August 17, 2021

Dynamic Geographies

“As I look back on my 20 years here in NYC, what I realize more and more is the fundamental disconnect between our knowledge that we are all embedded in the dynamic web of nature and our lack of success in acting on this knowledge. Despite all of our good intentions, integrating our communi- ties in this web will require a change in cultural mindset. If we want to survive as a species, we also need to change our practices. This book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W, as well as a look forward at how to improve.

The Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old. In this time the planet has evolved through cycles of regeneration and decay, creating soil, air, oceans, continents, and many plants and animals. Only in the last 200,000 years have people appeared. Now, change is accelerating. With the world population at over 7.7 billion and growing, we have coined the epoch “Anthropocene” to commemorate this shift to human dominance. Our actions are causing significant effects on the earth, including the sixth mass extinction and accelerating climate change. Despite these dynamic changes, most landscapes today are designed as static—that is, they are designed not to change substantially for 20–50 years. With 66 percent of humans projected to live in cities by 2050, creating dynamic geographies as a part of this growth is necessary to create resilient communities and a healthier planet for our species and others.

Dynamic geographies are complex systems relying on non-human agency to adapt to disturbances like climate change. Allowing for dynamic geographies requires thinking ahead to what could be as opposed to what we want changed now. It requires thinking of other species as well as other communities—it requires respect for all life and their part in the web. How can this longer-term thinking become a part of our planning and design process? We need to think and create in multiple time scales, like we think in multiple geographic scales.

Our last book, Structuring Confluence, concentrated on the multiple geographic scales of a place: for instance, how a place can be simultaneously in an industrial zone and also an urban neighborhood, as well as part of a regional ecosystem. How all these forces are brought together defines a project.

This book will concentrate on the multiple time scales and collaborations required to enable change and growth, including collaborations with our non-human partners, which will allow projects to evolve over time. Whereas Structuring Confluence primarily concerned space, Dynamic Geographies primarily concerns time.

Making these dynamic geographies will require a new landscape aesthetic, requiring a fundamental change in how the public perceives landscapes, how we as designers design them, and how they are managed by various agencies and other organizations.

This book seeks to address these perceptions with a series of our projects as examples—one for each of our 20 years in business.

The book elaborates three types of overlapping geographies: Visible Geographies, Layered Geographies and Unleashing Geographies.

Visible geographies bring to light the hidden or invisible forces acting on a site to create an experience based on those forces. While these projects may improve the immediate site ecology—increasing permeability and diversifying plant types for instance—they still rely on conventional maintenance strategies, which is to basically treat the park as a garden. Since we believe that seeing and experiencing leads to awareness and understanding, we construct our “garden” designs to help the public understand the relation of their neighborhood to the world around them. Through created evidence we lead visitors to a greater understanding of the cultural and/or physical forces acting on the site and its relation to a larger whole.

Layered geographies build on the ideas of visible geographies, but takes them further, actively bringing social and biodiversity together. Longer-term planning and longer- lasting habitats are threads woven into new community fabric. And often what is not changed is as important as what is changed. These projects are strategic and about supporting the evolution of communities, as well as thinking hard about potential long-term consequences of physical change, not just the immediate benefits. This requires an understanding of the underlying values a plan represents, and who is represented in those values.

Unleashing geographies allows for areas of non- human agency within a project, intentionally creating landscapes that will evolve and change over longer time periods, embedding ecologies in the city for generations, in tandem with areas of more intense human management. As our species expands, leaving room for other species and processes we do not fully understand to continue to evolve and develop is critical. If in our hubris we insist on controlling everything the mass extinction currently underway will continue. Finding ways to integrate these ecologies on small as well as large sites to create larger networks is the challenge.

Our world grows out of our collective decisions, many of which are inherited. Nature is resilient—she will keep going with or without us. If we want her to keep providing the things we value, —shade, fresh air, stormwater management, a reliable climate a beautiful diversity of species,—we need to notice the strain she is under, the disruptions we have caused and the resulting mass extinctions of both plant and animal species. This is a time to think and reflect on the consequences of our actions, and then to act with both the short and long term in mind. As landscape architects we are privileged to bear witness to community aspirations and struggles as people work to bring desired change to their communities. What I have learned from listening and engaging these diverse constituencies, is the importance of bringing time more forcefully into decision making—not only for short term needs but also for the benefit of the next generations. We need to elevate and fund the long process of nurturing functioning ecosystems, for humans and other species. We need to let more complex places grow for all species to thrive.

There are many heroes whose persistence and perseverance and passion helps forge our communities. This book is dedicated to them as well as the web of forces that brings us all together and will persist, with us or without us, for millions of years.”

– From the Forward by Barbara Wilks FASLA FAIA


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