Creative Feedback Loops for Community, Education, and Stewardship


It is said that landscape ecology plays out on a regional scale, but that it occurs locally. The same could be said of the adoption of environmental stewardship practices. Success may be measured in terms of mainstream adoption, but it occurs one individual at a time. The road to adoption of these practices begins with ecological awareness. As designers, we have the power to bring ecological awareness through our built-works. To that end, my creative practice is driven by the notion that our mounting environmental challenges demand new interdisciplinary education models, communication methods, and direct-action campaigns.

My mission-driven projects, often a hybrid of art, design, and science communication, are intended to foster environmental awareness and ultimately action. Based on my experience and research, the lesson is clear: to make an impact, environmental communication must be accessible, informative, and provide opportunity for fluid feedback. Making ecological issues relevant to popular culture in one way or another is critical. There are many ways to do so, but my most successful projects typically employ a combination of community engagement, education, and accessible aesthetics that intentionally foster feedback between myself, collaborative communities, and the work itself. In many respects, the effectiveness of a project is largely determined by the quality of its feedback: between designer and community, material and site, process and the built work. That said, fostering iterative dialogues may be one of the most far-reaching investments of our collective design effort. 

Iterative Feedback Loops for Community Collaboration, Education, and Shared Stewardship

Practice Model for Ongoing Feedback Embedded in Project Engagement and Education Program

hemlock hospice

Hemlock Hospice was a year-long, art-based interpretive trail I designed and built with a team of interdisciplinary collaborators at Harvard University’s research forest. Framed as a science-communication initiative, this immersive installation project told the story of the ongoing demise of the eastern hemlock tree at the hands of a tiny invasive insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). The Hemlock Hospice interpretive trail featured 18 site-specific sculptures installed throughout a 200-year-old grove of hemlocks. While telling the story of the loss of eastern hemlock, the project addressed larger issues of climate change, human impact, and the future of New England forests. The project employed a model of landscape stewardship that combines installation art, public programming, and shared cultural experience. The exchange of ideas and creative feedback loops between myself and the Harvard Forest researchers was a critical success factor to the work. 

Inspired by fallen hemlock trees on site, Exchange Tree (right) functions as a low-tech interactive installation. Visitors are welcome to reflect on the declining hemlock forest by leaving a handwritten message on blue ribbons. The personal notes, tied to the installation by visitors, are for the trees, for future forests, or for others. Ribbons are collected and recorded quarterly and will be published as part of a year-long outreach campaign. 

The Exchange Tree installation is an example of the Hemlock Hospice project’s two pronged approach. This two-year project can be divided into two phases. Phase one is the collaborative creation of the built work. Phase two is leveraging the temporary installation as an outreach asset in support of the Harvard Forest’s education mission. 

When possible, recycled and salvaged materials were used to create Hemlock Hospice installations. Decommissioned Harvard Forest field experiments, known as “eco debris” among researchers, were the primary source of recycled materials. This design practice is an example of how material was chosen to reflect the Harvard Forest community, their work, and their dedication to sustainable research methods.

The installations take on additional meaning for on-site researchers as they see their old field equipment transformed into new science communication media. The material culture not only serves as a prompt for the Hemlock Hospice narrative, but also speaks to past scientific studies embedded in the work.

The material choice represents two strong subcultures at the Harvard Forest; the high-tech culture of field research, and the low-tech “boots on the ground” culture of forestry. The majority of wood in the project was either salvaged from scrap wood piles, or milled to specification by the Harvard Forest sawmill operation.

Global Warming Warning made from decommissioned data-shed and firewood, and Forest Lantern No. 2., a fabric installation.

Examples of installations created from recycled/salvaged materials: Double Assault made from reclaimed sawmill blade, Insect Landing made from construction debris (old banisters), and Wayfinding Barrier No. 2 made from ant nests, specimen tray, heat lamp, and sawmill scraps.

HWA Tent. Collaborations with Jackie Barry, Dr. Aaron Ellison, Tim Lillis, Salua Rivero, and Lisa Ward.

Examples of fabric-based installations: left, 6th Extinction Flag

The Hemlock Hospice installations were not just site-specific, they were also culture-specific; as they were created to represent the environmental ethos of the Harvard Forest community. This cultural feedback is reflected in the narrative and forms of the work, but also in the material selection. In response to the sensitive nature of the research forest, all temporary installations were low-impact by design. When possible, ecologically-sensitive materials, such as durable fabrics, were used as alternatives to paints and plastics. Marine-grade fabrics were sourced to withstand harsh forest conditions. Installations “pop” in the landscape due to selected fabric’s ability to capture and reflect the limited sunlight available within the dark hemlock woods.

The Hemlock Hospice project was more than an art installation; it was ultimately a program-driven outreach campaign. The installations served as the foundation for an event-based public engagement strategy. Both public events and strategic invitation-only events, were supported by a coordinated outreach effort. This year-long engagement was executed by a diverse team including internal communication professionals at Harvard, external PR consultants, and allied community partners. In many respects the final phase of the outreach effort closed the feedback loop for the two-year project.

warming warning

Warming Warning was a collaborative public art project installed on Harvard University’s Science Center Plaza (1 Oxford St. Cambridge, MA) from October 22nd to December 7th, 2018. This educational installation was a co-creation by myself, Harvard Forest Senior Ecologist Aaron M. Ellison and an interdisciplinary team of scientists and artists. The piece combined art, environmental design, and science communication to convey global climate change data and spur action. The 9’ x 10.5’ x 28’ sculpture was coupled with events, both on and off campus, that were geared towards local work on climate and pathways for direct action. Creating a space for dialogue and feedback between local communities was central to the project’s mission.  

Local Warming Warning programs included events at Le Laboratoire, Somerville Museum, Cambridge Public Schools Design Lab, Project Zero/Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Science Center Plaza. 

Warming Warning immersed visitors in a three-dimensional visualization of ongoing climate change. On one side, the > 1.5°F change (since 1880) in global average temperature was highlighted as a white-to-red heat gradient. The other side illustrated different future scenarios of carbon dioxide emissions. These are the paths we can take now that will lead either to a fossil fuel-free future or to an increasingly warm and uninhabitable planet. 

The design represented climate change as a series of painted triangles (“deltas”) constructed from standard 4×6’’ timbers. Sunlight channeled and diffused through 6’’ gaps bounced off the brightly painted sides, endowing the whole sculpture with luminosity. Shadow patterns and color-spectrum vibrancy shifted as the sculpture reflected the sun’s daily arc. The visual experience of the installation also changed in response to the visitor’s perspective. The combined dynamics animated the work throughout the day and rewarded repeat visits. 

Finally, Warming Warning left space for more triangles to be added at the end of the series. A stack of nine wood timbers made up a reflection bench that suggested each person’s role in the narrative of unfolding climate change. The primed seating element prompted each visitor to consider how they can color the future through individual and collective actions to confront climate change.

This collaborative project was supported by a unique partnership between the Harvard Forest, Harvard University’s Office for Sustainability, and Harvard Common Spaces. 

Various views of Warming Warning installation at Harvard University’s Science Center Plaza, Fall 2018.

DAVID BUCKLEY BORDEN is an interdisciplinary designer, artist, and cultural producer working at the intersection art, design, and ecology. Informed by research and community engagement, David promotes a shared environmental awareness and heightened cultural value of ecology. David’s place-based projects highlight both pressing environmental issues and everyday phenomena. Using an accessible, often humorous, combination of visual art and landscape design, David’s work manifests in a variety of forms, ranging from site-specific public art installations in the woods to data-driven cartography in the gallery.

David is currently a Design Fellow at the Fuller Initiative for Productive Landscapes and Visiting Professor within the Landscape Architecture Department at the School of Architecture and Environment at the University of Oregon. In addition to teaching design-research studios and environmental-communication coursework through the lens of his practice, David is spearheading a new design-ecology initiative between the Department and the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, a 16,000-acre Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Oregon’s Western Cascades Mountains. David is honored to be the first Designer-in-Residence in the history of the HJ Andrews’ National Science Foundation funded LTER program.

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