Environmental Aesthetics: Trees in the City

Synth Author(s): Gavin McFarlane, Elena Naaktgeboren, Joshua Proto, Spring 2013
Comparison: One Topic in Multiple Sites
Research Site(s): India, Other Sites, Tryon Creek Watershed, US Pacific Northwest
Question: How do humans transfer values to the spaces they inhabit?

Included Projects

  • Shifting Ideologies: India’s Sacred Groves
    Population and economic pressure have led to environmental degradation and a decrease in biodiversity in India. Forests have been stripped of resources, however patches of undisturbed forest intersperse the landscape. These sanctuaries of biodiversity are sacred groves. They house endangered species and provide many ecosystem services, such as soil conservation, protection of water resources, and the cleansing of water flowing downstream. Local communities depend on sacred groves for their abundance of various floras, which have significant ethnobotanical value. Ethnobotany describes...

  • Rising From the Ruin
    Globalization has shifted much of America’s industry overseas, leaving a hole in the American landscape, most visible in the many cities that were built around particular industries. The transition in these cities from industrial to post-industrial has been dramatic and distinct. Cities like Pittsburgh, previously home to the steel industry, have succeeded in the transition with the help of emerging new industries brought in by large universities. Others remain decrepit and abandoned. Detroit is arguably the hardest hit,...

  • Soundscapes in Tryon Creek
    This study is situated in Tryon Creek in Southwest Portland, Oregon. The aim of the study is to analyze the keynote sounds of the Tryon Creek soundscape by manipulating the frequency and duration of 15 field recordings taken at five different sites along the creek. Keynote sounds are sounds ubiquitous to the soundscape that are highly influential to the other sounds occurring around them. These sounds lay the foundation for all other sounds in the soundscape. ...


Nate Stoll’s “Soundscapes in Tryon Creek” project seeks to identify and analyze the keynote sounds around the Tryon Creek watershed.  Keynote sounds, as he explains in the abstract, are those “sounds ubiquitous to the soundscape that are highly influential to the other sounds occurring around them”; humans, however, are generally aware of them only on the unconscious level.  As Stoll notes in the project background, we live in a visually dominated society, and so thought regarding our soundscapes is generally neglected as we construct new environments, and around and within pre-existing ones.  As Stoll again observes, the watershed serves as “a perfect example of the interface between humans and our environment,” a beautiful forest/creek environment situated right up against the urban environment of Portland.  The larger question inherently linked to his, which very much pertains to environmental aesthetics, is just “which sounds we should strive to preserve, reduce, or amplify in our environment.”  In a world where background noise, even the use of background music, is ubiquitous, Stoll believes it is important to examine our soundscapes to determine just how they affect us and other life on our planet.  With that knowledge, it will be possible to establish what sorts of sounds we should value, and how we should treat them in the future.

Haley Flora et al strives to determine just how the 21st century conservation ethic has influenced the ethnobotanical management of sacred groves illuminating the change in values associated with these historically revered forested areas. The historical management of these sacred areas have traditionally been conducted under a mantle of reverence and communal responsibility, leading to their description as “Sacred Groves.” These Sacred Groves are managed by a board of communally elected officials that have been chosen due to their knowledge of how the groves operate within a Hindu Metaphysical context. The Indian Government has no oversight over these areas; full autonomy of governance is given is given to these theocratically focused communities. However, the dawn of modern conservationism is permeating the frameworks of the Sacred Grove’s management practices, which are beginning to undermine not only the spiritual reverence that encapsulates these areas, but also the degree of exploitation the communities are willing to apply to their sacred groves. It turn out that after the dawn of this contemporary conservation ethic, these Sacred Groves have had their elevated statuses observably desecrated and their resources the subject of greater exploitation. This begs to question if the only way for a common resource to be managed efficiently is to have emotional reverence guiding the management policies. Is the spiritualized aesthetic the most effective way to pacify the community’s needs while providing for them economically and is the Romanticization of native relationship with nature driven by the desire to find a working model of the reverence aesthetic.

Sally Bernstein’s looks at society’s relationship with nature through biomimicry in architectural design in her project titled “Environmental Narratives in Urban Ruins”. The project looks at how urban planning is changing to harmonize with nature, rather than to separate from it. It addresses the idea of “utopia” which seems to be changing as society strives to meet the needs of its growing populations. The topic of “sustainability” comes up in terms of how to incorporate food, water, electricity, and waste removal into urban planning. Vertical gardens and skyscraper agriculture has come about to cope with the need to grow in close urban spaces. Whereas architecture before sought to make buildings as machines, separate from the “wilderness,” architecture now seeks to learn from nature through examining living systems such as the self-sustaining termite mounds. Bernstein states “Nature is perceived to have the answers, and by mimicking the materials used by, and habitats constructed by non-human species we can create sustainable buildings.” The project continues to seek answers to the modern day biomimetic sustainable utopia.

These projects all reflect aspects of environmental aestheticism. The relationship we create with nature is determined by the cultural and individual values one has, which can include many different views. The beauty and aesthetic values we attribute to what falls in our concept of “nature” defines how we act toward those things. Value is found in natural systems, so we seek to preserve or mimic those systems. The biomimicry in architecture is one way that aesthetically valuing natural systems produces positive change in harmonizing urban planning with our new cultural values for “sustainability” and a “utopia”. Inherited values, such as religion, the idea of utopia, and that which is sacred, reflect in the way that we manage the world around us. The management of the Sacred Groves reflect how aesthetics influence the way laws are made and land is managed. The concept and appreciation of beauty is especially important in environmental aesthetics, because beauty found in the world around us leads to the implementation of policy, creation of art, pursuit of science, and the ultimate integration of humans with the natural world.