Regenerative Design: What We Must Do

An Open Letter to the Hampton Bays Community from the Founder of the Ecological Culture Initiative

We stand at a crossroads in this and every human community as we enter the twenty-first century, perhaps a tipping point. We have two options: follow the trajectory of public investment in municipal infrastructure to grow economic development along traditional economic lines, a process that has led us to what atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen has described as the Anthropocene, or choose a path that makes use of our newfound understanding of ecology to enter what cultural historian Thomas Berry describes as the Ecozoic Era. The notion of an Anthropocene presupposes that the work of human civilization has led to a new geologic epoch that can be defined by the effects of human activity on the lithosphere (the earth’s surface); the concept of an Ecozoic Era posits that the present understanding of ecology (that every organism is connected to every other and to non-living elements of the environment) has ushered in an age where we can and must integrate and collaborate with other organisms when creating our cultural and physical environment rather than impose an outmoded set of beliefs and practices. You cannot order ecological design from a catalog, derive it from a bidding process, or simply legislate it into existence. Ecological design was described by Buckminster Fuller as “Not only inventing, building and planning for a better physical environment for man but also reforming behavioral patterns in a community.”  Ecological design is not only a practice but also an ethos.

Having listened to Dan Gulizio, the Executive Director of Peconic Baykeeper, describe the ecological crisis our local waterways are in and the connection this crisis has to our construction and development policies it is clear to me that our community, local non-profits, schools, Town government, Trustees, the leaders of the aquatic community in which we dwell have no more important task than restoring and preserving the health of our ecosystem and basing the evolution of our built environment in this ethos. The foresight of our Town, County, and State government had in protecting so much forest area in our Hamlet over our aquifer, preserving open space and historic structures, as well as generating endowments to maintain these properties, has provided us with a strong foundation on which to advance the ecological stewardship now required of current and future generations. The die-offs of aquatic plants and animals, toxicity of our estuaries, harm to our fisheries, and mass extinction of species on a global scale point to the inadequacy of simply preserving and protecting land, of using the current methodology of creating public parks to induce private investment and boost a local economy. What is needed is not green-washing of neighborhood revitalization schemes and conventionally built park infrastructure with native plants, but the implementation of an era of regenerative landscape ecology. 

For our generation, the work of the landscape ecologist has a long history. Some see its legacy stretching back to 1872 through the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux at Central Park or the aesthetic and political writings of William Morris. The current efforts of the non-profit organization, the Central Park Conservancy, has led to the park becoming a wildlife sanctuary that accommodates many species alongside a dense human population in the middle of Manhattan.  Indeed, Central Park has some of the most complex, rich soil biodiversity of any park in New York State.  

For the last ten years as a professor of Ecological Art, Architecture, and Design at Stony Brook University, my students and I have examined the work of contemporary landscape designers such as James Corner Field Operations; Oehme van Sweden Associates; Michael Van Valkenberg Associates; and Kate Orff, founder of Scape Landscape Architecture, amongst others throughout the Metropolitan region; some of the most inspired urban ecology landscapes I have studied are produced by Chinese Landscape Ecologist Kongjian Yu of Turrenscape.  Locally we can admire the work of Reed Hilderbrand Associates at the Parrish Art Museum and the Perfect Earth Project of luminary landscape designer Edwina von Gal. Von Gal launched the Perfect Earth Project to eradicate the use of toxic substances in our landscape practice and works with East Hampton Town to ensure the elimination toxic chemical use on Town-owned land. 

What unites and sets the environments of these designers apart is their use of:

    •    permeable walkways and parking surfaces over paved ones

    •    aquifer recharge areas instead of conventional storm drains

    •    naturalized, delicately sculpted berms and swales in place of raised tree wells

    •    organic, inert, and biodegradable materials in lieu of industrially produced polymers

    •    complex, bio-diverse plant-scapes and soils in place of simple plantings of a dozen or so species in compacted, damaged soil. 

Landscapes produced for efficiency usually result in intense environmental degradation and toxic runoff, however, landscapes that emulate the complexity of the natural world produce biologically diverse, healthful, and regenerative ecosystems.

Our most important work as members of the Hampton Bays community is reforming our cultural, economic, construction, and landscape practice to ensure not only the economic health of our hamlet but to do so in accordance with the ecological health of it.  Hampton Bays is well poised to serve as a model of neighborhood revitalization along ecologically sound lines.  Originally settled by farmers and fisherman as Good Ground and renamed Hampton Bays in 1922 to entice tourism, we sit roughly 90 miles from the economic engine of New York City and are served by a major highway as well as the Long Island Railroad. No other East End community boasts the municipal infrastructure and coastal recreation amenities native to Hampton Bays. Passengers who disembark from the train arrive in the center of a pedestrian-oriented hamlet that boasts gourmet local food sources, a laid-back main street, as well as extensive woodlands and waterways home to abundant wildlife.  The Post Office, Community Center, grocery stores, eateries, salons, shops, movie theater, village green, American Legion, Fire Department, ambulance corps, schools, library, nature preserve, undeveloped publicly-owned land, and densely populated residential neighborhoods are steps away from the station. A short distance from our main street by bicycle or car you are greeted with the amenities of ecotourism. We can boast historic cedar-sided cottages, hiking, mountain bike and horse trails in bucolic pine-barrens, wetlands, waterfront restaurants and resorts, bays to snorkel and scuba dive in or canoe, kayak, paddleboard, boat or sail on, as well as spectacular undeveloped and protected barrier island beach parklands. The hamlet also features county parks that allow camping, as well as numerous woodland and waterfront town parks and trustee lands that provide a plethora of water access points.

We must protect our pedestrian-friendly, historic main street composed of local eateries and shops, owned by local people and ensure they are provisioned by local organic farms and sustainable wild fisheries, built and serviced by local tradespeople, and populated by the society of beachgoers, families, fisherman, intellectuals, surfers, and vacationers who have always worked and played on the waters and in the woods in which we dwell. Hampton Bays must not be transformed by the suburban sprawl that defines so many Long Island communities and become an ecologically destructive neighborhood of franchise operated storefronts surrounded by concrete and asphalt – an automobile-based network of harmful storm-water and septic practice beneath uncharacteristic storefronts and homes.

We live in an incredibly rich yet fragile ecosystem that is home to some of the highest per capita incomes in the United States; we are fortunate to have a history and an economy built on what is now called ecotourism. People have long ventured here to enjoy the landscape, the bays, the ocean beaches; the ecosystem has always defined who we are. If we in Hampton Bays, the most populous community in Southampton Town, are not examples of how to evolve our community forward based on ecologically-sound cultural, economic, and construction practice, who can we look to as at fault for the degradation of our waterways?  

Several years ago one of my brightest students, Nick Zanussi, an East End progeny from Sag Harbor, suggested that, “We need to stop and let the past catch up to us before we rush headlong into the future.”  I think Nick and the nineteenth century British luminary William Morris saw the society they inherited in much the same light:

The century that is now beginning to draw to an end, if people were to take to nicknaming centuries, would be called the Century of Commerce; and I do not think I undervalue the work that it has done… its work has been good and plenteous, but much of it was roughly done, as needs was; recklessness has commonly gone with its energy, blindness too often with its haste: so that perhaps it may be work enough for the next century to repair the blunders of that recklessness, to clear away the rubbish which that hurried work has piled up… [The Collected Works of William Morris, pp.75-76.]

Perhaps the work of our Hamlet going forward should be characterized as the Good Ground Restoration Project, an effort to preserve the components of Hampton Bays we value and advance the interests of the community in an ecologically-sound, sustainable way. As we evolve the parks and other built environment to fit our needs and those of future generations, we must work to teach every child to swim, to sail, to study field and marine biology as well as organic agriculture, to work to protect our waterways throughout their time here, we must conserve and landmark the fine small wood frame homes, the quaint cedar-sided cottages at the end of unpaved driveways in our neighborhoods, restore and landmark historic main street structures and advance the evolution of an ecologically-minded economy based upon access to and protection of undeveloped woodlands, small organic farms, marsh-fronted properties, and the healthy waterways that are the keystones to our long-term physical and economic health.  We must embrace ecological design and principles of permaculture as core community values or answer the next generation when they ask us “Why didn’t you act to reverse the degradation of our local ecosystem?” with the oft heard phrase – “we couldn’t afford to.” We are not an undereducated, economic backwater community who doesn’t know what is happening to us, we have caused these problems through our social practice, we know better, we can and should act in accordance with our admiration for this place we call home.  What we must do is evolve our hamlet in an ecologically progressive, measured, intelligent way. We must look to ourselves to be the model of how a coastal community can live in a symbiotic way with the ecology that sustains us - because we cannot afford not to.    

    Dr. Marc Fasanella September, 2016