You are known as an environmental leader …
I wasn’t looking to be an environmental leader; I never really was an environmental activist or anything. Nature simply found me. While studying architecture, I became more and more interested in bridging the gap between the humanized realm and the natural world. At the time, I was practicing Buddhism, investigating my Native American heritage, and spending a lot of time in the forests of western South Carolina, discussing the meaning of life with friends. I remember telling a professor in one of my design studios that I wanted to design a city that was like a forest and didn’t hurt the environment. He, a landscape architect, said “that’s impossible” – and I just couldn’t agree with him. Ever since then, I have been working to understand as much about buildings, mechanical, and electrical systems, real estate, biology, urban design, conservation, ecosystems, infrastructure, transportation, design, graphics, and businesses as I possibly can. Green is in the details and in the long-term.

suze/ photocase.com
suze/ photocase.com

Why have you made nature your priority?
For me, nature is this huge subject where art, design, and science all mix and collide. Every animal adds a different world of information; every habitat and ecosystem has different structures, functions, services, and components. When we add buildings, cities, and infrastructure – where every building system is coated with technical details, where aesthetics, soul, and spirit battle with budgets, timelines, and functionality – the result is a really great place to remain a student and stay stimulated.

Could you give us an example of what amazes you and what you are trying to save?
I don’t want our only record of the vast natural world to be relegated to zoos or museums. I also don’t want forests to be simplified to tree farms or park space – I want to reintroduce massive, expansive, and ecologically complete wildernesses to all of the world’s continents. I don’t know if I will be able to get my hands on these types of projects, but that is my ambition. Every time I look into nature, I feel incredible intelligence. I am not looking to go back to our caveman days, but consider these topics from a far more contemporary perspective. We can reshape our society and make it not LIKE nature or mimic nature, but BE nature. This influences how we re-encourage the migration of pronghorn in Wyoming or how we reintroduce wolves throughout Canada and the U.S. – and how we do this so people are and feel safe.
I want to see all towns and cities redefine themselves as not merely anthropomorphic settlements, but thriving ecological wonders. We need to be a keystone species – doing so will enhance our economy, quality of life, and architecture.

Beaver architecture
Image: Beaver architecture by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Your book Urban Green: Architecture for the Future also states that community developers should think more like beavers. While beavers may seem to wreck the environment, their lifestyle actually works long-term because they move to new locations as soon as they run out of trees. So, should we all follow the example of beavers?
It is important to point out that beavers are extremely unsustainable. We need to embrace that. We, humans, believe that we are the only unsustainable species on the planet – and beavers show that we are not. And there are other examples of unsustainable species.

What is incredible about beavers, though, is that their unsustainability is extremely valuable to specific ecosystems and habitats. Philosophically, this is essential.

The good news is that unsustainability does not have to be a death trap for us or the planet. We cannot live our lives feeling that for some reason we are bad or wrong for wanting and doing the things that feel natural – even though they currently have a negative impact on nature. Beavers are family-oriented and have big appetites, just like us. But where we differ is that they are a keystone species – and we are not.

Beaver, via flickr by Steve Hersey
Beaver, via flickr by Steve Hersey

What exactly is a keystone species?
A keystone species is a species that holds the entire habitat or ecosystem together, just like a keystone holds up an arch. Remove this keystone species and all the other parts of the ecosystem start to crumble.

So, how could we become a keystone species?
Our most important purpose is to become a keystone species through our actions. This has big implications for our buildings, cities, and infrastructure. The question for designers should be how to create things that foster niches for hundreds of other species. A start would be green infrastructure using ecological services for aspects like storm water management in order to mitigate water pollution, flooding, and pollution from run-off. This is a well-established practice. We really have to get in touch with who we are evolutionarily.

AlexanderPhotography/ photocase.com
AlexanderPhotography/ photocase.com

For example, you mentioned nomadic living …
Yes, a nomadic lifestyle could cut huge chunks out of our energy consumption if people moved around on a seasonal basis to areas that require less energy. If we traveled by bike or mass transit, we could eliminate emissions from vehicular travel, while localized food production could supply everyone with food. Instead of having a single city, we would need networks of cities based on how tribal communities move from camp to camp according to season. This could be a completely new dynamic for designers. New York City might turn into New York City One, with comparably sized New York City Two and New York City Three in different regions. As our world is becoming increasingly mobile thanks to globalization and telecommunications, we can break the mold of having to stay in one place to work and live.

We simply cannot get stuck thinking that improving the way things are is going to get us where we want to be. We cannot mimic or imitate beavers and become keystone species; we have to rediscover our true evolutionary role in nature and use that to redesign and build a new world.

Header Image by judigrafie/ photocase.com
Interview by Lia Pack