Design for Uncertainty 2: Establishing Catalytic Process

This series explores design methods for dealing with uncertainty and change over time. To read the first post in this series click here.

One of the hallmarks of systems is that they contain relationships that are in dynamic tension, and often include feedback loops. In the 1990s non-steady state model of ecology gained footholds in the landscape architecture profession. This kicked off a range of landscape approaches that aimed to set into motion long-term processes instead of building them out fully from the start.

Downsview-parkFamous drawings such as the Downsview Park succession drawing by James Corner Field Operations‘ team illustrated the idea that the ‘seeding’ of an ecosystem with a number of species would eventually lead to a biodiverse ecosystem much more complex than the original assemblage. This project followed early ‘experiments’ in time-based change in design including Michel Desvigne’s work on Greenwich Peninsula in London. Greenwich-Peninsula-_-Michel-DesvigneIn this project he proposed planting a number of small trees, and then weeding out smaller trees as the plantings grew larger–a strategy drawn from forest succession dynamics.

This was an idea somewhat counter to the dominant practice of landscape architecture in which when a landscape is completed, the responsibility of the designer ends (unless they are brought on for future consulting) and the landscape is handed over to the owner. This model is largely drawn from that of the architecture field in which the product (a building) never looks better than the day it is finished, but in landscape architecture, it takes time for a landscape to evolve as plantings mature.

The idea of catalytic process applies to more than just ecological succession: In their highly-publicized entry for the Lower Don Lands competition in Toronto, the firm Stoss proposed a change-over-time based approach to siltation, and similar ideas are currently being discussed as responses to the vulnerability of cities like New Orleans at the foot of the Mississippi.

The emphasis on catalytic process has become important in recent years in part due to declining municipal maintenance budgets, and the challenges of maintaining larger, low density landscapes due to  suburban sprawl or shrinking cities. In the face of these challenges, we can ask, if it’s possible to set up the “powers of nature” to do the work that we can’t afford to do ourselves.

Designers struggle to implement these projects, though, in part because they don’t fit the way we practice business in the western world. We can guide some of the projects we set into motion, but we can’t control them, and it is impossible to say with precision the ‘investments’ of resources in these projects will pay off in the desired ecological performance.

Furthermore, the idea of unpredictable outcomes is deeply uncomfortable to our society which runs (at least theoretically) on known norms and the ability to plan ahead. Take popular resistance to controlled forest burns as ecosystem management–the destructive power of fire is deeply frightening, even though it actually prevents buildup the of biomass that can result in future catastrophic fires.

In addition, there is also the very real risk of creating series unwanted change in ecosystems. Cats, which were introduced in Israel to lower the rat population have just replaced them as the new garbage dwellers.

One way to dampen the shortcomings of this system may be to shift designers from the role of actors who create the starting conditions of a project, and then walk away, to longer-term stewards of the set of relationships, both biotic and abiotic, that make a project. In this role as managers versus ‘watchmaker’ creators, designers could respond to conditions and selectively intervene, achieving a more nuanced, subtle and responsive approach. This change, however, requires deep changes to the business norms, funding models and client-designer relationship.

Interested in the other strategies? Part 1 here.

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