Book Review: Sustainable Energy Landscapes

Sustainable Energy Landscapes: Designing, Planning, and Developmentimage: CRC Press
Sustainable Energy Landscapes: Designing, Planning, and Development
image: CRC Press

The role of design, much less landscape architecture, is rarely mentioned in discussions surrounding sustainable energy topics and projects.  Fortunately, Sven Stremkem, Dr. Dipl Ing., MA (a landscape architect), and Andy van den Dobbelsteen, PhD, MSc (a building engineer) took on the monumental tasks of creating and editing a comprehensive publication on the emerging field of sustainable energy landscapes, Sustainable Energy Landscapes: Designing, Planning, and Development, published in September 2012.

To begin, both Sven and Andy have impressive resumes.  Sven has undergraduate and graduate degrees in landscape architecture; his doctoral thesis in 2006 was titled Designing Sustainable Energy Landscapes: Concepts, Principles, and Procedures.  He is an assistant professor of Landscape Architecture at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, and has hosted a number of conference sessions on sustainable energy landscapes, most recently at the 2011 IFLA World Congress in Zurich. Andy is a professor of climate design and sustainability at the Faculty of Architecture of the Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, and coordinator of the Green Building Innovation research program for the Delft Energy Initiative.

The editors’ note that the idea for the book came from a colleague who observed that there are many scholars studying aspects of sustainable energy landscapes, but not a single comprehensive book devoted to design, planning, and development of these landscapes.  They had the support of 45 experts in the field during the creation of the book.  They set out to provide a comprehensive overview of this new field that would “inspire, provide principles, concepts, theories, and examples….and infect [the reader] with the enthusiasm needed to build the energy landscapes of our sustainable future.”  A lofty goal and one that, in my opinion, they will achieve with this ambitious publication.

The 528 page text, currently in hardcover, is a bit pricey. It is not a coffee table book or for casual reading.  This is a serious overview of some of the most recent research being done at universities in Europe, the United States, and Canada.  I envision that this will be an important reference staple for academic institutions, agencies, and companies involved in all aspects of energy planning and implementation. One note: because the book is small (6” x 9.5”), the visuals can be hard to decipher in detail.

The preamble and introductory chapters provide a fascinating historical review of the evolution of energy landscapes from the “organic economy” with energy sources such as wood, wind, and water; to the “mineral economy” of coal, oil, and natural gas; then to the “electricity economy” of nuclear power; and finally to the present “sustainable economy” including hydropower, wind power, geothermal, biomass, and solar.

After spending some time with this material, I came to a better understanding of sustainable energy landscapes and why I, as a landscape architect and student of sustainable design, should pay more attention to them.  For instance, the author of the chapter titled “Reading the Changing Energy Landscape” states that the introduction of windmills to the Great Plains produced “one of the most expressive energy landscapes in the world.  They became a symbol of the dogged determination of settlers…if not progress itself.”  This sort of observation makes the book more than just a recitation of research and scientific conclusions.

I was pleased to find a chapter entitled “Strong Feelings: Emotional Landscape of Wind Turbines,” which provides research that could be of interest to landscape architects involved in those or similar projects.  The authors make the case that design and designers can play a critical role in planning (at regional, local, and site scales), mediation (engaging in design alternative analysis to address objections based on emotional reactions), and “design discourse”.  The latter can create a much needed consistent storyline for the articulation of vision and ideals in a policy environment focusing increasingly on technology and costs.

The section entitled “Methods” includes detailed chapters on “Energy Potential Mapping,” “5 Step Approach to Design of SEL’s,” “Multicriteria Decision Analysis for Planning and Design,” “Energy Landscape Visualization as a Powerful Tool”, “Swarm Planning”, “Collaborative Approaches,” “Integrated Optimization of Spatial Structures and Energy Systems,” and “Employing Exergy and Carbon Models to Determine Sustainability.”  Such dense material defies summarization in this review!

The section entitled “Case Studies” covers projects in Asia, Europe, Canada, and the United States and introduces yet more terminology which may give pause to professionals not immersed in the sustainable energy landscapes field.  Subjects like “Conduit Urbanism,” “Application of a Work Energy (Exergy) Balance,” and “Areal Empower Density” demand explanation.  In response, the book ably assists the landscape architect in understanding methods employed by being well organized and easy to reference, defining new terminologies, and providing graphics and tables which illustrate and summarize the concepts.

A chapter in the section entitled “Education” is devoted to a five-step approach that was employed in a graduate studio in the Landscape Architecture and Planning MSc program at Wageningen University, Netherlands. Another covers the Zero+ Campus Design project (2010-2012) where research and teaching was focused on increasing campus beauty and sustainability through building and landscape performance-based design at the University of Minnesota.  A third discusses a post-masters research program themed “future cities in a time of shifting conditions,” with research being done in Shanghai, Los Angeles, and Pune, India. The program created multi-dimensional visions for cities that not only incorporated sustainable energy design concepts, but included recommendations for food production, transportation, building types, economics, lifestyles, and consumption.

The editors conclude the text by encouraging those interested in sustainable energy landscapes to commit to open collaboration with other professional disciplines to be effective in this energy transition era.  They note a critical and very short window of opportunity that remains before we reach the tipping point “where energy and materials resources are no longer sufficient… resulting in irreversible deterioration in the natural environment and society.”  This publication goes a long way to highlight where we were, where we are, and where we need to be, and how landscape architects can play an important role in the journey.


Edited by Sven Stremke and Andy van den Dobbelsteen. Sustainable Energy Landscapes. Designing, Planning, and Development.  Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2012.

by Lisa Cowan, PLA, ASLA, Principal at Studioverde, and an Officer with the Sustainable Design and Development PPN.

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