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Glass-House Chats: How Do We Co-design With Nature?

Posted on 9 February 2023

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

Our first Chat of 2023 was How Can We Co-design with Nature? With the ongoing climate crisis, the relationship between the built environment and nature must be readdressed to consider how places are designed and co-produced for a sustainable future. We wanted to use this Chat to explore nature’s role in placemaking and how as professionals, individuals, and communities, we can involve nature as an active participating stakeholder in the conversations around place and placemaking.

Key Themes

We kick started this month’s Chat by asking the room, a mixed bag of designers, architects, students and placemaking professionals, what is nature? The first comment acknowledged humans as part of nature. As animals, we are inseparable from the natural world and cannot think of ourselves in isolation. Although it could be argued that a narrative of the western world has very much created that separation between what is considered part of nature and what is not, humans included. The conversation moved towards understanding nature as a system, one in which we all co-exist; human, nonhuman, flora, fauna, critters and objects. This prompted the Chat question – if we are co-existing with these multiple protagonists, human and nonhuman, how do we co-produce collective visions or spaces, for the places in which we live, work and crawl? 

Building Empathy for the More Than Human

How do you invite nature in?

At The Glass-House, we are passionate about building empathy for one another. We often find that it is the best way to connect realities, find shared understandings and build trusting relationships when working with others or when helping others work together. So when thinking about co-designing with nature, how do we build empathy for the more than human? If we did, would that strengthen and shape new dialogues with nature and in turn new ways of placemaking with each other?

A simple way to invite nature in is through roleplay. Embodying aspects of the nonhuman could invite new ways of engaging your senses and promote new ways of connecting with the places you occupy. If we were to actively seek and embody the lens of plants, birds, and sharks; an invitation to be as nature in our everyday life, could we transform what we value about the places we shape and thus create an avenue for which to co-design with nature as a valued companion?

One of the Chat participants shared how they invited nature into their own work through a series of mapping exercises, giving participants tools and prompts to sense nature with. Examples included a narwhal tusk to sense pollution and a shark’s tooth to sense electric fields. Taking part in this mapping exercise actively transformed their response and connection to place, which in this case was their local high street, allowing them to look at the area with a new lens.

Creating viewpoints and experiences from and for different perspectives can also provide a gateway into valuing the perspective of nature. Framing the seasonality and cycles of a tree, or inviting passers-by to take an active role in looking more deeply and with care at particular moments of the natural world we live in and around.
The importance of encouraging nature more inclusively into your everyday life is about thinking with and for nature as opposed to about nature as a performative tool for the benefit of humans alone.

Locality, Inheritance and Nature’s Champions

How do we become good stewards of nature? There is much to be said about the ongoing climate crisis and the state in which we wish to leave the planet and all its earthly delights for the next generation of humans and nonhumans to flourish. It is often difficult to engage with nature and placemaking on a larger scale. 

However, asking ourselves what we could do on a local scale may begin to create routes in for us to act as local stewards of nature, whilst also generating a greater sense of ownership over our places. In addition to thinking about more inclusive ways of inviting nature in, we also need to consider that the communities we all live with include humans and nonhumans, instead of thinking about our communities through a human centric lens.

We considered more literally the physicality of our neighbourhoods and the changes that happen within the built environment and the ways in which we currently champion nature as collaborator in place. Local councils and community groups which advocate or implement local-scale environmental interventions, such as low traffic neighbourhoods, street rain gardens or guerrilla flower beds, create  greater visibility for nature. This weaves a tapestry of our co-existence that strengthens nature’s stake in places and significantly improves the participation of nature as a placemaker. It is a reciprocal exchange of making space for more critters and nonhumans to flourish, while mitigating the impact of pollution and reducing rainfall runoff.

There are also those groups and individuals that already act as stewards or advocates for particular aspects of nature and nature in place. Individuals or groups working with forest schools, community gardens, those with a particular interest in fungus, trees, and plant life act as allies of nature. Can their strength in connecting nature as allies help us further embed new ways and new narratives of co-producing space with nature? To give nature a voice in placemaking, we need cross-sector collaboration that sees architects, planners and urban designers working with arboriculturists, hobby gardeners, local anglers and more.

New Narratives for Nature

Within the western context of city making, the metaphorical line that was drawn between nature and humans hundreds of years ago, separating us as binaries, continues to shape our understanding of place, land and nature, and where we fit (or don’t) within this.  

Human interactions with nature have long sought to manage and control the way it is shaped, through productive agricultural farming practices, monoculture forestry or as ornamental features in leisure spaces. An example of this human-focused interaction with nature within the city could be the tree, portrayed as a single isolated unit removed from its connection to the soil. Often removed or chopped down when their branches become too unruly or their roots threaten the foundations of buildings, new and old. This human-centred view of trees prompts the question when thinking about how we might co-design with nature: do we need to relearn our relationship with nature?

One participant spoke about the importance within their own practice of sharing the identity and origin of the natural products and materials they use to create their work. By understanding a product’s identity and life from cradle to grave, we can be encouraged to think more thoughtfully about how we invite nature in as an active participant in placemaking and design more widely. Intertwining ideas of locality and open sourcing designs to allow others to use local natural products, adds another layer of sharing resources, skills, and ideas as a way of inviting local natural systems into design in our increasingly globalised world. By allowing the product to be iterated and shared around different localities (much like a forest mycelial network which shares water and resources amongst themselves and community of trees), the product evolves in each local place.

Wrapping Up

So, how do we co-design with nature?

There is no definitive answer, as we often find in placemaking, but our shared contemplation throughout the Chat suggested that we can glean ways of inviting nature into co-design through the multiple and overlapping ways we engage each other in dialogue. To consider nature beyond a passive force, we give it gravity, visibility and a presence that then allows it to be protected, empathised with and thus given space to flourish and grow. We also may find answers by looking more closely at nature itself as a cyclical process. As a seed sprouts to begin a cycle of new life, travelling through periods of growth until death and decay, allows it to become the base for new life again. Can we too learn to build our cities to the ebb and flow of nature’s rhythms?