Experimental Landscapes: Alexander Felson on Ecology and Design

Ecology, by definition, is about interactions; it’s the study of the relationships among organisms, and between organisms and their environment. When we consider the work of ecologists in urban contexts, we often think of protecting natural systems against the harm wrought by development. Alexander Felson, an assistant professor at Yale in both the School of Foresty & Environmental Studies and the School of Architecture, is a different kind of urban ecologist. In his research and his design work, he calls for an ecological practice that moves from analyzing nature to shaping it, embedding scientific experiments into the design process. The framework he’s established for this synthesis, Designed Experiments, offers to yield scientific data as well as influence the physical form of built projects. But it also offers a platform for a new model of collaboration between designers, scientists, developers, and community members, engaging multiple stakeholders in a shared exercise of creating new knowledge. New data, new design strategies, and new forms of collaboration will all be necessary to make our landscapes more productive, our coastlines more resilient, and our understanding of our relationship to both natural and constructed environments more informed.


New York City Afforestation Project (Million Trees NYC) | Spring Creek, Queens

How do you describe what you do?
I describe myself as an urban ecologist. I combine science with urban design and landscape architecture.

I’m a registered landscape architect with 12 years of experience working in New York City and on projects around the country. And I have a PhD in ecology and evolution from Rutgers. For my doctoral work, I focused on amphibians and suburbanization, adapting experimental research into the masterplanning process in order to improve science-based land use practices.

So, what comes first for you? The design or the ecology?
I have a lifelong interest in plants. I lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year when I was 15, working on and managing the landscape. As an undergraduate, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I studied the uses of plants in contemporary Native American societies, and became fascinated with the interface of plants and people. That interest evolved into deeper study of urbanization and biological systems. So I’m not sure what came first, but I have always been interested in the middle ground between the two.

How would you say that your practice differs from what one might typically associate with an ecologist?
For a long time, the field of ecology has been focused on understanding how nature works: a range of practices and methods that build on observation and an understanding of natural history to describe and interpret biological systems, interspecies interactions, and interactions with our environment. I would say that my interests differ from traditional ecology in that I am interested in shaping systems, in addition to studying systems. Certain areas of ecology – like restoration ecology or ecological engineering or, increasingly, urban ecology – are beginning to translate ecological information into choices and decision-making processes. But this shift is very new for the ecological sciences, through initiatives including Earth Stewardship, Designed Experiments, and Actionable Science, and I’m centrally involved in trying to move this kind of work forward.

In your view, does the way in which ecology has traditionally operated constrain our ability to address impacts of climate change, particularly in coastal conditions?
Ecologists struggle to position science to inform policy-making or design decisions. Scientists seek to be “honesty brokers,” or figures in society with an objective stance rather than a politicized one. This is a challenging position to maintain and the boundaries between advocating for a position and providing objective information are often blurred. That mantle is very important for shared knowledge creation across society, broadly speaking, but it complicates the ecologist’s ability to affect specific decision-making. Because ecology deals with complex biological systems, often studied in situ, much of the research results lack the controls inherent to a laboratory environment, such as being able to reproduce experiments easily (which is one of the bases of the scientific method). Ecologists are said to have “physics envy”, and ecologists find themselves defending the scientific validity of their research. Politicians don’t make decisions based on science alone, and a lot of ecologists feel that playing a role in that process would position them in an advocacy role and compromise their authority as scientists. Yet, when it comes to climate change, we need to find a way to expand the role of the ecologist in the decision-making body and make sure that scientific knowledge, including the associated uncertainty, inform those policies.


And with that desire to shape systems and affect decision-making in mind, you have developed a methodology for integrating research into your applied work. Can you explain the concept of the “Designed Experiment”?
The idea of Designed Experiments is to design and build real-world, urban projects that incorporate research experiments, in order to study, adapt, and reshape human settlements and their associated biological and socio-ecological systems. Essentially, it’s a framework for the scientist to collaborate directly with designers towards developing a product. And that product is both a work of urban design and a research experiment. It provides a platform for the ecologist to design and situate hypothesis-driven research in urban sites that are historically inaccessible for that kind of research. They reposition ecological science and the ecologist as an active participant from the conception of a design project through the entire design process and ongoing assessment of the built results. Designed Experiments provide a framework that allow the designers and ecologists to work iteratively while maintaining the integrity of the theory, methods, tools, and norms of the scientist and practitioner. And it’s a method for generating replicated scientific data about the particular ecological processes of constructed ecosystems.

So the ecologist’s research protocol enhances the design results. And beyond the research, this is a framework for connecting ecologists with stakeholders, including designers. It positions the collaborative designer-ecologist team as a synthesizer of all that ecological information along with the range of other factors that inform a design process. I think this could potentially point a way towards changing how we design land for urban sustainability.

We talk about sustainability a lot, but we don’t actually know what it looks like in terms of physical design or management. So we are in a phase of both trying new configurations and gathering data in order to understand how these configurations function ecologically in terms of sustainable practices. Structured collaboration between the ecologist and the designer provides experimental landscapes that can be evaluated over time. And it can also change the aesthetic and framing of urban systems.

Researchers tracking survival, growth, pest damage, photosynthetic capacity, drought stress, and seedling recruitment of woody vegetation to determine how incoming vegetation competes with natives for the Million Trees Project.

Can you give me some examples of Designed Experiments?
One could imagine Le Corbusier’s plan for Chandigarh, India, as a Designed Experiment: the idea of parcels of organized urban cells designed for a specific population size of up to 15,000 people each, constructed in such a way that they replicate certain conditions with some specific differences. That idea of organizing space and people in a way that allows for research and analysis of performance is akin to the Designed Experiments model.

When I worked with AECOM as a project director on the Reforestation Plan for New York City (MillionTreesNYC), we developed the project as a Designed Experiment. We worked with the Parks Department to expand their original agenda for the long term, and we fed that back into the future management and design choices. To do so, we identified critical questions that the Parks Department had about the construction and management of urban forests, and we converted those questions into hypotheses with the project’s group of scientific advisors. We then fed those hypotheses back into the design and developed an experimental design, which we translated into the construction drawings to develop a set of replicate plot systems for nested research. So we have embedded research into the Million Trees Project – the largest urban forestry study in the United States – that will yield information about species recruitment patterns over time, the value of amended soils on tree performance, and different ways of constructing a forest in terms of performance for carbon sequestration or biological development.

Do you think the Designed Experiments model could be applied to social-scientific hypotheses as well? For example, to test theories about the stewardship of reforestation projects?
Absolutely. The values of the Designed Experiments model extend beyond the potential to produce an ecological experiment as a research tool and urban design intervention. The model creates a framework for an iterative dialogue relationship between the scientist and the designer, an evolving social dynamic that can lead to experiential learning as well as public input.

For example, I’ve been working on Connecticut’s Coastal Resilience Plan with the Nature Conservancy along with my PhD student, Tim Terway. One aspect of the project is a bio-retention garden system in Bridgeport designed as an experiment that’s also a coastal adaptation tool. In a way, the experiment was a means to an end, because it enabled the community and a range of institutional partners – the City of Bridgeport, Yale, UConn, an organization called Groundwork Bridgeport – to work together. The visions of each of these partners don’t necessarily overlap. But the experiment was a way to involve the ecologist and the designer in creating a platform for other stakeholders to get involved in the process. The result of the Designed Experiment isn’t just the experiment or the design project, but a process that engages people with diverse perspectives in collaboratively manipulating a shared landscape to promote sustainability. The process was valuable in changing attitudes and bringing people together.

Masterplan for a community in Bridgeport, CT that mapped the neighborhood watershed and coordinated green infrastructure to work collectively and across property lines.

Are other projects taking on the Designed Experiments model? Or is it still a vanguard concept?
Mary Miss, the New York artist, has been pushing this concept through her City as Living Laboratory initiative. Designed Experiments have also been used as a teaching tool at universities like Yale, the University of Utah, and elsewhere. Some practitioners have set up projects based on this model as well, like the Washington Stormwater Center, where experimentation is a component of the design program for the site.

Methodologically, it seems like Designed Experiments could inform post-occupancy evaluations of buildings or otherwise contribute to how we measure the performance of a design project after it’s built.
Yes, a lot of post-design monitoring programs are being developed; some are driven by LEED, others by the Sustainable Sites Initiative. Monitoring systems give a sense of the performance of the system, but they don’t necessarily allow for the development of an experimental question – to establish and evaluate a hypothesis – up front. What I’m rallying for is the involvement of the ecologist earlier in the process so that ecologists can inform the design as an experiment, so the design outcomes can embrace experimental research.

And part of how you’ve been able to rally for this idea is by working not only with community groups, educational institutions, and the public sector, but also with real estate developers. Tell me about that.
I’ve been trying to identify opportunities to situate my research and my practice within the context of real-world projects in order to accommodate an innovative integration of science and design towards broader societal benefit.

For example, I worked on a project with AECOM, Related Companies, and Rutgers University in Tuxedo, New York – about 42 miles north of New York City – for a 1,200-acre site of almost 900 residential units. The planning process had been underway for over a decade when I became involved. It’s a greenfield site with a very healthy ecosystem and numerous vernal pools. As part of the master planning team, I helped to redesign road alignments and housing lot locations, and some of the roads looped around these vernal pools.

Vernal pools are a type of seasonal wetland that support a rich variety of amphibian and other species, but they are difficult to conserve because they dry out in summer and fall and become invisible. Through my research, I found that the regulations around vernal pools just don’t match the science. Typically, regulations focus on preserving individual ponds with limited buffers; they don’t look at clusters of ponds at all; they don’t look at the seasonal migration patterns of the animals that they’re trying not to disturb.

The developer had planned for roads and a subdivision in close proximity to some of these vernal pools and they were worried that approval for this subdivision would be denied – and over 20 houses at roughly $500,000 a pop would be lost – because of the local regulations.

So I began looking into ways of incorporating Designed Experiments as a means to study the site-specific conditions and inform the masterplan. I made the case that if we studied into the migration paths of the amphibians, we would be able to integrate that information into our design and develop spaces within the housing to accommodate the migration. At first, the developer and the environmental consultant thought this idea was far-fetched. But over time, they came back to the idea and we went for it.

The Tuxedo project created an opportunity for an ecologist to insert himself at the site analysis phase, early enough in the design process to inform the layout of road locations and housing lot locations. The research itself was a means to an end, and it reflected this shift in attitude as to what the ecologist’s position is in a design process. And it’s also a shift in attitude for the developer as to what the value of scientific research can be when negotiating with a local planning board around environmental issues.

Development plan in Tuxedo before ecologist involvement (top) and after adjusting for salamander habitat (bottom). | Dark blue: Vernal pool, Light blue: Salamander habitat zone

Can this kind of thinking scale up beyond any individual development to towns, cities, and coastlines?
Yes. One of the side benefits of the Tuxedo project was that the Designed Experiments became neutral ground that facilitated opportunities for interactions between the local planning board and the developer. Having a common framework to rally around is very valuable in a multi-stakeholder process of land development and land negotiation. In this way, ecological experiments have other benefits; they facilitate an iterative process of engagement.

And with a politicized issue like climate change, a topic that stimulates different attitudes and different beliefs amongst the population, we need to start developing processes of engagement that involve local communities in long-term planning. The Designed Experiments framework provides one system of engagement through experiential learning, collaborative decision-making, and the processing of multiple streams of information. Designed Experiments enables the integration of, say, coastal ecological research across multiple municipalities as a component of the design process itself. It can yield science-driven structures for documenting and understanding the relationships among the different decision-makers and stakeholders.

And Designed Experiments also relate to an even broader scale, that of Earth Stewardship, which is a new agenda of the Ecological Society of America. It’s an effort to try to position the ecologist as an information provider and participant in policy and planning around ecological and climate change issues. Earth Stewardship seeks to enhance ecological design and human wellbeing, to clarify what needs to be studied, to expand on how research can inform the shaping of strategies, to improve interdisciplinary communication among multiple parties, and to identify pragmatic actions for scientists. The Designed Experiments model, I think, offers a way to operationalize this agenda, to reposition the ecologist’s role in society as one of stewardship and actively shaping trajectories of ecological change.

And while you’ve said that you are calling for the ecologist to be involved earlier in a design process, it sounds like you are also envisioning involvement long after the design is complete, in terms of stewardship as well as the data collection that’s been designed into a given project.
Definitely. The adaptive management concept of establishing a research experiment anticipates observation over time as well as the subsequent use of those findings to inform subsequent choices of how to design the experimental system. This idea also fits in with the current movement towards community science and citizen science: if a scientist establishes an appropriate framework and technology, lay citizens can gather the data, and those data feed into the scientist’s choices going forward. Designed Experiments have a lot of plug-in opportunities.

There is no easy solution for how to quantify or evaluate the value of biological systems in a human context, and that causes a lot of debate surrounding issues of invasive species, restoration ecology, and the impact of climate change on ecosystems. There are definitely efforts underway to understand what kind of biological communities we’ve created, how they function for human society, how they function for biological health or not, and what the dilemmas and ethical challenges are with manipulating those systems.

A constructed eco-system | Bio-retention garden system in Bridgeport, CT

That brings us to the role of the designer. You’ve spoken about the tendency to treat natural systems as inherently optimum, when in fact there are certain landscape technologies and constructed environments that we can incorporate into natural systems that might actually improve performance and productivity. What is the role of the designer in these interventions, and how does that overlap with the changing nature of the ecologist that you spoke about earlier?
Constructed ecosystems — or “novel ecosystems,” which is the term that’s being thrown around — are a really debated topic among ecologists. That partly has to do with our understanding of and how we define disturbance, which is an important component of ecological science that forms a lot of our understanding of how biological communities evolve. How you document what is novel in these biological systems, what underlying ecological influences might come about when trying to maintain something that is native or existing, what to maintain from the past versus a new set of biological communities — that’s a big dilemma for ecologists.

Designers can play a lot of roles in that realm, but they don’t. In the context of the design world, it can be a hard sell to figure out where we fit scientific information and scientific method into the effort to become more sustainable. Part of it is the challenge of grappling with scientific information and uncertainty, and part of it is making an effort to pull out of old notions of what a park should look like, and what design should be about. When you think natural, you think of a picturesque park designed by Olmsted, but in an urban modern context, natural could look very different from that.

Community, government, and institutional partners working together in Bridgeport, CT

In an urban studies context, ecology often operates as a metaphor for the neutral analysis of interdependent parts, rather than evoking the shaping function that you’re talking about.
Yes, ecology has been used for years by the design practice as a metaphor, and that’s really valuable. But there’s more to it than that, and I think we need to start to develop a language for facilitating multiple parties weighing in in different ways. That’s partly through education. There’s a long history of dialogue and debate in design education and it’s gone back and forth, the influence of the ecologist on the designer and vice versa has expanded and contracted at various points.

We need to enhance the idea of the designer as a synthesizer of information, and we need to develop better ways for designers and scientists to collaborate. I’ve been arguing for the idea of an ecologist-designer hybrid, somebody who really understands the science components and can negotiate opportunities for ecologists to situate themselves and participate throughout the design process. Hopefully that process of engagement would also feed back into the regulatory framework. We’re many steps away from it, but I have a long-term goal of getting ecologists into a position where they sign off on drawings, the same way that an engineer does, for ecosystem health.

Ecologists today are mostly focused on conservation. They’re not so interested in the notion of urbanization and development as a driver. But they’re also not in a position to weigh in on design development projects. That needs to be an education goal. In the meantime, more designers need to solicit ecologists and work with them so there can be a kind of experiential learning process, an integration of knowledge and understanding with practice.

More science and more information are only one component of what we need to lead to better, more sustainable systems right now. Our planning and design practices have a lot of room to grow and develop, and, as Kevin Pratt from Cornell argues, we need to enter into a sort of Precambrian phase, an intensive development phase of coming up with different ideas and identifying obstacles to figure out how we can redevelop society in a sustainable fashion. The designer is critical in this next phase of human adaptation.

A constructed ecosystem | Bioretention Gardens in Bridgeport, CT

Alexander Felson is an urban ecologist, a registered landscape architect and an assistant professor at Yale University. He is jointly appointed between the School of Architecture and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His research focuses on integrating ecological understanding and research methods with urban design and land development strategies to study and shape the feedbacks, adaptive capacity, vulnerability, and resilience of coupled human and natural systems.

On January 10, 2013, in the Great Hall of The Cooper Union, Alexander Felson was a panelist at The Future of Zone A: New York Neighborhoods on the Frontline of Climate Change, an Urban Omnibus organized event with experts in urban ecology, design, and community planning discussing the future of high flood risk neighborhoods in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Click here to watch a podcast of the presentations and discussion.

All images courtesy of Alexander Felson and Timothy Terway.

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