Q&A: Carol Franklin

by | May 1, 2004 | People

SINCE 1975, Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates has been a pioneer in the area of ecological planning and design. At the core of each of its unique projects – from restoring a five-acre oak and beech woodland on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral to creating master plans for several regional arboreta – is creating sustainable landscapes. Andropogon Associates strives to achieve beautiful places that reflect functional needs, and the firm’s strategies consider the individual aspects of each site, from soil and water to people and land-use history. The firm has brought these principles to projects at the University of Toronto; the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens; the Atlanta Botanical Garden; a spa and resort in Nikko, Japan; and to E.I. DuPont Agricultural Products, among others.

The firm’s Carol Franklin addressed a group at the Wildflower Center on May 8 about the necessity of using native plants in landscapes and gardens, both public and private. The noted landscape architect talked to Native Plants about the firm’s philosophy.

Q. How do you define sustainable design? Is it different from ecological design?
I much prefer the phrase “ecological” design. However, because of the emphasis on development worldwide, it is the word “sustainable” that has caught people’s imagination and become identified with more environmentally sensitive approaches to design. Today many people use these words interchangeably, as the word “ecology” has suddenly come back into fashion.

The word “sustainable” implies actions that only guarantee that the things we hope to preserve will continue into the future. Ecological design somehow implies a richer and more complex achievement. It suggests that designers will begin from a deep understanding of how the world works and will create new “organic” designs for buildings, landscapes, cities, and regions. It implies as well the idea that it is critical to repair the damage we have done and weave the natural world into our daily lives in such a way that both nature and culture benefit. A tall order and one that “sustainable design” – with its “do no harm” ethic – hasn’t really tackled yet.

Q. Can a design be truly sustainable without plants?
In our part of the world, no. Maybe for a design in Antarctica or at the top of Mount Everest. Fundamentally, all living creatures depend on plants – even other plants. The problem is that human beings generally simplify or even eradicate natural systems. This isn’t a disaster when there are only a few of us. With 6 billion people in the world, the reserves that allow natural systems to recover are disappearing. Our responsibility to ourselves and to the planet has to be to put back natural systems wherever possible to make up for the loss.

This means putting back natural plant communities and habitats, not just individual wildflowers or native trees and shrubs. It means recreating the landforms these communities are dependent on, with the appropriate soils and water regimen. Not so easy nowadays, especially in the arid Southwest, which is suffering a five-year drought with conflicting demands for water.

Q. Is there an increased emphasis on ecological planning and design in recent years? Would you say that more institutions in need of landscape design are requesting an ecological approach?
Absolutely. In the United States the evidence is your own Wildflower Center, the interest in “LEED” certification from many different and some unexpected quarters, but certainly from most botanical and educational institutions, government agencies, etc. Also the increasing number of conferences on and societies to promote native plants, sustainable design, and green building. The office is also seeing an international demand for ecological or sustainable design. I will be going to Madagascar for the World Bank in August to review development projects there. The office has been working on two competitions in China, where there is a very strong emphasis on ecological design. My husband, Colin Franklin, and I will be going to Beijing to Tsing Hua University to teach ecological design for a month where Laurie Olin, of the Olin partnership in Philadelphia, is heading and developing the first Landscape Architectural Department in China.

Q. Do different types of projects require a different approach?
The methods and attitudes are basically the same, but with each project the solutions, the strategies, and the designs are different. Why? Because every place, every institution, and every individual are different, and the relationships within these mini-ecosystems are different. A place is many things simultaneously: its history (what it was), its present (what it is), and its future (what it aspires to be). Its natural history can go back many thousands of years.

In some places, like Rome, the cultural history goes back 2,000 years. Universities share a certain set of problems and aspirations, as do botanical gardens, cities, or corporations, but they are also each located in a different place with different personnel and different financial resources.

Q. Is there a measure of success for sustainable design?
Sustainability is a very new idea in the modern world, and we have few codified measures of success. We don’t even have many demonstrations of successful projects that have lasted more than 25 years or so. In a world where loss is endemic, I’d say that anything anyone can do to protect, re-establish, or repair a natural system has taken responsibility is making a contribution. We know so little we can’t really judge success yet anyway, and some apparent success is really only good publicity. Andropogon’s internal measure of success? Is the landscape more alive when we have left it than when we came to the site? Do people love it, and has it become an important part of their lives?

Q. Andropogon Associates is a finalist among the design firms being considered for the design of the site of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. That must be an incredibly exciting prospect. What does your firm feel it can bring to this project?
The Chinese have recently made a strong commitment to sustainable design. The U.S. Department of Energy has been there working to bring these ideas to the intense and very rapid development of large parts of China, particularly sustainable energy and materials use. There is very little notion of landscape ecology in China today, although they are very interested in and desperately need to apply these ideas to the new towns, etc., they are planning. With the most people, the Chinese have the greatest potential impact on the planet. Sustainability is more critical in China than any other place. When we worked on the Bejing Olympic Park Competition, we were part of a team with the China Center for Landscape Research, which is the largest landscape office in China and owned by the government, as well as the Bejing Garden Center, which has previously been responsible for all the (not very ecological) landscaping in Beijing.