Return to the (Managed) Wild: Interpreting Human Settlements as “Designer Ecosystems”

Format: Papers, RSD3, Topic: Socioecological Design

Perin Ruttonsha

Human civilizations stand out, recently, among other biotic communities for their instigation of global systems transformations that have been rapid, extensive, and enduring (Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007). By virtue of cumulative, collaborative efforts, facilitated through the symbolic codification of knowledge, and stacked across generations and continents, the complexity of human cultures only continues to intensify (Christian, 2004): “Cultural change operates by mechanisms that can validate a general and driven trend to technological progress — so very different from the minor and passive trend that Darwinian processes permit in the realm of natural evolution” (Gould, 1996, p.223). By this means, the species has become a globally dominant presence, the impact of its activities echoed across terrestrial, marine, and atmospheric systems (Steffen et al., 2007; Hobbs, Higgs, & Hall, 2013).

Human settlements might be described as a magnet for, container to, and emblematic expression of human cultural systems. They are socially constructed systems that interface between the human species and the biosphere, directly coordinating and mediating the debated nature-culture relationship. If one embraces Lovelock’s (1979) Gaia hypothesis, whereby the planet is considered to be an interdependent, self-regulating unit, or, McDonough and Braungart’s (2013) upcycle approach, whereby human creative pursuits feed reciprocally into biosphere cycles, then perhaps one can find a place for this domesticated species within the ‘natural order’ of things: “Our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the dynamics of the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves” (Swimme & Tucker, 2011, p.116). Deeply embedding human activities within the cycles of inhabited ecosystems, calls for designers and ecologists, together, to consider the notion of hybridization: “… ‘urbanization is not merely a … distancing of human life from nature, but rather a process by which new and more complex relationships are created’. The challenge of social-ecological integration, however, is one that requires closer articulation, both philosophically and schematically. For example, it is unclear what an application of philosophies such as Leopold’s (1949) land ethic or Rifkin’s (2009) biosphere consciousness should mean, on practical terms, for highly engineered, urban systems. Simply accepting human activity and its resulting technologies as an extension of nature risks dismissing environmental accountability (White, 2003). No doubt, achieving a state of complete integration with ecosystem processes would entail nothing short of a long-term unwinding of rigid infrastructural and social regimes, through a phased, scaled, and community engaged process of renewal. Thus, the arguments for pursuing this direction as part of a long-range sustainability strategy, and the means by which it might be possible to do so within the current social-technological landscape, are worth examination.

Presentation & paper




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: Return to the (Managed) Wild: Interpreting Human Settlements as “Designer Ecosystems”
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
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First published: 28 September 2014
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Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (ISSN 2371-8404) are published annually by the Systemic Design Association, a non-profit scholarly association leading the research and practice of design for complex systems: 3803 Tønsberg, Norway (922 275 696).


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