Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

6.4. Transkulturelle Kompetenz in der Umwelt- und Entwicklungskommunikation
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Ernest W.B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Environmental Models - Landscape Planning and New Descriptions of Nature(*)

Susanne Hauser (Berlin)



Landscape planning implies the production of models, which define and redefine the relations between humans as well as their environment. Two projects for former industrial sites are described. These descriptions show some characteristic traits and the complexity of the models. They integrate ideas of nature and culture, ideas of humans and their place in the world, and depend on different types of knowledge, on ethical and aesthetic values as well as on institutional conditions and constraints of planning. The two case studies exemplify the concept of the "Umweltmodell". The proposal of this concept is a reaction to the evident fruitlessness of discussions about "nature" and "culture" as opposed to each other: This paper outlines another approach.


The creation of models is a basic semiotic activity. Much more than just the exclusive province of the academic arts and sciences, it is one of the forms humans use to establish their relationship to the world.(1)

There are many heterogeneous definitions in the arts and sciences of what a model is. Looking for common semantic features, it is helpful to turn to a metaphor Ernst Cassirer introduces in "The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms". Cassirer describes the origins of conceptual formations as "crystallization foci", which, through language, separate and organize the "series of emergent salients".(2) Cassirer describes these genetically initial representations as articulation points for all that is to be newly established.(3)

If we adopt this metaphor for the purpose of discussing modeling, we could say that models are crystallizations. They are stable to a certain degree, compared to a continuum, which may be conceptualized as a stream of consciousness, a flow of thoughts and images. Moments of stasis, crystallizations, compared to the continuum from which they emerge, are bound up with modelling.(4)

Models allow thoughts to revolve around a focus that gives an impression of relative stability. It can be referred to often rather than once, intersubjectively rather than individually, and another aspect of the image of crystallization seems to be central to models: They are constructs that provide relationships and proportions.

These assumptions are the point of departure for my description of "Umweltmodelle" as models of the relationships between people and their surroundings. Two examples illustrate this conception. The examples do not come from the arts and sciences but from the discipline of landscape planning.


1. Bees and Wasps

In May 1995, a park was opened on the site of a former brickworks in the Böckingen district of Heilbronn. Two landscape architectural firms planned the park.(5) Public discussions focused on a sole planning issue. The discourse illustrates an environmental model that has come to have an increasing influence on planning.

After a design was chosen for the park, naturalists from the conservation association found a large number of species of rare birds, wild bees and wasps living in a wall of mortar (loess) located on the site. With eighty species of wild bees and forty species of wasps, the diversity in the area was nearly unparalleled. The unique ecological community developed after the brickworks had closed down. The area had not been used for seven years before construction of the park had started. The conservation association took up the cause of the bees and wasps. Their intervention decisively influenced the further course of the planning process. The authorities named the find a monument, a "Naturdenkmal", and the initial design was revised with its discovery in mind.

It was agreed that the wall of mortar would be protected by a secure area of demarcation between it and the rest of the park. Low, mortarless walls were built. The structures were used to restrict access to the nature preserve. They were sowed with nutritive vegetation for the insects. The walls were to ensure that going into the preserve was unattractive for park visitors.

So the "nature" behind the walls is now protected and off limits, and the "nature' in front of the barriers is a varied and accessible park.

The environmental model used as the rationale for isolating the wall of mortar recognizes the insects' right to a habitat and demands that human beings withdraw. The model presupposes a complex understanding of the relationship between humans and their surroundings.

The initial decision to inventory the animals and plants that had settled on the disused industrial site was in no way obvious. Nor was it an approach to planning that had a long tradition. It first came into existence in the 1960s in Great Britain, on the consideration that it was impossible to restore fully all that had been destroyed by industrial production. A few pioneers, for example the ecologist Tony Bradshaw, started by looking at disused industrial sites as having a "life" of their own, consequently meaning they could be perceived as having developed a "nature" of their own. This led to the observation and recognition of "natural" habitats that had grown on abandoned industrial sites and waste heaps. This was viewed as a novel perspective at the time.(6)

The competition for the brickworks' site was decided in 1989. Even then this approach to "nature" on former industrial sites was still not self-evident, nor had it become an unquestioned precondition for planning. In this case, such observations only came into play after naturalists made their investigations. Merely posing the question of what flora and fauna are on the site presupposes an environmental model -- one that suspects the animals and plants on disused industrial areas are in some way remarkable and worth seeking and preserving.

Only identifiable objects can be sought. Knowledge is a precondition for each search. In this case it is based on the biological, zoological, and ecological descriptions and discoveries of the life in the wall of mortar. These provided the basis for evaluating what was living on the site. It made it possible to identify the animals in the wall, classify them, and systematically describe their biotope as a habitat and determine the conditions for its preservation. Statistical knowledge was also required, because it allowed the assessment of the diversity on the site in comparison with other similar populations and constellations. For the environmental model discussed here, it is necessary to have specialized, ordered scientific knowledge to determine all these facts.

This assessment alone in no way compels specific behavior. It is possible to establish and describe them without further concern about their fate. In this case however, the discoveries launched a certain chain of events. The description of the biotope justified the call for its preservation. Indeed, it was not merely based on biological and ecological descriptions per se, but also on principles of law, conservation, aesthetics of nature, and ethics.

The loess wall and its insect population became the subject of further discourse, including a legal one. The assessment that the biotope was rare and contained rare animals that were on Germany's "Red List" of endangered species resulted in the biotope meeting the legal criteria for preservation and protection. The wall and its residents were to be preserved. The legal classification of the wall of loess as a natural monument followed.

These actions indicate a curatorial approach to what had been discovered. A specific view of the relations between the past, the present and the future is articulated in the revised plan. It designates to the present the task of preserving this "nature" into an indeterminate future and to conserve the biotope that established itself on the disused site in the seven "fallow" years.

This imperative is not based on the traditional aesthetics that are connoted to "nature". The qualities of being pristine and primeval cannot be claimed in this case. The conditions in which the new natural monument developed only came into existence through an industrial intervention, namely, the exploitation of clay for the production of bricks.(7) This fact does not obviate activities to preserve the biotope as a whole; what was present on the site is to be preserved, regardless of how it came into existence.

This environmental model is founded on a concept of conservation that is dedicated to the preservation of rare biotopes, even if they in no way correspond to the traditional idea of untouched nature. It is clear that this case is focused on nature that has been strongly influenced by human activity. It is not a matter of pristine nature as a refuge for established certainties or the bulwark of authentic life. Nor is the central issue the ineluctable point of departure for criticism of civilization's attacks on this initial state.(8)

Nevertheless, the resolution harks back to human images of pristine nature, even if it is post festum in some sense. The exclusion of potentially destructive humans will allow the protected area to become "untouched, pristine nature" and is based on the premise that the best way to preserve nature is to ensure the absence of humans.

Another aspect of the plan is related to the concept of pristine nature. This aspect may be assessed as an ethical moment in the planning and decision-making process; the environmental model can be perceived as a multiperspective one in as far as it deems the surroundings of the insects as not only relevant, but also untouchable. Shaping the plan demanded the consideration and weighing of alternatives. A choice had to be made to either allow a threat to the habitat of rare animals or deny park users to access the area.(9)

Therefore, a wide-ranging stock of knowledge and symbolic worlds with different origins -- including biological description and classification and ecological models -- served as planning inputs. Some decisions and activities, including convening preservation status, were based on institutional knowledge and possibilities for conserving endangered species and other legal preconditions for the preservation of natural monuments. And last but not least, ethical and aesthetic moments played a role. The design that finally materialized reflects a complex model of the relations between humans and their environment.


2. Toxins and Tristesse

The second example concerns a plan developed in reaction to the identification of contamination on a disused industrial site. The contaminants were highly concentrated in both the soil and the water beneath the former plant, and their toxicity was unquestionable. On the grounds that they could not be removed, the design had to deal with these poisons. This is the situation of many industrial sites that are designated for another or a newly defined use. The solutions that are proposed are usually controversial.

One of the most well-known plans for dealing with toxic materials on a former industrial site is the one for the decommissioned blast furnace compound located in Duisburg-Meiderich, in the Duisburg-North landscape park. Here as well, I will concentrate on one planning issue that was discussed. First, I will reconstruct an outline of some planning options, then I will cover the arguments of critics who suggested other environmental models as alternatives.(10)

The design, which has nearly been completely executed today, foresaw storing highly toxic material resulting from the demolition of smoke stacks in hermetically sealed bunkers that were earlier used to hold iron ore. A roof garden was built on top of the bunkers and sowed with plants found on the site. "Groves" of flowering trees were to be planted on several contaminated areas, where no water could be allowed to seep out. To delineate the border between tainted ground and areas that could be used without reservation, the groves were set out in forms that would clearly and unequivocally separate them from "woods", corresponding to the usual, average appearance of such areas: the trees were planted in a grid.

In this case, the plan presupposes the availability of knowledge from different scientific disciplines. The characteristics of substances, their behavior and possible effect on vegetation, animals, and people, are relevant. This awareness would not automatically lead to the decision to keep poisons and waste on the site. Given that, the design unfolds from a relatively new standpoint for considering the site, namely, that toxins are integral. Attempts to recreate a "clean" area would not be made. The toxic material would neither be taken to a location away from the site, nor would it be ignored.

In this environmental model, there is no remote site designated for waste disposal. The destructive consequences of industrial activity are integrated in the environmental model. Problems with them are solved on-site by rigid separation. Impenetrable borders are to prevent the spread of toxic materials, xenobiotica are isolated from the living, and natural cycles are protected from the spread of dangerous substances.

This procedure also has a temporal aspect. The available substances are divided into something that would continue to develop and something that, taken out of the context of time, will remain immobile and closed. The necessity for control and a clear cordoning off of dangerous substances belong to this environmental model.

This appears to be a technical problem, but in the planning for this site, it was also addressed as a semiotic problem and a question of the aesthetics of nature. The plantings on the site have meaning. The planners intended the trees to serve as a reminder to visitors that the planted area had already been used and consumed. This brings in a second temporal aspect: The past should remain legible in the design via the remaining evidence of both destructive and exploitative activities. The plans integrated the historical dimensions of the area and took a position, which may be perceived as a melancholy commentary on what had been found there.

Divorcing nature from human civilization is relevant to this design, but it incorporates a deconstructive twist, which challenges this dichotomy. The toxins originated as a result of human activity. Their burial and the planting of trees to mark the "memorial grove" that is their grave are also carried out by and for humans.

The material that the planners worked with resulted from earlier human activities of production and destruction, from which remain, among other things, toxic waste that has set the parameters for the plans. The conditions for the design were set by former human activity, namely, the consumption and processing of raw materials. The planners worked with what could be described as "givens", by-products of the earlier activities on the site. This suggests a new point of departure that cannot be equated or associated with nature.

The impression becomes even stronger if the vegetation included in the design is considered. Colorful, flowering plants over the bunkers and cherry trees, that are valuable and can bear fruit, stand near the blast furnaces. This leads the visitor to associate burial rites and the triumph of the living. It is hard to arrive at a much stronger statement about a bulwark against danger than contrasting buried toxins with fruit trees. This plan integrates the dualism between life and death and clearly takes the side of the living.

The criticism directed at this project at the beginning of the 1990s was based on several points. The detractors were most concerned about whether the covered toxic wastes could be fully isolated. They were in favor of their removal and made appeals for additional investigations. The requested tests were to determine clearly whether the dangers posed by dioxin and the emissions of other toxic by-products had actually been managed. If necessary, the test results would lead to the drafting of new plans. Other arguments were directed at the actual implications of a new aesthetic based on givens, criticized as an aesthetic of sullied nature and trash. Some of the projects critics maintained that its preconditions were cynical and demanded that the basic premises of the plan be reconsidered.(11)


3. Environmental Models - a Concept

Jakob von Uexküll cites Sombart, who wrote, "It is not adequate to describe a forest as a statically determinate and objective environment. Instead, there are foresters', hunters', botanists', hikers', naturelovers', loggers', and berry gatherers' woods, in addition to the fairy tale wood, in which Hansel and Gretel lost their way."(12) Uexkull goes on to say that the different uses set the forest in different "tones". Specific sets of characteristics (= Merkmale) and their corresponding effects (= Wirkmale) are selected according to criteria determined by societal practices. The specific sets can be described as environmental models.(13)

They are established in practices and activities, which involve images, descriptions, metaphors, symbols, and allegories. These establish environments that are perceived and influenced. Human surroundings are the result of individual or collective experience. Accessible knowledge, which steers perception and directs attention, belong to them. The "tones" and the environmental models, which correspond to them, are flexible. They are the results and conditions of a series of references and practices. They are neither unique, nor static, inalterable theses.(14)

In this sense, we live with environmental models that we have created and in which we create ourselves. They determine where we direct our attention; steer the focus of perception; our ability to notice, and readiness to act; they reflect our self-image and our image of the world. They are deciding factors in setting goals, motives and practices that effect the shaping of our living conditions.

I have chosen the term "Umweltmodelle" (=environmental models) to indicate the structured nature of the phenomena I have outlined, and our ability to reconstruct them. I also chose this term to access these phenomena for reflection. Talking about several environmental models suggests that it is principally impossible to describe "the" human environment. It indicates the individuality, variability, and discretion of a myriad of possible environments.

Environmental models are found in the sciences, in different professions, and in everyday life. Since the privilege of creating models is viewed as the province of the sciences, it can be assumed that non- scientific environmental models are influenced by scientific modeling. They reflect the increasing role of scientific descriptions, model formations, and constructions and reconstructions of environments. This is apparent in the models described here.

Another assumption about environmental models is that they inseparably unite images and concepts of nature and human activities. The reference to this totality of surroundings is manufactured in aesthetic and poietic processes.

Raising the question of environmental models refers to the humanities, including the history and theory of science, and to the sociology of knowledge and historical inquiry. These disciplines play a role in the creation of practices and representations of individual and social, gender specific, global and local, and current and historical environmental models. Which models govern specialized or unspecialized workaday environments is a key question. The environmental models described here, their transmission via pictures and stories, their articulation in shapes and structures, are a result of social, cultural, and political discourse and practice. They are the expression of and a determinant for cultivating the "nature within us" and "outside of us".


4. Environmental Models and Nature

This approach appears sensible because it allows the investigation of phenomena that have been gaining ground in public discourse during the last three decades. Since human activities and their effects on nature have been reassessed under the impression that the very basis of life is in danger, the number of more or less explicit scientific and unscientific models has been growing. They reflect the relation between societies, cultures, and humans and the natural basis for their existence. It is also possible to say that heterogeneous environmental models compete.

My aim is to formulate perspectives for research on what I call environmental models. An observation of these is profitable because it has not been productive to discuss "nature" and human activity as dichotomous structures. Doubts about the purpose of discussing nature as essence are fuelled by the insight that referring to "nature" is referring to a mythical term. Each reference to "nature" demands a comprehensive critical commentary. Hardly any other concept is less clear than this one, which has come to embody a score of contradictions and ideas that have been taken up over the centuries.

This is true for drawing on "nature" as an authority or legitimation for certain activities; conceptions of "nature" as an object of activities that leave the actor untouched; an object of observation that leaves the observer unaffected; the stylization of "nature" as an apparent alpha counterpoint for social relations; or the transformation of "natural" givens into monuments. These determinations of what "nature" is or should be indicate that "nature" cannot serve as an intersubjectively accepted basis for discussion of how humans relate to the world within and around them.(15) This does not mean that historical reflections regarding concepts of nature should be abandoned. And it certainly does not suggest that phenomena that cannot be influenced by humans do not exist. Instead, it means that "nature" is no longer an appropriate cornerstone for the current discourse on the question of how we want to live.


5. Environmental Models in Planning and Several Observations about their Reconstruction

When considering designs for abandoned industrial sites, environmental models can be recognized as things that are negotiated and produced. They can be made accessible by observing he decisions, terms, and actions that ultimately produced certain results. It could be suspected, that the preceding examples are merely "personal" environmental models or models that are established in individual discourse.

That, however, can hardly be assumed. Each design is subject to the planner's personal attention but it is also the outcome of distinct and definable conditions. The choices made from different forms depend on cultural styles, fashion, and traditions of design. Structures of knowledge and other cultural determinants provide input as well. In the case of design processes in landscape planning, proposals always incorporate legal and political, or to put it generally, institutional conditions that influence the plans and their realization. The decisions related to these factors partly determine the kind of environmental model, which is reflected in the design.(16)

Environmental models do not have to be expressed in language, though it can be used to articulate them. If fundamental decisions must be made or a conflict resolved, language is particularly likely to be used to articulate environmental models.

Usually, the results of the planning will not be exhaustively presented and described by the planners, either in text or images, or in an other medium or system of symbols. Commonly accepted practices that could serve as a basis for a description of environmental models are usually taken for granted and go unmentioned. In addition to that, the final realization of the design exceeds what was intended and intentionally controlled in its shaping. The reconstruction of environmental models in these cases is possible only in so far as the experience and intuition of informed commentators and critics reach. Advances in method are possible through the process of criticism and interpretation as practiced in the humanities and social sciences.

Environmental models that are articulated in designs, buildings, and landscapes are fleeting as their aim is to solve a specific problem at a specific time. From this point of view the models are only fixed at the point in time that the design is deemed complete. Temporally seen, they are situated in the future perfect tense, they will have provided the basis for carrying out the design.

The outcome of the designs introduced here and the environmental models articulated by them can again become models in the sense that they serve as influential examples. As soon as a planning solution is transferred to a different context and adapted for another site it becomes an object of new interpretations. Then the environmental model is subject to further development, while it continues to set conditions for new designs and future projects. The environmental models that are currently coming into existence and are articulated in designs may then one day be recognized as examples for a post- industrial commentary on nature.

© Susanne Hauser (Berlin)


(*) This is the first English edition of a text published in two different German versions in Dialektik 1/1997 and in Centrum. Jahrbuch Architektur und Stadt, Zürich: Birkhäuser 2000. I would like to express my thanks to Taryn Toro for her helpful suggestions and comments regarding my writing of the English text.

(1) See Anderson/Merrell 1991.

(2) Cassirer, 1990, 135; in the original text as ''Reihe der Besonderungen".

(3) Cassirer, 1990, p.135.

(4) This is also borrowed from Cassirer's arsenal of images. Cassirer 1990, p. 135.

(5) The park was planned by the office of Karl Bauer in Karlsruhe, together with Jörg Stötzer of Sindelfingen. In this description, I refer to a small part of the site that was planned by the Bauer office. After the Conservation Association -- Naturschutzbund -- intervened, the park was finally constructed in the manner I describe here. In 1995, the design won an award from the German Federation of Landscape Architects, the BDLA. Source: BDLA 1995, Speech manuscript of Karl Bauer, January 1996.

(6) See Sheail 1987, p. 213 ff.

(7) For polemic arguments in this respect, see Vences 1993, and the bibliography it contains

(8) This logical paradigm has been rendered obsolete by research in environmental history. Numerous landscapes that were thought to have been pristine actually owe their shapes to human intervention.

(9) Yet it does not come into question that the claims of animals are considered rather than those of humans.

(10) The plans are those of the Munich landscape architect Peter Latz. The plant was converted under the auspices of the International Building Exhibition Emscher Park. I cite Latz 1994 and my notes on a lecture that the planner held in 1996 at a congress of the BDLA in Berlin on the topic of "Disuse, Conversion, Resurrection". The critique of the design was made at the congress called "IBA from Below'. I refer to a summary of the presentations of the Emscher Region Initiative Circle 1994, p. 160-171 and Häpke 1993.

(11) Häpke 1993, p. 253

(12) Uexküll 1956, p. 108. "Es gibt keinen Wald als objektiv fest bestimmte Umwelt, sondern es gibt nur einen Förster-, Jäger-, Botaniker-, Spaziergänger-, Naturschwärmer-, Holzleser-, Beerensammler-, und einen Märchenwald, in dem Hänsel und Gretel sich verirren."

(13) See Hauser 1989. See references to Uexküll in Cassirer 1996, p. 47 ff.

(14) See Hauser 1996.

(15) Rudolf zur Lippe wlth good reason defined nature as a "bag for unprocessed history", and proposed opening a dialogue with this in mind. See Radkau 1994, p. 11.

(16) In this part of the text I paraphrase the conclusions in Anderson's and Merrell's anthology on Semiotic Modeling. See Anderson/Merrell 1991.


Anderson, M./F. Merrell, 1991, "Filling and Emptying Figures and Grounds in Art, Craft, and Science," in On Semiotic Modeling, published by M. Anderson and F. Merrell, Berlin and New York, p. 597 - 601.

Bauer, K., 1996, "Heilbronn-Böckingen: Stadtteilpark auf ehemaliger Ziegelei," unpublished lecture manuscript.

BDLA (Bund Deutscher LandschaftsArchitekten), 1995, Der Deutsche LandschaftsArchitektur-Preis 1995, Bonn.

Cassirer, E., 1990, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Dritter Teil, "Phänomenologie der Erkenntnis. Darmstadt, 9th Edition.

Cassirer, E., 1996, Versuch über den Menschen, Einführung in eine Philosophie der Kultur. Hamburg.

Häpke, U., 1993, "IBA-Landschaftsplanung - Ästhetik der Zerstörung oder Pflege der Ressourcen," in Die Moderne im Park, Ein Streitbuch zur Internationalen Bauausstellung im Emscherraum, published by S. Müller and K.M. Schmalls, Dortmund, p. 246 - 254.

Hauser, S., 1996, "Repräsentationen der Natur und Umweltmodelle," in Zeitschrift für Semiotik", Vol. 18, Nr. 1, p. 83-92.

Initiativkreis Emscherregion e.V., 1994, IBA Inspektion von unten. Strukturwandel im Ruhrgebiet. IBA Emscher Park: Eine Strategie?, Essen.

Latz, P., 1994, "Metamorphosen der Landschaft," in Landschaftsplanung und Gartenkunst, Perspektiven. Symposium l992, Vienna, p. 103-113.

Radkau, J., 1994, "Was ist Umweltgeschichte?" in Umweltgeschichte: Umweltverträgliches Wirtschaften in historischer Perspektive. Acht Beiträge, published by W. Abelshauser (= Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Sonderheft 15), Göttingen, p. 11-28.

Sheail, J., 1987, Seventy-Five Years in Ecology, The British Ecological Society. Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Boston, Palo Alto, Melbourne.

Uexküll, J. v., 1956, "Bedeutungslehre;" in Uexküll, J. v. and Kriszat, G., Streifzüge durch die Unwelten von Tieren und Menschen/Bedeutungslehre, Reinbek bei Hamburg, p. 103-159.

Vences, M. 1993, "Kröten wollen nicht geschützt werden! Eine (weitere) Polemik gegen den Noturschutz," in Kommune, 7/1993, p. 33-45.

6.4. Transkulturelle Kompetenz in der Umwelt- und Entwicklungskommunikation

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