Designing Nature as Infrastructure, symposium and published chapter

Excerpt: The global challenge of rapidly declining vegetative cover is being addressed by massive replanting projects that cross territorial, political, and cultural boundaries. By considering two contemporary examples in different stages of cultivation ‘The Great Green Wall’ in the Sub-Sahara, and the ‘3 North Shelterbelt Program’ in China, a perspective is offered which highlights the tension between engineering infrastructure and cultivating healthy ecosystems. Considered together, these projects aim to re-plant over 170 million hectares of land that is classified as semi-arid, arid or hyper-arid. The tradition of planting deserted land is an ancient practice that was most often initiated as a response to local climatic variation. The contemporary tradition tends to attribute the causes to human activities. While the global concerns surrounding the notion of desertification act as the impetus for both mega-projects, the notion of desertification is not offered as the framework for this discussion, as it is often misused and confused with drought. (Thomas 1993). Instead, this paper will present both initiatives as a form of planted infrastructure- the largest horticultural projects the world has ever considered. In both cases, a principal species acts as the foundation for planting an entire region, and structure the associated conditions of each site. Therefore, the varying frameworks that allow new plant cover to be introduced will be studied to form a perspective of each project; which explores the role of plants from innovative seed mechanics to regional bionetworks. Rather than desertification, scale is offered as the basis for understanding the goal of each project. Subsequently, these types of projects must be studied as whole systems. The speculative argument offered through contextual evidence, is that projects deployed at a local scale bring results to the population sooner than the agencies that describe and articulate the complications to a wider audience. Correspondingly, the projects can only be assessed and modified through individual sites or fragments.

Infrastructure offers a framework when referring to public works projects that are created in support of an industrial economy. It also has historic significance as a military procedure, and tends to be used in contemporary design discourse to describe any substructure that supports development. Afforestation is therefore a planted infrastructure that is generally cultivated to prevent soil erosion. Finally, soil erosion is arrested in order to amend the land in preparation for food production or to shelter the surrounding communities from airborne dust storms. In the case of planted infrastructure, scale can be measured at the level of the farmstead, the province and, as a result of increasing water scarcity- the continent. Although the seductiveness of a unifying theory is tempting, the issue of desertification is overly broad to be usefully considered when it is reduced to a totalizing system. Additionally, projects that are introduced through large scale planning measures do not encourage the required sensitivity between various arid and vegetal dynamics. As a result, the associated defense strategies are often misaligned with local needs, plant communities and their mutual dependence. In design professions, we look to these specifics and aim to gain clarity on the character of the site and the nuances of the specific challenge, while taking into consideration the principles of the system. How can we contribute as designers, in the face of global environmental policy on planting trees in grasslands?