Redefining Wilderness: How Designers are Grappling with the Radical Interconnectedness of Nature and Culture

Rendering showing a lizard surrounded by flowers in the city.

A project by Zeqi Liu (MLA I '22) and Shuyue Li (MLA I '23) aims to reintroduce butterflies and lizards (both animals whose habitats have been impacted by urbanization) to Los Angeles in a way that also addresses food deserts across the city.

Two decades ago, the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity set a goal of designating 17 percent of global lands for wilderness by 2020. In the years since then, as the very concept of “wilderness” has come into question, environmentalism and ecological studies have matured and have created improvements, though the planet has also suffered losses. Forests, for instance, are still being stripped from millions of acres each year. The original UN goal itself is a far cry from the aspiration of recently deceased Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who issued an urgent call to protect half of the earth for nature in some way. In any case, human impact clearly has been devastating: ecologists now refer to our situation as the sixth epoch of mass extinction.

To address such pressing environmental issues, the Harvard Graduate School of Design is home to a variety of curricular and research-based initiatives including the new Ecologies domain within the Master of Design Studies program and the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities. Beyond these ongoing programs, three conceptually linked courses this year have been advancing the cutting edge of design thinking related to wilderness, wildness, and the wild. All of them redefine “wilderness” to grapple with the radical interconnectedness of nature and culture. As a metaphorical illustration, consider the final hyperlink in Nina-Marie Lister’s “Wild Ways” syllabus, which leads to “Songs of Disappearance” on YouTube—footage of Australian birds that have gone extinct or are in imminent danger of extinction. The diverse birdcalls are regularly interrupted by ads for car insurance, mattresses, a fashion collection, the International Rescue Committee. How can design nourish a natural world that is already so circumscribed by culture, when even our ideas of “nature” are cultural mythologies?

First, the instructors of the three courses agree: we cannot reconstruct lost lands. Though wild territories support the biodiversity that helps to sustain the global ecosystem and to mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to press forward from within the planet’s urbanized situation. The classes spur students to think creatively about the relations between the human and the nonhuman. How can we build on the nature/culture intertwining that actually has been present (though unacknowledged) throughout history?

Lister’s “Wild Ways” seminar, subtitled “Thinking, Relating and Being with/in Wilderness, Wild-ness and Nature in the Anthropocene,” begins by interrogating mythologies such as the old idea that “wild” lands meant “uninhabited” lands, as in the doctrine of terra nullius. This idea neglects the historical fact that many wilderness territories were sacred homes to Indigenous people who were almost entirely displaced to create a colonial version of nature, imagined as pristine, “virgin,” or “pure.” This perspective is especially important to Lister, who hails from a Canadian context where a Truth and Reconciliation movement is currently confronting and addressing the settler-colonial impact on Indigenous (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) peoples. She notes that centering Indigenous peoples is not just about rethinking and repairing national narratives, but about supporting the planet’s health: Indigenous peoples now protect 80 percent of global lands though they occupy 4 percent of the territory. In the United States, half of all reservation lands is still forested, much of it old-growth.

To lose the wild is to lose that quality which makes us most human.

Nina-Marie Lister

In Lister’s seminar, as in Chris Reed’s complementary “Wild Ways” option studio and Abby Spinak’s seminar, “The Idea of Environment,” students delve into wisdom from Indigenous philosophies and practices to explore alternative relationships with land and animals. They work against reductive yet persistent ideas of the wilderness as an “other” place to be feared (or fetishized), kept separate from humans, and subdued, because such attitudes have contributed to our current breakdown in the interdependence of people, land, plants, and animals.

A series of maps, charts, and renderings reflecting data on glacier bay whales and various soundscapes.
Project by Oonagh Davis (MArch II ’23) for the seminar “Wild Ways: Thinking, Relating and Being with/in Wilderness, Wild-ness and Nature in the Anthropocene.”

Lister and Reed developed their “Wild Ways” seminar and studio in tandem, and some students take both. The two have worked together for 17 years, and they co-edited the 2014 anthology of essays Projective Ecologies. Both courses build on the concept of landscape connectivity, or reconnecting people and wildlife to the landscapes that sustain us. Lister, an ecologist and planner who founded the Ecological Design Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University, created applications of this philosophy in “Safe Passages,” a research project that she led with five partner institutions and more than 20 collaborators in Canada and the US. As part of the project, Lister’s team studied the planning and design of federally funded bridges and tunnels across Canada which were constructed specifically for animals including the grizzly bear, black bear, wolf, lynx, and elk. These crossings enable the animals to roam in their natural habitats without human contact, and without having to cross through highway traffic and risk the collisions that were killing both animals and humans. The animals teach their young how to use the “wildlife crossings” to access their territories for breeding and feeding. Further studies have shown that these crossings very effectively improve genetic diversity and reduce collisions between animals and vehicles by more than 90 percent.

Lister brought her experience with this idea to Los Angeles, which became the site for Reed’s studio. Ten years ago in the Hollywood Hills, a mountain lion named P22 became separated from his group and was wandering around, occasionally walking across freeways and somehow staying alive. The public grew enamored of this wild cat, and—thanks in part to celebrity involvement—about $97 million in private and public funding was raised to help the National Wildlife Federation find a remedy for P22’s isolation while also benefiting the rest of the region’s wildlife. Lister’s lab and a partner organization, ARC Solutions (ARC stands for Animal Road Crossing), consulted on the 10-year, multiparty collaboration of researching and designing the world’s largest wildlife “super-crossing” at Liberty Canyon in LA, and last month brought the groundbreaking for this monumental Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing.

A group is gathering in the middle of a green space.
Students visit Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing during a trip Los Angeles in March 2022. Photo thanks to Chris Reed.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area also was a logical site for the “Wild Ways” studio because it enabled Reed to update Reyner Banham’s classic 1971 study, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Banham’s four areas for design work—beach, freeways, flatlands, and foothills—were determined before awareness of climate change grew. So Reed suggests “wildlife” as a fifth area in his studio’s subtitle, “A Fifth Ecology for Metropolitan Los Angeles.”

Students in Reed’s studio designed new types of landscape interventions for many animals whose habitats have been disturbed by urbanization in Los Angeles. As studio and seminar student Josiah Brown (MLA I AP ‘22) wrote on Instagram during the class research trip to LA, “We’re flipping the script on humans encroaching into the wild and instead inviting the wild back into the city, fostering an ethic of care and collaboration with nature rather than one of extraction and exploitation.” Reed himself sums up the goal with a pithy phrase from Jennifer Wolch’s 2018 Zoöpolis, a course reading—the projects aim to “re-enchant the city.” Both Reed and Lister describe the experience of encountering wildlife in urban contexts as invigorating, restorative, and humbling. As Lister puts it, “To lose the wild is to lose that quality which makes us most human.” One project for endangered birds from Reed’s studio inspires a sense of creaturely vulnerability and respect for the wild by creating stairs in abandoned electrical towers so visitors can occupy a “bird’s-eye view” themselves and can enjoy seeing birds at close range in the trees.

Air Flow Model by Pitchapa Setpakdee (MLA II ’23) Ziting Wang (MLA II ’22) for the option studio “Wild Ways: A Fifth Ecology for Metropolitan Los Angeles.”

Many animals in Los Angeles live in densely populated and multiracial habitats. So Reed’s “Wild Ways” course investigated the social and racial dynamics of people’s relationship to nature in the United States. If people in whiter and richer areas have historically had more access to wild lands, he asks, how is it possible to bring wild habitats to communities that have had least access to them? Reed has been doing this type of contextualizing work for years, as founding director of the landscape design firm Stoss Landscape Urbanism.

Students Pitchapa “Pam” Setpakdee (MLA II ’23) and Ziting Wang (MLA II ’22) attempted to make wildlife appealing to city residents by designing publicity materials. And in a project that aimed to reintroduce butterflies and lizards into areas described as “food deserts” because of the overabundance of fast food restaurants and empty lots, Shuyue Li (MLA I ’23) and Zeqi Liu (MLA I ’22) suggested collaborating with the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and with local “Gangsta Gardener” Ron Finley to transform neglected land tracts into gardening spaces. While the gardens would be welcoming spaces for the animals, the animals also would help to nurture the growth of fresh produce. All systems would have beneficial effects on each other.

Lack of familiarity is not the only reason people resist welcoming wildness back into the city. There is often a perception of danger, though animals seldom attack humans. To avoid falling into stereotypes of demonizing wild animals as “other” than human, students in Reed’s course consider theorist Donna Haraway’s model of “kinship” between humans and other animals. How could coexistence change if we humans see ourselves as being completely kin to—inseparable from—other animals?

Reconsidering the conceptual paradigm of “otherness” is a key motivation for Spinak’s seminar, “The Idea of Environment.” Spinak and her students explore how American environmental discourse and practices within ecological planning share roots with the nation’s ideological history of racism and colonialism, and how this history caused much environmental degradation. Productive ways forward therefore must take these themes into account. For example, asks Carolyn Finney in a key course reading, how can the National Parks Service make their protected spaces welcoming to people of color, who have historically experienced acts of violence in open wilderness lands? Spinak asks students to consider how planning, design, and storytelling can upend ideas such as that human habitats should remain separate from nature, or that wildness is inimical to cities.

How can design nourish a natural world that is already so circumscribed by culture, when even our ideas of ‘nature’ are cultural mythologies?

Spinak’s course makes an essential contribution to the reconceptualization of ecological design work in the contemporary moment, especially in the Americas, and it concludes with the 2021 online Feral Atlas project by the team of Anna Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou. The project’s subtitle, “The More-Than-Human Anthropocene,” sums up the idea which has recurred in various texts across the three courses: to recognize and build upon ways that humans and nonhuman creatures and objects already work together. As the website puts it, we can “explore the ecological worlds created when nonhuman entities become tangled up with human infrastructure projects.” This vision of interpenetration avoids several conceptual traps, such as imagining “rewilding” as a protection of nature from human activity; romanticizing wildness (as George Monbiot’s writing has often been said to do); or assigning “the feral” a disproportionately elevated status to reverse its earlier demonization. “Wilderness” can be anywhere, and we can imagine it being a co-construction of humans and, for instance, the microorganisms that attach to moving objects. Even plastics in the oceans figure into the Feral Atlas effort to foster productive global relations.

These courses’ responses to the shrinking wilderness register how thinking has changed in the past few decades. When Steppenwolf’s classic 1968 rock song “Born to Be Wild” became the anthem of the iconic 1969 film Easy Rider, “wildness” was still tied to the historic American ideology of “freedom”: the movie opens with two white men riding their motorcycles—one of which is painted with the stars and stripes of the American flag—over the Colorado River and into the desert landscapes of Arizona. Though the film actually disrupts the standard Western frontier narrative—the riders are traveling eastward, and they end up dead—this introductory overture still represents a habit of treating the wilderness as an inert land area, as a thing or noun to be conquered and cultivated. Now, these three GSD courses are engaging with Indigenous cosmologies that understand “land” as a being or a verb—as a living dynamic which is constantly in flux and in conversation. Spinak expresses the capacious embrace of that vision when she asks, “What does it take for all of us to thrive?” Students in these classes are designing answers to that wonderful, wide-ranging question.