April 22, 2004

Ecological restoration goes beyond trees and shrubs

  • Landscapers are expanding their focus to natural processes such as the water and nutrient cycles, and heat and carbon reduction.

    Photo courtesy of Mithun
    Students at the Teton Science School in Wyoming will collect and sow showy green gentian to assist in retaining the plant diversity on the site.

    Embracing complexity is present across a wide range of professions. The recognition of complexity has resulted in the development of systems thinking — a way to clarify and understand the connections and overlaps between a wide range of information.

    Fortune 500 companies work to be responsive to changing markets. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsors a program called Reclaiming Futures to coordinate counselors, police, teachers, local businesses and families to help struggling young people. The Institute for Systems Biology assembles biologists, chemists, mathematicians and a range of life scientists to create solutions to complex problems.

    The United States Green Building Council's inclusive process with developers, bankers, design consultants and environmental advocates has accelerated mainstream acceptance of green building practice.

    Systems thinking

    Landscape architects are trained in a form of systems thinking. As stewards of the land and designers of places, landscape architects weave many threads, which represent multiple disciplinary teams and stakeholders.

    As systems thinking becomes implicit in our culture, it is reflected in the current groundswell of interest in ecological restoration. The focus is not just on the landscape elements (trees, shrubs, paving), but also on the processes (the natural water cycle, the nutrient cycle, heat and carbon reduction).

    For example, many ecologists now conclude that forests do not achieve “steady state climax” as they have thought for years. Instead, forests are open loop systems where natural disturbances — fire, wind and earthquakes — contribute to change in a complex and dynamic way.

    After 100 years of degradation, begun with the Industrial Revolution, the next 100 years can be the century of restoration. Einstein said, “We cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them.”

    Restoration of ecological systems integrates scientific investigation with the design process to measure success, embrace existing ecological systems, and find ways to make the story so compelling that it lives on in the hearts and souls of others.

    Measuring success

    Ecological restoration is a process that overlaps with the needs of many clients and projects.

    Monitoring and measuring results is increasingly useful to clients as they negotiate utility rates for their projects that reduce demand for infrastructure, develop proforma for project financing and expand the strategies available to achieve goals. It also provides needed information to the marketplace to support the viability of designing with ecological systems in mind.

    The results of meeting water quality requirements, achieving Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points, providing amenities, supporting habitat, and reducing operation and maintenance costs are beneficial to the client, the project, the community and the environment.

    High Point is a 129-acre, 1,600-unit, mixed-income housing redevelopment being built by the Seattle Housing Authority in the Longfellow Creek Watershed in West Seattle. Longfellow Creek is one of Seattle's priority watersheds; with the highest coho salmon return counts for city creeks.

    A natural drainage system will be integrated into High Point's 34 blocks of new streets, resulting in large-scale improvements to water quality and stream flows for Longfellow Creek. The system includes curbless streets and bioretention swales that capture road run off, filter the water and slow it down.

    As part of the consultant team led by Mithun, SvR has developed a block-scale continuous hydrologic model to refine the design performance and predict how the system will perform under different storm events. Seattle Public Utilities will be working with the University of Washington to monitor the performance of the system at the block and sub-basin scale.

    High Point should be a tremendous success, if SEAStreets is any indication.

    The Street Edge Alternatives (SEA)Streets project in the Bitter Lake neighborhood used natural drainage in a one-block demonstration. After two years of monitoring the design of this street, Seattle Public Utilities noted a reduction of the total volume of storm water leaving the street by 98 percent for a 2-year storm event.

    Research such as this exists in varied places but is often difficult to find.

    “Practitioners need to lead the research,” says Meg Calkins, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, and a writer recognized for her contributions to ecological issues. “Let's follow the medical model. The doctors, the pharmaceuticals and the researchers have much closer communications. It's a series of feedback loops. The doctors say, ‘We need to find out about this' and the researchers go off, find out and let them know.”

    Embracing existing ecological systems

     Sedge grasses
    Image courtesy of Mithun
    Sedge grasses, which thrive in fluctuating water levels, will be used in High Point’s stormwater system to reduce erosion and improve water quality.

    Improved collaborative processes also support an understanding of existing systems that result in design solutions that satisfy a broad range of goals. Botanists, wildlife experts, architects, engineers and landscape architects teamed up to design the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyo.

    Opening in the fall of 2005, the campus will include a pre-primary through 12th grade school and their core research and training facilities. The site's ecological systems themselves are the source of the research and curriculum. Inserting the school as sensitively as possible into the site and reinforcing the surroundings was critical to both the functional and philosophical goals of the client.

    One example is the plant community system. The relationship of plant communities to the site is a distinct reflection of Wyoming's arid climate — north sides of slopes protect aspen groves and bitterbrush, south-facing slopes expose sagebrush and grasses.

    Following this pattern in the design of the landscape eliminates the need for permanent irrigation, protects the views from houses above, supports the existing wildlife migration routes of elk and mule deer, and maintains the integrity of the system to support the curriculum messages. The campus remains authentic to its surroundings and the students in turn can learn from those surroundings.

    Making the story compelling

    Educating young people about these interconnections in a compelling way is the third leg of the ecological restoration stool of measuring success and embracing existing systems.

    “Habitat fragmentation is the biggest challenge to species diversity,” says Bruce Bohmke, deputy director of the Woodland Park Zoo. “Showing how plants, animals and people are connected is what the zoo is all about.”

    At the new Family Science Learning Center, 4- to 8-year-olds, their families and teens participating in the ZooCorps internship program will be in a special environment. Planned to open in 2006, the center will be an all-weather learning opportunity. The surrounding landscape will provide open-ended interpretive opportunities by initiating the succession of a Pacific Northwest temperate forest.

    The dirt on ecological restoration
    For more information about ecological restoration, visit the Society of Ecological Restoration’s Web site at

    Visitors will be in a place that mimics the characteristics of an old growth forest — a variety of tree sizes; a variety of plant types; open clearings will contrast with edges; nurse logs, stumps, snags and other dead wood will contribute to the nutrient cycle; and the low understory and high canopy will provide views through the site. Places along the trail will accentuate the human and nature relationship by placing people in a tightly spaced grove of cedar trees or providing places to touch the big burls of existing trees.

    Ecological restoration of systems has many fascinating implications in design and development. As the complexity of projects continues to expand, taking clues from the site that simplify design solutions and achieve project goals is an increasingly attractive option.

    Deb Guenther is a LEED-certified landscape architect at Mithun and a Cascadia Green Building Council board member.

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