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the nature of culture


the nature of culture

Written by Ethan Primm, landscape designer

Within landscape architecture, stereotypically there is a tenuous relationship with the skateboarder. The chipped concrete stairs and grinding-wax stains are eyesores to the owner of the corner grocery store, but to others these eyesores represent the thrill of a potential adrenaline rush. This unintended use of concrete corners can be seen as either a nuisance and therefore something to be driven away, or as something to be commended in its inventive use of underutilized urban infrastructure. This contest between anonymous skaters and grocers the world over can be (and has been) the topic of lengthy studies and, to be clear, this entry does not seek to resolve such an historically charged relationship. Instead, try not to think of their interactions within any traditional moral framework or as “right-vs-wrong.” Try to objectively observe what is happening. What is intriguing lies in how the skateboarder and the store owner can be seen as competing for access to limited resources in their conflicting desires to use the front stairs. This is the same competition that is unanimously observed across the natural world. The persistence and creativity it takes for the street skater to out-thwart the ever-watchful storekeeper is not unlike a persistent dandelion seed randomly floating and tumbling along that same street, competing with various obstacles and other plants for just the right gap in the pavement to call home. Rather opportunistically, the seed manages to take root in a vacant, out-of-the-way crack and comes to flower. Similarly, the skateboarder seeks out vacant ledges, handrails, and stairways for a different sort of display. It’s an interesting notion: the idea that even with all of its acquired ceremony and formality, human society still shadows natural processes in certain ways.

Picture the endless subterranean web of pipes, wires, and other man-made structures beneath the busy sidewalks downtown. Then, compare that buried web of utilities to the complexity and interconnectedness of the natural systems at work in the soil beneath the boots of a hiker out on the trail. In both scenarios water and energy are constantly in motion, deep below. Under the city, this meticulously controlled exchange happens within pipes and wires. In nature, water flows through bedrock seams into aquifers while earthworms and bacteria transfer the energy of once-living material into the soil.  For several feet down, the earth beneath the trail falls into many strata of varied compositions and characteristics: its unique soil profile. The layer cake of innumerable utility networks buried beneath the downtown sidewalk mimics the natural strata under the trail. Upon these two separate-yet-similar foundations, equally separate forms of life continue on their way, mostly unaware of their reliance on the complexity under their feet. Trees or skyscrapers dig deep into this ground, grow taller and taller above it, and continue to cast their shadows across it.

Now by extension, compare one of these towering trees to a well-established local business; perhaps the little corner grocer? When an unexpected recession strikes, strong community support going back for generations and low overhead costs might sustain this local business in conditions that would claim others. Similarly, a veteran oak might be better equipped to weather a particularly persistent drought because of its own well-established connections to local circumstances. Connections such as real-estate near a water source and deep roots that are able reach that retreating water deep below the dry, hardened surface. Then, when the rain finally returns and as the market fluctuations settle, wildlife and customers alike will return to the shade of the leafy canopy or the stairs under the awning out front.

There is beauty to be found in recognizing these fundamental similarities, whether or not they are ultimately just coincidental. Beyond simply “stopping to smell the roses,” tangible value can be gained from an aware observation of the ordinary world. Stories of burrs stuck to trousers leading to the invention of Velcro can illustrate this directly and plainly. But by seeking out inspiration in everything, from skateboarding to shady oak trees, new ideas and designs can combine and emerge. Ideas that are subtly connected to seemingly unrelated phenomenon. Through a thoughtful understanding and application of these ideas, perhaps the similarities in the world of nature and the world of culture might serve to bring everyone closer. Closer to the environment and closer to one another. In a way, that is what landscape architecture is all about: understanding the nature of culture.