How people see nature should affect design

By Laura Booth and David Maddox

Technology, innovation, and design: all are frequently discussed principles of the urban environmental movement. To improve resiliency, we need green infrastructure, to enhance sustainability, we need quantitative ways to track our carbon footprint, preferably on our smart phones.

All of these buzzword-employing missives are true, but they sidestep the most important aspect of successful environmental movements — engaging people who wouldn't ordinarily touch "environmentalism" with a ten-foot pole.

Several recent contributors at The Nature of Cities sought these audiences by thinking about their "ways of looking," imagining how to plan for community members' reactions as they implement projects as diverse as stormwater filtering raingardens in Melbourne, a pollution-exposing park in São Paulo, and informational signage in Gainesville.

A "way of looking" sounds accessible enough — it's the manner in which someone observes something. When applied to nature, however, the picture gets somewhat more complex. In the realm of aesthetics, Meredith Dobbie writes, Western culture has identified four primary types of ways of looking:

  • The scenic aesthetic: an idealized vision of wilderness; think descriptions of the heath in an English romance novel
  • The ecological aesthetic: a respect for nature evolved from understanding how it works; think that scientist from down the street who insists on talking about how much energy she’s saving with her new solar panels
  • The aesthetic of care: a pastoral appreciation of human stewardship of nature; think that lady at the community garden who goes on and on about how nice and tidy the rows look
  • The aesthetic of place attachment and identity: admiration of a place based on its culture or history; think a long-time resident of a city who objects to a new development project because it will destroy a storied neighborhood landmark

What's useful about these delineations between ways of looking? "The distinctions," Dobbie writes, "can help us understand what people want in their urban environments."

For example, in her work installing raingardens — small green infrastructure installations that use certain plants and soil layers to filter contaminants out of stormwater before returning a portion of the treated water into the city's water system and storing the rest, thus keeping it out of the sewer system — in Melbourne, Dobbie has found evidence that most people observe their streets using an aesthetic of care, meaning they look for order, tidiness, and other signs that the landscape is being well-tended. This suggests that her raingardens are likely to be appreciated and adopted by neighborhood residents when they avoid certain kinds of "tussocky" plants that result in a "messy" overall appearance.

Considering ways of looking need not set out with these technical definitions in mind. As she began designing plans for a new park on the site of an old medical waste incinerator in São Paulo, Anna Dietzsch, a landscape architect, simply wanted to invite other São Paulo residents into a conversation about what she calls the "post-industrial city’s scar."

Instead of embracing the paradigm of hiding environmental damage by covering the site completely with new soil, she suggested flipping the viewpoint: building a raised deck that exposed the pollution and drew the public into the story of the location’s history and its new lease on life — a clear appeal to the aesthetic of place attachment and identity.

Research scientist Mark Hostetler began accounting for his target audience's ways of looking when he started thinking about adapting the style of informational signs in national parks for Florida residential developments. Hostetler recognized that having the same information about biodiversity and conservation on display year in and year out would bore habitual passersby. To keep those residents looking, Hostetler came up with a system of interchangeable signs that appeals to local residents' ecological aesthetic: by regularly providing new educational information, he’s engaging participants who otherwise would not know that planting non-native species, for example, can decrease local biodiversity.

Specialized solutions to problems of resilience and sustainability are most effective when they empower the public to do better by the environment. By thinking about how that public sees the environment, we can make sure that our technologies, innovations, and designs don’t fall on deaf ears.

Photo: Selgascano office. Credit: Iwan Baan.

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