleties of climate and terrain; the health of local birds, flowers, and grasses all become fundamental to design. And when the making of a broad spectrum of things—from buildings and energy systems to cities and regional plans—is informed by a mindfulness to the particularities of place, we might begin to experience nature’s re-emergence in our everyday lives and see the landscape anew.
Exploring the use of mass, membrane, and transparency in architecture reveals how design can participate in landscape. Biosphere 2 is an extreme example of an impermeable membrane, but it is really only the logical extension of the controlled environment of a Phoenix high-rise, which uses glass to create the illusion of transparency. The windows provide distant views but don’t open; people are trapped indoors while the heat of the sun pours in and air conditioning creates a habitable interior world. But there is a signal of a new design strategy in another way of living in the desert, practiced by a culture that has perfected the art of permeability—the Bedouins.
Bedu is the Arabic word for “inhabitant of the desert.” For centuries, the Bedouin tribes of the Middle East migrated from oasis to oasis in the deserts of Arabia and the Sinai. They moved about in a land in which every element of survival—food, water, soil, energy—was devastatingly rare. And yet the culture that emerged from these extremities could hardly be called arid. Instead, from a deep understanding of the harsh realities of the land grew both a fierce protectiveness of territory and a rich tradition of music, poetry, hospitality, and elegant design.
The Bedouin tent, for example, shows how simple and elegant—how suited to locale—good design can be. On the move in their migratory rounds, the Bedouins needed shelter that was both portable and reliable in a variety of conditions. On the plains of the Sinai, temperatures often rise above 120˚F. There is neither shade nor breeze. But the black Bedouin tent of coarsely woven goat hair provides a breathing membrane. The black surface creates a deep shade while the coarse weave diffuses the sunlight, creating a beautifully illuminated interior. As the sun heats the dark fabric, hot air rises above the tent and air from inside is drawn out, in effect creating a cooling breeze. When it rains—as even in the desert it sometimes does—the woven fibers swell, the tiny holes in the fabric close, and the structure becomes tight. The tent is lightweight and portable and can be easily repaired; the fabric factory—the goats—followed the Bedouins around, providing valuable wool while transforming the botany of the desert into horn, skins, meat, milk, butter, and cheese. When the tent wears out, it can be composted, returning nutrients to the precious soil of a river valley oasis. This ingenious design, locally relevant and culturally rich, makes the desert skyscraper’s stark separation from local material and energy flows look downright primitive.
Most Western buildings, like high-rises of glass and steel, are designed without a thought for locale. There is, however, a vernacular tradition that can still be drawn on to begin to reconnect the human habitat with the natural world. Vernacular architecture is often thought to be the poor country cousin of “real” architecture—the happenstance outcome of local tinkering rightfully overshadowed by the world’s great buildings. As Nicholas Pesner famously said, “a bicycle shed is a building; a cathedral is architecture.” But while we venerate the beauty of our soaring cathedrals and museums, we might also begin to think of vernacular architecture as a rich and evolving aesthetic tradition in its own right, an art that elegantly expresses “the native language of the region.”
In the vernacular tradition, good design springs from what fits. In New England, for example, the traditional saltbox house provided shelter from the extremities of the northern winter by responding to what nature allowed and offered. The house was built with a high south wall with many windows to take full advantage of the light of the sun. A steep roof shed driving rain. The hearth was placed in the center of the house so that the warmth radiating from the heated mass of the chimney would not be stolen by bitter winds buffeting the outer walls. On the north side of the house evergreens were planted to further protect it from harsh winter weather. And on the southwest, a maple tree provided shade in the summer and sugar in the spring. The trees became an essential part of the house and the house a part of the landscape. If human artifice is seen as an artifact of nature, they are one.
Working with the educator David Orr at Oberlin College, we designed a new environmental studies center that is not only sensitive to locale, but is itself like a tree: a building enmeshed in local energy flows that accrues solar energy, purifies water, and provides habitat for native species. The energy of the sun is collected with rooftop solar cells and pours through southwest facing windows into a two-story atrium, lighting the public gathering areas. Wastewater is purified by a constructed marsh-like ecosystem that breaks down and digests organic material and releases clean, safe water. An earthen berm protects the north side of the center from harsh weather, as do the young trees in the newly planted forest grove, which has begun the long process of re-establishing the habitat of the building’s northern Ohio location. And even though the interior feels much like an outdoor classroom—it’s lit by the sun and refreshed with fragrant breezes—the students spend much of their time outside tending the garden and orchard. The building offers students and teachers ongoing participation in natural processes.
Perhaps the most moving lesson imparted by the building is that the human presence in the landscape can be regenerative. Not simply benign or less bad, but positive, vital and good. This is not a rhetorical lesson. At Oberlin, habits of mind grow out of daily interactions with wind, water, soil, and trees; they become the skills and knowledge that inform intelligent design. Those skills can be carried many places, allowing an engagement with the living presence of not just the picturesque or the pastoral but a mosaic of extreme landscapes in need of restoration: landfills, crumbling neighborhoods, industrial sites, old cities rent by superhighways. This is the new geography of hope.
On 5 th Avenue in Manhattan, if you look north or south from around 74th Street, you may see sailing over the uptown traffic an enormous red-tailed hawk. Red-tails have been living on the 12th story ledge of a building on the east side of 5th Avenue for nearly a decade now and their nest, a big, shapely tangle of sticks, is visible from the street. If you’re lucky, or just patient, you may see the hawks perched on a balcony railing or gliding from the nest on airborne hunts for pigeons and songbirds in nearby Central Park.
It’s not what most people expect to find in New York—in fact it’s miraculous to behold—but the hawks are hardly alone in reclaiming a perch in the city. Peregrine falcons, once nearly extinct, nest on skyscrapers and bridges. Egrets, herons, and bitterns have returned to the islands of the East River and New York Harbor. Snowy owls, notes Anne Matthews, a chronicler of wild New York, hunt rabbits along the runways of JFK International Airport. And along with the locals, “migrating birds fly over Manhattan nearly every night of the year.”
The presence of wild birds in New York is just the most visible evidence that the city is a complex, evolving ecosystem. A 40-island archipelago where the surge of tidal currents has never ceased, where sea air drifts down Brooklyn subway steps, New York is an organism embedded in nature. Still, the return of wild creatures is a striking reminder. North American cities have always been most strongly connected to the wild and the rural by the flow of raw materials, goods, and waste. As the historian William Cronon tells it, the story of cities is the story of the economic and ecological relationships between a metropolis and its rural hinterland. Typically, a city’s economic life transforms the landscape in ways that are not terribly friendly to wild animals, whether they live within urban borders or in the far off landscapes that are the source of metropolitan wealth. In most cases, the animals aren’t moving in, they’re moving out.
Consider 19th century Chicago. In Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon traces how Chicago’s grain, meat, and timber markets transformed the landscape of the West. Railroads, grain elevators, cow pastures, stockyards, feedlots, and wheat farms stretching from Illinois to the Rocky Mountains all emerged in relation to Chicago’s markets. All of these landscapes of production created a “gritty web of material connections” that fed, clothed, and sheltered the people of Chicago and its hinterland, many of whom enjoyed the benefits of a thriving culture. But not without cost. The harvest of commodities also created a bevy of “ghost landscapes” on both ends of the rails that carried nature to market. On one end, the cut over white pine forests of Wisconsin, the plowed under tallgrass prairie, and the slaughter of the bison. On the other, the hovering dark cloud of coal smoke, the stench of meatpacking, the sorrow of tenement dwellings in the Great Grey City. All of which is to say that landscapes rural, urban, wild, and industrial share a common fate: To do well by one, we must do well by all.
We’d like to suggest that each of these landscapes can be a healthy, generative place, a place that allows people and nature to fruitfully co-exist. The Industrial Revolution is not the model by which we gauge our hopes. The conflicts between nature and industry evident in Chicago’s story—the same conflicts that have yielded ghost landscapes all over the world—were not the result of a grand, carefully conceived plan. Instead, they took place gradually as industrialists, engineers, and designers tried to solve problems and take immediate advantage of what they considered to be opportunities in a period of massive and rapid change. Few foresaw the exhaustion of the Earth’s resources or appreciated the true beneficence of its natural systems. The ways in which natural resources were used to produce goods reflected the spirit of the day—and yielded a host of unintended, yet tragic consequences. Today, design can reflect our growing knowledge of the living Earth, allowing participation in landscape that not only renew our engagement with the natural world, but restore the land itself.
Conception of place is the foundation of ecological intelligence. With Earth in mind our relation to the landscapes we use changes dramatically. Consider, for example, the Menomonees of Wisconsin, a tribe that has been harvesting wood for generations using a method of logging that allows forests to thrive. Conventional logging operations, like those that cut timber during Chicago’s boom years, are focused on the single-purpose, utilitarian goal of producing a certain amount of wood pulp. Little attention is given to nesting birds, the diversity of microorganisms in the soil, or the headwater streams that emerge in the shadows of the forest canopy. The result is a clear-cut landscape devoid of the rich diversity of life. The Menomonee’s, on the other hand, principally cut only the weaker trees, leaving the strong mother trees and preserving connectivity in the upper canopy for birds and arboreal animals. On the ground, the living system of the forest also remains intact. There is sunlight and shade, the nutrient cycles are uninterrupted, and water flows from the land as it has for generations. The forest remains a forest, a celebration of abundance and biota, shadow and life.
This strategy has been enormously productive. In the 1870s, the Menomonee identified 1.3 billion standing board feet of timber—what, in the timber industry, is tellingly known as stumpage—on a 235,000 acre reservation. Over the years, they have harvested 2.25 billion board feet and there are 1.7 billion standing. One might say they have figured out what the forest can productively offer them.
Industry, too, can be a regenerative force. When designers employ the intelligence of natural systems—the abundance of the sun’s energy, the effectiveness of nutrient cycling—both factories and manufactured products can nourish rather than deplete the world. We are currently leading a team restoring an industrial site, for example, that at one time would have been abandoned. Built more than 75 years ago, the site was one of the most productive in the world. By the end of the 20th century, however, it had become a brownfield, a sprawling wasteland of dilapidated buildings, leaky pipes, and old equipment. The land was contaminated, bare of all but the most persistent vegetation, and a nearby river was badly polluted. The company could have fenced off the site and built a new factory where land and labor are cheap. Instead, it decided to transform it into a healthy, productive, life-supporting place.
The new plant we’re designing will feature skylights for daylighting the factory floor and a roof covered with growing plants. The “living roof” will provide habitat for birds, insects, and microorganisms and, in concert with porous paving and a series of constructed wetlands and swales, will control and filter stormwater run-off. Native grasses and other plants will be used to rid the soil of contaminants and thousands of trees will be planted to create habitat for songbirds and aid in the bio-remediation. It is a landscape of renewal.
No gesture of restoration is trivial. Yet renewing the industrial landscape is certainly deepened when all the ways in which we use energy and materials are in harmony with the larger patterns of life. That’s why we’ve begun to create products designed with the same care as the ecologically intelligent factories that manufacture them, products made with materials that, like the blossoms of a fruit tree, provide nourishment for something new after each useful life. The carpeting used in the Oberlin College building, for example, is leased from a manufacturer that will retrieve and reuse the materials for new, high-quality carpets. The upholstery fabric used for the auditorium chairs is biodegradable; when the fabric needs to be replaced it is removed from the frame of the chair and becomes food for the garden. We call these discrete material loops the “technical metabolism” and the “biological metabolism,” and their elements, biological and technical “nutrients.” When all manufactured products and materials are designed as nutrients that flow in these closed loop cycles, we will be able to celebrate, rather than lament, the human ecological footprint.
Imagine the fruits of such a shift on a large scale. Imagine a garden metropolis, a city of buildings like trees. To begin, even a single building like a tree in an urban neighborhood could spark a meaningful transformation. In communities with an industrial past, such as Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Gowanus neighborhoods, a building designed to be part of nature provides a place for residents to experience firsthand the natural processes that sustain life.
In 19th century Red Hook and Gowanus, like old Chicago, nature was known because nature came to market. In the 1850s, in fact, the warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront stored for shipment to foreign markets the grain grown in Chicago’s hinterland and shipped east via the Erie Canal. In Brooklyn, the grain barges traveled the Gowanus Canal, formerly a creek that meandered through the wetlands of the Red Hook peninsula. Markets and fortunes changed, but the neighborhoods have nearly always been both a hardscrabble town and an industrial vortex, drawing refineries, factories, shipyards, and Robert Moses’ elevated freeways. It’s not an easy place to garden.
Yet, as in Manhattan, there is an emerging sense that nature has a place here. The sprawling rooftops of the old warehouses are wonderful places to invite her return. Blue crabs and pink jellyfish have already returned to the beleaguered canal, the first living creatures seen in the Gowanus in decades. People are returning to the docks, not only to work in new commercial ventures, but to fish, stroll, and watch the waters of Upper New York Bay. A conventional developer might see this landscape as empty, ripe for taking and making; an ecologist might see that it is full of life and possibility. Why not enhance the local web of life? Why not cultivate an urban agricultural district on the rooftops of Red Hook and Gowanus, a network of public gardens that makes visible the vital connections between water, soil, food, and human culture?
One garden might look something like this: Atop an old soap factory a couple of blocks from the canal, a community garden is planted with wildflowers, herbs, and vegetables. A dozen neighbors tend the garden, meeting and working together through the year, producing food for their own families and for the children who attend after school dance classes in the arts center housed below. On the roof solar panels collect the power of the sun, and below, cisterns collect rainwater. The dance studio is daylit, the windows open wide, and sometimes the air is touched with the sent of the sea. Wastewater is purified in an indoor botanical garden on the ground floor, a profoundly meaningful process in a neighborhood that used to flush its sewage into the canal. The flowers brighten the entrance hall, where parents meet their children after class and crowds gather for evening performances of music and dance. Over a day, over a year, for a lifetime, sense and gesture in this small garden world reveal the living layers of landscape.
It may be years before buildings like trees, rooftop gardens, and the return of birds and wildflowers, block by block, reshape the urban landscape. Years, too, before intelligence and attention and the work of our hands heal our rivers, forests, farmlands, and small towns. But the renewal of an old conversation with the natural world has begun. By our own intentions and by grace we will grow more fluent. This is the work and the pleasure of generations to come. Through it we will find our way home and realize, as we grow ever more aware of our place in the landscape, that we have been home all along.
A New Geography of Hope © 2002 William McDonough & Michael Braungart
Extreme Landscape, National Geographic Press