“The Mississippi River is now an engineered system, so we are responsible for it now,” said Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia, at a lecture hosted by Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) at the Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C. The river has essentially been re-designed to serve as a conduit of goods and to protect human settlements from flooding. As civil engineers continue to control and manipulate ecological systems for human ends, Cantrell argues that landscape architects should be at the table. By creating models and simulations that mimic how natural systems function, landscape architects can get a better understanding of ecological complexity and help steer the future design of nature.
Cantrell’s work seems to be inspired as much by Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature as it is by the Mississippi River Basin Model, a 61-acre hydraulic model set within a 200-acre model of the Mississippi River watershed, which was developed from the 1940s to 1960 and in operation until the 1970s near Clinton, Mississippi. Viewing the vast model from watchtowers, visitors could “collectively view and understand the river as a system.” Engineers could also get a better understanding of how the river behaved. They could tweak valves and nozzles to re-create real-world fluvial events. This is instance where the “model could serve as a guide.”
At Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Cantrell created innovative models using foam board, plywood, different forms of sand and sediment, and water. Rigging them up with a slew of sensors that measured water flow and sediment accumulation, Cantrell and his students “built physical diagrams that explain how natural fluvial processes occur.” Cantrell was careful to note that “these were only a form of projection, a publicity piece, really. We didn’t build the perfect model of nature. There is no more truth in them than formal models.”
But Cantrell thinks that even with the clear limitations, these models serve an important purpose: “we can let them inform design and generate new systems. Creating simulations is an act of design itself. We are creating an artificial reality that we can learn from, and then we can choose how we apply them to reality in order to control or interact with the physical world.”
Responsive Landscapes, a book Cantrell co-authored with Justine Holzman and published in 2015, identified what models and simulations can accomplish:
- Elucidate: “We can bring out features that are beyond human senses. We can create different forms of sensing.”
- Compress: “We can compress the world around us — not only the physical but also the temporal world.”
- Shift contexts: “We can displace context, taking experiences and manufacturing them somewhere else.”
- Connect: “We can create direct connections — worm holes.”
- Modify: “We can change our relationship with the world.”
Working with graduate students at Harvard GSD, Cantrell created advanced simulations that mimic natural fluvial processes. Some were later turned into point-cloud models and then further visualized through software. Loaded with sensors, models had a dashboard that enabled real-time monitoring and interaction.
Why do all of this? Cantrell said civil engineers are already creating models and simulations of natural processes, but to be able to participate in the development of these massive, constructed systems for managing nature, landscape architects must have access to the same tools. “To have a conversation with engineers — that’s really the most important part.” Within that conversation, landscape architects can then “drive new design pathways and be creative.”
While Cantrell admitted all of this is in the “speculative and very beginning stages,” and the models he is working with today may be “nascent and naive,” in the near future, new models and simulations can be tuned against data collected from sensors in real landscapes, thereby creating a constant feedback loop between model and the real-world.
When that happens, landscape architects can then become more ambitious, engaging with even larger systems. Landscape architects can find new opportunities to design with nature — to harness intrinsic natural processes to direct the flow of water and process of sedimentation and land-forming. “We can use waste streams to create new land. We can engage in long-term forecasting. We can use ecological systems to reconstitute the landscape itself. And we can manage the landscape in real-time.”
While all of this is exciting, engineering ecosystems — which are among the most complex systems on Earth — may generate unintended consequences. One can imagine the need for prudence in applying any model or simulation, which are simplification tools, to the real world. In addition, as more of nature becomes less natural and more designed, constructed, and maintained, questions of management and ownership arise. Who will own the designed ecosystems of the future? How will we decide how they should be used?