For more than 30 years, landscape architect and sociologist Randy Hester has been engaged in process-oriented design that depends on civic involvement and science-based environmental management. He is the co-director, along with his wife Marcia McNally, of the Center for Ecological Democracy in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of numerous publications, including the book Design for Ecological Democracy, which occupies a prominent place on the Biohabitats bookshelf.
You are well-known as an advocate for public participation in the creation of spaces that grow out of an understanding of a community’s needs. In your experience, where do human and ecological health generally fall among the needs expressed by a community?
In the case of city design, I consider the connection between health and environmental process to be indirect. But it is never nonexistent. Even if a community is completely focused on the need for economic development, they are looking for somebody who is going to help them develop a place-appropriate economic strategy. That almost always means that we make an assessment of the constraints and potentials of that landscape, in terms of its watersheds, its capacity to produce its own resources within its own micro-region, etc. The most direct connections [between human health and ecology] come when a community tells us specifically that they want a park or some open space that provides access to nature, because there is a direct link between human health and the environmental process.
For example, in the years that we have worked in Los Angeles to create a greenbelt around the city, people always talked about how they believed they were healthier when they had access to nature. They might not know the literature, and they might not have heard of Roger Ulrich, Bill Sullivan, and Frances Kuo, (researchers who have studied the connection between nature and human health) but they know intuitively that going to Runyon Canon in Hollywood for example, reduces their stress and makes them healthier.
We have worked a lot in California. The ecological process is foremost in people’s minds, or at least one of the top considerations. They know there is a connection between ecological processes and human health. I just moved to Durham, North Carolina, and I have been shocked by how much that same dialogue has been going on here. There is something in the local media every day about the relationship between the agricultural production within the region and restaurants, for example. So I think acknowledgement of this connection is much more widespread than I would’ve imagined.
In your work, what human health issues come up the most frequently? Are they associated with pollutants in the air or water? Access to recreation or healthy food options?
The issue that comes up most often is access to nature. Coming in second would be preserving agricultural land, but that is often more about access to the rural landscape than food supply.
Another health issue that comes up is the desire to reduce the use of the car and make places walkable. Getting rid of pollutants from the automobile and making the pedestrian a higher priority has two direct health benefits. First, it means people are walking more, so obesity and heart-related diseases will hopefully diminish. We’ll also suffer less from direct impacts like asthma and the bigger impacts of global warming.
Not to mention decreased car accidents, I’d assume.
People might think about accidents, but the more important community health factor is actually how divisive highways are to a sense of community. New Urbanist studies, like those of Michael Southworth, show that putting in a high-speed route becomes a barrier that divides one community from another. Most people aren’t going to know that, but when it’s brought into the public discussion, it becomes pretty important.
Your book Design for Ecological Democracy is a treasured and inspiring resource for the landscape ecologists here at Biohabitats. How do you define “ecological democracy?”
For people to clearly understand it, we need to look at the present modus operandi of our democracy, which is a very thin democracy. Most of us are supposed to vote occasionally, complain a little bit (but not get very worked up) and consume huge amounts of things we don’t really need daily. Then, we’re supposed to let corporations buy our government and basically buy out democracy. What we presently have is a pretty non-participatory democracy that is completely controlled by corporations whose interest is not the public interest. Their primary interest is profit making, and in almost every case, it’s going to be exploitive of both people and the environment, and it’s going to be destructive to the human spirit and to ecosystems. We may think we have the greatest democracy in the world, and it probably works better than it does in other places, but that’s the sad state of our present situation. “We the people” are responsible for our government. We have allowed these things to happen. Unless we participate in a much more assertive way…unless our democracy becomes what [author and activist] Frances Moore Lappé calls a “deep” or “living” democracy…unless we live it and give time to it, it’s going to remain the same.
I define ecological democracy as a much more actively participatory government in which environmental and long-term ecological thinking is more dominant than short-term profit. To me, it’s a matter of gravest concern. We have this idea that our democracy was given to us by Thomas Jefferson and those guys, but the democracy is only as strong as the present generation is willing to commit to it. We basically enjoy the pleasures and freedoms that the democracy has given us, but as a people, we are less and less willing to accept the responsibility of governing ourselves.
How do we do that, and how do we inspire others to participate more actively in this kind of ecological democracy? Is there any place in the world that is doing that well and could serve as a model?
I’m optimistic. If I weren’t optimistic, I wouldn’t have written Design for Ecological Democracy. I am not naïve. I have been engaged in big political battles for a long time. I am hopelessly optimistic ,but I am not uninformed. I see little moments of ecological democracy happening almost everywhere I go. Unless we can have a constitutional amendment that reduces the powers of corporations (which now have more rights and privileges and less responsibility than any citizen has) It’s not going to be a sudden revolution. But these little moments of ecological democracy bubble up all over the place.
Are there some places that are more advanced in this? Certainly, the city of Chicago under the young John Daly was a moment of pretty extraordinary, city-wide ecological democracy. That’s the biggest example I know of. But I see it in a lot of neighborhoods. Surprisingly, I see it in Los Angeles. Every once in a while, there might be a mayor, like Jaime Lerner in Curitiba (Brazil), who is committed to ecological thinking and widespread democratic action.
What does ecological democracy actually look like?
In an ecological democracy, a lot of people, particularly at the neighborhood level, participate in planning and thinking about the future of their community. They rise above NIMBYism, and think long-term. They see the bigger, regional issues and try to relate them to their neighborhood.
So what would we see? There’d probably be many fewer people driving. You’d see a lot more green stuff growing–from forests to agricultural products that are consumed in the neighborhood. My guess is that we would see considerably higher density. If we are retrofitting existing neighborhoods, we’d see garages converted to second or third units. It might mean we’d see people living in smaller houses. In new developments, it might be that growth is redirected away from green fields and in towards the central city. People would be smiling a lot more. They wouldn’t be moving so fast, and they’d spend more time in nature and less time on the computer.
In the chapter entitled “Naturalness” in Design for Ecological Democracy, you discuss three beneficial outcomes of experiencing nature: naturopathy, naturism, naturalization. Can you describe these outcomes?
Naturopathy goes back a really long time. Two centuries ago, there was an assumption that if you built hospitals in a natural environment, there was something in natural processes that was healing. This is where [researchers such as] the Kaplans (Rachel Rachel and Stephen Kaplan), Sullivan, Ulrich and others have produced undeniable research that tells us that nature heals us and has the restorative power that some people realized a very long time ago.
Naturism is more about encouraging us to act, at least at moments, more like the wild animals we are. Whether it’s running naked or simply becoming more aware of our sensual selves, there is clearly something from which we are becoming increasingly detached. As we become more cultured, we become less primitive. That’s not necessarily a good thing, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to advance our human selves. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Sullivan and Kuo did a study that found that people with access to nature were actually more civil to each other. In a  study of the Robert Taylor Homes public housing in Chicago (one section of which was much more wooded than another), they found less domestic violence in the greener area. Nature obviously has benefits that we haven’t yet begun to think about. We know for certain that when we’re in nature, we are calmed down and our ability to think logically is restored. But it may have other benefits that allow us to think more complexly if we can think like animals in addition to thinking like machines.
The other outcome is naturalization. We need to become “naturalized.” We need to reapply for our citizenship in nature. This really comes from David Orr’s work in ecological literacy. We’re pretty stupid about the environments in which we live. Part of that comes from moving around so much, and part of it comes from parental fears about nature. If we move with such frequency that we can’t learn about our place, we’re in trouble.
Those are the benefits of nature. We have overwhelming evidence about some of them. Others will be the subject of research that will take place over the next five, 10 or 20 years. Researchers are making the connections between the ecosystems in which we live and human health. This research is probably more important for the whole human species than the genetic engineering stuff that is going on (which will also save and prolong lives).
In the thinking and science behind these outcomes, do people distinguish between “green space” and a space with healthy, functioning ecosystems?
That’s so key. Most people have an aesthetic bias against many of the most important ecosystems. Most people think of wetlands as stinky, mosquito infested swamps rather than the nursery for so many of the fish that we eat. We have an aesthetic bias for the savannah landscape and for prospect refuges, but our gut response to a swamp is no different than our visceral response to seeing, say, a copperhead moccasin. That means that we have to learn by experience how beautiful something like a rainforest (as opposed to a “jungle”) or a wetland (as opposed to a “swamp”) is. We gain that information by experience and by learning ecological principles.
When you are designing a city, park or community, what do you perceive to be the greatest challenge to ensuring these benefits of nature?
The single greatest force is real estate economics. We continue to think of the highest and best use of any piece of property is some form of development. We don’t just need natural areas for aesthetic pleasure; we need them for flood protection, clean air, etc. Clearly, land has an extraordinary value, for those ecological functions, that is completely counter to real estate profits. That’s the biggest challenge.
Despite this challenge, you have been able to successfully integrate nature into urban design. The Natural Park project in South Central Los Angeles is a great example. Tell us about the project.
Years ago, the Bloods and Crips, two of the most infamous gangs in South Central LA actually developed their own plan for the rehabilitation ofWattsand their central city neighborhoods. One of the things they were in agreement on was the greening of there neighborhoods. Here were these notorious street gangs that we associate with everything illegal and terrifying, and they were asking for the same thing that other people want. The city councilwoman in South Central [Rita Walters] also wanted to have parks that weren’t just basketball courts and paved recreation facilities. She wanted to bring nature to South Central L.A. We worked with her and with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to find a site that we could develop. What we found was an nine-acre industrial wasteland at the corner of Slauson and Compton, and that became a nature park.
The design did not include any developed recreation. There are no basketball courts. It’s the ecosystem that we could create in a tiny, tiny space. It has an arroyo. It has hills that are 25 to 35 feet high so it has microclimates of vegetations. It can go from the walnut and oak landscape to the coastal sage scrub. It’s a pretty rich microcosm, and there are places in this nine acres where you can be slightly disoriented. When you observe kids playing there now, that capacity to explore and have real, natural adventures is there, and it’s pretty amazing.
It was really interesting working with people in the neighborhood. When they talked about what was important, they clearly wanted a place where they could get away and feel like they were almost lost in nature, but it couldn’t be too scary. We learned, through an extensive, participatory process, that citizens’ first priority was to have more police protection at the park. The second was to have a full-time park ranger who lived in the neighborhood. So, the nature center has an attached apartment, and a full-time ranger lives there. That person is less of an enforcer and more of a mentor.
The park also has lots of educational programs. Kids can learn how to grow their own food. They even have campouts in the park. For many kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever slept out in a tent. The place has really been well managed, well cared for and well respected. The gangs to not fight there.
Many people have written about this project and interviewed former gang members, park staff, and others in the community. The park became a place where parents knew their kids would be safe.
I read that in your efforts to solicit community input for this project, public meetings prooved ineffective and that you had much more success when you got out in the neighborhood and went into to places that people frequented. Tell us about tha.
I think of myself as being an expert in participation. There’s nothing I don’t know about it, right? Well, with every project, I end up being the kindergarten baby.
We know that public hearings are not very good, so we tried workshops and charrettes. They certainly are better, and people build social capital with those kinds of techniques. But in many communities, people just don’t primarily go to advertised, publicly sponsored community events. We have to go to where they are-especially with people who haven’t ever participated in grassroots democracy. We can’t simply say the process has been democratic because we advertised it and everyone had an equal opportunity to come.
When we were working on the Natural Park, there was a supermarket at the corner of Slauson and Compton. One of my students had the insight (it wasn’t my insight!) that since everybody we were trying [and failing] to talk to was going to the supermercato, we should set up a table and solicit people’s opinions there. That’s what we did, and we got hundreds of people to participate who otherwise would never have initially participated. We got great feedback from people at the supermarket, and then some of those people started coming to the more formal meetings and workshops and became major participants. People clearly enjoyed coming to the workshops after we made this initial contact.
We have to figure out where to engage the people who are historically left out. This makes me think of another project in L.A.’s Runyon Canyon. People were really afraid of that canyon because there were homeless people living there. I sought out every homeless person we could identify, and we did an interview with each one of them. That became part of the community record. It was really useful because about a third of the people we interviewed said they would have been happy to go to a shelter, but there wasn’t one close by. A third of the people were not, under any circumstances, going to go to a shelter, and were in need of much more extensive help. And about a third of them were pretty well-functioning, and we found places in the park where they could continue to live without bothering other people. Knowing that was really important.
We frequently do not engage marginal people, and they are going to be primary users of all public open space. We need to find out what their needs are and accommodate them as best we can. In the case of Runyon Canyon, Richard Riordan (who later became Mayor of Los Angeles) who was then head of the Parks and Recreation Board, raised the money to build a homeless shelter that would serve people near Runyon Canyon. He actually responded to this need and served the public.
You write about the importance of “sacred structure” to design. What exactly do you mean, and is there a connection between the sacred structure of a place and the health of its ecology and people?
This is the most important lesson that we learned in a project in Manteo, North Carolina [revitalization of the town’s central waterfront ]. This was a place where people were fiercely opposed to any coastal zone management legislation. Local people everywhere along the rural coast of the North Carolina were absolutely opposed to any regulation that would protect these environmental resources.
We decided [as part of the design process] map the places local people really valued. We had to get at that information by sociological measuring that was not necessarily direct. We interviewed people about the places that they felt made up their small town, rural character. We observed what people did and noted the patterns. We did a newspaper survey that ranked places of importance to preserve-places people thought were so important that if you destroyed or changed them, it would diminish their community life. Over two dozen of these places ranked higher than the schools and churches. We made a map of these places, and when one city councilman looked at it, he said, “That’s the sacred structure of Manteo.” Since then, we’ve always called places the community holds most dear “sacred places.” Usually they are subconsciously held dear and we have to help the community articulate them or they just never become part of the planning process.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Among the top ten most important places [identified by citizens of Manteo] were the wetlands that surround the town. This was a community that had violently opposed legislation to protect wetlands! I believe the wetlands in Manteo were important because they defined the edge of the community. Having a natural boundary has proven to be one of the most important parts of the sacred structure everywhere we’ve done this, in dozens of communities.
Suddenly, it became clear that the opposition to preserving wetlands was less about the wetland itself and more about federal intervention. It led me to the conclusion that identifying the sacred structure, in almost every case, would elevate some fundamental ecological process to the level that the community would want to protect it by local legislation, even though they might oppose the same protective measures if they were being imposed on them. We have found this to be true everywhere-in Haleiwa, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Taiwan, and Japan.
How does a community’s sacred structure contribute to the health of its people?
Here is what I think (this is me interpreting what many of my colleagues have researched and written about for years): for healthy human development, we have to have: a sense of center in the place where we grow up and live, some kind of natural boundary; and some sense of what is ecologically, physically, sensually unique about the place where we grow up. If we don’t have those things, we are not going to form strong attachments to place, and therefore we will not take care of the place. We also won’t be nurtured by the place. There is literature that supports the “subpieces” of what I just said, but there is nothing that supports it as an overarching and complete theory. Biophilia and topophilia support this. But I believe now that for healthy human development, having center and natural boundaries is the most important long-term health consideration. It’s more about psychological health, but without any question on my part, it’s about health.
Most of our readers are involved in restoring and improving ecosystems, so they’re very familiar with the concept of environmental stewardship and regard it as a good thing. But as you point out in your book, it’s complicated. Talk about “reciprocal stewardship.”
When we go out to do a wetland restoration, or replant a detention basin with wetland plants to clean stormwater, we are doing something that seems good for the environment, but the benefits we receive are huge. It helps us overcome “ecoparalysis.” Problems can be so monstrous that we sometimes wonder what we can do. Doing something that makes the environment better gives us a sense of empowerment that we can make a difference. We may, for example, be able to prevent extinctions. It’s also usually good exercise, and we make friends with people we might not have otherwise met.
For me, when I take care of a piece of land, I can feel it reciprocating and taking care of me. I not only can feel the plants giving me the oxygen I need, but I can feel them sort of wrapping their vegetative arms around me and nurturing me. By healing the earth, we heal ourselves. I’m sure every single Leaf Litter reader already knows and feels that.
The interesting thing to me is to think about reciprocal geometries between, for example, ecotourism and the creation of bird habitat. We need to think about mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationships that we can actually create that we haven’t thought about before. The most obvious is that if we increase density of housing, we can save more wildlife habitat close in to where we live. That is an example of this intellectual reciprocal stewardship.
To me, this is the most interesting next frontier-making the city have reciprocal and recombinant geometries that are benefitting both the ecological system and the human system. Sometimes it’s not just about our health. There might also be an economic benefit. Low impact design stormwater management is a really good example. We’re clear that if we retrofit stormwater management systems, they’ll be less expensive to the public sector in the long run. They obviously provide health benefits and transparent ecology. We think we’re doing them just for cleaning stormwater, but they have dozens of other benefits.
My wife, and partner in our firm, Marcia McNally, did a plan for the Los Angeles River which showed which bird species you could actually accommodate in each one of theses (in some cases tiny) tiny stormwater basins. You could go from a Red-wing Blackbird, which will live almost anywhere there are cattails, to a species like the Sandhill Crane, for which the whole Los Angeles region would have to be reconfigured to attract again. It gives us a way to think about new geometries for the city.
How do we as engineers, designers, or even communicators inspire this kind of stewardship beyond the walls of our firms and project partners to the greater public?
We have to engage people who are different than us. It’s not so easy to engage the homeless, new immigrants, or people from the religious right. But it’s these other publics that we have to consciously go out of our way to engage-in every project. Sometimes, we have to ask, “Who are the people who are least likely to have an interest in this project?” and then find a way that they will have some interest. We have to see our work as a long-term agenda. We have to get more people engaged in stewardship.
Here is the upside to all of this. Ecology is not very enchanting, but nature is enchanting. If kids get involved in creating firefly habitat, or catching tadpoles, it’s irresistible. It’s also irresistible to parents. We always have to remind ourselves that people may not be concerned about ecological process as much as they are just completely enchanted by the spell of nature.