Design and Ecodesign Essay

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Design is the process of planning, initiating and/ or laying out a new product, service, piece of equipment, landscape, building, plan, policy or the like, typically in an artistic, technically proficient, or skillful fashion. It is a future-oriented act of envisioning and creative problem-solving.

Typically, design involves sketching, drafting, computer-assisted manipulation of three-dimensional spaces, and artistically or accurately representing and arranging forms and materials for new functions and purposes. Design by its very nature embraces ideas about utility, aesthetics, convenience, efficiency, and practicality. In architecture, for example, design ideals can be traced to Vitruvius, who espoused durability, convenience, and beauty as the tenets of design. Design involves the manipulation of technologies, from simple instruments such as drafting pens and paper to sophisticated technologies such as Computer Assisted Design (CAD) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Design practitioners include architects, planners, landscape architects, instrument-makers, interior designers, artists, engineers, environmental scientists, computer scientists, and chemists, among others. Much design literature is underpinned by environmental determinism (the notion that the environment directly affects human behaviors and actions) and encompasses a set of values whereby humans are seen to legitimately manipulate the environment to produce outcomes that benefit our species over others.

Design in History

Throughout history, various civilizations have practiced elements of design. Stonehenge in England, for example, is a Neolithic design innovation, presumably allowing for the accurate forecasting of crop sowing and harvest times. Some commentators have argued that the ability to design is a unique property of our species, enabling humans to produce environmental modifications and transformations from stone tools to metropolises like Chicago. Feminist historian of science Donna Haraway has even asserted that in many ways humans have become cyborgs-biomechanical entities that are dependent upon, and have merged with, our technologies.

Western society in particular has inherited a fractured system of thinking centred upon the instrumental value (use value) of nature. Since the Industrial Revolution, modern design practices have resulted in the large-scale metabolization of nature into canals, bridges, buildings, automobiles, and the like. The perception that humans are outside of nature has led to environmental impacts seldom being factored into design processes (e.g., the production of toxic substances such as dioxins or radioactive waste). More recent design applications, including the use of nano-technology in the design and assembly of tools at a molecular level, and genetic engineering (the manipulation of an organism’s DNA to produce new features within that organism or even new organisms), perpetuate dualistic thinking about nature-society relations and the concomitant risk of adverse environmental impacts.


Ecodesign entails “designing with nature” for the benefit of the wider environment. Contemporary applications of ecodesign include the development of new technologies as a transition to ecological sustainability-what Slessor characterizes as a movement from “high tech” to “eco tech.” Watersensitive urban design, nature’s services approaches, ecological restoration, permaculture, green buildings, biotechnology, wind farms, and hybrid cars are all examples of ecodesign. Ecodesign combines environmentally benign philosophies, technologies, materials and legal standards to meet current needs in ways that create lower levels of environmental impact while preserving biodiversity (natural capital).

Ecodesign advocates strategies that will result in a net environmental gain, both social and ecological. The underlying premise is to emulate biophysical and ecological processes-recognizing interdependencies, and in so doing, improve the ecological sustainability of products and services. Ecodesign seeks to overcome the “utopian ideals” inherent in traditional design practices, such as order and beauty, which inevitably produce “sterile environments,” replacing them with sensibilities grounded in the chaotic “messiness” of biological systems. Industrial ecology, for example, seeks to mimic ecosystem processes by metabolizing waste. The waste outputs of industries are used as the raw material inputs for other industries-thus closing material and energy loops.

From an environmental planning perspective, perhaps the most influential work on ecodesign was Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature (1967). In this book, McHarg sketched out a new way of designing human settlements working with, rather than against, natural processes and recognizing natural limits. Possibly the ultimate expression of ecodesign can be found in Jennifer Wolch’s 1998 “Zo√∂polis,”a new kind of socially and ecologically inclusive city built around environmental processes and acknowledging plants and animals as legitimate urban residents.


  1. P. Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream. (Princeton Architectural Press, 1993);
  2. W. Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W.W. Norton and Company);
  3. A. Frosch, “Industrial Ecology: Adapting Technology for a Sustainable World,” Environment, (37, 16-37, 1995);
  4. Gandy, Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City (The MIT Press, 2003);
  5. P. Grant, “The Nature of Design and Planning, in Design Professionals and the Built Environment (John Wiley & Sons, 2000);
  6. Hough and R.H. Platt, R.A. Rowntree and P.C. Muick, eds., The Ecological City: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity (The University of Massachusetts Press);
  7. McHarg, Design with Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 1967);
  8. Paden, “Values and Planning: The Argument from Renaissance Utopianism,” Ethics, Place and Environment, (4(1), 5-30, 2001);
  9. H. Platt, R.A. Rowntree, and P.C. Muick, eds., The Ecological City: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity (The University of Massachusetts Press, 1994);
  10. V. Plumwood, Feminism, and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge, 1993);
  11. Slessor, Sustainable Architecture and High Technology: Eco-Tech (Thames and Hudson, 2001);
  12. W. Spirn, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design (Basic Books, 1984);
  13. van der Ryn and S. Cowan, Ecological Design (Island Press, 1995);
  14. Wolch, Animal Geographies: Place, Politics and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands (Verso, J. 1998).

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