Richard Weller’s Audit for the End-Times

A look at the end of the world entails a new mission for landscape designers.

By Zach Mortice 

The world’s protected areas. Currently around 15 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is protected. The United Nations target is to reach 17 percent by 2020. © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World.

Within the hundreds of maps Richard Weller, ASLA, assembled for his Atlas for the End of the World, there’s an implicit argument for something like a new mandate for landscape architecture: Instead of mostly planning the development of public outdoor spaces in developed and affluent cities, it’s time for landscape designers to mediate the battles between rapidly expanding developing-world cities and the irreplaceable biodiversity they’re consuming. It’s a task that increases landscape architects’ zones of influence from the scale of city blocks to hundreds of square miles.

 The online atlas, which launched on Earth Day 2017 and just passed its 50,000th click, has a bracingly apocalyptic name. But within the discipline of landscape architecture, it points to a new beginning.

“There’s a whole question for us about how we approach urban design and planning so that cities and landscapes are interwoven and treated as one and the same ecological, cultural dynamic,” says Weller, who is the chair of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, “both at the very edge of cities, where they’re expanding, but also understanding cities as stewards (negatively or positively) of their broader regional landscapes.”

The goal of reaching 17 percent protected area has been met for only 14 of 36 hot spots, indicated in green. © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World.

The atlas “audits the status of land use and urbanization in the most critically endangered bioregions on earth,” Weller writes. It maps the places where urbanization and development pose the greatest threat to biodiversity. Envisioning an explicit role for landscape architecture in such places, he says, means meeting the pace of globalization (corporations, ecological calamities, governance, etc.) seen everywhere else. “It’s a personal view that the profession needs to scale up and reach out,” Weller says. “It’s the zeitgeist.”

Weller charts the “end of the world” in two ways. One way is by looking toward the last call for many species pushed to extinction by exploding urbanism and development. The other is to chart the end of humans’ heedless encroachment on nature, first put forth in map form by Abraham Ortelius in 1570. When Ortelius published his atlas, it was a colonial era when the earth appeared to be a consequence-free, untapped resource. Weller’s work looks at the horizon quite differently. “This atlas promotes cultivation, not conquest,” he writes.

The atlas documents 35 ecological hot spots, regions that combine stunning levels of biodiversity with imminent environmental threats. And Weller is working on incorporating a newly identified hot spot as well: the North American Coastal Plain, which runs through the Gulf of Mexico, into the southern Mississippi River, and up the East Coast south of New England. To maintain biodiversity in these places, Weller applies a goal set by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity of protecting and preserving 17 percent of the earth’s landmass by 2020. If applied to individual hot spots and their smaller “ecoregions” (instead of, say, fencing off massive portions of the relatively lifeless Canadian Arctic), the goal is not on pace to be met.

Weller was assisted by the recent University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture graduates Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. The team found that the vast majority of cities in these regions are still sprawling outward and putting pressure on flora and fauna. Few nations have viable plans to manage this growth more sustainably. Currently, 15.4 percent of the earth’s landmass is protected, leaving a gap of only 1.6 percent from the 17 percent goal (which is an entirely political construct). But this small percentage is still equal to nearly 700,000 Central Parks, enough to wrap the earth 70 times.

The Indo-Burma biodiversity hot spot in Southeast Asia. Protected areas are shown in green. © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World.

The core of Weller’s project are maps of each hot spot broken into its constituent parts. There are the hot spots themselves—entire island nations like New Zealand or Madagascar, as well as broad geographic areas like Central Asia’s mountains, or the California coast.  Fourteen of these regions are meeting their preservation goals. Smaller ecoregions largely defined by their plant life (Caribbean shrublands, Windward Island moist forests, etc.) are mapped as well, tracking land that’s undeveloped but not yet protected. This is the field of opportunity available to ensure these places hold onto their biodiversity. Only 170 of the 391 ecoregions located in hot spots are meeting the UN preservation goals. Finally, and most revealingly, the atlas maps the cities in these ecoregions, plotting the front lines of the battle between preservation and urbanization. These cities come into conflict with their ecosystems in two broad ways: their literal suburban and exurban settlement frontier, and the more dispersed network of farmed and extracted resources from which they draw. Blotched with bright red, orange, and crosshatched striations to signify direct conflicts between biodiversity and development, they’re yet another blinking warning light for the vitality of the planet. Weller’s future research will look at these preservation frontiers in 36 cities (one in each hot spot) at a more granular level, but even now local and national governments can use the atlas for a rough picture of what needs protection.

Out of 422 cities in the world’s biodiversity hot spots, the atlas identifies 383 that are on a direct collision course with native biodiversity. © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World.

An additional set of world maps details an encyclopedic range of cultural, ecological, political, and economic conditions: the prevalence of livestock, access to water, religion, ecotourism, soil types, corporate wealth, environmental displacement, and other factors. One map puts the United States in curious company with Palestine and Kosovo, the only three nations presiding over hot spots that don’t have biodiversity plans at all. Another points out the extremely inequitable placement of landscape design expertise across the globe. Most is located in affluent nations; very few landscape designers work in developing economies that need the profession’s skills the most.

Dongguan, a city in the Chinese portion of the Indo-Burma hot spot. Orange indicates areas of imminent conflict between urban growth and biodiversity. © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World.

Helping to globalize the distribution of landscape intelligence is one of the project’s goals, and articulating how these global preservation imperatives can filter down locally at the city scale might be its biggest challenge. The factors that might cause deforestation in California, for example, are going to be very different from what causes deforestation in Madagascar.

In the developing world, the conversation around development is a binary thing, Weller says. It’s either “fortress conservation” or a “dance with the devil” on behalf of corporatist forces, he says, with few opportunities for hybridized design solutions that can meet both needs. Weller’s project argues that landscape architecture can be the hinge where ecology and urbanism meet.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist.  You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

One thought on “Richard Weller’s Audit for the End-Times”

  1. It is good that this is being spoke of and brought to the front. My take on things is that as humans we are going to grow and need things to live. God’s word says we will have what we need on this earth as long as we are here. With that being said , we as a whole, as a community need to think about how we are taking what we need. We need to understand that with the actions of taking the natural right at our backdoor they are impacting the area in a bad way. There are ways to cut trees and areas that still leave wildlife and the support of the natural placement of things which create ideal living situations. Does not even have to be trees, my point is that we can use what we need even more, because you know humans will. The problem is how we use and how we take, we do it like kindergarten children we take and destroy, scream for more when we have only have eaten the candy bar in our hand. I grew up on a farm in the woods and watch my family use and replenish right there in that same area for many years and they were doing it many years before me as well, my grandfather died and 93 and retired twice and ran his farm and huge gardens which is on a small scale what we do on earth. There is enough food for everyone on the earth the elites have a monopoly on what is grown and the land, poor people cant buy or grow food. Now that in its self is a whole other discussion. I want to see real action not just words and people looking good in court and on camera.

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