Redesigning Nature to Clean Up Our Messes

A landscape architect from M.I.T. is proposing to create a whole new ecosystem to address water pollution problems in Italy.
September 23, 2008, 12pm PDT | Heather Furman
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In many parts of this affluent coastal region southeast of Rome and northwest of Naples, canals dumping effluent into the Mediterranean from farms and factories coexist with fishermen and beachgoers. There is little doubt that this area would need considerable work to return to a more pristine state. For places as far gone as this one, however, a new breed of landscape architect is recommending a radical solution: not so much to restore the environment as to redesign it.

'It is so ecologically out of balance that if it goes on this way, it will kill itself,' said Alan Berger, a landscape architecture professor at M.I.T. who was excitedly poking around the smelly canals on a recent day and talking to fishermen like Mr. Assunto.

'You can't remove the economy and move the people away,' he added. 'Ecologically speaking, you can't restore it; you have to go forward, to set this place on a new path.'

Designing nature might seem to be an oxymoron or an act of hubris. But instead of simply recommending that polluting farms and factories be shut, Professor Berger specializes in creating new ecosystems in severely damaged environments: redirecting water flow, moving hills, building islands and planting new species to absorb pollution, to create natural, though 'artificial,' landscapes that can ultimately sustain themselves."

Thanks to Heather Furman

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Published on Sunday, September 21, 2008 in The New York Times
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