Co-scripting Landscapes With Nature

Co-scripting landscapes with nature, a possible message of the IPBES report for Landscape Architects.

The Earth is in crisis. A 1500 page report, a collation of the writings of 145 authors form 50 nations with about 15000 scientific papers underlines the threat to life in this age of humans. **The IPBES* report 2019 on Nature’s dangerous decline, the highlights of which were released ¬recently anticipates that one million species are threatened with extinction.

“Nature is a slow author; humans kill with vicious efficiency”, states Brian Resnick** analysing the report.

The report and the follow up analysis by experts and citizens corroborates what we all know and are becoming more aware of that this era is responsible for the disappearance, irreversible erasure possibly of a million species. The scale, numbers quantification are just beyond alarming. They are simply catastrophic.

As the world erases and the planet plummets into a series of crisis, the profession of landscape architecture may bring one possible ray of hope.

As professionals who work with design schemes on ground, we have the tools, the means and probably the uniqueness of scripting landscapes. As large swathes of nature are erased we can make small yet determined efforts to revive these in our work. In every project we undertake we design a new landscape or reiterate some of the features of an existing landscape moulding what exists, enhancing it aesthetically, protecting its cultural and ecological history. So here is where we have a choice….a choice to co-script a landscape that enhances the hand of nature.

So how can we as landscape architects, slowly, surely, though our small, localised efforts, slow down this erasure of nature? In every work/project we undertake on ground we can

  1. Design, keeping local natural context paramount in every project
  2. Consult with ecologists, highly qualified professions and academics, barefoot botanists, students of the field, whoever we can meet, speak to, work with to cross pollinate ideas and collaborate on efforts
  3. Read up and take free/paid/online web courses on ecology, invasive species, designing with nature
  4. Invest some time to be part of nature walk initiatives in our neighbourhood and/or in the neighbourhood where our project is located
  5. Scale up our work/thinking by becoming part of professional/ amateur organisations with landscape professionals, ecologists. Or simply nature lovers.
  6. We think, eat, and breathe nature. We need to just translate this into our creations!
Emerging professionals in various discussions have raised the concern that they are not part of projects that are big budget, big impact, both or either, where they can make a marked difference to nature with their work. Here is where the thinking needs to shift. Every project being translated on ground is an opportunity to make a difference. The reality is that residential gardens which most graduating professionals begin their professional journey on, are the best laboratories. I remember the words of a young architecture student when I was taking an elective course in SPA*** Delhi titled ‘culture context common sense’. We were discussing about landscapes familiar to students hailing from different parts of India. This student belonged to the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. His mother grew mainly fruit trees in her backyard but the children were not allowed to pluck or eat the produce. She had taught them to leave the flowers, fruits on the trees for birds, bees, butterflies and insects. They had the first right to this abode. This simple house rule has profound lessons for landscape design. If every effort (howsoever small or seemingly insignificant) of ours is in sync with the needs of nature we are actually ‘scripting that difference’ in this world. This will enter our creativity, intent in years to come when we work on larger more significant assignments. An iconic project of over a 100 acres that we worked on around 15 years back was a power generating facility in the south Indian countryside. We proposed setting up a productive garden growing fruits and vegetables behind the cooling tower of the facility. While there was no resident community within the campus we felt the emotional attachment of the managers and workers to the land when they would actually consume what was grown from the fertile soils could inspire many more such ventures for their other properties around the country to transform from aesthetic to simple productive landscapes. The next step in the metamorphosis of landscape design is to leave nature to reclaim these landscapes and for us to simply guide this process where and if needed.
So it is the students and young professionals through their individual and collective efforts that will steer the world towards safety and stability away from the bleak reality highlighted by the IPBES Report. They have the time, the need, the understanding and the power to script their future. Back in the 1990s we were using residential gardens as laboratories for craft skills of stone work, concrete mixes, planting design. The experimentation continues but it is now determinedly focused on bringing back nature into our urban habitat. Adjusting our eyes to unkempt landscapes rather than manicured greens; diminishing the use of easily available exotics to scouting forests for seeds of natives. Understanding a water scarce world and relooking at landscape design from here.

If the IPBES report brings home a message to the Landscape Architects it is that we can be the local magicians to bring back the lost species in our world, we can play the role of urban doctors who can save our cities from the impending pollution disaster. We can be the karmic creators who can sow without the intent of harvest and do our bit to turn this world away from the brink of disaster.

***School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.