The ecological imperative for environmental design and planning



Environmental design and planning are important tools for human adaptation. Designers and planners depend on experience, craft, and environmental knowledge to shape preferred futures. Ecological literacy would enhance the design and planning of built environments. The concepts of “resilience” and “ecosystem” offer opportunities for collaboration between ecologists and practitioners in the design and planning disciplines. Urban resilience to natural disasters and coastal “green” infrastructure represent two areas where design and planning based on ecological principles should be applied. The Sustainable Sites Initiative is a practical example of interdisciplinary collaboration.

With slightly more than one-half of the world's human population now living in urban regions and with this proportion likely to approach 80% in North America, Europe, and Latin America by 2030 (UNPF 2007), there is an unprecedented opportunity to use the Ecological Society of America's Earth Stewardship initiative to guide the design and planning of changes in the built environment. The main professions that traditionally shape the built environment are architecture, city and regional planning, civil engineering, landscape architecture, and urban design, with extensive involvement from attorneys, developers, and public officials. However, environmental health and ecological function have traditionally been neglected or marginalized by these disciplines, resulting in negative impacts on economics and human well-being.

In a nutshell:

  • As form follows function in nature, so should environmental design and planning follow nature to create buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, cities, and regions that function more sustainably

  • Currently, environmental design and planning professionals have limited capacity to apply ecological principles to their work

  • Ecologically inspired design can be justified in terms of improved function, economic gain, and marketability

  • Resilience offers a unifying framework for teaching environmental design and planning as well as ecology

  • Real-world strategies, such as improving urban resilience to the impacts of natural disasters, provide opportunities for interdisciplinary cooperation

Inclusion of ecological understanding in design and planning can enable professionals in these disciplines to create more sustainable buildings, communities, landscapes, and regions. Likewise, design and planning professionals with a broader ecological understanding can be encouraged to apply such knowledge more effectively. The challenge of including ecological principles in research, education, and practice for the built environment can be overcome through greater interaction and collaboration between ecologists and professionals planning, designing, engineering, and constructing the built environment. By rallying around real-world challenges, interdisciplinary collaborations can be enhanced and made more meaningful.


The renowned social scientist Herbert Simon of Carnegie Mellon University observed: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing conditions into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a welfare policy for the state. Design, so constructed, is the core of all professional training: it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences” (Simon 1969). If we accept Simon's definition of design –and, by extension, planning – how then do we devise courses of action aimed at improving the built and natural environments? This direction suggests that designers and planners should be ecologically literate. However, a review of the accreditation standards (;; and curricula (eg Harvard University:; University of Pennsylvania:; University of California–Berkeley:; University of Washington:; University of Oregon:; University of Texas–Austin: of the principal professions indicates the differences in their histories and capacities relating to ecology and the other environmental sciences.

Within design and planning, two subdisciplines –architecture and engineering – have the longest institutional histories, but the least capacity for achieving ecological literacy within their current pedagogical structures. Historically, architecture has focused on aesthetics, form, and object making. Although not taught ecology, architects have a good academic grounding in physics, microclimate, and calculus; understand how the building process must relate to site conditions; and excel in learning creative skills. In the 1990s, a Carnegie Foundation study advocated a shift in architecture education away from making objects toward “building community” (Boyer and Mitgang 1996). This report and the rising interest in “green” building design have been incentives to increase environmental education in architecture.

Engineering education has traditionally focused on rigorous, but often reductive, quantitative analysis. The environment is viewed as a measurable collection of separate parts. This mechanistic view can be effective, for instance, in designing a highway to move cars and trucks from one point to another or in treating wastewater, if external impacts and consequences are not considered. Just as with architecture, the increased interest in sustainable development is driving disciplinary change, notably in the developing field of ecological engineering (eg with respect to stormwater management). However, the resulting engineered systems usually focus on a physiological function of a single plant species – nutrient uptake, for example – rather than a more general ecological or ecosystem approach.

City and regional planning moved away from its historical roots in architecture, landscape architecture, and civil engineering in the 1960s, to focus almost exclusively on social science and policy concerns, resulting in planners with a poorer understanding about the physical world. Planning education typically lasts 2 years, which is shorter than that of other disciplines, which limits opportunities for depth of study. Planners generally have a good understanding of land use and, often, environmental law. Although landscape architect and planner Ian McHarg's advocacy of an ecological approach to planning and design (McHarg 1969) has been influential, as has the greater application of geographic information systems (GIS) technology, planners generally use McHarg's overlay framework through GIS with little ecological understanding.

While civil engineering and architecture have relatively large numbers of people within each profession and city planning is medium-sized, landscape architecture is small. Landscape architecture emerged from horticulture and urban park-making in the 19th century. Despite its origins in horticulture, landscape architecture education has focused primarily on aesthetically oriented design. McHarg advocated a more thorough ecological education and integrated courses – in ecology, geology, geomorphology, climatology, hydrology, soil science, and human ecology – into design and planning studios. Alas, no other landscape architecture program went as far, and McHarg remains a somewhat controversial figure within the discipline. Nevertheless, the field of landscape ecology (Forman and Godron 1986) and the growing interest in sustainable design have resulted in a renewed appreciation of the value of ecology within the discipline of landscape architecture. Of all the built environment professionals, landscape architects are likely to have the most formal education in the environmental sciences (Johnson and Hill 2001).

Urban design represents the figurative intersection of architecture, planning, and landscape architecture. In general, urban designers are grounded in one of these three subdisciplines and receive specialized training in the other two, leaving little or no room for exposure to ecology. However, increasing interest in urban ecology has given rise to new fields such as landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, and landscape ecological urbanism (Palazzo and Steiner 2011; Nassauer 2012). The proponents of these new fields advocate changing how urbanism is conceived, focusing on landscape and ecology first, rather than traditional urbanism, which emphasizes transportation and built structures.

Conversely, relatively less interest has been devoted by scientists in the field of ecology, during its emergence as a modern science over the past 100 years, to studying urban environments. Only during the latter half of the 20th century was there a shift from “ecologically pristine” natural systems to urban ecology as a discipline in its own right (McDonnell 2011). This shift not only enabled ecologists to understand the role of organisms within the urban environment but, as with the evolution of restoration ecology as a discipline, allowed the transition from passive study to design and construction of built systems that optimize ecological function. Thus, the converging skills and interests of ecologists, planners, and designers set the stage for effective collaboration.

Making ecology relevant

If ecological literacy is perceived as a challenge due to time constraints for inclusion in design-related fields, then the features and processes of ecology need to be introduced to design in a context that is appreciated by the designer and the designer's client – for example, as:

  • a functional asset to the individual site design rather than a feature of the landscape at large;

  • a contributor of direct or indirect social and economic benefits;

  • an integral part of the design, in conjunction with other design priorities; or

  • the provision of multiple benefits (eg design for a single performance goal, such as stormwater management, may provide additional benefits, such as improved habitat quality and recreation).

For instance, green (vegetated) roofs have multiple environmental benefits, including stormwater mitigation, urban and building cooling, and habitat provision (Oberndorfer et al. 2007). Green roofs can also provide direct economic benefits, such as infrastructure savings on combined urban storm-sewer systems, decreased urban energy demand (heat-island effect) in summer, and premium charges for hotel occupants whose room windows overlook a green roof. The appropriate justification for expenditure on a green roof is culturally dependent. Examples of cultural priorities include urban biodiversity in Europe (Lorimer 2008), stormwater reduction in the US (Oberndorfer et al. 2007), and simple access to green space in high-density Asian cities (Yuen and Hien 2005). Marketing of ecological benefits, in terms of appropriate regional values, incentives, and economic savings, is therefore essential to implementation (Felson and Pickett 2005; McGrath et al. 2007; Felson 2013; Pickett et al. 2013).

New rallying points for ecology and design

Emerging societal issues (eg increasing urbanization, interest in climate change) and concepts (eg resilience) are changing the focus of education in environmental design and planning, engineering, and ecology. Urban heat islands and the increase in numbers of extreme weather events are also prompting a renewed discussion about how to design resilient buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, cities, and regions.

Given its association with rapid change, vulnerability, and disaster, resilience is a concept with growing appeal in the disciplines of ecology, urban ecology, planning, and landscape architecture. According to the ecologist Lance Gunderson and his colleagues, “Resilience has been defined in two different ways in the ecological literature, each reflecting different aspects of stability. One definition focuses on efficiency, constancy, [and] predictability – all attributes of engineers' desire for fail-safe design. The other focuses on persistence, change, and unpredictability – all attributes embraced and celebrated by evolutionary biologists and by those who search for safe-fail designs” (Gunderson et al. 2002). The first definition is tied to prevailing ideas in ecology and engineering that emphasize equilibrium and stability. The second definition emerges from “new ecology” and physics, which focuses on non-equilibrium dynamics and the adaptability of ecological systems to extensive and uncertain changes.

To a large degree, the interest in resilience among US planners emerged after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (Vale and Campanella 2005) and after a series of natural and human-induced disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (Carlson 2013). Although ecologists have speculated about the application of resilience theory to urban planning (Grove 2009), collaborative, resilience-based research between the ecological academic community and planning professionals has been lacking. The American public often turns to planners in the wake of large-scale disasters. Research suggests that resilience following such tragedies would be enhanced through developing social capital, protecting natural capital, and bridging the knowledge domains of different disciplines (Walker and Salt 2006; Chapin et al. 2009).

Resilience goals are often embodied in federal policy. For example, the recently updated Coordinator's Manual for the National Flood Insurance Program Community Rating System “encourages communities to use all available tools to implement comprehensive local floodplain management programs” and “recognizes local efforts that include the preservation and restoration of the natural functions and resources of floodplains and coastal areas as well as open space protection” (FEMA 2013). Restoration in this context includes re-establishing areas that have been farmed or otherwise developed to a state approximating their natural pre-development conditions, bioengineering channel stabilization, removing seawalls to allow beach erosion, performing wetland or riparian habitat restoration, and moving levees to allow channel meandering.

Opportunities to integrate resilience into ecology and design

Urban resilience to natural disasters and coastal green infrastructure provide two prospects for interdisciplinary cooperation between ecologists and designers and planners. In the US alone, the number of billion-dollar disasters reached 14 in 2011, in contrast to an average of three to four in previous decades ( 2011). Knowledge of history often explains why cities have low resilience to extreme events. In the early 18th century, when the French chose the site for New Orleans, they respected the Mississippi River Delta's ecological constraints and settled on the highest ground, behind the area's natural levees (Barry 1997; Birch and Wachter 2006). New Orleans thrived as a result of that wisdom. Subsequent settlement, often at odds with natural systems, altered the urban, hydrological, and ecological structures of the region and the City of New Orleans. These changes made the region more vulnerable to storms like Hurricane Katrina.

More recently, Superstorm Sandy highlighted the perils of establishing settlements in unsafe locations. In 1968, McHarg conducted a suitability analysis of Staten Island – one of the five boroughs of New York City – based on an ecological approach that explored relationships between geology, topography, hydrology, soils, and plants (McHarg 1969). McHarg's analysis revealed areas that were suitable and others that were unsuitable for urban development on Staten Island; the unsuitable areas matched the places identified for evacuation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Superstorm Sandy (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

(a) Regions in New York City's Staten Island identified as unsuitable for urban development by I McHarg in 1968 (darker shaded areas). (b) Regions in Staten Island evacuated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2012 (orange polygons) after Superstorm Sandy.

In the prescient 2010 Rising Currents Exhibition organized by New York City's Museum of Modern Art, several landscape ecological urbanism strategies re-envisioned the coastlines of New York and New Jersey around New York Harbor (Nordenson et al. 2010; Oppenheimer 2011). These strategies suggested new forms of urban development, with adaptive green, ecologically based infrastructure, which gained greater relevance after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. For example, landscape architect Kate Orff and the SCAPE/LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PLLC team proposed building structures in the shallow waters of Bay Ridge Flats – south of Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood – to encourage the growth of oysters and other marine life. Dubbed “Oystertecture”, their scheme sought to nurture active oyster beds, using green infrastructure to act as attachment substrate, in an effort to ameliorate the consequences of rising sea level (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Depiction of oyster beds off the coast of New York City (specifically, Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood) proposed by K Orff and SCAPE. Here, an armature is proposed where native oysters and other marine life can live.

Resilience provides two lessons for environmental design and planning: (1) some places are too dangerous to settle and should be avoided for urban development and (2) an ecological understanding can lead to strategies for urban mitigation and adaptation. However, the concept of resilience may not necessarily help designers, planners, or the public to accept or respond to arguments against the first lesson, which is culturally and politically sensitive, touching on rights (individual, collective, nonhuman) and the historical and cultural importance of places like New Orleans and New York City. Urban ecology can reveal patterns and the processes that drive those patterns; nevertheless, a collective decision-making strategy for responding to such drastic possibilities is required.

Green – or the arguably better term, “ecological” –infrastructure offers one “real-world” strategy to promote the delivery of ecosystem services in urban areas (Figure 2). The US Environmental Protection Agency defines green infrastructure as “An adaptable term used to describe an array of products, technologies, and practices that use natural systems – or engineered systems that mimic natural processes – to enhance overall environmental quality and provide utility service” (Benedict and McMahon 2006; Rouse and Bunster-Ossa 2013). By weaving the natural and built environments together, ecological infrastructure serves as “tissue in the urban fabric”.

Ecological infrastructure strategies provide an integrated approach to mitigating the negative impacts of extreme weather on vulnerable coastal populations. Coastal regions are home to a large and growing proportion of the world's urban population, among which the economically disadvantaged, the disabled, the elderly, and the very young are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events. Ecological infrastructure systems can help mitigate the impacts of natural disasters and improve the health of the environment, the economy, and the lives of people in these vulnerable communities (Dunn 2010). When properly integrated into a city or region, such systems can also lower costs by increasing the efficiency of service provisions and reducing the burden on existing infrastructure systems (Berkooz 2011). In addition to cleaner air, water, and soil, these interventions can lead to lower utility bills and more climate-change resilient, aesthetically pleasing, and walkable urban environments (Gill et al. 2007).

Nevertheless, implementation of ecological infrastructure in vulnerable communities is fraught with challenges. Given the scarcity of economic resources and political will, such communities often lack the most basic infrastructure, including water, sewage, and solid waste management systems. To cope with these conditions, residents have developed informal, creative, and sustainable solutions, by adapting what has been called “infrastructural opportunism” to take strategic advantage of and adapt old infrastructure for new purposes (Bhatia et al. 2011). Yet, local and community-based knowledge is often overlooked, the principles and benefits of ecological infrastructure are poorly understood, and new (but usually not very green) infrastructure systems are often implemented without sufficient consideration of social context.

By identifying interventions like bioswales (landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water), rain gardens, and green roofs as infrastructure, new approaches toward urbanism rise to the scale of management and regulation. When reframed as infrastructure, these interventions now require more investment, monitoring, and coordination. Coordinated interventions can lead to multifunctional landscapes that include both built infrastructure and existing natural areas. In this context of developing functional ecological infrastructure, such landscapes can represent both stability and resilience.

Ecosystem services and stewardship

Ecosystem services provide a valuation framework that transcends the traditionally separate focuses on human and environmental well-being (Costanza 2008; Windhager et al. 2010). The ecosystem services concept facilitates an appreciation of the benefits that ecosystems provide to humans, including benefits that have been traditionally viewed as “free” and that humans would otherwise have to supply for themselves if their surroundings ceased to furnish them. Ecosystems provide several types of services (MA 2005), including:

  • provisioning services (eg food, water, and timber);

  • regulating services (eg water purification, local and global climate regulation, pollination, and pest and disease regulation);

  • supporting services (eg nutrient dispersal and cycling, and primary production); and

  • cultural benefits (eg spiritual values, recreation, and ecotourism).

New York City's watershed protection efforts offer an example of the application of ecosystem services. The watershed covers approximately 5180 square kilometers. Nineteen reservoirs supply 45 billion liters of drinking water daily to nine million New Yorkers. In the 1990s, faced with the prospect of spending US$8 billion on a new water-filtration plant that would cost US$300 million annually to operate, the city instead decided to invest US$1.2 billion over 10 years to restore and protect its watersheds. These funds were used to purchase land and invest in environmentally sound economic development in the watershed. In addition to benefiting New York City residents and reducing costs to urban taxpayers, the people who live in the watershed gain additional value from the clean water; the preservation of farmland, wildlife, and habitat; and expanded recreational opportunities (Chichilnisky and Heal 1998; Appleton 2002).

Meanwhile, the ecosystem services concept is being applied to landscape design through the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES;, a partnership led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, and the US Botanic Garden (Calkins 2012). SITES aims to apply sustainability principles to any project area or “site” to be protected, developed, or redeveloped for public or private purposes, focusing on the site's attributes and the integration of buildings and landscape. To that end, SITES provides tools to measure the sustainable attributes of a site beyond that which is currently measured within the certification process for the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Example sites considered for SITES certification can include residential yards, office parking lots, and commercial building roofs, as well as integrated building–landscape projects like college campuses, urban plazas, and business parks. The initiative would also add value to locations – such as parks, cemeteries, and botanic gardens – without substantial buildings; such “building-less” sites are not currently covered by the existing LEED standards.

To date, throughout the US, the SITES leadership team has engaged more than 30 subject-matter experts in soils, vegetation, hydrology, materials, and human health from various disciplines, including landscape architecture, urban planning, ecology, and engineering. This team incorporated the ecosystem services concept as a basis for design guidelines (Costanza 2008; Windhager et al. 2010). Specific ecosystem services addressed in SITES guidelines and performance benchmarks include climate regulation, clean air and water, water supply and regulation, erosion and sediment control, hazard mitigation, pollination, human health and well-being, food and renewable non-food products, and cultural benefits (American Society of Landscape Architects et al. 2009). These services are linked to specific actions that are considered as prerequisites and credits for SITES certification; these prerequisites and credits involve site selection, pre-design assessment and planning, site design, construction, and operations and maintenance. SITES establishes consistent standards across the US but also adjusts its standards to regional variations in climate, soils, and plant species. As with LEED, there has been considerable interest in adopting SITES internationally.

Summary and next steps

To increase the contribution of design and planning in addressing environmental issues, we argue that the ecosystem services concept can help to change the dominant design and planning approach: from one oriented toward protecting nature from urban development to one considering how to invest in nature for healthy, livable, urban communities. As the principles behind and the evidence provided by SITES suggest (Windhager et al. 2010; Calkins 2012), we believe that to be successful this effort will require (1) the integration of multiple disciplines involved on a more “equal footing”, where ecological function is as much an ethical concern as it is a design issue and (2) an unbiased evaluation of the ecological services of individual sites as well as the “urban center” as a whole.

To achieve this goal, we call for constructive action from policy makers, researchers, designers, and practitioners (Sayre et al. 2013). Such action would necessitate that professionals from various disciplines demonstrate a mutual respect for and a willingness to listen and learn from one another, with the objective of optimizing ecological function toward resolving environmental issues from local to global scales. This shift would also require a major alteration in design and planning education, with the aim of improving ecological literacy. For students working toward professional degrees in these disciplines, this would involve, at the least, requiring a basic and an applied course in ecology plus one or two additional courses in other environmental sciences during their education. Through a stronger foundation in ecological and environmental knowledge, designers and planners will be better equipped to collaborate with ecologists. Likewise, ecologists must be better prepared to communicate more effectively with designers and planners.


We appreciate the inspiration of N Korostoff and J Russell from whose diagrams we adapted, as well as word processing and editorial assistance from S Walker. T Chapin offered helpful comments and valuable suggestions. J Nassauer participated in the Ecological Society of America's Earth Stewardship Workshop that generated ideas that led to this paper.