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Regenerative Design: What is to be Done

An Open Letter to the Hampton Bays Community from the Founder of the Ecological Culture Initiative

We stand at a crossroads in every human community as we enter the twenty-first century, perhaps a tipping point. We have two options: follow the trajectory of public investment in municipal infrastructure to grow economic development along traditional economic lines, a process that has led us to what atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen has described as the Anthropocene, or choose a path that makes use of our newfound understanding of ecology to enter what cultural historian Thomas Berry describes as the Ecozoic Era. The notion of an Anthropocene presupposes that the work of human civilization has led to a new geologic epoch that can be defined by the effects of human activity on the lithosphere (the earth’s surface); the concept of an Ecozoic Era posits that the present understanding of ecology (that every organism is connected to every other and to non-living elements of the environment) has ushered in an age where we can and must integrate and collaborate with other organisms when creating our cultural and physical environment rather than impose an outmoded set of beliefs and practices. You cannot order ecological design from a catalog, derive it from a bidding process, or simply legislate it into existence. Ecological design was described by Buckminster Fuller as “Not only inventing, building and planning for a better physical environment for man but also reforming behavioral patterns in a community.” Ecological design is not only a practice but also an ethos.


Having listened to the former Executive Director of Peconic Baykeeper, describe the ecological crisis our local waterways are in and the connection this crisis has to our construction and development policies it is clear to me that as a community, the local non-profits, schools, Town government, Trustees, the leaders of what is clearly an aquatic community have no more important task than restoring and preserving the health of their ecosystem and basing the evolution of the built environment in this ethos. Due to the foresight of the Southampton Town, Suffolk County, and New York State government essential forest area in and around the Hamlet of Hampton Bays, much of it sited directly over a sole source aquifer is preserved as open space and blessed with historic structures. These natural and cultural assets are a strong foundation on which to advance the ecological stewardship now required of current and future generations. The die-offs of aquatic plants and animals, toxicity of estuaries, harm to fisheries, and mass extinction on both a local as well as a global scale point to the inadequacy of simply preserving and protecting land. The current development methodology of creating public parks to induce private investment and boost the surrounding economy (and tax base) is destructive of the natural resources originally set aside for protection. What is needed is not greenwashing of neighborhood revitalization schemes and conventionally built park infrastructure with a few native plants brought in to legitimize business as usual, what is required in the current millennium is the implementation of an era of regenerative landscape ecology and architectural practice.


For our generation, the work of the landscape ecologist has a long history. Some see its’ legacy stretching back to 1872 through the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux at Central Park or the aesthetic and political writings of William Morris. The current efforts of the non-profit organization, the Central Park Conservancy, has led to the park becoming a wildlife sanctuary that accommodates many species alongside a dense human population in the middle of Manhattan. Indeed, Central Park has some of the most complex, rich soil biodiversity of any park in New York State.


For the ten years I spent as a professor of Ecological Art, Architecture, and Design in the Sustainability Studies Program at Stony Brook University, my students and I examined the work of contemporary landscape designers such as James Corner Field Operations; Oehme van Sweden Associates; Michael Van Valkenberg Associates; and Kate Orff, founder of Scape Landscape Architecture, amongst others throughout the Metropolitan region; some of the most inspired urban ecology landscapes I have studied are produced by Chinese Landscape Ecologist Kongjian Yu of Turrenscape. On the East End of Long Island we can admire the work of Reed Hilderbrand Associates at the Parrish Art Museum and the Perfect Earth Project of landscape designer Edwina von Gal.


What unites and sets the environments of these designers apart is their use of:

  •  permeable walkways and parking surfaces over paved ones

  • aquifer recharge areas instead of conventional storm drains

  •  naturalized, delicately sculpted berms and swales in place of raised tree wells

  • organic, inert, and biodegradable materials in lieu of industrially produced polymers or synthetic composites

  • bio-diverse plant-scapes and soil in place of simple plantings of a dozen or so species in compacted, damaged soil Landscapes produced for economic efficiency usually result in intense environmental degradation and toxic runoff, however, landscapes that emulate the complexity of the natural world produce biologically diverse, healthful, and regenerative ecosystems.

The most important work of the Hampton Bays community is reforming cultural, economic, educational, construction, and landscape practice to ensure not only the economic health of the hamlet but to do so in accordance with the ecological health of it. Hampton Bays is well poised to serve as a model of neighborhood revitalization along ecologically sound lines. Originally settled by farmers and fisherman as Good Ground and renamed Hampton Bays in 1922 to entice tourism, the Hamlet sits roughly 90 miles from the economic engine of New York City and is served by a major highway as well as the Long Island Railroad. No other East End community boasts the municipal infrastructure and coastal recreation amenities native to Hampton Bays. Passengers who disembark from the train arrive in the center of a pedestrian-oriented hamlet that boasts gourmet local food sources, a laid-back main street with historic (albeit often badly renovated) buildings, as well as extensive woodlands and waterways home to abundant wildlife. The Post Office, Community Center, grocery stores, eateries, salons, shops, movie theater, village green, American Legion, Fire Department, ambulance corps, schools, library, nature preserve, undeveloped publicly-owned land, and densely populated residential neighborhoods are steps away from the station. A short distance from Main Street by bicycle or car you are greeted with the amenities of ecotourism. Historic cedar-sided (but not landmarked) cottages, hiking, mountain bike and horse trails in bucolic pine-barrens, wetlands, waterfront restaurants and resorts, bays to snorkel and scuba dive in or canoe, kayak, paddleboard, boat or sail on, as well as spectacular undeveloped and protected barrier island beach parklands. The hamlet also features county parks that allow camping, as well as numerous woodland and waterfront town parks and trustee stewarded shorelines that provide a plethora of water access points.


Protecting the pedestrian-friendly, historic main street composed of local eateries and shops, owned by local people and avoiding the influx of franchises is essential to maintaining the integrity of the Hamlet and securing its sense of place. The community must ensure local shops are primarily provisioned by local organic farms and sustainable wild fisheries, built and serviced by local tradespeople, and populated by the society of beachgoers, families, fisherman, intellectuals, surfers, and vacationers who have always worked and played on the waters and in the woods of Hampton Bays. If the community is not to be transformed by the suburban sprawl that defines so many Long Island communities and become an ecologically destructive neighborhood of franchise operated storefronts surrounded by concrete and asphalt – an automobile-based network of harmful storm-water and septic practice beneath uncharacteristic storefronts and homes - an ecology based cultural change must begin immediately to insure a sustainable future for a rich yet fragile ecosystem.


Fortuitously Hampton Bays has a history and traditional economy built on what is now called ecotourism (people have long ventured to Hampton Bays to enjoy the landscape, waterways, ocean beaches; and forest ecosystem). If the most populous community in Southampton Town, a town with residents who boast some of the worlds highest per capita incomes, does not prove to be an example of how to evolve a coastal community forward based on ecologically-sound cultural, economic, and construction practice, who can the rest of the world look to for answers, and who is at fault for the degradation of our the Town’s waterways?


Several years ago one of my brightest students, Nick Zanussi, an East End progeny from Sag Harbor, suggested that, “We need to stop and let the past catch up to us before we rush headlong into the future.” Perhaps the work of the Hamlet of Hampton Bays going forward should be characterized as the Good Ground Restoration Project, an effort to preserve the most worthy and sustainable components of the community’s culture and advance the interests of the community in an ecologically-sound way. As the Town evolves the parks and other aspects of the built environment to fit the needs of the local population and those of future generations, every child must be taught to swim, to sail, to surf, to study local field and marine biology as well as organic agriculture. Only in this way will they mature as informed citizens and work to protect the waterways and woodlands that sustain them. If an unparalleled effort is made to conserve and landmark the fine small wood frame farmhouses, the quaint cedar-sided cottages at the end of unpaved driveways, and the historic Main Street structures, Hampton Bays will retain a visual identity with depth and meaning, it will remain a place worth visiting. The community as a whole (civic organizations, local non-profits, schools, Town government, Trustees) must advance the evolution of an ecologically-minded (fertilizer, fungicide and pesticide and plastics free) economy based upon access to and protection of undeveloped woodlands, small organic farms, marsh-fronted properties, and the healthy waterways that are the keystones to long-term physical and economic health. Principles of ecological design and permaculture should serve as core community values in creating a regenerative culture. If Hampton Bays does not take on this challenge the answer to the next generation when asked “Why didn’t you act to reverse the degradation of our local ecosystem?” will be the oft heard phrase – “we couldn’t afford to.” Hampton Bays and Southampton Town are not undereducated, economic backwater communities unaware of what is happening to their ecosystem. The businesses, government and residents alike have caused the environmental problems the community faces through maintaining comfortable social norms, relying on green-washing, market forces, and preservation to address problems these strategies cannot solve. The community of Hampton Bays and the Town of Southampton must now look to itself to be a model of regenerative ecological design, of how a coastal community can live in a symbiotic way with the ecology that sustains it - it cannot afford not to.


Founding Director of the Ecological Culture Initiative,


Article written by Marc Fasanella posted on Pondering Ecologist.

“Not only inventing, building and planning for a better physical environment for man but also reforming behavioral patterns in a community.”
—Buckminster Fuller
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