'The carbon garden is a proposal for a new type of public space, one that achieves social objectives for public health and scientific objectives for the study of negative carbon emissions technologies.' Photo: Supplied

Opinion: Many New Zealanders are engaged in the environmental work that needs to be done to halt the degradation of our planet.

However, addressing increasing carbon dioxide emissions and incorporating climate change into our designs requires more than planting lots of natives, using grey water for irrigation and encouraging kererū.

We need new design objectives, techniques, collective social goals, and formulations of what even private landscapes can do.

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In Aotearoa, one simple link between small-scale daily life and planetary-scale environmental forces is the private garden: that piece of the landscape that many of us own and nurture for our own personal pleasure.

Gardens provide us with opportunities to increase our health, grow nutritious food for our families, and make places to play and socialise in. When carefully planned and designed, they also offer a biological realm in which to connect to natural systems through organisms such as plants, birds, and insects, and link with natural forces – sunshine, rain, wind, water, and unstoppable evolutionary growth. The mahinga kai of many iwi exemplify this whanaungatanga.

In Te Kura Waihanga–Victoria University School of Architecture, the landscape architecture programme is developing two related areas of research – transforming suburbia through an upscaling of the urban garden and redefining public gardens as sites of scientific discoveries, known as ‘carbon gardens’.

What if, along with considering the potential of gardens designed at the scale of the suburb, scientists (ecologists, soil scientists, population biologists) were invited to treat the garden as a longitudinal field lab for extending the work of the Human Microbiome Institute by making discoveries about the connections between soil health, biodiversity and population health?

What if gardeners and scientists mingled and interacted in community space that was designed to provide all the amenities of gardens but also contribute to the science of climate change? What if every new garden was a carbon garden?

The carbon garden is a proposal for a new type of public space, one that achieves social objectives for public health and scientific objectives for the study of negative carbon emissions technologies. Our work suggests that research could be conducted on the development of a garden model for carbon capture and storage. This model could be adapted for all the climate zones of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that 8 billion to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide need to be removed from the air every year to achieve zero carbon by 2050.

New negative-emissions technologies are currently being developed to attain this goal. The proposed study could contribute to the development of bio-energetic carbon capture and storage, by converting fallow urban landscapes into carbon accumulators.

The project could develop a design for a biodiverse carbon-capture landscape within a neighbourhood in Wellington, or Hamilton or Christchurch, or any city with a university or wananga or where a small research project could be established. It would be a prototype.

The design would investigate the biophysical and social requirements for conducting science experiments in public space. The resulting data – and a publication that explains the project – could be incorporated into applications for grants to fund the development of an entire neighbourhood devoted to biodiverse carbon capture in the cities of Aotearoa.

The ecological science to which we refer should not be restricted to Western knowledge ways.

Te Kura Waihanga is committed to the incorporation of traditional knowledge systems to transform landscape practice. For instance, the Māori calendrical system – in which epistemology and ecology come together to form a maramataka, a lunar rhythm for regulating the gathering of food – reflects distinctions that are different from those of humans and opens opportunities for research that offers important discoveries about tangata whenua relations.

Addressing climate change is a hard struggle, because it seems so huge and unstoppable. Global rangatahi are working hard on (for instance) carbon mitigation, but in the Aotearoa context there are two extraordinary things that set us apart.

One is that most New Zealanders understand the importance of the environment to New Zealand as a society. They understand that our landscapes have been degraded, and that this is a threat to future generations.

The second important thing is the rise of te ao Māori. The transition to a bicultural culture connects us to indigenous groups around the world who are also asserting pre-European practices of sustainability, based on their own local knowledges.

In New Zealand we’ve done it much more quickly and more intensely than virtually anywhere else. We are a world leader in the relationship between four things – ecological science, traditional ecological knowledge, relational design, and commitment to social change.

Mātauranga Māori is providing us with deep, profound and attractive ways to process ecological science. And it’s requiring environmental designers to rethink what spatial design is in the 21st Century.

The preparedness of our society enables us to do things that people recognise. If you create biodiversity in the middle of town, people get it. Professor Bruce Clarkson’s work in Kirikiriroa Hamilton is an excellent example.

Aotearoa has vast tracts of suburban and urban terrain. The possibilities for reformulating under-used landscapes into massive carbon-capture terrains are enormous.

The proposed carbon garden project stages a science/design field experiment in a location that incorporates both public and private urban terrains. It proposes that critical ecological science experiments are undertaken in public gardens, where citizens and scientists can interact in attractive, functional field labs that generate real data and provide neighbourhood amenities.

If we can do this, we can say we are making progress.

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