Illustration of proposed development by the Windmill Development Group for the Domtar Lands at the industrial brownfield site on Chaudière and Albert Islands and adjacent riverfront in downtown Gatineau
Green Design, Brian Barth

How we use ‘land’ is defined by our politics, economics and relationship with nature, and this is the main concern of social geographers and political ecologists studying ‘development’. What can we learn, as urban designers, from these other disciplines that can help inform how we design spaces?

“The presence of nature and landscape design is critical to the quality of our urban environment. Their role is not only to make places look greener, but also to fundamentally influence the form of development and our well-being” (Von Borke, 2009)

The idea that landscape and nature form the foundations/basis for development is an idea discussed in many disciplines throughout the social sciences, and helps inform the current agenda regarding ‘sustainable urban design’. The way people relate to their cities, houses, public spaces, streets etc is also bound up in the way they relate to the land and each other. It is becoming increasingly popular through science and culture to integrate nature and landscape design into our cities. For example, taking part in “nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental ill-health and can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety, stress, and depression” (Natural England, 2016).

The benefits of integrating nature and landscape into developments is the core of the sustainable urban design agenda (Von Borke, 2009). A sustainable urban design approach seeks to improve the quality of life in urban areas and make those areas more sustainable. For example:


  • Ecologically: affecting micro-climate, creating wildlife habitats
  • Socially: making places more likeable, hence increasing the sense of ownership, counteracting urban stress, improving quality of life
  • Economically: retaining property values because of a better quality of life

Dominant discourses on economics and the subsequent relationships that we have developed to the land are being challenged on a daily basis as we become more aware of the economic, health and environmental damage that is being done. Integrating nature and landscape into our cities more and taking a more sustainable approach to design can create a greater equality with each other. In this scenario the land is, by default, integrated into human life.

“Even society as a whole, a nation, or all existing societies put together, are not owners of the Earth. They are merely its occupants, its users; and like good caretakers, they must hand it down improved to subsequent generations” (Marx, 1867)



Marx, K(1991) [1867] Capital: Volume 1, London: Penguin

Natural England (2016) A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care, (online at

Robbins, P (2004) Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, Blackwell Publishing
Von Borke, C. (2009) Landscape and nature in the City,in Ritchie, A. & Randall, T. (2009) Sustainable Urban Design: An Environmental Approach pp31-41