Over 18 million hectares of land have burned in Australia’s unprecedented bushfire season.

As a result, more than 1 billion animals are estimated to have died.

During these past months, the Australian environmental tragedy has renewed global efforts in addressing climate change. Today, the “Climate Emergency” has manifested in humanitarian and ecological catastrophes as a consequence of a warming climate. Given the multifaceted challenges brought about by this unfolding disaster, there is certainly no ‘one solution’. However, there is an onus on all of us to replace our complicit attitude with profound action to address these anthropogenic pressures on the natural world.

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The Australian wildfires ravage native bush and fauna, 2020. ©UN Environment

Whilst intransigent political agendas and ridiculous provocations attempt to undermine the true severity of this issue, the increasing intensity and regularity of these climatic disasters signify incommensurable changes to our global landscapes. These landscapes represent a shared history and ecology that has evolved over thousands of centuries. Yet, with the climate crisis now becoming a political debate of misguided words and fudging of numbers, we are quickly losing time to recreate, develop, and preserve our earth’s biodiversity. Now, more than ever, our landscapes demand flexible resilience.

As public concern for our earth’s life-support systems increases, the idea of ‘sustainability’ has become more widely accepted. In 1998, the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) defined sustainable landscapes as “contribut[ing] to human well-being and at the same time are in harmony with the natural environment”. Here, ‘sustainability’ embodies the systematic interconnections between ourselves and the ecosystems that support us. However, whilst this framework has fostered genuinely sustainable practices, it has also similarly increased temptation to ‘greenwash’. These purely cosmetic attempts to mimic ecological functions essentially misappropriate ‘sustainability’ for marketing purposes. Thus, discussion on the environmental benefits and damages of built landscapes is critical.

One ecological paradox that must be addressed, and that is perhaps confusing for any horticultural enthusiast, is that landscapes can indeed damage the environment. Our general perceptions of ‘modernity’, of leading a modern lifestyle, are primarily dominated by a societal emphasis on aesthetics, to communicate wealth and social status. These intangible socio-cultural boundaries are then visually translated through ‘clean’ and ‘uncluttered’ designs. This is achieved through the planting of a limited number of species, which are often non-native and thrive in highly urbanized areas. As a result, these unnecessarily fastidious and manicured parks and gardens dominate our urban and residential environments, the majority of which are “unsustainably exploitative”.

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The manicured public lawns of Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. © American Planning Association

This aesthetic-induced uniformity has resulted in “biological impoverishment”; a homogenizing effect on biodiversity, reducing and fragmenting existing native habitats. Moreover, ecological experts forecast that if the climate sufficiently changes, several native species will struggle to flourish and regenerate within their current geographies. This competition with introduced species, that have successfully adapted to the new climatic conditions, would further exacerbate this decline of native vegetation. It is important to note that such neglect and destruction of indigenous growth is not merely a localized loss. Rather, this diminished regional identity must be understood within a broader context; one of cyclical codependency. Without these native species of flora to sustain our native fauna, we are at risk of losing an abundance of rich interconnections that have been established and developed over time, and cannot be instantly re-created. Therefore, it is integral that architects acknowledge the innate relationship between native vegetation and the landscape, thereby encouraging a broader audience to follow suit.

For landscape professionals, it is pertinent to question: how can our landscapes be constructed through environmentally- conscious choices? One example is the Ramsey Creek Preserve in the United States. As the first conservation burial ground, this landscape highlights an overlap between graveyards and nature sanctuaries in their intent to “preserve land in perpetuity”. It signifies the importance of considering native vegetation within the sustainable, context-orientated design. It is through this sensitivity of biodiversity, that this innovative landscape project aspires to “protect, restore and permanently endow one million acres of wild-lands over the coming decades”. Whilst traditional cemetery practices often destroy natural landscapes, this alternative burial ground preserves the existing, local ecosystem. And in doing so, poeticizes the life cycle between humans and nature; a poignant reminder that every choice has a consequence.

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Grave at Charles Ramsey Creek Preserve. ©Memorial Ecosystems

Despite the inundation of bleak conclusions and grim predictions, there is hope. Architects have always been catalysts for bold ideas and innovative re-imaginings. As we enter a new year, a new generation of designers have the opportunity to lead by example, and meaningfully contribute to sustainability. Our reconnection to the landscape can no longer be one of meticulous aesthetics, but rather, awareness and knowledge of future changes. We must recognize the intangible, but critical, dynamics underpinning our complex, native ecologies. For our future, it is time to rethink our landscapes.

Jessica Richardson
Author

Jessica Richardson is an architecture student from the University of Melbourne, with a passion for design histories. She believes that, now more than ever, critical thinking and meaningful discussion is crucial for architecture to be at the forefront of change.

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