Blending architecture and ecology

Professor Alex Felson is the Elisabeth Murdoch Chair of Landscape Architecture in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. A landscape architect and certified senior ecologist, his work and research focuses on climate adaptation and resilient cities. Professor Felson has been involved in numerous cutting-edge projects including the New York City Reforestation Plan, a $54 million flood resilience project in Connecticut, and a collaboration to develop resilience planning for Melbourne’s Birrarung (Yarra River).

I studied botany as an undergrad, but I was particularly interested in how Indigenous People use plants in the contemporary world. That early interest forms the essence of my ongoing interest in human-nature relationships. For my undergraduate thesis, I studied how the Ojibwe Nation in Northern Wisconsin used plants for food, arts and ceremony. It started with my work as a counsellor with Native American youth, learning about their cultural heritage. I spent the remaining summer living with a group of elders collecting plant materials such as birch bark, and basswood inner bark to build baskets, skinning deer and beaver, making hominy, setting fish nets.

As I learned more about plant use and plant applications, I also studied ecology. I studied with Tim Allen who wrote Hierarchy: Perspectives for Ecological Complexity. He shifted across scales, once describing a dog's back as a landscape for a flea. I was fortunate to cross paths with Phil Lewis, a landscape architect working on a recreation and conservation plan for the state of Wisconsin. I visited his office – a massive warehouse – and the map took up the entire floor. Seeing someone designing landscapes at that scale was incredible.

Alex Felson

After completing a masters degree in Landscape Architecture at Harvard, and a second Masters in Environmental Science, I moved to New York and worked as a landscape architect for a decade. I worked for landscape architecture firms Ken Smith, Field Operations and EDAW, which merged with AECOM. In 2005, I wrote a paper focusing on ‘designed experiments’, a transdisciplinary approach to bring together ecologists and designers in urban areas. In 2007, as project director for New York City’s Reforestation Plan, a component of the MillionTreesNYC initiative, our team built a large-scale urban forestry project as a designed experiment.

Working with the US Forest Service and Yale University, we collected data across six years. There’s limited research on urban forest construction. Ours is a long-term research project with multiple institutions.

Around that time, I built the 123rd Street Community Garden in Harlem, and developed my PhD focusing on amphibians and suburban greenfield development, bringing together AECOM, Rutgers, University and the Related Company developers. One of the biggest projects I co-led was a $54 million resilience planning project funded by the state of Connecticut, to help mitigate flood risks for new land developments, housing projects and infrastructure.

Serving as the Director of the joint degree across the School of Environmental Science and Architecture at Yale University for a decade, I brought together design with ecological research and worked with engineering and public health.

I relocated to the University of Melbourne in 2020. I saw this as an opportunity to shift into landscape architecture. Melbourne is a hotbed for urban ecology, with great researchers and rich biodiversity. I was interested in teaching and applying knowledge, including adaptation planning and constructed ecosystems, in a new part of the world.

There are five specific areas I’m focusing on at the moment: greening cities, design for and with Country, climate adaptation, transdisciplinary collaboration and urban ecology.

To explore these areas, I am initiating projects with interdisciplinary teams including staff in property, construction, architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning, and collaborating across departments with engineering, bioscience, and ecosystem sciences. We are aiming to foster industry and academic partnerships focused specifically on projects in three areas: adaptation planning and land development, urban ecological design, and bio-technologies.

We’re initiating collaborative work with geospatial design and mapping around the Great Ocean Road, along with scenario planning and studio projects on the Greenline. I am seeking to work with the City of Melbourne and Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions to explore design options and evaluate research priorities.

For me, it’s an interesting time right now in relation to Aboriginal sovereignty and reflecting on Australia’s colonial history. I think it creates a unique opportunity to work with Traditional Owners and Aboriginal design leaders to contribute to recognition and reconciliation. In our resilience planning project for the Birrarung, co-taught with Jefa Greenaway and Kirstine Wallis, I have been impressed with the quality of our students so far. They’ve been immersed in local culture and science, built cultural awareness, and engaged with city managers and Traditional Owners, stakeholders and design professionals in order to understand the challenges and opportunities of the river precinct from multiple perspectives.

I’m not ‘just’ an academic; I’m a hybrid professional academic. Throughout my career I’ve run my own firm in the US, and also worked for other firms for a decade in New York. My learning and teaching are based on real-world projects. Having a mix of academia and professional practice allows you to hone your methodologies and to build your approaches based on real-world constraints, while not falling into the norms or the status quo of the construction industry. It allows you to introduce novelty and innovation into built projects.

When you’re in a professional setting, the clients and the budgets and the scope of work dictate your options. But being at a university and having that freedom allows you to approach problems differently, and connect with lots of other creative thinkers. I’m pretty new to Melbourne and I’m still navigating my way around. I am honoured and excited to be working with Traditional Owners on areas along the Birrarung as part of the Wilip-gin Birrarung murron (Yarra River Protection Act 2017). Building relations with the City of Melbourne, DELWP, and other government agencies and with design and engineering firms is energising. The reputation of the University has also opened doors.

My long-term research goal is bridging ecological science with landscape architecture and human society. I focus extensively on climate resilience and climate adaptation, and I work through cross-disciplinary collaboration to develop adaptation planning. I’m seeking to generate large-scale, near, mid and long-term creative adaptation strategies that have multiple functions and values, that are tied in with local communities, and with social and cultural components as well.

As told to Larissa Ham

The University of Melbourne has announced the establishment of two new major investment funds dedicated to supporting Melbourne’s world-leading researchers to turn their extraordinary discoveries and innovation into commercial reality. Find out more about the University of Melbourne Genesis Pre-Seed Fund and Tin Alley Ventures.

First published on 4 May 2022.

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