Interview with Travis Beck

I recently caught up with author and landscape architect, Travis Beck, whose recent book Principles of Ecological Landscape Design was just released last week.  I was lucky enough to read an advance copy over Christmas.  The content blew me away.  The book will be an indispensable text for designers interested in ecological planting.  After reading the book, I was interested in following up with Travis with a few questions.

What prompted you to write this book?

I've been interested for a long time in how to design landscapes modeled on natural systems. I kept looking for the book that would answer all of my questions. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to really think this through, I would have to write a book myself.    

Can you tell me about your writing process?

I would begin by researching the subject of a chapter and identifying all the topics I wanted to cover. I would usually feel overwhelmed until I got to the point where I could see enough connections and start to build a narrative. Then I would write one topic at a time and eventually stitch everything back together to make up a chapter.  One thing that helped my productivity immensely was discovering the reading room at the main branch of the New York Public Library. I would arrive in the morning when they opened, work for a couple hours, take lunch in Bryant Park, and then go back and work until they closed. It was magical being in that room with so many other people working on who knows what other projects as the sun tracked across the big wooden desks. 

The book is heavily grounded in ecological research.  Was it difficult to sort through the huge body of work to find research that applies to design?

The underlying premise of the book is to take a concept from ecology, as it is understood by ecologists, and think through how it applies to design. In some cases, such as plant communities, that was easy. In other cases, such as patch dynamics, it was hard.

The interesting twist is that in order for ecologists to get a handle on big natural systems they frequently do experiments at a landscape or garden scale. David Tilman and his work on diversity in grasslands is one example. So this research has direct relevance to landscape designers.

As a designer interested in doing ecological work, I realize that most of what I know about ecological design is based on a few eco-slogans (right plant, right place; use natives; consider biodiversity).  But these slogans provide little guidance about what and how to plant.  Was this book an attempt to get beyond the eco-slogans?

Absolutely. The more research I did, the more I appreciated the complex view of the living world that ecologists have developed. I also got to know the work that various practitioners have done to apply pieces of what ecologists have discovered in a practical way. There is a growing movement towards better landscapes grounded in real ecological understanding, and there is still so much potential.

Are there built projects that you think are good examples of ecological design?

I have great admiration for the work of Kongjian Yu. His Qunli Stormwater Park, which won the ASLA General Design Award of Excellence last year, is an example of what you can create when you implement these ideas fully. 

You've lived and built projects in two very different environments (Colorado and New York).  Do you think ecological planting strategies vary much from region to region?

The principles apply everywhere, but different conditions bring different issues to the fore. When I worked in Colorado the main concerns were water conservation and dealing with heedless development. In New York the big questions are about inserting ecological function back into a highly urbanized area and using living systems to help cope with sea level rise and future storms. In both places I think an ecological approach begins with seeing the broad regional context, and then creating something effective within that context on a particular site.

Have you read a book recently that you wished you had written?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I was an English major in college.

Do you have plans for the next book?

I'm taking a break for now, but I have lots of ideas I'm interested in exploring. Maybe I'll do a little blogging first to try some things out.

Where can your readers stalk you? 

My personal website is I can also be found most days on the grounds of the New York Botanical Garden.

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