Evolution of the Art & Science of Landscape Architecture & Design

Blog ahead of the ISOLA Annual conference 2017 in Goa

Peter Head
Jan 18, 2017 · 12 min read


I think it is time to set out a step change, systems approach, in the evolution of the art and science of landscape architecture through a new holistic approach to planning and design for sustainability and disaster risk reduction (an evolution from the conventional Master Planning approach). This is now possible because of evolution of systems modelling practice, computing power, open data libraries, understanding the science of natural systems and earth systems. Also tablets and availability of 4G and soon 5G communications to enable these to be used anywhere in the world.

The idea is to mainstream planning which improves ecological health and human well-being, including culture, in urban-rural systems development. Culture in this context includes the evolution of human relationships with the natural environment, with tangible as well as intangible aspects.

We now have a landscape of global change mapped out up to 2030 with continued urbanization and the need to build as much new infrastructure as currently exists on the Planet:

200 countries have signed up to the 2030 Global Goals with a view to ensuring that these massive investments deliver elimination of extreme poverty and leave none behind in providing access to healthcare, housing, safe mobility, fresh water, energy, communications and food, while managing increasing disaster risk and regenerating the world’s ecosystems. In China this is called moving to the ecological civilization.

I argue that this will never be achieved unless distributed green infrastructure becomes an essential part of the investment solution, enabling the closing of loops in the water, carbon and nutrient cycles, cooling and cleaning urban areas, providing cultural continuity from the past into the future with inspiring and beautiful places to enjoy throughout the seasons. This green infrastructure needs to connect the earth’s atmosphere to local soils and geology and enable people to live in harmony with nature, improving mental and physical health.

We do not have the tools to tackle this essential and yet hugely complex design task. Some crude tools were developed for the Arup design for the Dongtan Eco-city project in China but they did not embrace economics and material transformations in human and ecological systems, which is partly why implementation was so slow.

I embarked on this journey by creating The Ecological Sequestration Trust Charity in 2011 to bring together world leading modelers, engineers, designers and scientists to create the first open-source planning and decision-making CHEER platform so that everyone could download it, load in their data and use it for integrated holistic design, investment decision making and risk management. The plan was that by 2015, when the new Sustainable Development Goals were likely to be agreed, the platform would be available for testing and demonstration of how to deliver these goals using an integrated planning and design approach in which human and ecological health and well-being were centre-stage in design. The plan was to develop a tool for everyone to model the earth’s surface activity in their region and link those to earth systems models of the whole earth changes.

We have developed the platform called resilience.io and I will go on to describe how it has been used in prototype form in the city of Accra in Ghana to enable an investment plan for Water Supply and Sanitation for all according to SDG6 to be developed.

We now have a very ambitious plan to build the complete functionality of the CHEER platform, demonstrate it right across Ghana by the end of 2018, including all the functionality required for collaborative landscape architecture and design. Then the plan is to bring it in 2019 to one demonstration region in all 200 countries that signed up to deliver the SDGs, including India, and then enable it’s use to be scaled fully across each country by 2030.

Culture, Ecology and Sustainability

I embrace the philosophy that development divorced from its human or cultural context, and that reduces the social cohesion between humans, is growth without soul. The development of the human race started when we began to develop agriculture and exploited the abundant natural resources (Fig 1) , but the huge explosion of population and consumption of resources began when we developed machines and could exploit fossil fuels in the industrial age.

Over this time we moved to cities which are full of the history and culture of these periods of our evolution. We have now quickly realised that these development paths are rapidly destroying the ecology on which our lives depend and so we are now seeking out a major transition to the ecological development path towards the 2015 Global Sustainable Development Goals (1). This radical change of direction by 2030 requires everyone to embrace a new way of living, which we call sustainable development, but as Gandhi said:

Figure 1 Temple Garden in Kyoto

This new direction has to be found and trusted before we run too fast and we need to recognise the importance of respecting and embracing cultural heritage in giving us the knowledge, confidence and ability to move forward. Decisions come from inside ourselves. What we know and trust is rooted in the past experience within our family histories, which are linked to our cultural heritage. If this heritage is conserved and respected we are more able to accept change which improves our collective well-being. Heritage comes from both the natural world which we have experienced and the built heritage in our cities and the living surroundings. The hybrid heritage (natural and cultural) must be explored and understood within landscape design, for this approach to succeed.

All this heritage is under grave threat from human activities and the impact they are having on the natural world and it is vitally important to understand and mitigate these if we are to succeed and move forward with confidence. The Planetary Health Commission Report (2) which I helped to write, lays out these changes and the grave threat they pose to human well-being. In particular, the destruction of ecology and pollution of water, soils and air which could undermine all the improvements we have made globally through public health programs. The report calls for “urgent and collective action at both local and global levels”.

One way to understand the impact of human population growth is the calculation of the growth of our ecological footprint, the amount of land we need to support our lifestyles, and the way this has rapidly exceeded the capacity of the planet to support life and it is still going up. On average we already need 1.5 earths to support our life (3). This is why human and natural heritage is under such pressure. Landscape planning must therefore be able to include an understanding of resource flows and how these can lead to a lower footprint. The conclusion from all this analysis is that land use planning and landscape design must embrace Collaborative Human Ecological Economic Resource Systems CHEER(4) (Fig2).

Figure 2 CHEER systems approach

Global Action on Sustainable Development

Urbanisation and retrofit of existing urban centres, including historic sites, are still progressing and a new more resilient, ecological path is starting to be explored. In China this has moved from the “ecological city” idea to “new urbanisation”. In the change, resilience features are introduced such as active walking and cycling travel, greater use of public transport, reduced air pollution, increased access to green space which reduces the ‘heat island’ effect, storage and reuse of water to achieve rational utilization and to supply ecology, growing of food locally and use of ecology and human collaboration to mitigate and minimise disaster risk. Landscape design needs to have all of these features integrated into place-making.

Figure 3 Temple garden in Kyoto

The planning of this change can be informed by history from the agricultural age when resources before the industrialisation period were less accessible. So a key part of planning for ‘new urbanisation’ is to investigate the way historic sites (Fig 3), and their culture, managed water, energy, food and mineral and ecological resources locally, to inform the way forward.

2015 was the Year of Sustainable Development when a set of 17 Global Goals were adopted by UN member states on 25th September (1). They cover all the areas of resilience required and so the direction is now much clearer.

A key way to improve resilience is to reduce resource consumption and to have improved local access to resources needed. This will also reduce ecological footprint and reduce stress on ecological systems. This approach in now called ‘the Circular Economy’ (5) and there are many practical demonstrations being realised and reported and green infrastructure is a key integrating element of such solutions.

The way forward to deliver these outcomes is to use CHEER modelling tools.

Collaborative design and decision making CHEER tools

The Ecological Sequestration Trust has been exploring how regional planning and landscape design and investment can evolve to meet the Global Goals, mitigate disaster risk and support the circular economy. The world’s first CHEER land use planning tool has been developed and through prototyping, the practice has evolved the concept of a Collaboratory (collaborative laboratory) for using it. The Collaboratory (6) (Fig 4) can be accessed online or through a community-local government centre within the region. It hosts a trusted data driven platform systems model of the region, which can be accessed by anyone free, (Fig 6) that enables a better understanding of the region to be reached and the threats that are posed and can be used for testing scenarios of change and mitigation and risk reduction that are possible through investment and new collaborations.

Figure 4 Collaboratory in action in Ghana

Such a platform, open-source resilience.io (7) (Fig5) is being built and has been prototyped in a Collaboratory in Ghana in 2016 (6) and will be made freely available for global use from 2018/19.

The prototype focussed on Water and Sanitation and demonstrated through 3 specific use cases, modelling of the energy, water and human waste resource flows through the Greater Accra area with innovative process models. The population was modelled using an Agent Based Model and used to compare demand for fresh water and sanitation with the inadequate supply side. The use cases enabled investments to be optimized to provide services for all by 2030. 15 people from Government, business and academia have had training in the prototype and now have resilience.io installed on their machines. This is a real breakthrough and allows users to investigate the best strategies to achieve 100% access to clean water and sanitation throughout the 15 districts of Greater Accra.

Figure 5 resilience.io platform description from Roadmap 2030
Figure 6 resilience.io platform linked to earth systems models and remote users
Figure 7 Diagram of the visualisation planned for resilience.io

The GIS land use layer of the platform (Fig 6&7) contains topography, underground geology and land use (including cultural history) for human activity including built environment and industry, agriculture, forestry, wetlands, seas and lakes. The active buildings, industries and ecology (forests, wetlands, farmland) are modelled as processors which can be drawn from a library and dropped into position. Weather and other external impacts are provided by a link to the best earth system and meteorological models.

The agent layer contains the census data for demographics, living and working locations, health and skill characteristics and mobility patterns. Utilities and infrastructure are modelled in the usual way and the platform calculates and reconciles the day to day resource flows including energy, and the flow of pollutants and wastes including carbon. All the data feeds a detailed economic model. So if the new landscape design enables water retention, flood risk mitigation, improved health and lowering of heat island effects and energy use, the economic value can be determined.

The platform is not a black box to predict the future. It is an enabler so that collaborative planning, design and decision making can proceed with the combined expertise of the users mobilised to enable faster and more convergent outcomes to be achieved which address many of the 17 SDG’s in a risk sensitive way. If it does not give logical outcomes it can be modified openly to try to improve them.

Financing green infrastructure and scaling up globally

No transformation in a historic city region is possible without access to finance for transformational change. The Ecological Sequestration Trust explored this by bringing together leading practitioners in a high-level meeting at the Bellagio Rockefeller Foundation Centre in February 2015 and produced a report ‘Smart Ways to Mobilise more Efficient and Effective long-term Investment in City regions’(8)

The key recommendations from the report are as follows:

1. The battle to deliver Post-2015 SDGs globally will be won or lost in cities

2. City regions need an adequate share of government funds to enable them to attract the necessary private capital

3. The availability of finance is not an issue

4. The main barrier is the lack of capacity and tools to bring forward ‘bankable’ projects

5. Transfers of knowledge, best practices and human and ecological resource data are needed at different scales — from local communities and regions, different cities, entire nations and on up to global scale. Such practice is being established

6. The best way to connect to funding sources is to set up an Urban Development Fund (UDF) financing vehicle, supported by a systems platform

7. Local data and systems modelling are needed in the platform. Open-source tools, which enable the use of local open-data in systems models are now being developed for this purpose

8. Projects are best taken forward using the Public Private Partnership (PPP) aggregator model in which the platform is used to support planning, design, delivery and ongoing maintenance. Leverage of around 70% could be raised

9. Projects need to integrate human and ecological systems to reduce the cost of mitigation and adaptation and to support human well-being

10. Local capacity for planning, modelling and project development needs to be developed urgently in city regions, so that there are the tools and training required to plan, design and implement such projects with appropriate governance arrangements

11. New financial instruments and mechanisms are needed both within and outside the formal banking sector to enable financing and development to be inclusive and to reach down to the needs of the community

12. The (re)insurance sector has a key role to play in risk assessment in developing countries and enabling risks to be better accounted for in the wider financial system

The Ecological Sequestration Trust took these recommendations and facilitated the creation of Roadmap 2030 (9) for delivering the Global Goals, Paris Agreement and Sendai risk framework across the whole world by 2030.

The Trust is now planning the support to this process, with a key stepping stone being the setting up of a demonstration region in every country in 2019 and then scaling up across each of them so that by 2023 70% of the world is using the approach, mobilizing $3trillion per year into green growth and improved social impact.(10)

The Trust hopes to work with ISOLA members in India on this program and also landscape architects all over the world. We hope that resilience.io will enable a positive step change to greatly enhance the value creation that is possible from the art and science of Landscape Architecture.

Ref 1 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300

Ref 2 The Planetary Health Commission Report -Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(15)60901-1.pdf

Ref 3 Ecological Footprint https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_footprint

Ref 4 Collaborative Human Ecological Economic Resource systems CHEER Roadmap 2030 Page 28 http://ecosequestrust.org/roadmap2030.pdf

Ref 5 The Circular Economy Ellen Macarthur Foundation http://www.circulareconomy.com

Ref 6 The Ecological Sequestration Trust Demonstration Region GAMA http://ecosequestrust.org/finding-the-pathway-to-a-resilient-future-for-the-greater-accra-metropolitan-area-gama/

Ref 7 resilience.io integrated systems modelling platform http://resilience.io

Ref 8 Smart Ways to Mobilise more Efficient and Effective long-term Investment in City regions’ The Ecological Sequestration Trust March 2015 http://ecosequestrust.org/financeforSDGs.pdf

Ref 9 Roadmap 2030 The Ecological Sequestration Trust http://ecosequestrust.org/roadmap2030.pdf

Ref 10 Peter Head 100&Change Plan video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cycii-xl2Gk

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