How do you create the ideal and necessary conditions for a more biodiverse space that has been urbanized?

Introduction

Ecotourism, an alternative tourism based on the nature experience, has historically enabled the economic and social development of local communities (Kiper 1). To illustrate, Monteverde, which had relatively few visitors in 1977, has experienced a substantial increase in visitors to nearly 50,000 each year. These visitors come not only to photograph Monteverde’s lush cloud forest, but also to actively engage in with what the forest has to offer—from walking the trails, catching a glimpse of a quetzal to absorbing the peaceful outlook of the community (Nadkarni and Wheelwright 3). Clearly, the region’s economic mainstay depends on its growth in ecotourism. Since ecotourism “focuses primarily on experiencing and learning about nature, its landscape, flora, fauna and their habitats, as well as cultural artifacts from the locality” (Kiper 1), conserving and bringing more biodiversity to this ecotouristic destination is therefore a priority.

Furthermore, ecotourism presents economic and utilitarian arguments for preserving the region’s biodiversity that are more convincing then simply ecological ones, such as watershed protection and climate amelioration, to the community that coexist with it (Terborgh 232). For though “a developing world colonist may understand his dependence on biological diversity, his interest in protecting that diversity lies in how it can improve his life and the lives of his children” (Wilson 80). Consequently, the rationale for maximizing Santa Elena’s biodiversity to the community is showing the positive correlation between the growth in biodiversity and the growth of ecotourism.

There are additional benefits from increasing a region’s biodiversity that are not purely economical. For instance, biodiversity also has “amenity value” and its restoration can improve the lives of a community in a nonmaterial and aesthetical way (Wilson 201). Santa Elena has been urbanized, which means that the natural habitats that once existed there are now replaced “by houses, condominiums, hotels, and malls, as well as streets, highways, and utilities that support them…urban areas [like these] are effectively synonymous with ecosystem disruption and the erosion of biodiversity” (Wilson 72). Since humans respond positively to nature and its patterns (Wilson 99), I hypothesize that the people in Santa Elena—locals, business owners, and tourists alike—are interested in bringing more biodiversity to Santa Elena as it provides both economic opportunities through ecotourism and increased enjoyment of nature, which can make the town more livable and satisfying for everyone.

Moreover, if there is a vested interest in bringing more biodiversity into Santa Elena, I argue that redesigning the region’s landscape in an ecologically sensitive manner will create the ideal and necessary conditions to facilitate the growth of that biodiversity.

This type of design lies under sustainable design, which as defined in David Orr’s The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention is a field that “seeks to recalibrate human behavior to, in effect, synchronize it to nature and connect people, places, ecologies, and future generations in ways that are fair, resilient, secure and beautiful” (Kibert 112). This sustainable design approach is a recent phenomenon however, as historically, “conventional landscape design [has been] an environmental disaster” and planners and designers have nearly always engineered site plans that contain, straight-line boundaries without considering the leaking, fuzzy boundaries perceived by ecological systems and organisms (Perlman and Milder 7). Consequently, places that were urbanized rapidly and planned without sustainability in mind, such as Santa Elena, experienced a substantial decrease in biodiversity, leading to the decline of the visitor experience. Joseph Tosi, the cofounder of the Tropical Science Center, which owns the Monteverde Reserve, makes an observation with his own visitor experience:

“When I first visited Monteverde in 1987, I saw at least a half dozen quetzals feeding in a single laurel tree on the road to the reserve…now the woods are noticeably quieter in 1990, and I only glimpsed one quetzal…there [has] also been a ominous declines in the golden toad, an endemic species here…” (Wallace 117).

Thus, in order to design sustainably, planners and designers must understand and ask the right questions about “ecological factors occurring within, impinging on, and emanating from their site” (Perlman and Milder 19-20).

One aspect of ecology then that I seek to explore, understand and integrate with the redesign of Santa Elena’s landscape (or parts of it at the very least) is the presence or absence of a species in a given site, which is “arguably one of the most fundamental units of biodiversity” (Magurran and McGill141). By determining which of Santa Elena’s native plants garner the most animal visitations, I will be able to design areas that facilitate the growth of these plants, thereby encouraging more animal visitations and lending itself to more biodiversity in Santa Elena overall.

I choose to design with native plants in mind over the more flashy, exotic plant species because as demonstrated, inner city park developers have traditionally introduced plantings of exotic species, exerting a negative impact on naturally occurring biological diversity and incurring high establishment and maintenance cost (Wilson 73). In contrast, native plant species “provide valuable, if not irreplaceable, ecosystem services and other economic benefits, and humans aesthetic and spiritual nourishment” (Perlman and Milder 218). Thus, native plant species has the added benefit of not only making Santa Elena more livable and enjoyable, but also sustaining Santa Elena’s biodiversity over the long run.

Aside from environmental and economic factors, the community (i.e. effectively the stakeholders) is another important aspect of sustainable design (refer to Fig. 1). Since “the vast majority of urban space is private property [and] the few publicly owned open spaces are subject to intensive, varied uses, many of which are incompatible with preserving biological diversity” (Wilson 74), it is then important to educate the owners and the visitors of the areas I am redesigning for on the needs of the ecological system introduced.

Fig. 1: Sustainable design involves the interconnectedness between community, economy and environment (Williams 14).
Fig. 1: Sustainable design involves the interconnectedness between community, economy and environment (Williams 14).

With these factors in mind, there are ultimately many possibilities for designs that will facilitate the growth of biodiversity in Santa Elena. The following are examples of sustainable design plans that have been executed elsewhere:

“The design of small nature areas can take place anywhere, especially in portions of a site that is not actively used for recreation can be converted to a more natural areas through limited restoration work (e.g., planting trees and shrubs). For example, at the Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, California, a 1.5 acre (0.6 ha) and environmental yard were created by partially replacing the asphalt play yard with redwoods, meadows, small ponds and a vegetable garden. The yard provides a wildlife habitat and is used in the school’s science education curriculum” (Perlman and Milder 161).

“Similarly, in Trumbull, Connecticut, the local land trust has initiated a “certified backyard habitats” program, which encourages landowners to plant their property with native species and wildlife-supporting plants. These backyard sanctuaries provide habitat for birds, mammals, and amphibians and offer some stepping stone linkages between community open spaces—all on private land that may otherwise be a monoculture of turfgrass dosed with toxic lawn chemicals.” (Perlman and Milder 161).

In conclusion, my aim is to demonstrate that “for planners and designers, improving quality of life [is] not just about providing better roads, better schools, and safer neighborhoods, but also about keeping us connected to natural areas that refresh, enliven and educate us” (Perlman and Milder 158). With a sustainable design approach—that is, the consideration of the community, economy and the environment within a given site, I hope to design new, more biodiverse spaces that will deliver new value to the people of Santa Elena while remaining sensitive to their needs, values and motivations. How people will respond to my designs, however, remains to be seen, and there may be implications for a foreigner designing for a community with differing cultural values. Nonetheless, a greater understanding of ecology, in this case, the determination of native plants with the greatest animal visitations, will ultimately enable me to design plans that will demonstrate to community members ways in which they can back some of the biodiversity from the periphery to the heart of Santa Elena, thereby improving the town’s livability and making Santa Elena a more positive experience for visitors.

Materials and Methods

My study site will primarily take place downtown Santa Elena. My aim is to design prototypes that promote Santa Elena’s biodiversity and to show that its integration will add positively for both the experiences of tourists and locals. I will begin by gathering insights from people in Santa Elena. Then I will visit native plant gardens to record the number of animal visitations for each plant. Next, I will observe the layout of different sites and experience some of the ecotours offered in Santa Elena. I will also look over past site plans at the Monteverde Institute and investigate current projects promoting biodiversity. After having done this field research, I will then begin ideating and manifesting prototypes for user testing. After willing participates have tested out my prototypes, I will ask them to rate their experiences with them. I will then use these results to demonstrate the impact a plan with a sustainable design approach has on one’s experience visiting/living in Santa Elena.

Surveys:
I will give short questionnaires to locals, business owners and tourists regarding their satisfaction with the overall appearance of Santa Elena. I will also ask if they would like to see more plants and more animal visitations around Santa Elena. I will then statistically analyze these findings using the Chi-Square Test. Refer to Fig. 3 for a sample of the questionnaire.

Interviews:
Personal interviews will help uncover further insights that may have not appeared otherwise. Therefore, I will also interview several willing individuals via audio/video/photography about their experiences here in Santa Elena; i.e. the activities they have enjoyed, the places they have frequented, the marketing they were exposed to, the decision-making process involved in the events they end up attending, etc.

Recording Animal Visitations in Native Plant Gardens:
I will visit several native plant gardens to observe which plants receive the most animal visitations. I will then statistically analyze these findings using the Chi-Square Test.

Observation and Participation:

I will explore, observe and map out hotels, study centers, recreational sites and public spaces. Psychogeography, namely my emotional responses to the environment, will guide the direction of my exploration through these spaces (Debord 1955). I will then write down my observations and note what I am experiencing. I will answer similar questions asked during a study done on Allegheny County Parks’ service ecology: “What did the area look like? What did it smell like? What sounds could I hear? What feelings did I receive from the area?” (McConnell 20). I will then document the area, using my digitalized camera.

Next, I will take an ecotour that relies on Monteverde’s biodiversity, but which only takes place in Santa Elena. During this tour, I will engage in people watching, noting “what actions they were participating in, and what items they were utilizing” as well as their emotional responses during the experience (McConnell 20).

Review of Past Site Plans and Current Projects:
I will visit the Monteverde Institute to look over past site plans, in particular their approach towards promoting biodiversity. I will also consult with Karen on organizations currently working on projects that promote biodiversity. My aim is to understand the different approaches taken towards projects with sustainable design in mind.

Ideation & Prototyping:
With the results and insights discovered by the above methods, I will begin ideating and prototyping possible design solutions. Examples include designing an educational booklet on species-plant interactions (i.e. educate business owners and locals on how plants can be used to beautify Santa Elena and bring more tourism with more animal visitations) or a how-to booklet on gardening plants that increase animal visitations, creating a service design that will involve the community in bringing more biodiversity to Santa Elena, coming up with an “ideal” site plan that promotes biodiversity, etc. See Fig. 2 for an early example on design solutions ideated in the span of 15 minutes.

User Testing:
With the approval of my advisor, I will then manifest at least 3 prototypes for user testing. I ask willing participants to test out my prototypes and afterwards give them surveys rating their experiences with these prototypes. I will also record observations during user testing and statistically analyze the results of the surveys handed out with the Chi-Square Test.

Consolidating Responses:
With findings discovered from User Testing, I will determine and show the effects and possible impact of approaching a design with biodiversity in mind on the community of Santa Elena via a PowerPoint, a video and a presentation.

Anticipated Results

I anticipate that the majority of the people I survey/interview will want more improvements to be done on Santa Elena’s general attractiveness. I also anticipate them to want greater visitations of butterflies, hummingbirds, sloths & monkeys as well as further construction of spaces with plants. If the majority of the people I survey/interview believe otherwise, however, then my designs will integrate those new insights, namely an educational component, demonstrating how bringing more biodiversity to Santa Elena will benefit the community economically as well as improve the experience of tourists who come to witness that biodiversity.

After discovering which plants garner the most animal visitations, I will begin my designs in consultation with several ecologists. I anticipate many possible ways to incorporate this knowledge with my designs and as a result, some of my designs will be more effective than others. This can be determined through User Testing, which simultaneously can gauge users’ experiences with these prototypes. I am assuming, however, that the appearance of these native plants will garner more animal visitations, which will then ultimately bring more biodiversity to Santa Elena. This may not always be the case as there are other ecological factors to consider. However, since my aim is to show that designs with added ecological knowledge inevitably lead to better designs, i.e. designs that can add positive value to Santa Elena’s community, I will focus on the users’ experiences to determine whether my designs, with the intention of bringing more biodiversity to Santa Elena, were effective or not.

I also anticipate that the research and plans done to design the prototypes I am about to create will add positively to one’s experience of Santa Elena, thereby demonstrating the need that design with ecological factors in mind is important, if not essential, in raising ecotourism and making Santa Elena a more livable community. However, if my prototypes do not add positively to an individual’s experience, I will explore the cultural implications that were not sufficiently considered as a foreigner designing for Santa Elena, or more generally for a remote town located in one of Latin America’s developing countries. I will explore to see how my designs could have been framed differently so as to make them more socially acceptable.

Literature Cited

Debord G. September 1955. “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.” Les Levres Nues, 6.

Kibert, Charles J. 2008. “Sustainable Construction: Green Building Design and Delivery.” New Jersey: John Wilsey & Songs, Inc.

Kiper, Tuğba. July 1, 2013. “Role of Ecotourism in Sustainable Development, Advances in Landscape Architecture.” InTech.

Magurran, Anne E. and Brian J. McGill. 2011. “Biological Diversity: Frontiers in Measurement and Assessment.” Oxford: University Press.

McConnell, Kristen. 2013. “Let’s go to the Park: Allegheny County Parks Re-imagined through Service Design” Carnegie Mellon University: Theses. Paper 47.

Nadkarni, Nalini M. and Nathaniel T. Wheelwright. 2000. “Monteverde: Ecology and Conservation of a Tropical Cloud Forest.” New York, Oxford: University Press.

Perlman, Dan L. and Jeffrey C. Milder. 2005. “Practical Ecology for Planners, Developers and Citizens.” Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press.

Terborgh, John. 1992. “Diversity and the Tropical Rain Forest.” New York: Scientific American Library.

Wallace, David Rains. 1992. “The Quetzal and the Macaw: The Story of Costa Rica’s National Parks.” San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Williams, Daniel E. FAIA. 2007. “Sustainable Design: Ecology, Architecture & Planning.” New Jersey: John Wilsey & Songs, Inc.

Wilson, E.O. 1988. “Biodiversity.” Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Time Schedule

Days 1-2
Theme: Field Research with Community Focus
• Hand out surveys to 30+ tourists, 30+ locals & 30+ business owners in Santa Elena.
• Interview several willing individuals via audio/video/photography regarding their experiences here in Santa Elena; i.e. the activities they have enjoyed, the places they have frequented, the marketing they were exposed to, the decision-making process involved in the events they end up attending, etc.
Aim: To discover insights that can lead to design opportunities.

Days 3-8
Theme: Continue Field Research with Environment Focus
• Visit native plant gardens and record animal visitations.
• Observe and map out hotels, study centers, recreational sites and public spaces. Note common patterns and key features that can serve as opportunities for design.
• Take a tour that relies on Monteverde’s biodiversity, but which only takes place in Santa Elena. Record observations on services provided as well as personal reactions to the overall experience.
Aim: To build context for possible designs.

Days 9-10
Theme: Continue Field Research with Economy Focus
• Visit the Monteverde Institute to look over past site plans. Note any budget constraints.
• Consult with Karen on organizations currently working on projects that promote biodiversity. Note their strategies in making their projects feasible.
Aim: To note the pitfalls/successes of past and current designs.

Day 11
Theme: Ideation
• Use statistical analysis (i.e. Chi-Square Test) on the two sets of data collected:
1. Surveys
2. Animal visitations in native plant gardens
• Uncover significance of insights and observations recorded during Field Research.
• Come up with 3+ prototypes.
Aim: Design solutions for a more biodiverse space while delivering new value to people in Santa Elena, keeping in mind their needs, values and motivations.

Days 12-14
Theme: Prototyping
• Begin manifesting the 3 prototypes.
• Consult with Willow Z. and Richard LaVal on plant-species interactions.
• Consult with Alan and Raquel on evaluating these prototypes.
Aim: Create 3+ prototypes that unless speculative, can be immediately experienced by users.

Days 15-18
Theme: User Testing
• Have willing participants experience the prototypes designed. Record observations and their reactions during user testing.
• Hand out surveys rating their experiences.
Aim: To see how users respond to prototypes I’ve designed.

Day 19-20
Theme: Pitching Designs
• Use statistical analysis (i.e. Chi-Square Test) on the data collected from surveys.
• Consolidate observations recorded during User Testing.
• Create a PowerPoint explaining the design process, the prototypes executed and the users’ responses to these prototypes.
• Create 2-3 minute video, showing how these designs promote biodiversity and add new value to the people in Santa Elena.
• Begin formulating a presentation for Symposium, discussing the results of this research project.
Aim: Primarily, to show designs that facilitate the growth of biodiversity in Santa Elena. Secondarily, to demonstrate the effects of designing or redesigning an urban area with ecological factors in mind.

Fig. 2:  Early brainstorming session, which, within the span of 15 minutes, involved the rapid ideation of design solutions promoting Santa Elena’s biodiversity.
Fig. 2: Early brainstorming session, which, within the span of 15 minutes, involved the rapid ideation of design solutions promoting Santa Elena’s biodiversity.
Fig. 3a: Sample Questionnaire for Tourists, page 1 of 3.
Fig. 3a: Sample Questionnaire for Tourists, page 1 of 3.
Fig. 3b: Sample Questionnaire for Tourists, page 2 of 3.
Fig. 3b: Sample Questionnaire for Tourists, page 2 of 3.
Fig. 3c: Sample Questionaire for Tourists, page 3 of 3.
Fig. 3c: Sample Questionaire for Tourists, page 3 of 3.