Much is being said about the pandemic and governments responses to it and that it could be the opportunity to rethink the way we live and our reckless pursuit of life and consumptive behaviour that threatens our existence here. Despite more than 50 years of warnings of an environmental tragedy and the threat of global warming, selfish interests in most of us persist and, like new years resolutions that faded before the first week of the year, will we return to old habits and allow vested interests in our every day tools, smart phones, computers, Instagram, Facebook, Google, Amazon etc suck us back into the endless rat race of desire, working to fulfil transient goals and wanton pleasure?
I have been following New World Same Humans, David Mattin’s weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society for a few weeks now and the questions he raises about the meaning of things is worth a read.
Despite its obvious flaws and contradictions, I like philosopher John Gray’s book “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals” in which he questions our ability to think beyond our selfish needs and reaffirmed my scepticism in what we as individuals can do in the face of human nature to affect wicked problems like climate change, inequality, poverty and social justice. It resonates with the classic Stoic point of view that the world is an “Immutable Mutable” and one should act on oneself rather than trying to effect change on the world.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
This is similar to the ideas of “self-helpers” I once read in my “youth” like Stephen Covey, who time and cynicism and my own slackness, relegate to th e dust heaps of our overburdened bookshelves, now rendered obsolete in these days of Google, Kindle and Netflix. Still, in his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” one of the concepts he uses to derive his habits is the concept that there is a Circle of Concern, which is the things you reflect or worry about, your health, your kids behaviour, the dog barking, climate change, governments corruption etc., there is another circle the Circle of Influence which is where you are able to focus your efforts on to affect change, generally this is smaller than your circle of concern. By focusing on the things one has the ability to change, the Circle of Control, largely within oneself, one gains strength and willpower and thus ones circle of concern shrinks to the things on can change and as one success, one’s circle of influence grows as one’s confidence and potentially humility and compassion drive one to assist others we sees struggling in our environment.
Rather that fight against what seems inevitable in a “global world” we can act locally while thinking globally, a small change in our own attitudes and behaviour can lead to much larger impacts than we might imagine.
Years ago there was a large graffiti painting on a wall in Main Road, Salt River, Cape Town that read ” “If every man would help his neighbor, no man would be without help.” I wish I had photographed it, it is now gone but the thought lingers………
I have for many years admired the gardens and landscapes of Chilean Landscape Architect, Juan Grim. This has largely been from a few images in magazines and books, so I was very pleased this morning to read an interview with him by Lucy Munro on the PLANTHUNTER Here are a few excerpts and pics to wet your appetite to read more.
“On the coast of Los Villos in Chile, a garden balances on the edge of a clifftop, limbs of wandering shrubs crawling over the rock face towards the depths of the Pacific Ocean below. The architect of the seaside shelter, Juan Grimm, can be found hidden within the many pockets of the garden, experimenting with unusual plant combinations or admiring a newly sprouted shrub whose seed arrived on the wind. His enduring wonder for the minutiae of the natural world is one of the many reasons Juan Grimm is considered South America’s most outstanding landscape designer. With a career spanning over thirty years and a design portfolio that includes nearly a thousand hectares of public and private gardens across Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and Chile, Juan is the master of creating natural spaces in harmony with the richly diverse landscape of South America.”
After thirty years of creating public and private gardens across Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and your home country, Chile, what keeps you excited about landscape design? When I first began designing and building gardens, I thought about how they would develop over time. Due to the little knowledge of botany and gardening that I had then, I worked with great intuition, without being very clear about the final results; I wanted the years to pass quickly, to see the newly planted trees mature. Today, after thirty-five years of experience, and with the privilege of having seen so many of these trees develop and grow old, I am deeply motivated to continue to create public or private green spaces; knowing that these places will endure over time for the use and enjoyment of future generations.
What does a typical day in the life of Juan Grimm look like? The vast majority of my days are dedicated to garden design; projecting and drawing in my studio, with the advice of the team that accompanies me. Another important element of the day happens in the field – supervising and distributing plants in the gardens that are in the execution stage; work that is fundamental for me because on the site, many things are decided that are impossible to resolve during the planning stage. It is in these moments that the garden begins to take on a life of its own. On weekends, I spend my time in my house on the coast, enjoying the landscape and the garden; I never finish intervening.
Can you please tell us a little about your life growing up and how this influenced the person you are today? My childhood was always closely linked to contact with nature; family summers on the coast were repeated for several years.
My connection with the sea – the infinite space, the rocks and the vegetation that appears very delicately from the coastal edge towards the interior – was a very important experience in the direction that my professional life would take.”
Initially, you trained as an architect. What prompted the change to landscape and why? My training as an architect was essential to recognize my passion for nature. There was no event that determined a change; rather, my architectural student projects always involved the landscape. Once I graduated, I had the opportunity to present a project to the first Biennial of Young Architecture. The proposal was the design of a park and an urban structure strongly affiliated with each other. I won first prize at the Biennial, and this confirmed to me that my path was in landscape design.
What is your design philosophy? I consider that there are interesting and fundamental concepts for the good design of a garden; notions that I seek to incorporate in my work, and whose presence will become evident as the garden grows and the projected space acquires form and volume. Movement, exuberance, infinity, sustainability and mystery.
One distinctive feature of your style is your choice to design primarily with native plants, or plants you have grown from seed. What is the thought process behind this? Native vegetation, anywhere in the world, is the vegetation that best adapts to the demands of the climate and other characteristics necessary for its optimal development. There are times when a project is located in a place where there are no nurseries available to acquire these plants. This was the case of the Tambo del Inca Hotel Project, located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in Urubamba, Peru, where we went to the mountains to collect seeds from trees and shrubs, which were then grow in our own nurseries. Today those trees have already reached full maturity, and the garden is a reflection of the intimate landscape of the gorges of the Sacred Valley.
Global warming, and the climatic changes that our planet faces, makes it imperative that landscape gardeners increasingly use native vegetation, because with their high efficiency in adaptation and prosperity, they ensure the best energy economy in a garden, with optimal results.”
If landscape architects want to remake the world, we can start by remaking our discipline.
A thought provoking critique of the role Landscape Architects actually play in society versus what they believe they do, this very relevant to the current educational and work crisis that Landscape Architecture faces in South Africa and many other parts the world : Here are few excerpts from the long article, quoted and acknowledged, in the interests of generating a similar discussion in other parts of the world: “Design and the Green New Deal” fromPlaces Journal by Billy Fleming who is the Wilks Family Director for The Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.
Aa Dr, Ida Breed, senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria where the undergraduate Landscape Architecture program has been terminated due to poor enrolment numbers, says in a private correspondence: ” I think the article is very right in the money to say that the profession is mostly dominated by neoliberal and elitist project briefs, yet, landscape architects are often very bad at showing what they are already doing. Relevant work is happening, but as we know we are low in numbers, and there is a need for more volunteers and more participation from industry and practitioners in work that does not only profit our/ themselves… More could be done!”
“It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty, to provide the means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.” 25 Frederick Law Olmstead
I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it. The New Landscape Declaration — a book emerging from a 2016 summit attended by the brightest thinkers in our field — frames landscape architecture as an “ever more urgent necessity,” if not the foundation of civil society. As engineers shaped the built environment of the 19th century and architects the 20th, landscape architects have claimed this century as their own. 1 That’s a bold statement for an obscure profession whose 15,000 U.S. members spend most of their time designing small parks, office courtyards, and residential projects for private clients. Yet it’s not just landscape architects who see a big future for the field. Famed industrial designer Dieter Rams has said that if he were starting his career today, he’d focus on landscapes, not machines. And public officials have recruited landscape architects to the front lines of urban development (as James Corner’s High Line and Thomas Woltz’s Public Square frame Hudson Yards) and climate resilience (as the federal program Rebuild by Design ties hurricane recovery to coastal defense). 2
I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it.
But if The New Landscape Declaration sought to articulate and elevate our professional ideals, mostly it exposed the gap between rhetoric and reality. The book arrived in fall 2017, a few months after David Wallace-Wells published his alarming article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” with its memorable opening line quaking, “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” That 7,000-word jeremiad was later expanded into a bestselling book, with acknowledgments thanking the dozens of climate writers, scientists, and activists who informed the author’s research. This is mainstream media’s most comprehensive account of the climate movement, and it contains no mention of work by landscape architects. There is no commentary on Rebuild by Design. It’s as if landscape architecture does not exist. Setting aside the justified critiques of Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic framing, what does it mean that landscape architects are missing from this prominent book on a topic we claim as our own? Is our discipline a necessity? Are we closing the gap between ideals and practice? We are not, I promise, saving the world. 3
We don’t need playful design proposals; we need high-impact built projects — prototypes for the resilient futures we’ve been promised.
Contemporary practice is focused on sites, not systems; and on elite desires, not public interests. Our work is limited in scale and subordinate to client mandates. Rather than challenging or subverting these core structural constraints, Rebuild merely tweaks the machine of disaster recovery and redevelopment. Such incrementalism has been a key feature of landscape architecture — and much design-based activism — for decades. Though some scholars have credited designers with central roles in social and environmental movements — from the Progressive Era, to the New Deal, to the radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s in America — I would argue that that landscape architects rarely contributed to the organizing and the politics of those movements. 20 By and large, we have been bystanders to progress, not principal actors. If the gap between our ambitions and impact is ever to be narrowed, it won’t be through declarations of our principles. We must rethink how landscape architecture engages with social and political movements.
We seem to have forgotten an important lesson about Olmsted: his eagerness to enter the political arena and challenge the status quo.
ut here again we see designers as participants in, not leaders of, the social movements of their time. In the postwar era, they went through the same cultural realignment as the rest of the country, reorienting away from public works and land conservation and toward greenfield development and roadside parks, away from cities and toward suburbs. Landscape designers also made what was in retrospect the fatal mistake of lending their technical skills to urban renewal programs that reinforced racial segregation. 27 When the backlash to urban renewal began — sparked by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities — planners and designers lost much of their access to large-scale projects, and those who still worked for public agencies saw their power diminished. As Thomas Campanella argues, they became professional caretakers, “reactive rather than proactive, corrective instead of preemptive, rule bound and hamstrung and anything but visionary.” 28
The environmental movement galvanized by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring achieved great success in regulating pollution — influencing the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — but it was less successful in compelling a truly sustainable program of land use. Put another way, it had tremendous influence over how we live, but almost none over where we live. It was in this era that Ian McHarg produced the seminal work that would make him the most consequential landscape architect of the last half century. McHarg was a singular figure in the field, a public intellectual who mixed with people like Margaret Mead, Julian Huxley, and Loren Eiseley, moving between academia (as chair of landscape architecture at Penn), government (as an adviser to White House commissions, task forces, and environmental policy boards), and popular media (as host of the CBS show The House We Live In); and through these activities he sought to place environmental design at the center of American life. He aimed to reinvent nearly everything about the discipline of landscape architecture — its methods of inquiry, its scope and scale of impact, and its cultural and political position. For a brief moment, it seemed he would succeed.
Landscape architects have not yet meaningfully dealt with the unforeseen consequences of McHarg’s rational philosophy; with the fact that his technocratic legacy would leave the field ill-equipped to negotiate the major cultural and political realignments of neoliberalism — the hollowing out of governments at every level, the privatization of public services, and a waning belief in the ability of governments to bring about big, positive change. 34 Beginning in the 1980s, urbanists and designers were forced to defend everything from clean air to mass transit to public education through the narrow lens of cost-benefit analyses. Landscape architecture, a small and client-centric profession, with no real institutional or political presence, was overwhelmed by the rise of an anti-government, anti-science movement amongst conservatives. By the end of the century, landscape architecture had become once again a largely project-driven enterprise, dependent upon the elite, private interests that now shape urbanization, even in ostensibly public spaces. 35
At key political flashpoints of the past decade — Occupy Wall Street, the Standing Rock protests, and, now, the Green New Deal — landscape architects have been conspicuously absent. Our field has responded to neoliberalism with ever larger global corporate practices, a proliferation of boutique design firms, and a retreat from public service. We have ceded most government work to engineers. Professional societies have further depoliticized the field, ensuring that landscape architects are locked out of the policymaking process and constrained by the limits it imposes. 36
The revival of an activist federal design bureaucracy is necessary to the success of a Green New Deal. It also presents a unique opportunity to create alternative models of practice in landscape architecture.
That means our professional societies need to find ways to train a rising generation of landscape architects for careers in public service — or, as the organizers behind The Architecture Lobby have shown us, we will need to build new institutions. Starting tomorrow, the ASLA and Landscape Architecture Foundation could offer awards and fellowships for designers engaged in bureaucratic and political work, as they do for excellence in private practice. They could make the case that truly public spaces and infrastructures are funded by taxes and run by governments, not by corporate partners or the donor class. We need to dismantle the philosophies of neoliberalism and philanthrocapitalism that underwrite many urban development projects, and withdraw support for disruptive urban tech startups. As Levinson writes, “not only are the self-appointed change agents unwilling to push for meaningful action that might threaten the systems that have allowed them to accumulate vast wealth; often as not they’ve caused or contributed to the very problems they are claiming to solve. The modus operandi is not structural reform but personal generosity. The arena is not electoral politics but the free market. The ethos is patronage and volunteerism.” 45 Too many leaders in our field occupy positions of incredible power and prestige, while maintaining that they must make the best of a bad system. But we cannot be content with merely narrowing the gap between our ideals and our reality. The politics of design belong at the center of landscape architecture, and our institutions have an obligation to do more.
We need to train a rising generation of landscape architects for careers in public service. Students will need coursework in public administration and finance, political theory, and community organizing.
Educators, too, have a unique responsibility to change the culture of the profession. The students who wish to fill the ranks of the new design bureaucracy need coursework in public administration and finance, political theory, and community organizing. We can offer scholarships and awards for public-interest achievement, and give internship credit for working with political campaigns or community organizations. And we can acknowledge — through our public programs, our scholarship, and other aspects of design education outside the studio — the extraordinary moment we are in, our complicity in creating it, and our responsibility to develop alternatives.
Whatever form the Green New Deal eventually takes, it will be realized and understood through buildings, landscapes, and other public works. Landscape architects have knowledge and skills — from ecological management to systems analysis to mapping and visualization — that are essential to that project. Now is our chance to re-institutionalize design expertise in government and, at the same time, to break the stranglehold of neoliberalism that has long undermined the ambitions of landscape architecture. Let’s get started. 46
It’s a civic resource, an index of inequality, and a requirement for public health. Shade should be a mandate for urban designers – this long essay by Sam Bloch in PLACES JOURNAL could just as well apply to Cape Town as to Los Angeles – where apartheid era planning has made its leafy suburbs of the wealthy the exact opposite of the slum tenements and shanty towns of the poor and squatters. A similar pattern of legislation, bureaucracy and politics seems to make the provision of the seemingly innocuous commodity: shade- a luxury ! Is shade the missing link to environmental, cultural, social and and health – can a focus on shade make a new type of equality a reality instead of the urban deserts that planning now mandates? This impeccably researched and documented article is well worth a read – here are a few small teasers:
“As the sun rises in Los Angeles, a handful of passengers wait for a downtown bus in front of Tony’s Barber Shop, on an exposed stretch of Figueroa Street near the Pasadena Freeway. Like Matryoshka dolls, they stand one behind another, still and quiet, in the shadow cast by the person at the head of the line. It’s going to be another 80-degree day, and riders across the city are lining up behind street signs and telephone poles.
For years, the business owners on this block have tried to do something about the lack of shade. First someone planted banana trees and jammed an I-beam into the sidewalk well. Tony Cornejo, the barber, swears he didn’t do it, but he admits rigging up a gray canvas between a highway sign and parking lot fence to put a roof on the makeshift shelter. He was just taking care of the street, he said, so that the “ladies and children” who had grown accustomed to waiting out the heat in his shop could be comfortable outside. He dragged wooden crates under the canopy and nailed them together to create two long benches. In the shade, people ate their lunches, read magazines, scrolled through their phones. Can collectors rested. Bus drivers waited before beginning their shifts.
within two miles of Tony’s Barber Shop. 1 Who decides where the shade goes? You might imagine that transit planners call the shots — strategically placing shelters outside grocery stores and doctors’ offices on high-frequency routes, according to community need — but Los Angeles, like many cities, has outsourced the job. The first thousand shelters were installed in the 1980s by billboard companies in exchange for the right to sell ad space, and they tended to show up in wealthy areas where ad revenue surpassed maintenance costs. 2 In 2001, the mayor signed a deal to double the number of shelters and give public officials greater control over their placement. The new vendor agreed to install and maintain shelters throughout the city and offset its losses with freestanding ad kiosks in lucrative areas. But when politically savvy constituents complained about the coming spate of advertising, the city withheld permits, and the deal broke down. As the contract nears its end, the vendor, Outfront/Decaux, has installed only about 650 new shelters, roughly half of the projected number.”
“You can’t install a shelter here without disrupting underground utilities, violating the ADA, or blocking driveway sightlines. On this block, shade is basically outlawed.”
Shade is often understood as a luxury amenity. But as deadly heatwaves become commonplace, we have to see it as a civic resource shared by all.
Shade was integral to the urban design of southern California until the advent of cheap electricity in the 1930s.
Look at what happened to Pershing Square, where sunlight was weaponized to clear out the ‘deviates and criminals.’
“Pershing Square set a template for Los Angeles: the park as an open space to walk through, and as a revenue-generating canvas.”
“Shade creates shelter, and Los Angeles is very conflicted about creating shelter in the public realm.”
“Mexican fan palms were the ideal tree for an automobile landscape, beautifying the city without making a mess.”
“If you see a mature shade tree today, you can assume that a private citizen paid for it and maintained it. Canopy inequality thus follows lines of wealth”.
To the list of environmental injustices in this country, we can add the unequal distribution of shade.
“The city won’t permit the planting of large trees where the roots could rip up sidewalks or destroy underground utilities. That effectively zones shade out of many poor neighborhoods.”
“Surveillance is another concern. When a new pole camera goes up in a public park, the mature canopy around it vanishes.”
One study found that the difference in surface temperature between shaded and unshaded asphalt was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
The mayor has pledged to reduce the temperature by three degrees by 2050, but sustainability programs will vary by neighborhood.
The grant programs now for urban forestry are crazy. It’s money that we’ve never seen before … [but] they have no idea of the real challenges behind these kinds of projects.’
Imagine what Los Angeles could do if it tied street enhancement to a comprehensive program of shade creation.
What we need is urbanists in and outside City Hall who conceptualize shade itself as a public good.
With all the doom and gloom that talking about climate change in the anthropocene engenders in ones audience, all the hype and positivity I can muster flags when I read about the size of the problems faced and the inadequacies and failings of individuals and governments to act, and in fact my own poorly implemented and limited attempts to do something! It seems as if it is extreme hubris on my part to say we can change our lifestyles, consumerist habits or other people’s desires. I was pleasantly surprised while I was researching on LAF’s (Landscape Architecture Foundation) website for a recent magazine article, to discover Martha Swartz talking about the book edited by Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown The most comprehensive plan ever to reverse global warming” Having viewed the website’s info and watched the video I am eagerly awaiting the book.
As Martha Swartz says in the interview on LAF’s website ” I was introduced to Drawdown by Pamela Conrad, a Senior Associate at CMG Landscape Architecture, while preparing for a conference presentation on climate change with her two years ago. We gave a presentation about the book, why it’s important, and why it’s important specifically for landscape architects. We got up there and talked about what climate change is and why it’s so urgent that we address it. What really struck me about Drawdown is that it gave metrics for its solutions. They weren’t theoretical, but actionable ideas”
Here is Paul Hawken, the projects instigator, the books editor and the evangelist of the crusade to make a difference, telling us what inspirited him and how it can affect us and what we can do ourselves, more than just lamenting the lack of efficacy of our recycling or our governments alternative energy strategies!
I have been involved in the practice of landscape design, construction and management my entire life, I love plants and everything to do with the natural and built landscape, while I have had my head buried in the sand of personal interests and passions for many years and I have often been a poor people’s person, I am now acting positively for change and to not being “part of the problem” but working on co-creating a resilient and awesome future with all of those who share my passion.
I believe the landscape profession is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in addressing the most important issues of our time and I am positive we will do so. Challenges include: adaptation and mitigation of the impacts of climate change; addressing moral, social, economic impoverishment and inequality; building resilient new infrastructure that runs on clean energy; co-creating and managing innovative urban places that provide social and ecological justice for all peoples and species.
We can develop a clear vision of our role and capacities, nurture inclusive leadership, embrace advocacy and activism, seek commitment and action from those who feel the same as we do.
To be committed means:
Be more and keep on learning – know the terminology and science of climate change, improve your cultural literacy, read widely, expose yourself to dynamic, uncomfortable circumstances and people; get to see others point of view. Take part, if not in government, then in your local area, PTA or ratepayers association, take part in ILASA, SALI or SAGIC or your own professional or business organisation; assist on an awards committee or organise a function.
Become a visible exampleof the current best practice: evaluate your personal and business actions and act to reduce your carbon, water and waste footprint and aim to become carbon neutral or better, carbon positive.
Build equitable teams; partner across disciplines, practices and publics; mentor young people towards leadership; encourage involvement in real physical networks and form communities of interest with others who share your passion.
Become invested in where you live, assist those who are less fortunate, advocate for what you believe in, give assistance and support to organizations and people who are making difference. Act where you see social or ecological injustice, get to know your local area and national political representative, advocate for the positive role of landscape to them.
A view that engenders heated debate and angry responses from ecologists and conservationists is questioned by Yolanda van Heezik, in an essay on the Nature of CIties. Although this essay adreeeses the topic of exotic versus local fauna, it is equally valid when considering vegetation.
“This emphasis on killing introduced species to protect native ones makes me wonder how much people involved in these activities think about why they are willing to kill some to protect others. Why do they value native species above others?”
Endemic faunas and floras make a country unique, and it is that uniqueness that engenders among its human inhabitants a sense of place or identity. Those species with populations that respond best to predator control are the most deeply endemic ones; in New Zealand they are species that have evolved for millions of years in an environment with no mammalian predators. The only terrestrial mammalian species native to New Zealand are a couple of species of rather small, insectivorous bats. When urban residents band together to trap rats or possums, it is to protect these vulnerable, endemic, native species — they want to be able to share their living spaces with them and encounter them as part of their day-to-day lives, rather than having to travel to special predator-free areas such as offshore islands to see them. NZ’s Department of Conservation’s Threatened Species Ambassador, Nicola Toki, argues that native species and introduced predators in New Zealand cannot co-exist, and that it is the indigenous subset of our biodiversity that fundamentally defines us as a nation.
This emphasis on killing introduced species to protect native ones makes me wonder how much people involved in these activities actually think about why they are willing to kill some to protect others, i.e., why they value native species above others? There has been long-standing, ongoing debate in the scientific literature on how introduced species should be managed, with some scientists arguing that the paradigm of native/non-native is no longer relevant in highly modified environments, such as urban landscapes (Davis 2011). Instead, proponents of this school of thought assert that environmental management should involve acceptance of alien species and novel ecosystems. Conciliation ecology is thought by some to be the morally acceptable course of action (references in Russell & Blackburn 2017), but is soundly rejected by others.
While there is no doubt in New Zealand that the introduction of predatory mammals into a fauna that evolved without any mammalian predator has had a disastrous impact on many of NZ’s native species, not everyone in NZ agrees with Nicola Toki’s sentiments or the concept of valuing native species above others. For example, one opponent to the “predator-free” concept asserts that “we can’t keep erasing the fact that the species that we introduced, whether managed or not, are ‘ours’ too — even the ones we later decided were a mistake. They’re our responsibility as well. And a future where people learn to accept the presence of our introduced species is not so horrifying.”
This view is being echoed more frequently in the media; in a recent opinionpiece in The Press, columnist Joe Bennett writes:
“We like our birds here. They’re our signature fauna. No-one else has got them and we haven’t got much else. But among birds we practise apartheid. We distinguish between birds that are — and here’s an adjective that chinks like a gold coin — native, and those that are not. Native birds are first-class citizens who can do no wrong. The rest are the rest and the magpie is among them. It’s an Australian import, loud, boorish, a bird to deride.”
At a more general level, in other countries, criticism has been leveled by social scientists at those advocating for native species, labelling it as a form of anti-immigrant nativism. They claim that the removal of non-natives reflects an anti-immigrant, racist, political discourse (Mastnak et al. 2014). They draw our attention to the Nazi policy of removing non-native plants, and by doing so implicitly associate the protection of native species with Nazism. An alternative perspective is that many current ecological problems are a legacy of colonialism, a process of settlement of plants, animals and people that resulted in the uprooting of native plants and indigenous peoples (Mastnak et al. 2014). This was certainly the case in New Zealand, where we even had an “Acclimatization Society” whose role was to introduce many species from the UK, where most settlers originated from, and create landscapes populated by familiar species. After early waves of extinctions this process was thought to be a means of restoring biodiversity to a depleted environment. Advocating for native plantings then becomes a process of decolonisation, which is ethically appropriate.
Others advocate for the middle-ground; they both question the dichotomy between native and non-native, but at the same time acknowledge that low-impact, non-native species should be tolerated, and that control methods to remove alien pest species can also be contentious if they involve the use of toxins (Shackelford et al. 2011). Some critics have raised the issue of involving children in the process of systematically killing predators, but also the militaristic dimensions of the entire exercise, which uses terminology such as “war on predators”, or “under siege”, and what some consider to be xenophobic expressions (Schlaepfer et al. 2010 ). Simberloff (2003) discusses the claims and suggests that it is impossible to prove that aesthetic preferences for native species are infected by nativism or xenophobia. He points out that those who criticise efforts to control non-native pest species often ignore their ecological and economic impacts, which alone comprise a valid, ethical rationale for managing introduced species.
Public spaces are having a moment. People from outside the field of urban planning are beginning to notice the vital contributions that they make to our quality of life: inserting nature and cultural memory into the everyday, reminding us of our collective responsibilities, supporting democratic expression. People are also beginning to notice the subtle ways in which those contributions are being eroded by threats of privatization, corporate appropriation, and apathy.
Most acutely, this moment is brought to us by Apple, which has begun an aggressive retail rebranding effort to re-conceptualize its stores as “town squares,” and wrought a wave of well-founded concern. Technology continues to beckon us away from the need to leave our homes or interact face-to-face with other humans. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, it would follow that opportunities for such interpersonal interaction become a luxury we begin to seek, a call to remember our origin as social beings.
Not to give technology too outsized a role in this moment, politics also plays a part: political progress often demands a physical place to exercise our first amendment rights (or to fight for them). Large, visible public spaces are a natural home. Americans in particular have recently discovered that places we treat like public spaces—airports, for example—are, in fact, the domain of private companies, or are at risk of being ceded to private companies. When we see public spaces as a physical extension of our rights, we begin to approach their true value to our society.
I can distinctly remember, during a cross-country bus tour in college, stepping off the bus on Main Street in Greenville, SC. We were greeted by wide sidewalks with bountiful street trees, well-paved crosswalks that invited us to surf from one row of shops and storefronts to another, punctuated by public art, and terminating in a park overlooking the river. With places to sit and some protection from the elements, the street invited people to interact and to linger. This was my first personal “aha” moment that a street could be more than just a corridor for the efficient movement of automobiles—if its physical elements were designed well, it could be just as vital to the health of a place as a park.
Last month I attended a SPACE10 forum led by New York-based design duo Anton and Irene on the resurgence of co-living. They suggest the financial squeeze of modern life combined with an upsurge in digital nomads is bringing the ‘sharing economy’ into the home. As 40% of the urban areas required by 2030 are not yet built—which means a city the size of New York needs to be constructed globally every month—it is crucial architects stay up-to-date with contemporary living patterns to respond appropriately to shifts in housing requirements. My last Archinect feature of the year will provide a short overview of the history and challenges that co-living has previously faced, discuss trends emerging from the ‘ONE SHARED HOUSE 2030‘ survey and speak to Dorte Mandrup, architect of the Lang Eng Co-housing Community, on how to approach the challenge of designing successful spaces for co-living.
‘Co-living’, an umbrella term for different types of ‘co-housing’ setups, can loosely be defined as a home where two or more people live together who are not related. While ‘co-housing’ is an intentional community created and run by residents, ‘co-living’ may also encompass shared accommodation initiated by an external agent, such as a developer or entrepreneur.
Aside from the investor rush to fuel co-living startups, concrete figures on the international co-living boom are not yet available. However, early indicators such as the UN now offering support to co-living initiatives within their sustainable development goals and last year’s prestigious Harvard Wheelwright architecture prize being awarded to a project innovating in co-living, suggest it is gaining traction. While it is indisputable that young people strapped for cash have always had roommates—think Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords—co-living is now simultaneously becoming part of everyday urban life and billion-dollar business.
I expect most people reading this who have lived in cities during their 20’s have experienced a houseshare, myself included. I rented a terrace with friends in Sheffield, moved into a Danish kollegium when I started my masters in Copenhagen and had a stint in a family attic while working in London. But rather than remaining a student necessity, increasing numbers of families and professionals are now opting to co-share. This also reflects a surge in the rental market, which in the US has jumped from 52% of total adults in 2005 to 60% in 2013. This is perhaps unsurprising with soaring urban property prices and take-home wages barely rising across the country, a pattern which is echoed in cities worldwide.
Last year Anton and Irene initiated ONE SHARED HOUSE as they became fascinated in how co-living seemed to be experiencing a cultural resurgence. The documentary maps Irene’s childhood experience of growing up in a communal house in Amsterdam. In the early 1980’s Amsterdam was facing an acute housing shortage so the government enacted a law ruling that 1% of all apartments had to be communal. In 1984 Irene’s mom responded to a newspaper ad for a co-share and moved their family into Kollontai, a communal house with 8 other women and their 3 children designed by the new brutalist architect Sier van Rhijn. In the film, Irene explains “they were feminists and non-conformists […] and many were rebelling against the traditional 1950’s families they had grown up in.”
“Whenever I would tell people I grew up in a communal house”, Irene explains to me, “it inevitably turns into a 30-minute conversation about the pros and cons of communal living.” To delve deeper into the subject, she contacted architect Sier van Rhijn about his experience of designing Dutch co-living spaces during that period. “It was fun,” he explained, “even though [the occupants] had no experience designing living spaces, they were very engaged and very idealistic. As an architect, it was sometimes hard to deal with their ever-changing demands, and sometimes it drove us a little crazy.”
It was fun. Even though [the occupants] had no experience designing living spaces, they were very engaged and very idealistic. As an architect, it was sometimes hard to deal with their ever-changing demands, and sometimes it drove us a little crazy.” Sier van Rhijn, architect
Modern co-living can be traced back to thoughts emerging from Denmark in the 1960s, which crystallized in Bodil Graae’s 1967 newspaper article ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. There was a consensus at the time that modern housing was unable to provide adequate wellbeing for occupants over their lifetimes, and that ‘bofællesskab’ (living community) should instead be the aim for future housing projects. In 1972, a group of families were inspired to create the Sættedammen co-share, realized by architects Palle Dyreborg and Theo Bjerg. The project is generally accepted to be one of the first contemporary co-shares, favoring both autonomy from powerful landlords and the Danish government. The living community approach was introduced to the States in 1989 by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in their book ‘Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves’.
Creative leaders and innovators are thinking about design thinking in more mature ways. Moving away from a sole emphasis on language and learning, they are increasingly focusing on questions of application, ownership, and impact.
Design thinking: It started as an academic theory in the 60’s, a notion of starting to look at broader types of challenges with the intention and creativity that designers use to tackle their work. It gained widespread traction as a product design process, has been integrated into culture change initiatives of some of the world’s most important organizations and governments, and has been taught in schools kindergarten to grad school. It’s been celebrated, criticized, merged with other methodologies, and modified for nearly every conceivable niche.
Regardless of what side of those perspectives you fall on, it’s undeniable that design thinking is continuing to grow and evolve. Looking across the social innovation landscape today, we see a few patterns that, taken together, suggest that social innovators continue to see great promise in design thinking. They are working to find ways to make it yield real performance gains for their organizations and clients.
From design thinking to design doing
Creative leaders have moved beyond increasing people’s awareness of design thinking to actively seeking concrete opportunities for using it. One of the principal drivers of this shift has been the need to demonstrate value and return on investment from design-thinking initiatives—something people have talked about for years. (Ever heard the question, “Is design thinking just the next fad?”) Social sector organizations, in particular, stand to benefit from the shift from design thinking to design doing. Timelines for getting things built in the social sector are often slow, due to legitimate constraints of responsibly doing impact work, as well as to legacy practices and politics. As long as organizations use design thinking responsibly and acknowledge the broader systems in which new ideas live, some of the emerging models can help them move projects along more quickly and gain greater stakeholder participation.
At The Design Gym, we have seen this eagerness for results show up in the form of Design Sprints—fast, iterative, user-focused project cycles that tackle a problem over the course of several days or weeks. Design Sprints emphasize seeing problems in smaller chunks, and encourage users and stakeholders to play a central role in problem solving, moving projects forward faster and cheaper than “business as usual,” and leading to more concrete and tested outcomes.
This year, our team led the FSG Impact Hiring Innovation Lab’s cohort of companies through design thinking sprints to gain insights from stakeholder groups, generate unique ideas, and prototype solutions. Such projects allow organizations to put design thinking to work on high-priority, strategic challenges. They often produce outcomes impressive enough to influence larger organizational and team design strategies, project scoping, and internal culture shifts—approaching problems with design thinking sometimes becomes the norm. We expect the next question for leaders who have seen the benefits of “design doing” will be how to continue designing their teams and cultures to show not tell—showing stories of real outcomes, not telling of their new training toolkit, and making design thinking more than a side-of-desk project.
Building cultures around design thinking
As design thinking has proliferated, many organizational leaders have moved from replicating the design thinking programs of academic institutions like the Stanford d.School or foundational agencies like IDEO to adapting the methodology to their own goals, external environments, and organizational cultures.
One organization that has particularly inspired us is Beespace, a New York City-based social-impact foundation. Beespace has designed a two-year program that helps new organizations not only get off the ground, but also create the conditions for breakthrough innovation. To create this program, which combines deep thinking, impact assessment, and rapid prototyping, Beespace’s leadership asked itself what tools it would need, and came up with a mix that included not just design thinking, but also disciplines of behavioral science and systems thinking, and tools stemming from emotional intelligence and theory of change.
This shift from replicating approaches to fashioning ones that serve a particular organization’s unique needs represents movement to a more mature, sustainable way of employing the methodology. It is a shift away from copying and pasting toward something more introspective, customized, and hopefully impactful. Leaders should not get too caught up in stories of success, but instead push their organization to dictate what success means and how it should show up. Given that these practices overlap so deeply with mission, people, organizational structure, and definition of impact, no two programs should look the same.
Empowering the few to shift the many
We have seen a lot of interest this year in “train the trainer” programs, particularly from organizations realizing the value of developing their internal capabilities to reduce reliance on outside consultants. Such development often entails focusing on the few people in the organization who are highly capable of instigating major change, as opposed to spreading awareness among the many. It takes time and resources, but the payoff is well worth it from both cultural and operational perspectives.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative (100RC) takes such an approach to its mission of working with cities around the world to help them become more resilient. 100RC has focused on training a relatively small group of change agents, called Chief Resilience Officers (CROs), in the cities in which it works. CROs are senior-level city employees tasked with developing strategies and initiatives—with significant support and guidance from 100RC—to bring about long-term transformation.
Although the concept of developing internal advocates is surely not new, as an approach to adopting design thinking, it is generating a conversation we believe will continue to get smarter. We expect to see different models for building internal expertise, as the work of introducing design thinking into an organization can be done by lots of different people: expert facilitators, workshop trainers, creative leaders, designers and design strategists, or even just that brave soul who suggests approaching a 30-minute brainstorm slightly differently. We’re excited to see how different organizations explore the possibilities and find which ones work best for them.
Looking at the creative community holistically to tackle larger societal issues
No beating around the bush here—it’s quite a political climate here in the United States. But, out of this has come an absolute groundswell of creative activism and some really unexpected collaborations. Among the creative community, the boundaries around problems that fit within our scope of work have expanded. Individuals, nonprofits, government agencies, start-ups, and huge corporations alike are asking what it means for them, where they can (and should) put a stake in the ground, and who else out there can help make it happen.
Over the past few years, there’s been greater cross-pollination between different industries and types of organizations—collaboration that’s creating wild innovation bigger than either political party could achieve on its own. As Paola Mendoza, artistic director for the Women’s March on Washington, recently said, “We, artists, inspire people to love when it is easier to hate.” Now is the time to begin looking beyond our traditional boundaries of for-profit vs. nonprofit, public sector vs. private sector, and one mission vs. another. The time is ripe to call for collaborators rather than competitors to tackle some of the larger creative challenges facing society today.
FSG Impact Hiring Innovation Lab, for instance, is bringing together nonprofits such as The Aspen Institute, Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald’s and T-Mobile, and creative agencies like ours to develop innovative strategies in hiring, retention, and advancement of opportunity youth and other populations facing barriers to employment.
We anticipate that collaboration between governments, nonprofits, individuals, corporations, and startups will continue to increase. And, there are few greater motivators than a sense of passion and purpose—something individuals and organizations alike can amplify to energize their cultures. We have yet to see what true beauty can blossom from these dynamic and often trying times. What we do know is that complex problems require new ways of thinking, new ways of working, new types of partnerships and conversations, and radical forms of diverse collaboration. And the creative catalysts inside all of us are best positioned to address them.
Shifting the storyline
Social innovators have begun thinking about design thinking in more mature ways. As some of the concept’s novelty wears off, the social sector is increasingly focusing on questions of application, ownership, and impact. The theme of the story is shifting from “What is design thinking?” to “Look at what we did using design thinking.” For practitioners and creative leaders, it is a good time to ask what these trends mean for your ability to tell your own future success stories.