I had an interesting meeting this week with this guy:
Alexander Felson is an assistant professor at Yale University, where he has appointments both to the School of Architecture and to the School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences. His PhD is in ecology and evolution from Rutgers. He’s also a registered landscape architect with 12 years of professional experience working in New York City and on projects around the country.
Alex describes himself as an urban ecologist. And that was what brought him to my living room this week. An organization with which I have a 15-year history, Trees Atlanta, is trying to develop what could be the longest linear arboretum in the world, the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum. Felson, who grew up in nearby Athens, Georgia, wanted to explore the possibility of collaborating with Trees Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine itself on one or more urban ecology projects. So, together with Trees Atlanta’s Director of Operations Linc Weis, we chatted.
The upshot is that I think Felson and his fascinating work deserve to be more widely known.
In a recent interview with Cassim Shepard of Urban Omnibus, Felson described his model of the “Designed Experiment.” Let Shepard explain it:
Ecology, by definition, is about interactions; it’s the study of the relationships among organisms, and between organisms and their environment. When we consider the work of ecologists in urban contexts, we often think of protecting natural systems against the harm wrought by development. Alexander Felson … is a different kind of urban ecologist. In his research and his design work, he calls for an ecological practice that moves from analyzing nature to shaping it, embedding scientific experiments into the design process. The framework he’s established for this synthesis, Designed Experiments, offers to yield scientific data as well as influence the physical form of built projects. But it also offers a platform for a new model of collaboration between designers, scientists, developers, and community members, engaging multiple stakeholders in a shared exercise of creating new knowledge. New data, new design strategies, and new forms of collaboration will all be necessary to make our landscapes more productive, our coastlines more resilient, and our understanding of our relationship to both natural and constructed environments more informed.
So, for example, Alex worked on a large housing project in Tuxedo, New York, as a result of which the road alignments and housing lot locations were redesigned to better support the local ecology. Let me explain. The 1200-acre site features many “vernal pools,” a type of seasonal wetland that supports a rich variety of plant and animal species, but which is difficult to conserve because vernal pools dry out in summer and fall and so become invisible. The developer was convinced that New York regulations were going to force him to eliminate 20 or so houses from his original plan — they were simply too close to those vernal pools, which the regulations seek to protect by requiring buffers. So Alex got involved, not to improve the developer’s bottom line, but because he believes that design (and the regulations that influence design) should match the science.
To put it simply: if you are going to take steps to protect the environment, those steps should actually lead to protecting the environment. Otherwise, you’re throwing away money, time, and effort.
Alex’s research discovered that environmental regulations sometimes focus on preserving individual ponds with limited buffers. They don’t look at clusters of ponds. These clusters or groups of ponds are important for the seasonal migration of the very animals that the regulations are meant to protect. So Alex proposed a study of the migration paths of the amphibians in the pools, followed by integration of the experimental results into the design. Here’s the result: original design on top, redesign below it: