Thirteen years ago, the Texas-based energy provider New Braunfels Utilities took stock of its holdings and realized that it wasn’t getting much use out of a 16-acre parking and storage complex along the state’s Comal River. Sited near the river’s head, the property was nearly monochromatic when seen from above, a sea of gray concrete dotted with metal warehouses. Perhaps it would make for a suitable employee events center, NBU wondered, reaching out to architecture firm Lake|Flato in nearby San Antonio. But the firm, known for its site-sensitive approach, had another idea: ecosystem regeneration, also known as rewilding.
When researching the site, a delicate parcel once carpeted with swaying grasses, Lake|Flato focused on its past as a point of transition between coastal plains and Texas hill country. So, in 2010, the firm pitched a community-focused return to the site’s natural state. Working alongside Austin-based Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, the design team would foster riparian zones along the shoreline, uncapping a springhead and restoring habitats for native species, such as the toothless blindcat, the Comal Springs riffle beetle, and the endangered Texas blind salamander. Existing warehouses would be adapted into a solar-powered visitors center and an educational space accompanied by demonstration gardens so NBU customers could learn about low-water ecologies and native grasses.
“You have to speak to [this kind of rewilding project] in terms of energy and in terms of what’s good for the environment is good for your constituents,” says Lake|Flato partner Matt Wallace, AIA. “We said, ‘Well, this is a way you can connect not only with nature but really connect with the community.’” NBU thought the proposal was a great idea, Wallace says.
More than a decade later, the project’s first phase—which encompasses ecosystem restoration and a multiuse pavilion—is open. Completed under the purview of Headwaters at the Comal, a nonprofit created by NBU in 2017, the endeavor is a public-private partnership and, due to its meticulous habitat restoration, a case study of how architecture firms can approach rewilding.
The process of rewilding—a practice focused on restoring ecosystems—might seem ill-suited to architecture. Fitting naturally into the domain of landscape architecture, successful, respectful rewilding often hinges on an absence of building and development. The process calls for an intimate understanding of a site’s biome, ecology, and role in a larger ecosystem—topics sometimes sidelined in architecture education. Ignoring the practice, however, seems unwise for a market-reactive profession given the health and well-being benefits that users derive from green spaces. Remaining ignorant of rewilding’s necessity is also a luxury that architects cannot afford in a warming world experiencing frightening biodiversity loss.
An Integrated Environmental Ethic
So what could rewilding mean for architects? Originating in conservation biology, the term rewilding caught on in North America in the late 20th century, often centering on the “cores, corridors, and carnivores” model from biologists Michael Soulé and Reed Noss in their 1998 paper “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation.” Although some rewilding manifests in building solutions—such as the planned Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing in Santa Monica, Calif.—it can also suggest the reframing of a design process that has evolved to disrupt natural habitats and patterns.
“Rewilding elements could be as simple as recognizing that birds are in the air and that they’ll fly into glass if they can’t see it,” says Joyce Hwang, AIA, founder of the Buffalo, N.Y.–based firm Ants of the Prairie. Hwang, also an associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, has spent her career investigating the intersections between biology and architecture and developing expertise in multispecies design. “I think conventionally, architecture over the last decades, or at least when I was in school in the 90s and early 2000s, has focused on site as a kind of set of finite conditions that can be analyzed through the lens of geometry, space, and human comfort, but less in terms of living systems,” Hwang says.
A repositioning of that lens, focused instead on the experiences of multiple species, fosters a new “environmental ethic,” says Erin Moore, AIA, founder of Eugene, Ore.-based Float Architectural Research and Design. “I think most of the buildings that we’re living with now—that were built in North America in the last 100 years—are artifacts of an environmental ethic that is about separating humans from the more-than-human whole, or even putting humans above the more-than-human whole.”
Offices such as Seattle’s Wittman Estes work to whittle down this separation, “letting landscapes drive the design decisions with the architecture being more about framing and putting users in connection with nature,” says co-founding principal Matt Wittman, AIA. Wittman and his founding partner, principal Jody Estes, began as landscape architects working on large-scale urban planning and small-scale built projects. “I saw that there was a lot of good you could do in that realm, and a lot of it stayed on paper,” Wittman says. “The main driver of the physical built environment that we inhabited was more influenced by architects.” So, Wittman returned to school and earned his M.Arch., ultimately working alongside Estes to lead a multidisciplinary design firm that meets what Wittman calls a “large demand from people to have an integrated way of living and an integrated design in their dwellings, their office spaces, and public spaces—really all of the built environment.”
Doug Voigt, AIA, an urban design and planning partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, sees this integration through a holistic consideration of natural systems. “We’ll deal with bird-friendly design by just looking at how we design the façade and the materials we use within buildings,” Voigt says. “But you need to really understand the context, the habitat of those species much further beyond just your project.”
Voigt points to the firm’s work on Chicago’s Wild Mile, a floating park along the city’s Goose Island industrial waterfront, as an example. Working with an interdisciplinary team—including local organizations Urban Rivers and Omni Ecosystems—SOM completed phase one in 2021, installing 1,500 square feet of modular parks off a 400-foot span of shoreline. Connected by a series of walkways, the buoyant gardens are studded with plantings that filter the water below, restoring the river’s oxygen levels and nutrients.
The Wild Mile—which has received funding for another 1,500 square feet of parks—showcases potential relationships between existing systems. It’s an act of urbanism that expands social services, providing parks for nearby residents, and an act of rewilding that expands ecological services. “It’s about how we find balance, which will mean different things in different contexts and in different parts of the world,” Voigt says. “It’s about restoring those connections.”
Despite the concept’s allure, rewilding presents pitfalls, beginning with the word itself. Defined as a return to an area’s uncultivated state, rewilding is often associated with conservation biology and mass market successes such as the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park. The practice, however, can idealize land untouched by humans, erasing existing land management practices and “displac[ing] Indigenous communities in the name of nature conservation,” explains Priyanka Bista, co-founder of the New York– and Nepal-based nonprofit design studio Ktk-Belt. Speaking of her work in Nepal, Bista explains that “if you look strictly just in terms of protecting nature, what we don’t realize is that communities have been protecting and engaging with nature for centuries.”
And, like other sustainability strategies, the word’s popularity can also lead to a watering down of the concept, reducing it to a design trend or a fantasy of buildings consumed by landscape. Rewilding could also risk becoming an enviable, yet unrealistic, aesthetic defined by abundant greenery or vibrant wildflowers, encouraging clients to request designs at odds with a site’s environment. “In some cases, a client in a hotter, drier climate wants a lush green landscape,” says Ariane Laxo, sustainability director at the Minneapolis-headquartered firm HGA. “Yet that’s not at all what their climate zone allows.”
This discrepancy between vision and reality also extends to upkeep—a detail sometimes overlooked in nature-restoring schemes. “I think part of it goes back to this ideal aesthetic and sense of beauty, and this misunderstanding or misperception that rewilding is maintenance-free,” says Julie Hiromoto, FAIA, principal and director of integration at HKS. “It’s not like you can just plant the seeds, release some wild critters, and then walk away.”
In that sense, education becomes an essential step in any rewilding attempts. As the climate crisis intensifies, design professionals, property owners, and property managers might feel pressure to embrace holistic sustainability rather than homing in on a specific problem. But that impulse requires a wealth of knowledge—in the case of rewilding, being fully aware of the site’s ecological history, soil chemistry, cultural history, and risk of introducing invasive species, for starters.
Input also needs to come from the community, one willing to engage in maintenance or preservation. During a recent project focused on reducing the illegal trafficking of pangolins—shy, scaly mammals that roll into a ball when threatened—in Nepal, Bista and her team developed a design process defined by education, workshops, and community engagement. “It’s very important for us to be passionate but at the same time realize that the people who are living with or around nature may have very different perspectives based on their own everyday realities and struggles with biodiversity,” Bista says. “If you are open to understanding and perhaps even empathizing with that ground reality, then you can have a realistic understanding of the field and can move towards long-term outcomes that favor the community as well as their environment. It may, however, start in an incremental way.”
A Seat at the Table
When Lake|Flato began work on the Headwaters at Comal, back in Texas, it took a long time for the earth to heal. Contractors ripped up the asphalt with care, but a powerful storm blew through the area and washed away the exposed topsoil. The tender ground left behind needed ample rest and time to repair itself. This is one of the steps, Wallace explains, where things can go horribly wrong. Rush construction along before the soil is established, and you risk transforming well-intentioned rewilding into a money pit.
“The establishment period is so important and if you don’t get a contractor that is sensitive to that, you’re going to be redoing it and redoing it,” Wallace explains. “I’m constantly in discussion with contractors that respect the land most and have thoughtful and artful means and methods because as an architect, you don’t get to choose the ways by which they build.” You need a team with a strong transition plan for the land—patient and knowledgeable collaborators on all sides.
For architects to better address the challenges of climate change, resilience, multispecies health, and human well-being, this is how they fit into rewilding: incrementally, learning from collaborators and community as they go. “I think, as architects, we have a seat at the table, but I don’t believe we should be leading the lecture,” Wallace says.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.