Repairing Ecological Degradation: ‘Don’t Fight Forces, Use Them.’

“We’re tipping towards the unknown,” said President of Buckminster Fuller Institute David McConville, as he set the tone for the two-day Degeneration-Regeneration conference held in Montreal March 27th and 28th.

The event gathered landscape architects, scholars and other champions of regenerative design on the 50th anniversary of the Quebec Landscape Architects Association (AAPQ) to discuss how we can unlock the environment’s self-regenerating capacities.

“The earth has entered a new geological era in which the impact of industrial activities has rapidly transformed the environment,” says curator Jonathan Lapalme. The goal of Degeneration-Regeneration, he says, is to “go beyond the concept of sustainable development by exploring the dynamic processes and relationships through which the landscapes evolve.”

In his speech Planetary Lanscapes: Towards a Paradigm of Re-enchantment, McConville evoked the term ‘Antropocene’ to describe our current geological epoch in which evidence of man’s “ecological debt” is manifesting in our degraded soils, polluted waters and, most apparently, our decaying urban landscapes.

“In short,” McConville says, “humanity has become a geological force through its radical alteration of the Earth system.”

Our objectification of the environment, which McConville says led to a “widespread disenchantment” with the planet on which we live, can be traced back to Plato’s Timaeus which first introduced the notion of the universe as an entity to be observed externally.

This division of humanity and nature was further promoted in Christianity, which depicted the earth as God’s creation, and then by Nicolas Copernicus, who discovered that our planet in fact revolved around the sun.

Buckminster Fuller’s 1968 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth was an attempt to reverse the image of the environment as commodity, McConville explained. In the chapter entitled “regenerative landscapes,” Fuller called on landscape architects and urban planners to harness the regenerative capacity of the environment in order to restore the vitality of our ecosystems.

One initiative that is answering Fuller’s call is Living Breakwaters, which was recently profiled in Co Design. Gena Wirth of New York-based SCAPE Studios presented the regenerative design–which won the 2014 Buckminster Fuller Challenge–in her speech entitled “Adaptive Landscapes: Risk, Ecology and Education.”

The project, which seeks to “reduce risk, revive ecologies, and connect educators to the shoreline,” will see a necklace of breakwaters encircling the New York Bight, the vulnerable region of Staten Island prone to high waves and erosion. While acting as a buttress against an ever rising sea, the breakwaters will serve as habitats for vital marine life like shellfish, finfish and lobsters (that’s where the living part comes in), to promote biodiversity as well as ecosystem revitalization.

“Rather than create a wall between people and water, our project embraces the water, increases awareness of risk, and steps down that risk,” SCAPE’s website says.

Living Breakwaters works in concert with another New York-based regenerative initiative called the Billion Oyster Project(BOP) which seeks to restore New York’s once vibrant oyster population. The molluscs-vital for water purification and wave energy attenuation–have been declared “functionally extinct” due to pollution, drudging and overharvesting.

Much like Living Breakwaters and BOP, 596 Acres seeks to revitalize a decaying ecosystem and spur thriving environments. Unlike them, 596 Acres operates on land. Vacant land. And the forces it buffers are not oceanic, but sociopolitical.

Over 600 acres of public space lay vacant in New York, almost exclusively in the city’s economically depressed neighbourhoods. The scene “reflects a history of redlining, neglect, and race-based marketing patterns,” says 596 Acres founder Paula Segal. She cites the federal government’s mid-century “urban renewal” campaign, during which parts of many minority neighborhoods were destroyed to profit business owners, creating the more than 1000 public land parcels that lay unused in New York.

“In the United States, and in cities around the world, we have been practicing a version of Adolf Hitler’s final direction for saving his nation by destroying part of it,” Segal said. “Hitler was ready to eliminate Berlin to “save” Germany.”

596 Acres seeks to obliterate obstacles to community land access so the public space can be used as community gardens, playgrounds and social gathering areas.

In the three years it has existed, 596 Acres has seen 32 formerly vacant lots transformed into vibrant community spaces.

“We have interrupted the narrative of scarcity that permeates all talk of real estate in New York with the reality of abundance,” Segal said.

While596 Acres seeks to replenish ecosystems on land, GenomeQuébec is at work beneath it, delving beyond the land surface into the soil for clues on how to repair ecological degradation.

In her speech Industralization and Contaminated Soils: The Solutions are in the Genes, Catalina López Correa discussed bioremediation methods which uses plants and mushrooms to decontaminate soils. The organization is currently working to determine the most effective mushrooms and plants for the job, and Correa insists the power of the revolutionary biotechnology “has yet to be unlocked.”

In the meantime, scientists elsewhere are studying the potential of mushrooms to revitalize our ecosystems. Newsweek recently ran a piece on a plastic-eating fungi that could “solve our garbage problem.”

“Steam engines, the industrial revolution, nuclear explosions, thermoelectric power, highways, plastic and electronic waste – they’re leaving an indelible chemical impression on the geology of our planet,” McConville warned in his opening speech.

If anything was made clear at Degeneration-Regeneration, it’s that man has left an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and we have little choice but to get used to the ecological degradation brought about by our 5-planet lifestyles.

But what was also made abundantly clear is that the answer is out there, and the answer is, as Buckminster Fuller said himself: “Don’t fight forces, use them.”

Photo Credit: Topos Magazine