Friday, September 11, 2009

Landscapes, literacy, ecosystems services & sustainability

The way we approach our understanding of landscapes influences the policies we support and the attitudes we keep. How we “see” a flower, field or forest has consequences for how we “use” them. Our fragmented, parochial, limited time horizon, decision making matrix is a reflection of why our social systems are stressed. Our collective challenges, our great social causes, are all filtered through the fuzzy goal of immediate self interest versus long term social or public value. If a memory of childhood includes recollections English Ivy lined garden pathways, then there should be no denying this ornamental addition to the current garden desire. And more importantly, the cost of managing it in parks and natural areas should be born by someone else, or better just ignored. It is the immediacy of a strong interaction that attracts self interested actions, not the outcomes of weak interactions barely noticed in the present.

Ecological and environmental issues that swirl around ecosystems and biomes are hampered because of the growing lack of landscape literacy possessed by policy makers and their constituencies. Literacy is the ability to read, write, listen and comprehend, and speak a language. I think that there is an analogous set of abilities and skills that I call landscape literacy; the ability to read, work with knowledgeably, design, use and comprehend the intricate relationships of both natural and ornamental landscapes. Landscape literacy refers then to reading and working at a level adequate for communicating ideas about ecosystem services at a level that lets one understand the complex interactions of the system. These ideas at high level of literacy would include regulating, providing, provisioning and informing ecosystem services.

Most of the traditional problems and challenges of landscape management focus on the two higher level eco-system services, providing and informing. From aesthetics to resources that can provide material for personal and commercial use, our land use planning is concerned with enhancing an supporting these high level ecosystem services with understanding of the implications of additional stress onto the ecosystem in question. The assumption that natural resources are infinite permeates local land use and development policies in urban and suburban metropolitan areas. When we add the needs of those stakeholders who are either in economic challenged communities or historically under-served areas, we compound the problems of creating sound land use consensus. We have neither a common grammar for our ornamental landscape nor a well comprehended syntax for our natural areas.

The call for sustainable landscapes has been heard but not understood. Sustainable designs do not intentionally include invasive species, and may require some measure of certification that the flora and fauna is not itself a vector for invasive pathogens or insects. The idea that beauty may be more than color combinations and texture, is met with some resistance as is the reverse that there is a need for some order in landscapes that are functional in close proximity to human activities. Sustainability looks at the entirety of nature through asymmetrical temporal lenses communicating the past to the future through the present. (adapted from Crutchfield. 2009. The collision of desires between our near-term aesthetic and economic sensibilities and the long-term requirements of the ecosystem and its ability to support out short term needs is in perpetual conflicted opposition.

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