Conversation: Brook Farm Group

“Neutral, benign, or ‘better than the baseline’ is not enough, far from it. Our work must also reclaim and restore beyond its own boundaries.”   -Kate Bakewell

Today I met with Kate Bakewell, the founder of Brook Farm Group, whose ecologically focused projects are sited in urban, exurban, and rural environments.

Image is from the Brook Farm Group website. The project is the Jose E. Serrano Center for Global Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Q:  How did she first become interested in sustainable design?
A:  Kate spent time in the woods as a child, and remembers being worried about pollution and environmental issues at a young age.  Living in Chicago, she got involved with Doug Farr (who later wrote Sustainable Urbanism). In the mid-80s there were people like him and John Todd who were early pioneers, doing cool things but at the fringe.  She went to graduate school for landscape architecture at the GSD.  To her, it was self evident that the ecological factors were critical, but studios were not effectively discussing those issues.  Conversations focused more on the symbolic, metaphorical, decorative or practical understandings of landscape. Ecology courses were still technical, although the professor, Richard Foreman, later starting writing about the spatial implications of ecosystems. After school, a successful entry for an ecological transformation competition reaffirmed her direction.

Q:  Are there certain frameworks that Kate looks to when designing a project? What types of analysis does she begin with?
A:  Generally, Kate does not consciously begin with a framework, just dives in to understand the ecosystems at hand, and the flows and movements of different systems. Working at larger scales, such as that of the watershed, region, or even patterns within the hemisphere, might seem abstract but can inform the project profoundly. 
There is a disconnect between landscape side people and architects working on a site. In landscape, there are no boundaries, because nature doesn’t have boundaries- it is all amorphic. It is hard to reconcile this when working on a real project with real boundaries.
Working in places such asChina and Brazilcan be difficult because you don’t have access to a great deal of information.  However, there are rock solid, universal ecosystem principles to fall back on.   On such concept is that of source and sink. Certain bio-rich areas act as a source, and if localized extinctions occur in less rich (sink) areas, populations move from the source to repopulate the sink. You need enough connectivity between areas to allow for that movement. This concept is not specific to one geographic area.
Another important part of the process is to embed real science in the early part of the process. Just looking at aerial maps is not enough.  For example, dunes may seem useless, but they are where species hatch and are integral to the food web.  That is the framework, the real science, how things are moving and connected to the beyond.

Q:  Will it always be a process of trying to mitigate damage, or trying to convince parties to reduce the size and scope of a project?
A:  In her practice, Kate sets a high aim for projects.  It is setting a low bar for the profession to just attempt to do a less bad job on our project site.  Projects should restore, or reconnect, or renew beyond the boundary of the site. There is another way to think of how we approach project sites. For example, if the site is a 25 acre plot, treat it as though it is a 50 acre tract and how the larger systems are working.
One relevant approach for the ecologist on a project team is to ask: what can this place be and what does this place want to be?  A site can be imagined as a hyper functional ecosystem that provides services to people; seek within the interstitial spaces what is possible.  This strategy requires that everyone is on board early on in the process.

Patch and corridor concept

Q:  Since 2008, over half of the world lives in an urban setting. That means almost half of people are in less dense settings. Are there any strategies to deal with these less dense developments?
A:  The fundamental ecosystem principal of patch and corridor can be effectively implemented in both urban and less dense conditions.  If there are two different places that have some kind of habitat, you want to set up the processes that would occur anyways, where populations move between them. Humans can interact with nature in a way that speeds up the process, to keep pace with the degradation occurring. In this way, a project facilitates natural processes rather than disrupting them.
Patches are somewhat homogenous places, but not a monoculture. Large patches have interiors where niche species can exist, who need a different level of protection and habitat richness than found at an edge. One challenge is that the scale of the minimum patch depends on the species; for some animals it is huge, while for a certain species of bee it is 300 feet.


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