What might an “ecological certification” for urban design look like?

Urban sites gets planned. Urban sites get designed. Urban sites get built. Many of them are labelled as “sustainable”, or “ecological”. Are they so? How would we know? What do we even mean by the words sustainable and ecological, especially when put alongside the more common design descriptors relating to aesthetics and social function? Integrating these ideas suggests the need for various disciplines — ecology, landscape architecture, and planning, at least — to hash out the common principles into a shared understanding to advance evidence-based and ecologically sound design. Conversations like this can easily turn to certifications.

The Oxford Living Dictionary gives the following definition for the noun “certification”:

The action or process of providing someone or something with an official document attesting to a status or level of achievement.

A certification is a professional seal of approval, based on a set of professionally confirmed metrics. Indeed, we certify people for their expertise; there are certifications for organic produce; for fair trade coffee; and many more. And if we want to call urban sites that are designed to be “ecological” or “sustainable”, then we could certify these too. In theory, it would hold designers to a standard. It would give managers and policy makers confidence. It would put the ecology into ecological design.

That is, if we could actually agree on which underlying values and metrics should be built into such a certification. This is the conservation we are having here in this roundtable, and the responses are all over the map. What the specific metrics are, and at what phase of  a project they should be applied — even whether it is a good idea at all — are offered in diverse and sometimes provocative  answers.

Some examples of ecological design certifications already exist. LEED, owned by Green Business Certification Inc, has evolved to include more ecological and social parameters. The Sustainable SITES Initiative is a metric-based scheme that, according to their website, “ushers landscape architects, engineers and others toward practices that protect ecosystems and enhance the mosaic of benefits they continuously provide our communities…” There the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method — BREEAM — based in the U.K. Other certifications exist to focus on species or systems, such as Salmon Safe. There are some created by and for specific cities. New York has developed several certifications, including  the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines, or WEDG (“WEDG is doing for the waterfront what LEED® has done for buildings”, says their website). The always environmentally progressive Singapore created a Landscape Excellence Assessment Framework, or LEAF). [Note: This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, just an illustrative one.] 

So, a number of certifications exist that are relevant to our theme, and each emphasizes a different but overlapping set of ecological and social parameters. Perhaps none are perfect, but all try to build some ecology into the worldview of design. Enough ecology? The right ecology? Do interdisciplinary teams lack a shared vocabulary? (Yes, as we discussed here in a previous roundtable.) What is needed to move froward?

We have gathered 15 designers and ecologists to talk about ecological design certifications. They were invited to celebrate or criticize existing systems, if they cared to. But mostly they were prompted to talk about the key principles and core metrics that would make the phrase “ecological design” harmonize the words ecological and design.

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David Maddox, PhD. is committed to the urban ecosystem and its importance for human welfare and livelihoods. He has worked at various levels of government, NGOs, and the private sector. He is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Nature of Cities