Sustainability and the System View

All the discussions regarding sustainability, whether it is related to products, designs, ideas, etc. we must always remember the most important concept:  the system view.

There have been two very influential books in formulating my understanding of sustainability.  The first published in 2008, written by Peter Newman and Isabella Jennings is Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems.  The other, published in 1996, is The Web of Life written by Fritojof Capra.  While Newman and Jennings specifically compare an evolving ecosystem of a city, Capra takes a holistic view. He incorporates the human mind, theories, mathematics and structures.  Both books discuss the understanding of natural systems and humankind’s place in the systems.

We as landscape architects and designers need to continue our understanding these systems.  Sustainability is not achieved by one specific item or instance, but with an understanding of energy flow through the system.

What does it mean to make design decisions based on a system?  It means, understanding the energy flow not only in design, but also in the general public’s lifestyle.  Examine the sustainable design practices that we integrate now, green roofs, porous paving, mixed-use housing, grey-water plumbing, public transportation, low-flow irrigation, high-efficiency windows, and the list can go on and on.  All are integral pieces (and needed) but what is lacking is the public understanding of the system relationship to lifestyle. It is in this role of the arranger, assembler, and educator for the system, that I see landscape architects and American Society of Landscape Architects fulfilling.


by Michael Stanley

One thought on “Sustainability and the System View

  1. asla staff July 5, 2012 / 8:14 pm

    Keith Bowers Says:
    March 10, 2011 at 11:54 am
    Couldn’t agree more with Michael. Systems thinking, and especially whole-systems thinking, is absolutely ciritcal in applying sustainability to land planning, site design and resource extraction. And a living systems application should be a result of all land modification projects. Why is ecology being marginalized or totally left out of the discussion of sustainability? How can we even think about sustainability without thinking about and incorporating ecological carrying capacity, ecological processes, landscape ecology, conservation biology and biodiversity in land development projects, resource extraction and infrastructure improvements? A LEED, Living Building Challenge or SITES project with little or no regard to these factors is not sustainable and never will be. Pretty soon we will have a bunch of ‘sustainable’ buildings and landscapes that are unconnected and fragmented from their surroundings; in where crows, rats, cockroaches and Kentucky bluegrass reign supreme, all the while bemoaning the fact that we have lost 90% of life on earth and have no idea how that happened. Sound rigorous science needs to be fully incorporated into all ‘sustainable’ projects. In fact, it’s too late to be sustainable, we will lose. We need to be regenerative. We need to regenerate ecological processes, natural resources and the human connection to the land. Time to wake up!

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