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A new working order Sustainable Design Part One

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Achieving Sustainable Design.
Part 1A: 
Nick Radford, Director of Ecoliving Design, lays the groundwork for a new way of thinking about how humans interact with the environments they create, using the sustainability of forests as a model.       
Wherever we live humans have an impact on the environment but what would happen if we could design those places so that they were sustainable? Something that is sustainable is a forest, if is not too disturbed by people.

Everything within that forest is intricately tied together in cycles. There is an air cycle where oxygen is created by the vegetation and shared around with other organisms. There is also a water cycle with water cycling through the animals, vegetation and the soil. Indeed, the water is used a thousand times before it is released and eventually finds its way to the sea.
In nature, water forms complex pathways. (Google maps – Papua New Guinea).

A forest also has layers of vegetation and mulch and dark rich soils. The fertile topsoil is created by the forest leaves dropping, by trees dying, and by animals manuring. Everything that lives dies and contributes to the fertility of the soil and while there are literally billions of life forms in a teaspoon of topsoil a metre down the soil is almost infertile.

The forest is a complex system with tight, resource conservative pathways.

Good soil is also like a sponge. A metre of rainfall in an hour in the wet tropics can all be absorbed by good soil.
Energy is also cycled through this forest system. It is caught by the plants and stored and released to animals and to other animals that in turn eat them.
What started out as solar energy is recycled many times by different life forms. 

This biodiversity (plants, animals and microbes) has many different connections and forms a stable system. Take one or two connections out of the system and something else will jump in to keep it stable. One of the main cycles in a forest is nutrients and there can be no nutrient without vegetation. As mentioned before the nutrient in a forest is mainly the topsoil so whenever vegetation is removed you are making that cycle less efficient.
Bolivia/ Brazil border. People live on both sides - on one side they survive by working with nature, on the other side they fight it. (Google maps).

Human environments with radical vegetation removal are a measure of how degraded those cycles can become and unfortunately it doesn’t take that much vegetation removal before the other elements, like water, also run down.
If there is less nutrient being supplied to the system there is less productivity and the soil is more prone to erosion. In almost all cases human settlements are less well vegetated than a natural system like a forest.

Vegetation holds soil together so the soil washes away more rapidly in human settlements. Soil is also compacted in a lot of human settlements and compacted soil results in fast run-off and hard surfaces likes roads and concrete can’t absorb any rainfall. Soil, the nutrient in the system, gets carried away by the fast water and also gets more exposed and more eroded. A system with fewer nutrients runs down and every cycle in that system becomes weaker and more vulnerable. When agriculture started some10-12,000 years ago humans went to a spot and cleared it, living off the nutrients that had been created by the forest. But as our population built our environment degraded so eventually we could not feed ourselves from the environment we lived in. This meant we had to clear more land or invade other people to get theirs.


 Below Modern agriculture is a simple system with high resource losses.


Humans have built leaky systems that can’t provide the resources we need. We therefore import resources, like food and water from dams from other systems to use in the one we created.
At present we don’t fit into how nature works but we can design our city, suburban and rural settlements to fit in with nature, by recognising the cycles of air, water, nutrients and biodiversity.
This fundamentally means that we really need to design a new working order to keep things in working order.

Nick Radford presented this discussion on A Question of Balance with Ruby Vincent,.  Summary text by Nick Radford and Victor Barry. Images from Nick Radford, February 2018 

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