Monday, January 10, 2011

Plan Ahead

The kind of ecological planning and design that needs to take place in our region and watershed areas is a study methodology developed by Ian McHarg that maps natural systems and features of all kinds, and then identifies areas that can be safely built out to work with these systems. This has evolved into an approach called permaculture. Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for small-scale intensive systems which are labor efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. It speaks to the local wilderness and riparian areas that still remain but are threatened with destruction.

The intent of this practice is the integration of natural forces with beneficial structures where they're appropriate, which is the antithesis of exponential city grid expansion into areas that need to provide critical functions for the local ecosystem and its watershed. The way this works is with a mapping system for a region as is shown above in the diagrams, detailing the characteristics of the land, water, geological structure, soil, sun and wind exposures.

Unfortunately, we have already created vast engineered systems that fight the very things that we need to preserve and enhance, as was noted by the LA Times a few weeks ago during our heavy winter rains: in a region that imports water, much goes to waste:

Southern California laid miles of pipe and tunneled through mountains to import water. But it also built a storm drain system to quickly get rid of rainfall. The contradiction played out again this week.

This is an observation that the massive engineering projects put into place to bring surface water to supply the southland did not take into account the fact that the aquifers that supply much of our water need replenishment with groundwater throughout the region. It was pure plumbing from the surface water supply to the cities that had started to grow in the southland, while at the same time the rainwater, rivers and sediment are trapped in large dam systems with the excess pushed out to sea. This system only accounts for about half of the water cycle, and thus is destined to fail in its purpose, particularly as the water pumped in from hundreds of miles away stimulates more building growth and paving that prevents the groundwater from reaching these critical aquifers. It's a nasty urban ponzi scheme that must be reversed and restructured upon different principles and a different vision of what we're actually dealing with. As Bucky Fuller said, design and planning professionals are in the best place to 'lead' the effort to see the earth as single system and learn to treat it like a 'library of ideas' rather than a 'warehouse of materials'.

There's a dynamic balance that must be struck with nature and its forces. Permaculture is still evolving as an approach, but there's plenty of expertise and information to restructure these old engineered systems such that they complete the circle and restore natural processes. An article from the Sacramento Bee is very clear about the necessary public policies that are needed to address the aquifer issues. It's a balance of better cities and economies, and far, far more protection of natural wetlands, habitats and foothill regions. This kind of vision has to drive our designs for cohabitation with ecology, otherwise known as "Design with Nature".