Juggling with constant change

A cultural landscape reflects the combined activity of nature and humans. Where has the equilibrium of this union been lost? And how can we restore the balance? 
Virtual reality is used to study how people perceive changes in the landscape. (Image: Ralph Sonderegger, PLUS, ETH Zürich, 2018)

Putting on the VR headset, Maya finds herself immersed in a landscape where a dozen wind turbines are busy generating electricity. Whenever she moves, this immediately triggers sounds linked to the virtual image. The noise of the rotors fills Maya’s ears as clearly as if she were actually there. Meanwhile, sensors attached to her body measure her heart rate and skin conductance to record her physiological response. “We use the Audio Visual Lab to investigate how people perceive changes to the landscape,” says Adrienne Grêt-Regamey, a professor at the Chair of Planning Landscape and Urban Systems (PLUS). People’s particular experiences can play an important role here. “In our studies, many individuals exhibit negative emotions when they see interventions in the landscape. But this is dampened if they’ve had personal experience of such infrastructure landscape,” she explains.

Grêt-Regamey applies the same research method in the ERC project GLOBESCAPE, where she is studying our relationship to peri-urban areas – the transitional zone between the city and the countryside. Interestingly, the results so far show that, when confronted with uniform peri-urban areas, people display a measurable physiological reaction with less stress reduction potential than in other areas. Even in densified spaces such as a village square, the stress reduction potential can be higher. Grêt-Regamey says that a key problem is the lack of engagement on the part of residents. “In many cases, they show little attachment to place and don’t get involved in place-making. So what we end up with is dictated by land prices and commercial interests,” she explains.

The professor hopes her study will pinpoint what peri-urban areas need to offer in order to 
encourage residents to build connections to them – the kind of connection that encourages them to get actively involved in changing the landscape. Only then does it become a cultural landscape: a geographic area whose character we perceive as being shaped by the action and interaction of natural and human factors.

Sustainabality is not equilibrium

So how can we create landscapes that successfully function as an interplay between nature and human activity over the long term? Grêt-Regamey says the key lies in socio-ecological dynamics: she envisages a landscape in which biophysical and social factors interact in such a way that the landscape remains resilient under changing conditions and is able to continue providing its “services” in a sustainable way. “It’s always about negotiating the various services provided by an area,” she explains. She favours the concept of ecosystem services, which are always tied to the landscape and the interests of specific stakeholders. On this basis, she is able to negotiate with stakeholders in a collaborative and iterative process and thereby identify the required uses of the landscape.

A creative twist to this approach is used for the ValPar.CH project, in which Grêt-Regamey evaluates the ecological infrastructure of Swiss parks. Using a facilitated discussion, groups of five or six stakeholders were able to agree on a future vision for each park, which an illustrator then represented in pictorial form. Researchers use these images to identify elements of the landscape that provide ecosystem services or contribute to biodiversity – and to determine which paths might lead to the desired result. Here, however, Grêt-Regamey would like to go one step further: “We need to ask ourselves how we can create new places that are dynamically resilient – especially in built-up areas.” 

21st-century garden

Work on one such human-made ecosystem is already underway at the Chair of Being Alive, where a team led by Teresa Galí-Izard is developing a Garden of the XXI Century. The Catalan landscape architect and agronomist has been a professor on the new ETH Master’s degree programme in Landscape Architecture since 2020. “I’m working on a complex productive landscape. It’s less productive than a monoculture, but it regenerates itself thanks to the interactions between all the various factors,” says Galí-Izard. She is already testing this system in Spain and Santiago de Chile and plans to test it in Switzerland in the future. At its core is a herd of around 20 horses that moves to a different pasture each day. Depending on the climate, it takes between 60 and 90 days for the horses to complete a full rotation of the fields and return to the initial pasture. The horses’ faeces and urine fertilise the soil so that it can be used to produce food crops on a four-yearly rotation. “Even the hedges around the fields produce food for people,” says Galí-Izard.

What interests her now is finding out how elements of this regenerative landscape can be tailored to a more urban setting – with the focus firmly on the goal of making run-down places more vibrant. The key thing to recognise, she says, is that we share our planet with other living things, including plants. Yet this is also the biggest hurdle: “We’re no longer exposed to other living creatures frequently enough – and that leaves a big gap in our knowledge of our environment.” Children, says Galí-Izard, should have access to places where they can observe around them the constant changes at different speeds in our environment.

This is the same principle she applies to the Master’s programme: “The first year is all about encouraging students to observe things so that they can learn to read the landscape and find new beauty in it,” says Galí-Izard. To help visualise the complex relationships between climate, animals, plants and soil, she is developing a pictorial language that her students also learn and apply. “These dynamic diagrams boost our understanding of how things relate to each other and help us make living things such as trees part of the planning process,” she says.

21st-century human

This contemporary approach to planning means learning about the potentials of sites, which is a key tenet of Galí-Izard’s firm, Arquitectura agronomia. This prompted the wait-and-see approach she applied in one of her first projects, a small private garden. She only intervened once every two or three weeks, carefully observing the natural changes in the garden before deciding on the next steps to take. “The way gardeners modify the environment is obviously ‘artificial’. For example, they might water the ground so as to grow a new species of plant,” Galí-Izard explains. “But what matters is understanding where the 
limits are – and, in this specific example, also thinking about the place from which this water has been diverted.” The fact that we can alter the environment so radically also increases our responsibility to impose limits on our actions. How far do we want to go? How long should our intervention continue? And what do we really need?

“It’s great to be able to think like an engineer, but technology is so seductive that it can make us forget to set boundaries for ourselves,” says Galí-Izard. The question of whether nature and humanity can occupy their rightful place in the landscape of the future depends, to a large extent, on whether humans are capable of re-educating themselves. Indeed, the key qualities of people in the 21st-century may well be the ability to negotiate, assess, decide, forgo, and prioritise others.

This text appeared in the 21/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.

More informations

Adrienne Grêt-Regamey is a professor at the Chair of Planning Landscape and Urban Systems. Her research focuses on how the interactions of humans with their environments shape landscapes and vice versa.

Teresa Galí-Izard is a professor on the new Master’s degree programme in Landscape Architecture at ETH. She would like to see us learn to pay more attention to non-human beings.