Composite image of the United States at night in 2012.
Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via a Creative Commons license. Composite image of the United States at night in 2012.

Our ecological future is ominous, precarious, and feral—and it’s overflowing with potential for design. This was the message conveyed at the Nature 3.x: Where is Nature Now symposium held April 17 and 18 at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and hosted by assistant landscape architecture professor Matthew Tucker and art professor Christine Baeumler. Nature 3.x brought together internationally renowned designers, writers, and activists with expertise in landscape architecture, ecology, conservation, and the arts to discuss the lasting effects of human influence on the planet and new ways of thinking about the natural world. Timed just before Earth Day 2015, Nature 3.x provided a forum for discussing our changing relationship with nature and the need for a paradigm shift in our design thinking. As the symposium brief summarized: “It is time to update to a new version of nature, one that is suited for the realities of the 21st century. In doing so, we must first ask the question, ‘Where is Nature Now?’”

In his talk, Tucker addressed this question with an assessment of current global environmental challenges. He discussed the Anthropocene epoch—a term popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000 to acknowledge the lasting geological impact of humankind—and its profound ecological effects, including mass extinctions, climate alteration, and pervasive pollution. Although such effects have been frequently publicized, Tucker argued that the extent to which humans have altered natural processes is still not fully appreciated. For example, more than 90 percent of the planted acres of corn, soybean, and cotton crops in the United States are now genetically engineered, suggesting a shift in the conversation from genetically modified organisms (commonly known as GMOs) to the reality of our genetically modified environment. In another example, Tucker used a depiction of natural biomes over time to reveal the nearly complete global dominion of human activity, leading him to conclude that we should shift the discussion from natural biomes to anthromes, or human biomes. (In 1700, approximately half of the world’s landmass could be considered natural, compared with less than a quarter in 2000.)

Other presenters similarly revealed new ways of thinking about humanity’s planetary influence. Kate Orff, founder and partner of SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, in New York, and an associate professor of landscape architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, described her book and traveling exhibit Petrochemical America (Aperture, 2012), co-authored with photographer Richard Misrach. In their investigation of the so-called Cancer Alley in Louisiana—a region between New Orleans and Baton Rouge composed largely of industrial plants and refineries—the pair revealed the sweeping alterations made to this stretch of the Mississippi River by Americas insatiable need for petroleum. As Orff projected images of decimated bald cypress forests and refinery-produced cumulus clouds, she stated that “the American landscape is a machine for consuming oil and petrochemicals.”

Andrew Blackwell, New York-based journalist, filmmaker, and author of Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places (Rodale, 2012), shared experiences from his travels to the evacuated site of the 1986 nuclear disaster in northern Ukraine. Not only does this irradiated landscape signify one form of human impact, but this “accidental wildlife preserve” also shares some commonalities with our treasured national parks, he says. Both Chernobyl and Yosemite National Park are enclosed by barricades with controlled entry points, both are actively monitored and managed, and both visually appear to be (visual) embodiments of the Edenic ideal.

Unlike most ecologically focused talks, which tend to leave the audience depressed and debilitated, the Nature 3.x lectures were refreshingly pro-active in their message. Despite the scale of current environmental challenges, the speakers were unanimous in their support of new forms of engagement, often in surprising and provocative ways. For example, design activists Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker of Minneapolis-based Works Progress Studio discussed their Water Bar pop-up project, which serves flights of local waters for communal tasting and discussion in the Twin Cities and in northwest Arkansas.

Inside The In Vitro Meat Cookbook by Koert van Mensvoort.
Koert van Mensvoort Inside The In Vitro Meat Cookbook by Koert van Mensvoort.
Koert van Mensvoort's Nano Supermarket.
Koert van Mensvoort Koert van Mensvoort's Nano Supermarket.

Seattle artist Buster Simpson shared his politically-charged public art works, which include giant limestone tablets dropped into the Hudson River, in New York, to neutralize its acidic pH and a day-lit sewage conveyor pipe at the Brightwater Treatment Plant in Woodinville, Wash. Netherlands-based artist Koert van Mensvoort, co-author of Next Nature (Actar, 2012), discussed a variety of mind-opening projects including: Nano Supermarket, which is a traveling exhibition that features controversial products made via nanotechnology, and the Fake for Real Memory Game, which tests a player’s ability to detect real from simulated nature. His latest book, The In Vitro Meat Cookbook (BIS Publishers, 2014), includes 45 recipes that consumers may one day use to cook lab-grown meat once it is commercially available. Despite the startling topic, the book’s thesis is founded on an undeniable argument: The unsustainable climate- and resource-related impacts of humanity’s growing appetite for meat will force future societies to make bold dietary changes.

Other types of engagement forego the provocative for the practical. Oregon-based writer Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury USA, 2011), advocated the need for new types of nature conservation. Bemoaning the infinitesimal footprint of designated wilderness areas in the U.S.—territories that are too small and over-regulated for many visitors to experience—she explained the need to cultivate much broader swaths of landscape. Such territories represent novel ecosystems that, although previously degraded and abandoned, reveal signs of healthy biodiversity gains and invite human interaction without prohibitive regulations.

And in her opening keynote, Orff discussed several current SCAPE projects, including Living Breakwaters (shown below) on Staten Island, in New York. A winning design proposal for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design Initiative, Living Breakwaters seeks to increase the physical and social resilience of the Staten Island shoreline following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The multilayered living infrastructure includes a series of artificial breakwaters with marine life–conducive inlets, oyster-cultivation beds, and gently sculpted dunes. Compared to conventional sea-wall construction, the proposal is a more naturally robust and visually satisfying approach to shoreline protection.

SCAPE/Landscape Architecture A rendering of SCAPE's Living Breakwaters project.

The planetary scope and impassioned engagement on display at Nature 3.x left me with a pressing question: What role does architecture have in this brave new world? Certainly buildings account for a significant portion of humanity’s attention given that we spend, on average, 90 percent of our time indoors and we invest more than half of all resources in construction. Moreover, architects inherently understand that a building’s site has direct consequences for its design while the influence of the building itself extends beyond the property line.

Nevertheless, the old—and, I would argue, artificial—dichotomy of building versus landscape is a paradigm we struggle to relinquish. The disciplinary siloization of architecture works against our desire for a place at the table in such far-reaching and meaningful project collaborations as those explained here. As Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA, critic and dean of the university’s College of Design, summarized after the symposium: Institutional emphasis is shifting away from disciplinary thinking and toward significant global challenges that require multidisciplinary expertise—yet architecture maintains a strong disciplinary identity. To be certain, just as landscape architects and ecologists interrogate the idea of next nature, architects must explore next shelter and how the built environment should relate to the post-natural condition. We should investigate this new territory in a more active cooperation with a diversely talented team to ensure a more synthetic, innovative, and successful outcome.