Restoration ecologist David Moreno Mateos on mending our broken relationship with the natural world

Georgia O'Keefe mountains painting

In the first week of March, Australia’s New South Wales announced itself free of bushfires for the first time in six months—after 27 million acres of bushland and an estimated one billion animals were claimed by the flames. Stoked by long-term drought and extreme heat, the fires ravaged over 20 percent of the country’s forest in one continued burn, leading scientists to decree it an “unprecedented” disaster in both its scale and duration. Still others have gone further, referring to Australia as “ground zero” for a new era of climate change–fuelled disaster.

From California to the Philippines, the Amazon to the Midwest, the frequency, intensity, and duration of wildfires have all spiked in recent years, coupling with a continued rise in global surface temperatures. While it’s difficult to locate the precise fingerprints of climate change in the haze of repeated natural disasters—dozens of catastrophic bushfires have been recorded in Australia since 1851, when the notorious “Black Thursday” fire set ablaze twelve million acres and more than 1,300 buildings—its impact is as undeniable as it is complex.

Until very recently, the destruction of diverse ecosystems and the vast homogenization of nature under the guise of progress has carried on more or less unprotested. Not simply because of its immediate economic benefit but also because of the idea that scientific and technological advancements can somehow conjure an enhanced ‘hypernature’ that is fully aligned with our current lifestyle.

In addition to increasing the likelihood of fire-inducing temperatures more than fourfold, climate change fuels the conditions for such catastrophes in more nebulous ways. A decrease in global humidity levels (resulting in drier forests) and dramatic shifts in oceanic weather systems like the Indian Ocean dipole have conjured new and unpredictable ways that a fire might spread. According to David Moreno Mateos, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, how to design resilient landscapes in this era, and the tricky question of how to best restore landscapes already lost to the blaze, are two urgent design problems that must be collaboratively met by ecologists, engineers, and architects in the UN’s “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.”

“To combat these new global conditions, landscape architects will need to work at a larger and increasingly ecological scale,” says Moreno Mateos. “Instead of focusing on beautiful urban green spaces, we [architects] need to start thinking about the whole context of cities, towns, even rural areas, and how they can be designed to deal with vast ecological changes in a biodiverse and functional way.”

Moreno Mateos, a restoration ecologist who specializes in the long-term recovery of ecosystems marred by human activity, is currently leading a studio at the GSD that applies a restoration ecology framework to the context of landscape architecture. By examining the ongoing Everglades Restoration Initiative in Florida as a studio-wide case study, alongside students designing their own landscape projects, Moreno Mateos hopes to introduce students to a non-anthropocentric understanding of landscape design, where ideas of biodiversity and resiliency take precedence over economic efficiency or eco-chic Instagram aesthetics.

“The Florida project is a great reference study as it shows the necessary integration of natural restoration efforts with advanced restoration techniques in engineering and hydraulics,” says Moreno Mateos. No doubt, restoration of the Glades is a tall order: beyond the threat of storm surges, which can be mitigated by the planting of new mangroves, this area is plagued by rampant pollution from the airboat tour industry, countless leaking nutrients, and the introduction of non-native invasive species. Simply attempting to return this area to an Edenic pre-human state would not combat any of the pressing ecological concerns—the direct result of human activities—that are now sewn into the landscape.

“When we talk about restoration, the traditional aim is to bring a disturbed area back to a semblance of its pre-disturbed state,” explains Moreno Mateos, “But the reality is, when we degrade a place, whatever we re-start will be entirely different.” Recovery trajectories are unpredictable, and mounting research on ecosystem recovery debt suggests that even fully restored ecosystems are inherently less functional and less diverse than undisturbed ones. So instead of attempting to bring an ecosystem back to its pre-disturbed state, what should ecologists—and by consequence, landscape architects—be focusing on?

It’s in the details. Moreno Mateos’s research has drawn him deep into the New England forests and across the icy fjords of southwest Greenland—both left to recover for hundreds of years following human settlement and flight. Observing such long-term natural recovery, Moreno-Mateos’s work emphasizes the significance of micro-level restoration occurring deep inside the system: the interactions between microbes, fungi, and plants. These relationships, he believes, are at the crux of successful ecosystem restoration—as well as a more nuanced understanding of restoration as a process which ultimately takes thousands of years, and for which there is no easy fix.

“For the last 100,000 years, humans have been artificially changing nature to make it profitable for us,” suggests Moreno Mateos. By his estimate, over 80 percent of the Earth’s topography has been transformed in our quest for productivity. Up until very recently, the destruction of diverse ecosystems and the vast homogenization of nature under the guise of progress has carried on more or less unprotested. Not simply because of its immediate economic benefit but also, and perhaps more dangerously still, because of the idea that scientific and technological advancements can somehow conjure an enhanced “hypernature” that is fully aligned with our current lifestyle.

This idea of engineered nature has a strong presence in contemporary discourses around architecture and sustainability. It often crops up in the techno-utopian architectural projects of Silicon Valley, and is unanimously trumpeted by their favorite architects—Bjarke Ingels, Norman Foster, and Rem Koolhaas, to name a few—in global Ted Talk–style events. Most recently, it appears in Koolhaas and AMO’s monumental exhibition Countryside, The Future at the Guggenheim in New York. Koolhaas and his crew marvel at the future countryside of grow-labs and data farms, labeling it “the new sublime.” This attitude eclipses the less palatable truth that the more streamlined and homogenized our version of nature becomes, the more susceptible it will be to large-scale environmental disasters like the Australian wildfires—alongside mass extinction and famine. “If we follow that incredibly naive perspective [of Koolhaas], we create an increasing level of uncertainty of our own survival on this planet,” stresses Moreno Mateos.

Rather than gunning after a hyper-productive artificial nature, or returning to an Edenic “pure” nature, there is a third way still: reorienting the framework of the present. One of Moreno Mateos’s students this term is developing a project to rewild Siberian tigers on the outskirts of Seoul. While large predators rubbing elbows with stiff-suited bankers might sound high-risk, it’s already proving successful across Europe, where a similar initiative is taking place. Bears, lynx, wolves, and wolverines are increasing in population in around one-third of mainland European landscapes occupied by humans, and the positive effects are proving evident. Large carnivores essentially serve as ecosystem game masters: they ensure biodiversity by preventing the spread of diseases and invasive species, which helps foster habitat heterogeneity. Carnivores create ecologically rich, functional forests that act as a green wall against wildfires; for humans, this prevents the fires from entering the cities. “Ultimately, it is vastly safer for humans to let nature do its thing—these animals can help control the landscape and make it safer for us in times of frequent natural disaster,” explains Moreno Mateos.

In order to mend our broken relationship with the natural world, and to better protect ourselves from a near future that will almost inevitably bring increased natural disasters, we must stop thinking in such boundaries. The divide between the urban and rural gives us a line where there ought to be a gradient. Landscape architects designing urban and near-urban areas must make places more diverse and resilient. They must nurture the micro, respect the difference between diversity and efficiency, and embrace ideas that might well run in total contradiction to traditional applications of their discipline. Most significantly—as this recent onslaught of fires and pandemics is proving to us all too vividly—any real result will necessarily stem from a collaborative effort, one rooted in the shared understanding that we depend on the survival of these ecosystems for our own, in ways that we don’t even know yet.