Ancient Traditions and Modern Ecological Design

I think we all agree that Albert Einstein was a pretty smart guy.  And just like parents in our adolescent years, he seems to get smarter the older we get.   He once said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Laws of Nature are now informing everything from  “closed loop cycles” in manufacturing to the layout of communities.  This week my friend  Anne Papmehl, President of Ecostrat Communications shares her observations about nature and how biomimcry is the newest, old trend on the books.

[ A blog contribution by  Anne Papmehl, President, Ecostrat Communications]

Back in grad school, I took a course in Italian Renaissance Humanism, where I had to give a  seminar on a literary work by Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472). During my talk, the professor would occasionally interject remarks to give additional information and

"Beauty is the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change without impairing the harmony of the whole."

context. At one point she shared how Alberti, in addition to being an author, artist, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, mathematician and cryptographer (hence the term “Renaissance Man”), was also an architect and contributed what was considered the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance called Ten Books on Architecture (1452). It covers a range of subjects, from history to town planning, and engineering to the philosophy of beauty. One significant point Alberti makes the importance of planning, designing and building with natural landscapes and systems in mind.

 That information stayed with me, and I would often reflect on it as I saw how much of our modern industrial development ran counter to those principles, impoverishing our natural capital with its constant pressure to grow and expand. Recognizing the limitations of our finite earthly system, a number of planners, designers, architects and engineers are borrowing some of this ancient wisdom and merging it with modern day technology to plan, design and build structures that work with rather than against natural systems and processes.

The Scottish born, American residing professor and consultant in landscape architecture, Ian McCarg (1920 – 2001), is one such modern day pioneer. In his seminal book, Design with Nature (1969) he provided a step-by-step guide to breaking down a region to determine appropriate land use and development planning. He advocated that the planner become thoroughly familiar with an area through analysis of soil, climate, hydrology, and developed a mapping system that combined land features criteria (wetland, slope, resource lands, and wilderness, etc.) with cultural values, such as historical preserves, scenic views, recreational stability, and other relevant criteria. (Incidentally, he was also setting the conceptual groundwork for what later became known as geographical information science or geospatial information studies (GIS), which combines cartography, statistical analysis and database technology.)

McHarg upheld the English country style garden as an example that was rooted in an “ecological sensibility that accepted the interwoven worlds of the human and natural and sought to intelligently design human environments in concert with natural conditions of setting, climate and environment.” Not afraid to speak his mind, McHarg argued that the legacy of modern industrial urbanism was “arrogant and destructive” and characterized it as “Dominate and Destroy”.

Another distinguished pioneer in ecological design and sustainable architecture is the Dutch-born, American educated, and California-based designer, planner, author and educator, Sim Van der Ryn ( Underlying his work is the application of principles of physical and social ecology to architecture and environmental design, in everything from single and multi family residential housing, to community centres to office and commercial buildings. Working with other like-minded architects and designers in the late 20th century, he was able to pioneer new technologies, systems, materials and design solutions to create environments that were both responsive to human needs, and sensitive to the natural features and climate.

He founded the Farallones Institute in the 1970s, dedicated to fostering national awareness of “ecologically integrated living design”. The Institute eventually established an urban and rural research/teaching centre, called the Integral Urban House, dedicated to studying energy-efficiency, appropriate technologies, organic agriculture, land restoration, community design, sustainable energy and waste systems, design and construction.

New academic disciplines that reflect the concepts of McHarg, Van der Ryn and others are cropping up at universities and colleges worldwide. They range from earth systems engineering and management (ESEM), which covers a range of subject areas (anthropology, engineering, environmental science, ethics, and philosophy), to ecological design to sustainable architecture. Essentially, these disciplines seek to minimize environmentally destructive impacts of building and designing by integrating and or aligning themselves with living processes.

Examples of such solutions are plentiful, as are examples of not accounting for natural systems in land development. One of the most recent and catastrophic played out in New Orleansin 2005. From the early part of the 20th century, coastal wetlands (which served as a flood water storage area) were dried up with mechanical pumps to make way for development. Gradually, parts of the city started to sink, so state and federal agencies build levees around the city. These levees were not strong enough to contain the massive flood waters from Hurricane Katrina.

As the city started rebuilding, the management of water seemed to be given less importance than new buildings, a situation that distressed Professor Jane Wolff of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. As described in the Spring 2012 University of Toronto Magazine, Dr. Wolff recently joined forces with Professors Elise Shelley and Derek Hoeferlin of Washington University’s School of Architecture to establish “Gutter to Gulf” a masters-level teaching project to generate landscape based solutions to water management in New Orleans as an alternative to the traditional infrastructure solutions such as pumping stations and levees. Students are required to generate ideas that are both technically feasible and politically, socially and economically realistic, some of which could eventually compete with formal proposals that will be submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In fact, the Corps of Engineers itself recently established a formal initiative called Engineering With Nature (EWN). EWN takes advantage of recent advances in engineering and ecology to reduce the demands on limited resources and minimize the environmental footprint, while maximizing economic, social and environmental benefits. One such example is Evia Island,Galveston Bay,Texas, essentially a bird island built from dredged sediment used to deepen navigation channels. Another is the Wilmington Offshore Fisheries Enhancement Structure, a constructed reef built with rock from navigational dredging operations for the Cape Fear River, North Carolina.

Understanding and working with complex, living systems, rather than trying to impose our will with brute force, is a critical guiding principle of the new sustainability era, but the concept is really nothing new. It wasn’t even new in Alberti’s time. The re-discovery of Classical Greek and Roman Antiquity more than a millennium earlier, combined with new humanistic thinking of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, accounted for the rich creative output and scientific discovery ascribed to that era, from Da Vinci to Galileo. Alberti certainly would have drawn from ancient traditions when formulating his views on architecture and town planning.

Similarly, in creating a sustainable future, we should not overlook some of these ancient (and not so ancient) traditions that call for a detailed look at natural systems. When combined with our modern day technological know how, they can yield remarkably creative and flexible solutions to present day problems. Just as our Renaissance forebears were intellectually curious and capable of thinking across multi disciplines, we too should seek to be modern day Renaissance people in that respect.

Written by: Anne Papmehl, President, Ecostrat Communications

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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