The Regenerative Landscaper: Design and Build Landscapes That Repair the Environment

Erik Ohlsen is a master of regenerative design, an internationally recognized Permaculture teacher, a landscape contractor, author, farmer, herbalist, storyteller, and practitioner of Nordic folk traditions. He is the founder of organizations that regenerate ecosystems including the award-winning design and build firm Permaculture Artisans and The Permaculture Skills Center where thousands of students learn ecological landscaping and regenerative agriculture. Ohlsen has worked globally for decades repairing ecosystems and connecting people with the land. This is an excerpt from his new book, The Regenerative Landscaper: Design and Build Landscapes That Repair the Environment

CONTEXTUAL DESIGN

By Erik Ohlsen

Regenerative landscape design is a practice of integrating layers upon layers of context, imagination, and physical material. It is the harmony of earth and water, of plants and sunlight, of animals and people. Much of the professional trades of the 21st century have lost this nuanced understanding of how natural systems function and the beneficial processes ecosystems provide human culture. The basics of cleaning water, filtering air, sequestering carbon, crop pollination, food production—these are daily services nature provides the inhabitants of earth, services we humans take for granted. This loss of context has led to disastrous developmental practices in everything from building construction to landscape installation. If we want to regenerate the land, we must design with context in mind again.  

The ecosystems of earth, like human cultures, are incredibly diverse; the languages, tastes, shapes, and sounds are unique to each place, to each ridge and valley. Every landscape design must first and foremost emerge from the context, the on-the-ground existing patterns of land and people.  

What is context? Context is the reality of the ecosystem. It’s the reality of your inner and outer world. It’s who you are, your ancestral history, your personal past, your family, your culture, your talents, and your passions. Context is also nature—the nature of the land, the shapes, the plants, animals, climates, waters, rocks, soils, everything that makes up the landscape ecosystem. The more we understand all these layers of relationship that are affecting us, the better we design systems that work within the constraints of the land and our own life context.  

When you step onto the site for the first time, don’t be a designer. Take the time to listen, observe, and learn what the landscape in its current form is communicating to you. The voice of the land is the most important voice to listen to as a regenerative designer. It is our job to learn that language and translate it for everyone else. When you walk onto a site with the designer’s mind, you will automatically want to change what is there and impose your vision on the land. First be only an observer, only compose with the land. Surrender your senses, still your thoughts, and immerse yourself completely into the patterns of the landscape. Learn to walk the land like this and you will be rewarded with pattern knowledge. If this concept is new to you, don’t worry; this entire section is devoted to teaching you how to read landscapes in this way.  

WHEN IS THE LAND?

Every place on earth is dominated by sets of cycles. Some of those cycles happen in short periods of time: the four seasons in a year, the bloom time of a plant, the harvest time of a tree. Cycles that govern environments happen in larger spans of time. They could take place over years, decades, and centuries. Many ecologies “reset” through large-scale disturbances. These disturbances, often regenerative to the land, come in the form of wildfire, the movements of large ruminant herds, floods, and storms. These extreme events occurring in the landscape provide sets of functions, both ending and beginning meta-cycles.  

Since the invention of agriculture, approximately 10,000 years ago, humans have become major interventionists in the cycles of natural systems. Our ingenuity for better or for worse (often for worse) has changed the natural cycles and ecological succession of environments. When assessing the patterns and context of the site, it’s important to ask the land: “When are you?” Which cycle is the land in currently? To answer this question, you must use historical reference to understand not only the natural history of the site and the growth and death of dominant vegetation types and watershed extremes, but also the social history—the ways the land has been manipulated or managed by human activities, within both Indigenous and settler contexts.  

What are the cycles of death and birth the land endures until it reaches a dominant vegetation type like an old-growth forest or a prairie? This deeper understanding of the “when” helps you, as a designer, make decisions about soil health, goals for managing vegetation, and stewarding the land to meet both the goals of the project and the regenerative needs of the ecology in a symbiotic way.  

THE STORY OF PLACE

Every ridge and valley, wetland, and desert has a rich and layered story dating back millennia. Before you design a landscape, learn the story of that place. Start at the pattern level, the climate, known social and natural histories, and then dig into the details. Whatever the site is, from ridges to floodplains to forests, devote as much time as you can to learn the stories of the landscape. Go back as far as you can; even the geologic processes that happened millions of years ago are impacting that site today. Over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, the landscape becomes imprinted with its events, cycles, and communities. Specific patterns that are characteristic of only this place are highly likely. Indigenous communities may have settled there and left marks found in the shape of the land and the trees and plants still growing today. Fire, wind, and water all interact in specific ways depending on topography, temperature changes, solar orientation, and so on. The land may have once been an old forest harvested for timber, the road scars still directing water runoff today. Attend to small details and continue to ask nuanced questions every day.  

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