Opinion: Can landscape architecture help resolve climate change?

Gavin Healy investigates ecological and landscape architecture projects created by the world's top designers - and how they could help create a better planet.

Lincoln University is creating a new generation of landscape architects focused on climate change. Photo / Getty Images
Lincoln University is creating a new generation of landscape architects focused on climate change. Photo / Getty Images

Living in the tranquillity of New Zealand it's hard to comprehend the problem of exponential population growth and the strain it is having on the fragile ecosystems that sustain our species.

Exponential growth simply means that if the population is growing by one per cent a year it will double within a 70-year cycle. To put this in perspective, it took 50,000 years to reach one billion people but only 200 years to jump to our existing seven billion. Based on our current annual growth of 1.1 per cent, our population could reach 14 billion by the end of this century. Such population growth makes our current design systems redundant due to the pollution it will create.

The industrial revolution was the game changer, creating a population boom which also drove vast amounts of rural folk towards ill-equipped cities - which are now home to half the humans on earth. The world has changed so quickly over the last 200 years that our species is struggling to evolve fast enough to respond.

The next 100 years will see great change. We have two options, either design a world that works in harmony with nature or create more man-made controlled environments to isolate us from an increasingly hostile biosphere.

Most modern-day architects and landscape architects are not addressing the pressing issues of our times: climate collapse, finite resources, food security, energy demands and pollution. The famous architect and ecologist, Richard Bukminster Fuller said: "Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value."

The study of ecology holds the key as pollution does not exist in nature; everything is a resource for something else. Having ecology as a core focus for all design projects is not green ideology or politically motivated but a response to the demands of our modern problems. Our human environment needs to become an extension of the land in which it sits, not man's ego forced upon the land. This is what we need to achieve if we are to avoid the devastation of climate collapse.

A new breed of ecological architects and landscape architects are rising to this challenge. William McDonough, winner of the US Presidential Award for Sustainable Development and co-creator of the Cradle to Cradle concept, has brought a new vision of design to life. He has been quoted as saying the goal is to frame design as "a beneficial, regenerative force-one that seeks to create ecological footprints to delight in, not lament".

In his design system nutrients and resources are constantly recycled in the biosphere or technosphere. The biosphere (natural nutrients) are never contaminated with the technosphere (man-made products) as this creates waste - chemicals are never mixed with nature. He draws heavily on the biophilia hypothesis - the study of the human desire and physiological need for contact with nature which is something we lose in our modern cities and buildings. This is fundamental for the mental health of many people that have a strong physiological, cultural and spiritual connection with nature.

The Bernheim Arboretum Visitor Centre is a flagship example of McDonough's work. Photo / Supplied
The Bernheim Arboretum Visitor Centre is a flagship example of McDonough's work. Photo / Supplied

His Bernheim Arboretum Visitor Centre project is a good example of this as the indoor and outdoor worlds are blurred. McDonough has an impressive portfolio of design projects under his belt including the Google YouTube office, which features a 70,000-square-foot green roof that helps to prevent water runoff, insulates the building from heat, cold and noise and provides a habitat for several species.

This 10-acre green roof is part of an US$18m rainwater treatment system. Photo / Supplied
This 10-acre green roof is part of an US$18m rainwater treatment system. Photo / Supplied

The ecological retrofit of the 85-year-old Ford complex is home to one of most impressive green roofs in the world. The green roof is part of a US$18 million natural rainwater treatment system, which consists of more than 10 acres of a low-growing ground cover, which retains and cleanses 20 billion gallons of rainwater annually - saving Ford from a $50 million mechanical treatment facility.

Then there's Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute - an NGO that focuses on the transformation to a world that is "socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative". McLennan is the founder of the Living Building Challenge, considered to be one of the world's most progressive green building programs. His system creates buildings that function like flowers, which sounds hippy but is extremely technical.

The Tuhoe project is the first certified building in New Zealand nearing completion. Jason explains: "We need a paradigm shift in our approach to the built environment. If we want societies capable of thriving in a world of limited resources, we have to develop appropriately-scaled, regionally-relevant strategies for water, energy, transportation and agriculture, and we have to integrate these strategies into our architecture and urban planning."

According to The Guardian, Ken Yeang from Malaysia is "one of the 50 people who could save the planet". He considers himself to be an ecologist first and architect second. His projects seamlessly integrate landscaping and architecture into the one discipline. He is the man who coined the phrase eco-mimicry and recognised over four decades ago that human's environmental destruction would affect the planet's natural balance, causing climate collapse.

Ken Yeang is known for his radical approach to design. Photo / Supplied
Ken Yeang is known for his radical approach to design. Photo / Supplied

He is famous for his vertical landscaping and bioclimatic skyscrapers. Milestone projects include the National Library in Singapore, a 120m green tower with large landscaped sky courts and the nearly complete Spire Edge Tower that encapsulates his development of the idea of vertical green eco infrastructure. He is also a world leader in ecological urban design.

Back home in New Zealand, Christchurch was recently presented with an "Urban Regeneration Award" from the World Green Building Council for its policies and initiatives aimed at rebuilding sustainably after the earthquakes.

As Mick Abbott, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Environment, Society and Design at Lincoln University, told Element, "in Christchurch we are trying to design in resilience for things we can't control. For a start it's about appropriate use of the land - building a sports field on the edge of a waterway, for example, rather than buildings, or making sure the buildings that need to be there are designed to withstand a flood. It's a $30 billion rebuild, a massive international experiment and the eyes of the world will be on how we do this".

Our environment is the crucial dimension of how we design the future, he continues - "how we live in it, how we care for it. From a landscape point of view it's critical. For a long time we have built what we wanted and tried to make the environment fit around it. Now it's time to turn that around. We also have to take our ecosystem services into account".

Abbot, and Lincoln University, see their role as educators of the next generation of ecological landscape architects who are also climate change solution seekers.

This new generation will be creating multi-disciplined projects in the footsteps of our current trailblazers, which are showing us a glimpse of a futuristic world, inhabited by an ecologically enlightened people.

This is the first article in our Climate Change Solutions series, a joint project between Element magazine and Lincoln University intended to illuminate a pathway for a sustainable future. Got a favourite project? Tell us about it!

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