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Tending the Wild

Designing for living cities can reduce the impact of buildings and even regenerate the environment.


By Bill Reed and John Boecker

A developer in the Rockies recently changed his approach. Initially he planned to set aside 600 of the project’s 3,000 acres as habitat conservation—a move that would have done little to support natural systems. Instead he designed the 600-home development itself as a “living bridge” between the river to the east and the mountains to the west; development became an opportunity for regenerating plant and animal diversity, increasing ecological resiliency, and reintegrating humans with the nature that supports them.

The term development means “to create new potential.” By participating with nature as co-equals in “tending the wild,” we move from being occupants of the land to becoming inhabitants again. In other words, learning how to sustain our communities can be a re-membering and rebirth of consciousness. This is not as hard as it may seem, but it represents real change in the way we think—affirming abundance rather than limiting liabilities.

Just like honeybees pollinating flowers and tickbirds eating parasites on a rhinoceros’ back, humans have an integral role to play in co-evolving with other species on the planet. So what does that role look like, what might it be? One way to explore this role is through a simple exercise:

Imagine designing a bedroom addition for your growing family. What would you need to know, what issues would you address?

Stop reading for a moment: Pause and reflect on the above…

Now, imagine designing a bedroom addition for the purpose of developing your children.

To do this: What issues would you have to address? What new understanding would you have to develop? Who would you have to be?

Just as we play an essential role in developing and co-learning with our children, we must integrate all aspects of living when developing our environment. This is not to suggest a parenting role when building, but a nurturing one that seeks the health of the whole of life—humans and nature, mutually developing each other.

Tending the Wild
Image © Celyn Brazier
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This kind of “living system” design depends on change—changing our mental model, our approach, our process, ourselves. It requires developing an understanding of how life has thrived for millennia in each unique place—and how it can continue to do so in concert with human shelter. It sees humans as nature, not separate from it. It means engaging with a process that focuses on understanding the core and essential patterns of life in each place—whether rural or urban. Systems ecologists, biologists, and permaculturists can help project teams and communities discover these patterns. They can then derive design principles from the patterns of the place, and draw key indicators from these principles.

These developmental processes are being explored in North Charleston, South Carolina at the Noisette development, in a Vermont grocery store that sees the restoration of soil and nearby farms as integral to its purpose of providing food, and in Curitiba, Brazil, where the city is seen as a “living being”—a dynamic, growing, regenerative whole—and planning is a process of “urban acupuncture,” not a series of isolated interventions.

Clearly the development process—the process of creating shelter and food—has tremendous impact on planetary health, but the corollary is also true: The act of building can be an act of healing, regenerating the community and web of life in each unique place. Development can heal the earth. In fact, it must!

Bill Reed and John Boecker are teachers and consultants, and co-authors of The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building. Redefining the Practice of Sustainability

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This article appeared in the January 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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