Making Room for the Mountain Lion


Standing on the Sunset Strip with the hum of traffic and the passing din of celebrity tours behind you, it is a surreal and magical moment to witness a hummingbird spontaneously appear and vigorously feed off a native sage plant suspended 40 feet above the ground off the face of a building. This occurrence, while wholly intended as a desired outcome of the project, still surprises me every time I see it. It also imbues a sense of wonder and otherworldliness in a decidedly contrived environment, and highlights the strange juxtapositions that modern cities can bring to our daily lives. The wild and natural are intertwining with the domestic to the betterment of our increasingly normative experience as urban dwellers.

The past 50 years have seen the rise of the urban age, with the majority of the world’s population now living in increasingly dense communities. The growth of cities has generated a number of cultural and economic benefits, but has also posed a dramatic set of environmental challenges. Rates of vegetative cover and biodiversity have declined as natural areas have been swallowed up by urban expansion. As cities grow larger, however, their vestigial wildlife populations continue to find intriguing ways of adapting to their new habitats. In Austin, for example, the world’s largest urban bat colony has taken up residence under a freeway bridge. Chicago has a thriving urban coyote population. And in Los Angeles, mountain lions are elusive celebrities that move silently through our neighborhoods and freeway corridors. Traces of their movements leave beautiful residues of an active ecological system in the city, which bewilders and enthralls researchers and residents alike.

As designers exploiting and exploring this hybrid condition, we strive for results that are delightful and powerful at the same time. We get to pursue explorations of what this new nature can be — an urban environment that can reintroduce wonder, and, if not truly restore original ecologies, at least produce new niches for plants and animals to exploit. We can design a city to function as a new performative ecology with habitat for plants, animals, and humans alike.

Among the designer’s tools for this exploration are new technologies, such as green roofs and green walls, such as the one on Sunset Boulevard. They allow us to transform vertical planes and roofs into natural surfaces. Researchers and designers are exploring the artistic and ecological potential of these new elements, discovering rich opportunities for patternmaking, visual expression, and biodiversity. “Living paintings” adorning walls and rooftops become nesting grounds for rare birds, urban bee populations, and a broad array of beneficial insects. Design is inviting nature into the city, and nature is responding with ingenuity, adaptation, and enthusiasm.

Just as this language of hybrid systems has opened new ideas, it has also pushed design into new forms and new representations of the built environment. Projects are pursuing agendas that blur the distinctions between landscape and building, site and object, and domesticated and wild. While the results expand the language of design, they also enhance the quality of experience of the city. As we face a more urban future, introducing wonder through juxtaposition with the rural may be the most important pursuit of all.

To read more from Not Neutral: For Every Place, Its Story, grab a copy available now.