Interview with Alex Felson, Landscape Architect and Urban Ecologist

Dec 8, 2010

A professor at Yale University, a landscape architect, and an urban ecologist, Alex Felson creates designs that take local and built environments into account. His projects include the New York City Reforestation Plan and The East River Marsh.

Generous funding of the Carnegie Council's 2010-2011 sustainability programming has been provided by Hewlett-Packard and by Booz & Company.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Welcome to Global Ethics Forum. I'm your host, Julia Taylor Kennedy.

On a hike through the woods after a spring rain, you might come across what looks like a random puddle full of salamanders and tadpoles. Ecologists call it a vernal pool. Come back in the fall, and the vernal pool could have vanished. But the salamanders aren't gone; they usually just migrate to a drier area to forage and spend the winter, and in the spring they return to the very same puddle to mate.

Moving around so frequently, it's easy for salamanders to escape the notice of real estate developers. If their pool has disappeared under a new home, a whole population of salamanders can disappear.

Enter Alex Felson. He's a professor at Yale University, a landscape architect, and an urban ecologist. Felson is a champion of salamanders and other creatures that lived in vernal pools, and he creates designs that take local and built environments into account. His projects include the New York City Reforestation Plan, the East River Marsh, and the Harlem 123rd Street Community Garden.

As an academic and practitioner, Felson has the rare ability to consider the greater ethical questions of his field from both theoretical and hands-on perspectives. Plus, he has gained notoriety as one of Crain's "Forty Under 40, New York's Rising Stars Class of 2009."

Alex Felson, welcome to Global Ethics Forum.

Thank you very much.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Have you been interested in these issues of ecology since you were a kid? When did this really start for you?

I studied botany as an undergrad. Before that I lived in Israel for a year on a kibbutz where I worked in the gardens. That was the early stages. I was working with plants, with gardens, and with communities associated with those gardens.

When I went to the University of Wisconsin for a botany degree, one of the most meaningful experiences for me was spending the summer and then another several months on a Native American reservation in the north, where I got a grant to look at the contemporary use of plants as medicine and for building material.

At an early stage like that, when you start to investigate the idea of plants and how human society incorporates those plants and applies them, is at the epicenter of my interest in terms of human-nature relationships. So it has definitely evolved over time.

Ecological science is a great application of knowledge and quantitative methodologies to real-life situations. On the other hand, I'm not just interested in studying systems for how they function. I'm interested in shaping systems and then studying how those systems work over time and how I can improve on the kind of constructed environments that we've built.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How have you maintained that interest? At the EDAW it would have been easy to say, "This is what developers want, this is the direction I'm going to go in, and this is what's going to work for my career."

How did you push back against that?

I have an environmental agenda, even though I often criticize some of the knee-jerk environmental ideology that's out there. The field of ecology tends to have an underlying ideology as well, which I'm always battling with to a certain degree. An example is the notion that nature is inherently good, or even the idea that naturalistic design is somehow better than geometric design.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Tell me the difference between naturalistic and geometric design.

ALEX FELSON: Naturalistic is designing to imitate nature. Central Park is a great example because it is a picturesque style that Olmsted took from the English-style landscape, which was modeled after really rural landscapes, which themselves came from painting styles.

Central Park is a kind of rural landscape—the tree in the middle of the field that catches your eye, rolling hills, and paths that meander. That kind of influence has come to the United States through Olmsted's work, and fused with the wilderness ethic, which has created an overall idea of wilderness and picturesque as being nature.

A lot of people perceive Central Park as a natural condition or some representation of nature. I love Central Park and I love the picturesque style, but there are opportunities for geometry and organization as a mechanism that people can use to understand how systems function.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Is that a way that you're pushing against the trend of your field?

ALEX FELSON: A bit. There's a lot of interest in the contemporary design practice. It's not always couched as a research project. But that is even becoming more popular now and growing as an area of focus.

But your question was a little different.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I was asking you about how you maintained your own individual vision as you moved through your career.

ALEX FELSON: I worked for three years at Ken Smith Landscape Architecture, which is a boutique landscape architecture firm, and then continued working at EDAW after that. The reality is that I bent projects to my own goals.

I see them as win-win projects. I didn't fall into a pattern of doing status quo design projects. I always was looking for ways in which one can incorporate a rigorous research component and ways to break out of the traditional kind of design for aesthetic purposes.

In the field of landscape architecture and architecture—because I'm now teaching in the School of Architecture at Yale—there's a very strong trend and interest in aesthetic and form. That's a critical component because it's a way of communicating and of bringing history forward and a way of changing the relationship of the person to a design space.

I use design in different ways as well. I see design as having an understanding of the various stakeholders and parties involved and the ways in which you can manipulate or connect those relationships towards a broader value.

With the Tuxedo Reserve, one of the things that I included in that project was a permanent fencing system.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What is the Tuxedo Reserve?

The Tuxedo Reserve is a 1,200-acre, 900-unit land development project that's adjacent to the oldest gated community in the country, Tuxedo Park. It's about 42 miles from New York City. It's amazing that you can go from a dense urban condition to wilderness in a matter of 40 minutes.

Like everywhere, this had been a disturbed site at one point in the past, and lumbered, and there had been other mining activities there. Essentially it was a regenerated forest.

There was concern from the Planning Board side about the ecology of the land and how one develops on a site like this. That translated into pressure on the developer in terms of paying attention to certain issues in order to get subdivision approval.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How did you enter into this project? Did the developer come to you?

In 2005 I wrote an article on design experiments, which was essentially the notion of coupling ecological research with urban design as a win-win situation for the ecologists, because they can establish research in an area that they had not traditionally been involved.

They could develop it as an intervention, so it makes the research more potentially valuable because they can control variables. The research component can inform the design strategies and can start to inscribe meaning into how you develop a design; you incorporate experimentation, and that experimentation can give you information about concepts of sustainability, for example, or how that system is working over time.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So you saw this opportunity at Tuxedo Reserve?

ALEX FELSON: The concept of design experiments is something that I carry with me. It's how I function as a designer. It's my underlying modus operandi. I always look for opportunities to set up experiments that are functioning as urban design opportunities that start to invent a new kind of urbanism.

For Tuxedo I was working on the ecological design aspects of the project. I was directly involved with the master plan team, going to meetings with the developer, and I was very much a part of the day-to-day decision-making process of that project. That's where the synergy started to happen.

I watched the project unfold. I participated in a lot of the site visits and I was thinking about where neighborhoods could be developed.

At a certain point, there was an area that was a loop road around a set of vernal pools that was targeted by the Planning Board as a problematic area. They had gotten information from their environmental consultant saying, "Here's a problem. You can highlight this to get something out of the developer."

The developer was mentioning this during a meeting and kind of off-the-cuff asked me what I thought I should do. After a long day in the field, we actually went for drinks on the way home with a couple of the people from the team. I said, "Here's a crazy idea," and I threw out this idea that he develop an academic research project that studied how the amphibians were migrating in that area.

In the same way you knock out a few teeth, you essentially remove the houses where migration is most dominant, and also look to preserve the watershed. In that way you can maintain the amphibian population and still address the concerns of the Planning Board based on empirical data.

It was not a given. My sense is whenever you develop land with a lot of housing and roads, and you're impacting the watershed, then it's not a given that you're going to be able to preserve a population of amphibians.

But there was also a longer-term opportunity to establish academic research on this site. Once the site was built out, you could go back and evaluate how did the development impact the population.

The biggest problem right now is that the current state regulations don't address a lot of the known scientific information about amphibian populations.

Drift fences were the experimental method that we used to catch the salamanders as they moved in and out of the ponds. That's a typical experimental tool that ecologists use to understand populations. I proposed it as a kind of permanent feature of the suburb, a low fence that went around the outside perimeter of the suburb that married ecological research and management with some urban development. The breeding population associated with that pond would move in and out and could always be monitored over time.

I sold it to the developer as a management tool. I saw it as a long-term monitoring tool, because I wanted to know what happens to that population when you develop a suburban neighborhood right around a pond. How I had set up the loop development was actually a benefit for the amphibian research because it was an experiment, even though it was seen as a negative by environmentalists.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You won the developer. That's so different from the traditional "tree hugger" image you see of someone trying to fight a real estate developer to save a certain population.

Do you think this is a more effective method?

Yes. The way I work is to align myself with profit-driven components of society, because ultimately there are ways in which you can identify win-win situations. Scientists don't have enough money to do this kind of research. Regulators certainly don't have enough money to do this kind of research to guide their practice. Why not have developers incorporate questions and issues that are useful to society and ideas about regulations into their own practice?

Ultimately, yes, it was over a beer, but I proposed it in a way for him to make money. He was worried about losing housing. I showed him how through that empirical analysis he could likely maintain a percentage of his housing, which he did. He was able to save, I think, 16 out of 24 houses, which was 16 more houses than he thought he was going to be able to save.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Rather than have to just avoid this area entirely.


Then, on the Planning Board side, they got the full watershed out of it. The watershed was 80 percent or so impacted. After we did the analysis, it turned out the migratory path went to the northeast. We got rid of the loop road and we had a road on the south side. That saved the whole watershed except for maybe 10 percent, and it made a great migratory zone for the amphibians.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: This sounds like a proactive local planning board. Is it true, in general, that the planning board is the one that points out the environmental risks? If so, how well do they do that?

That's a good question. There is a lot that happens at the local scale. Ideally, this would happen at a state-federal level as well. Vernal pools aren't well preserved at the state level in New York. So yes, it has to happen at the local level, if at all.

Local-level practices have been improving over time. There are a lot of sophisticated ideas that are occurring at the local scale. At the same time, it's really a layman group. They're making significant decisions about ecosystems and conditions in the land that have a more complicated set of questions and issues associated with them.

I work at the local level because it's an opportunity to influence people and projects in a potentially positive way. There's more wiggle room at the local level than at other scales. It's a great area to target.

What happens is that if you work at the local level of one area, it doesn't necessarily translate to other local-scale governments. It's a lot of legwork.

My goal is to set up a series of precedents that gets passed around. That is how Tuxedo worked with the regulators. They present this as an example of a developer going above and beyond the current regulations and achieving a win-win situation.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: At what point in the process do these local planning boards need to take habitats and ecology into account? I can imagine it often comes to a crisis point where a snap decision has to be made.

ALEX FELSON: I'm very happy you asked me that.

The first salamander study that I did with the developer cost about $35,000. When you compare that against things like drilling to find water sources or a lot of the engineering analysis that happens up front, it's just a drop in the bucket.

The kind of value that it brought for the developer in terms of permitting—so the time it took for him to permit for various aspects, the reduction of negotiations with the planning board over this particular issue because he could base his argument on empirical evidence—all those things were so valuable.

In fact, the planning board members came out to the research site to see it because they were interested in what was happening in their backyard. The developer would meet them on site and have an opportunity to interface with them. It is a rare opportunity for a developer to meet with these folks without any kind of agenda.

What I had proposed in my wrap-up of that whole process was that these kinds of research studies need to happen early on. In the same way that you're doing soil testing, boring holes and analysis, and EIS reports, there need to be some academic research components that assess habitat value at a more site-specific scale.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How common is it to find a real estate developer that's willing to cooperate with you on these kinds of projects?

ALEX FELSON: I'm always looking for more developers that are interested in collaborating. It's going to be more and more common. There are more complications and challenges to land development, particularly greenfield development, and ultimately overseas development as well. In China and elsewhere, there are issues with coastal land, concerns over insurance issues with sea level rising, and coastal land redevelopment.

This area is just growing. Strategic solutions where developers make profit or reduce their permitting process or increase their relationship with the local communities—those are all values that are very hard to come by.

Ultimately, we are taking up the environmental agenda and playing the green card, but playing it in an empirical, sophisticated way, through engaging an academic institution and investigating a site in further detail. But there are lots of benefits and it's starting to come across more and more.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Tell me about the New York City Reforestation Plan that you're working on.

ALEX FELSON: That started as a project through EDAW.

Mayor Bloomberg had developed PLANYC2030, which had 127 initiatives. One of them was the Million Trees Project, to basically plant a million trees across the five boroughs. The Parks Department had their hands full with this project so they hired a consultant. We knew each other and they took us on.

Part of the proposal was not just to plant the million trees, but to develop a rigorous underlying research component to the overall project. If you were going to plan a million trees in the middle of the city, why not think ahead about what kinds of big questions there are about urban forests and how you can arrange the plants in a way to get at some of those big issues?

We moved forward and did a whole city-wide assessment of the five boroughs. We identified 2,000 acres where planting could occur, developed plant palettes for different conditions of the land, did soil testing and mapping of the vegetation, and had many meetings with a variety of different participants to finally come forward with an overall set of—sort of a cookbook—for the Million Trees Project.

As part of that, we also developed these three pilot sites as components. Working with the Parks Department, I pushed them and had the benefit of working with the Natural Resources Group, who already understood this idea of setting up a rigorous research project.

Rather than getting the typical approach of writing a grant, getting funding through NSF [National Science Foundation] or elsewhere to fund the experimental design, experimental setup, and research monitoring of a project, I diverted, or piggybacked, on the millions of dollars that were taxpayer dollars for developing the Million Trees Project. We then worked with an advisory board of other scientists to come up with a rigorous research approach—a hypothesis-driven set of research questions.

We developed the New York City Research Plot, which includes two species versus six species. We're looking at the impact of biodiversity.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Different species of trees, right?


We're doing trees versus trees/shrubs-herbaceous, because the city at the time originally had funding just for trees. Part of the approach was: If we set up the research plots with shrubs-herbaceous, it's inexpensive, but we can still say that we're planting shrubs-herbaceous, and we can also test and see whether the shrubs-herbaceous make a difference in terms of ecosystem services or ecosystem functions.

Then we also looked at amended soil versus non-amended, which is really a cost issue for the Parks Department.

I'm working with Mark Bradford, who is a soil biogeochemist at Yale. We're doing both above- and below-ground analysis on these sites.

We've basically set up these research plots that are being planted—they're pretty much completed now—right across the street from Queens Botanical Garden at one of our pilot sites. It's actually the largest urban forestry site in the country. There's nothing like it across the country in terms of the kinds of research questions and the baseline data that we set up.

That project gives a good example of this idea of how you situate an experiment in a public setting, because it's a public park.

One of the things that I did with that project is I didn't over-design it. We had the research plots, which were originally decorative trees. To break that down, on the outside of that we had a circle of cluster planting that was demodulating the grid. Outside that we had a zone that I call the picturesque, which goes against, as we've said before, some of my underlying ideas or my agenda as a landscape architect.

This is a perfect example of how to work the system, because the Parks Department understood picturesque. The community boards understood the picturesque. Everyone bought the picturesque as an idea.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that we actually rolled our sleeves up and my client at the Parks Department said, "What is the picturesque exactly?" We had to start thinking about what's the spacing, what kinds of trees we're planting there.

But everyone had a vision of it. It became like a Trojan Horse to allow the research to go forward.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Bring the picturesque around the outside.


Then we planted larger trees along pathways to frame the overall research project. It is to stitch it into the neighborhood and to give back to the community with something shorter term, whereas the forest is growing long term.

In a way, as an ecologist I worked with a group to set up an experimental research project, and as a designer I worked to develop a sensitive approach to how we laid out this project that would fit with the needs of the public and would address, or even provide, benefits to the community.

The plot itself, where normally you would plant a grid, became a naturalistic plot, because the Parks Department had issues with the grid and were concerned about how it would look. We shifted things around and created a naturalistic plot, which actually ended up benefiting the research because it created these micro conditions in the plot that you could compare to each other within the plot versus comparing plot to plot.

It was another example of a kind of win-win situation through the pressure of the Parks Department.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How long have you been working on this?

It has been three years.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Three years so far.

How long do you anticipate following this experiment?

ALEX FELSON: It's probably a 20-year experiment. It's a rare opportunity.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The rest of your career.

The rest of my career, yes.


ALEX FELSON: Urban ecologists are still debating how to study the ecology of the city. In the past, ecology in the city has been the kind of practice of urban ecology, where you count how many animals and plants live in urban settings.

Ecologists are trying to expand that to ecology of the city, where you understand humans as components of ecosystems and you think about the different flow of materials and goods in relation to organisms but also other factors.

One of the ways I'm looking at urban ecology is through engaging local schools in this research project. What we're doing is we're incorporating a set of research projects that are meaningful to middle-school children into their curriculum. We're tying to put this ecological research project into the local city politics of the local city social structure as a way of forming an urban ecology around practice.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I could imagine that is going to be more and more important as cities grow around the world.

ALEX FELSON: The idea of having local management as a component of urban vegetation and urban ecosystems is an essential future for society. The urban agriculture movement that's taking place now is a great example of that. It's such a win-win situation.

The people involved are excited to be involved. There are social structures formed around it. There are benefits from growing these plants in the middle of the city. There are health benefits from a better diet. That's a great example where involving people in fostering urban vegetation in ecological communities is a great way of rethinking how we organize a city.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: It seems from our conversation that you have been able to use your personal relationships with other people and see gaps in existing structures, to exploit them to work for multiple purposes, for design, for the developer, and for your interest. Not everybody can see that.

What do you hope you could change in the system, thinking big, that would allow these kinds of multiple uses to occur when it could be just standard practice?

ALEX FELSON: Right now we're not at that stage. We're at the stage where innovators and people seeing opportunities to link and create connections are pioneering ideas and methodologies. The regulations are certainly not at a stage where they're guiding this kind of innovative practice. There is a lot of negotiation that takes place to get to this point. There's a lot of knowledge base that one needs in order to understand what aspects of the ecological system they might target.

Interdisciplinary teaching is critical. In the education world, this would mean improving people's awareness of different fields and how they can start incorporating those towards better practice. There are examples of sustainability science programs that are multidisciplinary, that have a lot of methods of getting students to talk across disciplines.

In New York City there are also examples in the government, where there is cross-agency pollination taking place. Those are great opportunities and already reveal some of the moments where there is fruitful discussion and results.

It's a societal attitude. It's changing to a certain degree, but there's a ways to go. I don't know what the right solution is in order to spread this as a methodology that's just uniform.

The professions of architecture and landscape architecture are made up of individuals who are always seeking cutting-edge, creative strategies and solutions. If you can package this kind of methodology and provide it as a set of tools for designers, then they'll proliferate and spread this kind of approach.

We need to figure out how to create a connection between ecologists and environmental scientists who have the knowledge. We need to figure out how they can participate on teams with designers who have the innovative thinking and are always looking for that new solution and pair them.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Alex, thank you so much for joining me on Global Ethics Forum.

ALEX FELSON: My pleasure.

You may also like

APR 11, 2024 Podcast

The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

"Wall Street Journal" reporter Jon Emont joins "The Doorstep" to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in autocracies and democracies.

APR 9, 2024 Video

Algorithms of War: The Use of AI in Armed Conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the military applications of AI are fundamentally reshaping the ethics of war. How should policymakers navigate AI’s inherent trade-offs?

MAR 28, 2024 Podcast

The Humanization of Warfare: Ethics, Law, and Civilians in Conflict

This panel explored emerging ethical and legal questions surrounding the humanization of warfare, touching on issues of international law, just war, and civilian protection.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation