Designing with nature – 25 projects to battle climate change

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UPenn’s School of Design is putting together a project studying 25 projects around the world that, in their design, help battle climate change (as well as a conference, a book and two additional exhibitions). 

It has been 50 years since landscape architect Ian McHarg published his book arguing that we should build with nature to combat urban sprawl and climate change.

Designing with nature (mapping the earth and imagining, for example, where to build houses that will not be flooded or landfills where rubbish will not end up in our ocean), from the title of McHarg’s famous book, is a design philosophy that has led to the development of interesting projects in the Netherlands, Colombia, Spain, New Zealand, the United States and many other countries.

Upenn’s project is entitled Design With Nature Now: Five Themes, 25 Projects, and was held at Meyerson Hall Lower Gallery from 21 June to 15 September 2019. 

All the projects can be viewed online, here is a brief review:

National Ecological Security Pattern Plan, China

China has a national plan to plan for the ‘ecological security’ of the earth; just as new cities are being built, China is already planning for flood control, soil erosion, conservation, etc. What is striking is that China is not known for being environmentally friendly, but the country has the equivalent of a cabinet secretary in charge of this work, who plans landscape and environmental futures as new urban fabric is built. 

Between 2006 and 2008, Kongjian Yu, principal founder of the design studio Turenscape, conducted a research planning exercise on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Chinese Ministry of Cultural Protection. The project, translated as the National Ecological Security Plan (NESP), was to develop nationwide geospatial plans showing where the ‘ecological security’ (i.e. ecological health) of the earth should be prioritised. The plans covered issues such as watershed protection, flood control, desertification, soil erosion and biodiversity conservation. This research represents an emerging recognition at the highest levels of government that ecological concerns are in China’s economic interest and should be reflected in China’s land-use planning guidelines.

Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, USA and Canada

In 1993, lawyer and conservationist Harvey Locke first proposed a continuous corridor of protected habitat from Yellowstone National Park in the United States to the Yukon in Canada. Four years later, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) was founded, and its plan is now being implemented. The Y2Y corridor stretches for about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres) and encompasses more than 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometres) of land. The inspiration for Y2Y can be traced back to a female wolf named Pluie, who was tracked with a GPS collar as she migrated from Canada’s Banff National Park to America’s Glacier National Park near Spokane, Washington over a period of eighteen months. This journey was testament to the stealth and cunning of the wolf and also suggested the need for continuous corridors of wilderness to allow other species to migrate across the territory in relative safety.

Malpai Bordelands, Arizona and New Mexico, USA

The US-Mexico border, where cattle ranchers pushed for land conservation beyond outdated government efforts to help prevent wildfires – interesting considering that all of the border cover belonged to private landowners, who first pushed the government to do more.

In the boot of New Mexico and the southeastern tip of Arizona, along the US-Mexico border, there is a 1,250-square-mile (3237.5-square-kilometre) parcel of land, almost entirely uninterrupted by highways or subdivisions. The Malpai Borderlands are home to some 4,000 species of plants, 104 species of mammals, 327 species of birds, 136 species of reptiles and amphibians and the largest variety of bee species in the world. In this biodiverse landscape, 53 per cent of the area is privately owned and 47 per cent is public, a split that has led to tensions between government agencies, cattle ranchers and conservationists. The success of the Malpai Borderlands group can be attributed both to their reliance on science to help manage the Malpai and their commitment to educating others about how grazing and conservation can co-exist.

Great Green Wall, Africa

A Great Green Wall from Senegal to Djibouti to restore degraded lands by building a wall of trees in five countries not only to restore native plants, but to incorporate food production and jobs for residents. 

Formally known as the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI), the Great Green Wall stretches some 8,000 kilometres (4,970 miles) from Senegal to Djibouti and is 15 kilometres (9 miles) deep. Its purpose is to combat desertification by restoring degraded land to the frontline of the advancing desert. The idea of a wall of trees on the edge of the Sahara and the semi-arid belt of the Sahel is not new; it was originally proposed as early as the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that the governments of the twenty nations embracing the wall approved the idea and began undertaking the project. Since 2007, the GGWSSI mission has evolved to include native shrubs and grasses, as well as farmer-led agricultural technologies such as agroforestry and ‘zai’ pits to increase soil moisture and fertility. When completed in 2030, it will be the largest designed living structure in the world.