Designers play a significant role in climate change. The built environment, which we are involved in shaping and maintaining, has a notable impact on the natural environment, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. While we need to provide durable, safe, and beautiful places to live, we must also acknowledge and take greater responsibility for the environmental impacts these processes have on both our local ecosystems and the areas from which we obtain resources.
Enter rewilding, a term coined by the late environmentalist Dave Foreman in 1992. As it turns out, we humans are just one of the organisms that rely on healthy ecosystems for physical and mental well-being; the richness and diversity of plant life directly contribute to the overall diversity and stability of entire ecosystems. Rewilding isn’t just about the work and methods of re-proliferating locally appropriate biodiversity. It is also about rebuilding our relationship with the wild in order to receive the plethora of benefits that keep us well.
My first experience with the potential of rewilding was working on Section 1 of the High Line, a public park built on a historical, elevated freight line in New York, while I was at local landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations. Our mission was to make the expanse of opportunistic wildflowers and weeds that grew up and over the elevated railway tracks—the urban meadow captured in Joel Sternfeld’s photographs—accessible to the public.
Using the abandoned infrastructure that cut through commercially viable blocks on Manhattan’s West Side, we employed a process framed by the tenets of landscape urbanism—we applied a holistic approach to reimagine how humans and ecosystems can share and benefit from these places. We uprooted the plant and soil communities to shore up the line’s aged concrete and steel structure, putting the tracks and other artifacts back together in an accessible and durable way, while intensifying the experience of the wild nature that had once occurred. We embraced landscape designer Piet Oudolf’s four-season planting scheme to provide access for millions to a new embodiment of that magical floating meadow. We created narrow paths for visitors to take in the robust explosions of colors and textures; to hear bees buzzing over the din of traffic; to watch butterflies float on the breeze off the Hudson River; and to commune with nature in the middle of the largest metropolis in North America. Today, the High Line is one of the most visited places in New York by people as well as uncounted nonhuman visitors.
Through exploratory cross-disciplinary collaboration, we can make every project biodiverse and carbon positive by designing for all species. Solving for the climate crisis and the accompanying biodiversity crisis can and should go hand in hand. A few basic steps applied to any scale project—from a traffic median, a backyard, or an urban lot to a region, nation, or a bioregion—can both enhance biodiversity and reduce carbon. When we understand that intact ecologies can host anywhere from 530 terrestrial to 9,000 aquatic organisms per cubic foot, according to Smithsonian Magazine, everything we do counts.
As we seek out and learn about the sites for our projects, we need to keep these simple steps in mind to minimize harm and maximize potential regeneration:
1. Seek the site that has already been touched. Reuse, restore, and redevelop the buildings and follow the urban space we have in all our global cities. The human benefits of this are tighter communities, more accessible and convenient amenities, and healthier, less-car-dependent lifestyles.
2. Work to conserve intact ecologies. Perform an ecological and historical survey of the site to understand the level of functionality of existing ecological systems, as well as the quantity and diversity of plants and animal communities present. If there is a thriving community, no matter the size, conserve the area: These are the most carbon-rich areas of any site, and they perform the highest level of carbon sequestration and biodiversity work when left undisturbed. With MASS Design Group’s work on the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, we found, preserved, restored, and protected a 400-hectare, intact savanna woodland, the only one outside of Rwanda’s national parks.
3. Design to restore degraded ecologies to higher levels of ecological function. Understanding the makeup of the local ecologies, particularly how they function as communities—including a site’s soil microbial diversity, the plant communities across its surface, its hydrology and water quality, as well as the insects, birds, and animals that form this specific web of life—is critical. If waterways were controlled, redirected, or submerged, assess the potential for restoration. If an area was degraded, urbanized, or used for agriculture, consider what ecology would best suit the recovery of diversity of the site. At RICA, we protected 600 hectares of seasonal wetland. The area had been grazed intensively, resulting in compromised biodiversity. The nearby lake’s water quality was also degraded through animal fecal contamination, in part caused by the failed state of the wetland, which should have cleaned water as it moved toward the lake. In this case, just relocating grazing and farming to land outside the wetland zone was enough to allow the ecology to regain its function.
4. Proliferate biodiversity. With an understanding of the local and regional ecosystems and climate adaptability predictions, design a diverse and resilient landscape. At the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund site in Rwanda, we tested the adaptability of five higher-elevation ecologies to lower elevations in a simulation of what climate adaptation might look like for the Virunga National Park, home to one of the world’s few growing silverback gorilla populations. We collected the key plant species for these communities, propagated them, and then prepared and planted the formerly agricultural site. However, rewilding is rooted in less intensive restoration methods that leverage or enhance natural processes to support landscapes in recovering their ecological functionality. For instance, putting up roosting poles to entice birds to hunt, sleep, rest, and scatter their droppings naturally propagates the seeds the birds eat—an inexpensive and efficient way to transform agricultural land into a more diverse and ecologically productive landscape.
As a landscape architect and an architect, I’ve spent most of my career trying to merge these two disciplines—to have the architecture and landscape design of every project embrace each other to be seamless in experience, systems implementation, and impact. I am thrilled to share that MASS Design Group will soon launch the Abundant Futures Design Lab, a groundbreaking climate-action initiative centered on more than a decade of carbon-reduction, One Health, and rewilding research and design. For humans, plants, and animals to have a chance at mutual survival, we as designers need to work together to ensure that every project is biodiverse and carbon positive. The excitement this process brings to our field gives us the means and the hope to make a better future possible.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.