Higher Order of Heroism

In the towns and cities across America, it is common to find a town square with a large monument to one military hero or another. Seldom, however, does one find the designers of those towns or town squares similarly memorialized. A smarter and more durable society would first acknowledge those with the foresight and dedication to design our places well, not just those who defended them in times of trouble. We need to recognize a higher order of heroism—those who helped avoid conflict, harmonized human communities with their surroundings, preserved soil and biological diversity, and created the basis for a more permanent peace than that possible to forge by violence. These are quiet heroes and heroines who work mostly out of the light of publicity. The few who do receive public acclaim are mostly reticent about the attention they get. Some like Frederick Law Olmsted, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson develop a wide international following. Most, however, labor in obscurity, content to do their work for the satisfaction of doing things well. John Lyle, professor of landscape architecture at California Polytechnic Institute, was such a man.

I met John in the mid-1980s during a visit to Cal Poly. During the two days we spent together, we talked about his concept of regenerative design and his plans for the Center for Regenerative Studies, now named the Lyle Center, and walked over the site—located between a large landfill and the university. In subsequent years, John and I met at conferences and sometimes collaborated on design projects, including one located in a remote, hilly, southern rural community. Our first site visit coincided with an ice storm the previous day that had covered the region with an inch of ice. We got within a mile of the site in a rental car, but had to make our way down a long, steep hill with a sheer drop of several hundred feet on one side. For the final mile on what passed for a dirt road in that part of the country, the rental car was useless, so we began to slip, slide, and tumble our way down the hill. Near the bottom, the road banked steeply to the right, but we had to reach a trail on the left side. There was no way to walk across that ice-covered dirt road to the other side, so we did what professionals in our circumstances are trained to do: we crawled across the ice on our hands and knees. Midway, hands bleeding, John turned to me and said, "I don't mind crawling this way, or even getting run over by a pickup truck, but I sure hope no one sees us." We both laughed so hard that we lost our grip on the ice and slid backward into the ditch. Later that day I learned that John had diabetes.

When I began the project described in chapter 14, John was the first person I called to help organize the effort behind what later became the Adam Joseph Lewis Center at Oberlin College. John's dedication to that project was legendary. Flying from California, he would usually arrive in Oberlin about midnight, but would be ready to work by 8 A.M. the next morning. On more than one occasion he arrived in town too late to get a hotel room and spent the night in a rental car or on whatever spare couch he could find, always without a whisper of complaint. John was that kind of person—modest, diligent, self-denying, creative, and supportive of those around him.

I talked with John in the spring of 1998 before I left on a trip to Greece. He had a nagging cough and was scheduled for a checkup. On my return I called to inquire how he was feeling. "They've given me two weeks to live," he replied. Stunned, I sat down to write a farewell letter to a man I'd come to depend on as a valued colleague, friend, and mentor. Words at times like that are utterly inadequate, but they're all we have. That letter read in part: "The Oberlin project simply would not have happened without your dedication and quiet competence from the very beginning. In more ways than I can recount, you held things together. You were a rock throughout the entire effort. For that and for all of the late-night trips to Oberlin, the untold hours of work on the landscape design and on the entire project—thank you, thank you, thank you." When my mind goes back to John Lyle, it is always with gratitude for the time spent with him and for the example of his life. Before he died, Oberlin College named the plaza in front of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center the John Lyle Plaza.

On the Cal Poly campus John Lyle's legacy is the Center for Regenerative Studies—the facility that he helped conceive and develop. The center represents the manifestation of his thought about architecture, integrated design, and the educational process, as well as an utterly clear-headed view of the human predicament in the twenty-first century. John's professional work, both written and built, is a legacy in the form of a challenge to the conventional wisdom of our time. Trained as an architect and landscape architect, John was a pioneer in a new and more encompassing field of ecological design that embraced virtually all of the liberal arts. He left behind a body of ideas in two remarkable books and dozens of articles. That portion of his legacy comes as a challenge to all of us, but especially to educational institutions.

First, John Lyle challenged us to face the fact that "we have created a world that is simultaneously growing out of control and progressively destroying itself" (1997,1). A world designed around linear flows will, in due course, come to ruin. As a result, this generation of students will live in a radically altered world. Sometime in 2001 world population passed 6 billion, and it may reach 8-10 billion within the lifetime of a current university student. Given present trends of species loss, these young people will live in a steadily more biologically impoverished world. Estimates vary, but it is not inconceivable that 15-20 percent of the species now extant will disappear within the next 60 years, with consequences that we cannot know. This will be the first generation ever to experience human-driven climatic change and with it increased storms and storm damage, rising sea levels, droughts, heat waves, spreading diseases, and political turmoil. These and other trends will interact in ways we will not foresee. All of this is to say that the rising generation will live in far more volatile and stressful world than any previous generation. And none has ever faced a more daunting agenda.

But Lyle's legacy to us is not one of despair, denial, or wishful thinking built on fantasies of heroic technologies or salvation by economic growth. It is, rather, one of hope founded on more solid ground. Lyle was an optimist who believed that "what humans designed we can redesign and what humans built, we can rebuild" (Lyle 1997, 2). If we act wisely, the future would be better than that which is now in prospect (Lyle 1994, 12). To act wisely means making our actions conform to ecological realities. To that end Lyle proposed to equip people to become ecologically competent by understanding the physical processes, energy flows, landforms, and the biota of the places where they lived.

Second, Lyle challenged us to deal with the structure of what ails us, not merely the rates of change. "The problems," he wrote, "are manifestations of structural failure in the global infrastructure" (1994, 9). In our circumstances, neither half-measures nor Band-Aid solutions will do. The vast infrastructure of steel, chemicals, and concrete characteristic of the modern world would have to be replaced with, as he put it, "neotechnic" solutions that are regenerative. Regeneration implies "replacing the present linear systems of throughput flows with cyclical flows" and moving "to a [world] rooted in natural processes" (ibid., 10-11). Regenerative systems would slow the velocity of water and materials, replacing machines with landscape. In such a world "mind and nature join in partnership" (ibid., 27).

Few have thought more deeply or more practically about what such a partnership with nature would mean. Lyle's vision of regenerative design was founded on 12 principles:

• Let nature i.e. natural processes do the work for us.

• Use nature as the model for human enterprise.

• Aggregate functions and processes to create resilience.

• Strive for optimum levels, not maximum.

• Match technology to needs.

• Replace power with information.

• Provide multiple pathways.

• Solve many problems simultaneously.

• Manage storage as a key to sustainability.

• Shape form to manifest process.

• Prioritize for sustainability.

For Lyle, these were not simply abstract principles, but guidelines for the development of the Center for Regenerative Studies and other projects in which he was engaged. In a larger context, the principles of regeneration were the blueprint for a society that would be powered by sunshine and grounded in the facts of nature, not grand ideologies or abstract economic theories. Consequently, society would operate at a scale, speed, and elegance fitted to natural systems. For Lyle, a regenerative society was not austere, but richer in experience, satisfaction, and conviviality.

In Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development (1994), Lyle described in great detail how a better and more sustainable society could provision itself with energy, materials, food, shelter, and cycle its waste. He did not stop with technical details but went on to the harder issue of politics. The largest obstacle to sustainable development was the "concentration] of power and resources among a very small number of people" (ibid., 264). Because they are smaller in scale, dispersed, and modular, regenerative technologies do not lend themselves so easily to the concentration of power. Rather than rely on the long-distance transport of energy, water, and materials, a regenerative society would make "their life support systems ... integral parts of the local landscape" (ibid., 266). Power and wealth in that society would be more dispersed.

How would a truly regenerative society come into existence? "How do we educate the mind in nature?" (Lyle 1994, 269). The crux of the matter is to change our manner of thinking, and this means changing both the substance and process of education to join art and science. The curriculum evolving at the Center for Regenerative Studies draws from many sources, including the work of John Dewey, but mostly Lyle thought it should emerge from the experience of the enterprise itself. Education in a "paleotechnic" society, Lyle wrote, "tends to focus on products, treating them as if they were frozen in time." But in an ecological perspective, "all that exists is in process" (ibid., 270). Education appropriate to a neotechnic society would begin with the basic facts of change and interconnected-ness. But how do we change educational institutions that have, as he put it, "strong tendencies toward rejection" (ibid., 273) of new ideas and integrative purposes? Lyle posed the question, but others will have to answer it. His role was to initiate the Center for Regenerative Studies in the faith that it would become part of a larger process of educational regeneration grounded in place and aiming toward permanence.

Lyle's strategy was rendered visible in the development of the Center for Regenerative Studies at Cal Poly, which he intended this to be a working model for students, faculty, and administrators. The center was to be more than an island sealed off within a larger structure. Lyle intended, rather, to change the very DNA of the institution, altering its evolution in order to engage the deep problems of our time. The subsequent history of the effort is unsurprising except for the fact that the vision has survived despite differences over administration and purposes. These are not, I think, unusual. A worldview rooted in the principles of regeneration is unavoidably at odds with the extractive mindset of the industrial order. Similarly, a curriculum that equips students for lives in a world that is ecologically durable runs counter to one that aims to equip students for success in a failing paleotechnic society. Implicit in Lyle's work is the challenge to find common ground between these two views in order to build a world that is ecologically solvent while retaining the hard-won advantages of an open and free society.

Lyle ended Regenerative Design by relating the potential for regenerating larger systems, cities, regions, and entire economies. His aim was to forge the links between locality and geographic regions and between ecology and an ecologically robust economics. He recognized that processes of degeneration were rooted in pre-ecological theories of economics and in massive subsidies to extractive industries. Regenerative solutions that worked with the ecology of specific places seldom received federal subsidies or research funding. He recognized the need for a larger revolution in the conduct of national and international affairs built on a more honest accounting of the costs of what we do.

Lyle's legacy is that rarest of gifts: the example of an honest and searching mind uncluttered by trivialities or intellectual fashion. His scholarship gives testimony to his remarkable breadth of knowledge and the clarity of his mind. But John Lyle was no pedant. He aimed, rather, to harness knowledge and research to improve the human table 18.1. Conflicting Paradigms: Paleotechnic versus Neotechnic

Paleotechnic Neotechnic

















Fossil fuels












Start-up costs

Life cycle

prospect by grounding it in the ecological realities of particular places and landscapes.

Lyle gave us a model of a better kind of education. He was an educator in the best sense of the word. In my experience with him over 15 years in various projects and settings, he never imposed, but rather quietly educed, which is to say, he brought forth ideas from his students and colleagues. He had an ecological view of learning which focused on process, interaction, and, above all, the power of good example. Lyle challenged his students in the 606 design studio and all of us to make something real of our ideas and to take responsibility for how those ideas are used in the world.

Lyle helped develop a larger response to the world in what he called environmental design, which is "where the earth and its processes join with human culture and behavior to create form . . . where people and nature meet where art and science join" (1994, ix). Design, the art of making things that fit harmoniously in an ecological context, is now beginning to inform architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, business, and economics. Lyle played a key role in what, I believe, later generations will regard as the ecological enlightenment that began in the final quarter of the twentieth century.

Finally, Lyle's legacy to us includes the example of a life lived with grace, stamina, and purpose. All of his colleagues, students, and clients would agree. Lyle combined exemplary professional skill, personal humility, kindness, and dogged determination. He joined style and substance to do the right things in the right way. The power of his work came from the synergy of steadiness and vision. He showed everyone who knew him that largeness of vision could and should come from largeness of spirit.

By all standards, John Lyle left behind a remarkable legacy. But what will institutions of higher education make of it? One answer is that it will be largely ignored in the same way that a body rejects a transplanted organ by sealing it off. The Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies would then be merely a museum of quaint ideas and technologies, but not the start of something fundamentally regenerative. On the other hand, the center could grow to be a transforming force throughout higher education. Lyle challenged us to talk and listen across the barriers of different intellectual perspectives and disciplines and to transcend the routines of hierarchical management and the pettiness that often pervades academic politics. He challenged us to develop a curriculum that joins head, hands, and heart and thereby make education an agent of regeneration in the world. But most important, John Lyle left his example of a man responding to the challenges of our time with good heart, imagination, professional skill, and hope.

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