The term “sustainable design” often conjures the sense of a fixed objective; a steady state to be achieved through a limited range of clearly articulated criteria; a box to be checked. Everything we know about our current situation on planet earth reminds us that the opposite is true. Sustainability is rather the very horizon of our ethical understanding of our role in shaping the world; a horizon that expands with every step we take towards it.

Sustainability as the topic motivating the Institute for Ecological Design presents us with two linked conundrums to solve: First, that the discipline of Making must now think through its objects as systems of systems in both space and time, subject to feedback loops of bewildering complexity and consequence; second, that there are no solutions to the problem of sustainability in the abstract. Even the most well understood objectives require disciplinary skill and interdisciplinary insight be put to the test against singular circumstances. The first points us outward towards the horizon. The second returns us to our unique role as designers in making a more sustainable future real.

The goal of the Institute for Ecological Design is to advance sustainability research in the design fields, advance sustainable practice through consulting on high-performance design projects, to collect critical data and develop design standards to inform public policy, and to lead ecological design education and curriculum development.

For the past three years, the Institute for Ecological Design has led an international effort to study industrial harbor revitalization. The purpose is to advance knowledge across the spectrum of ecological architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design all focused on identifying catalytic potentials for the redevelopment of Milwaukee’s Inner Harbor. This research has taken place across all levels of SARUP’s architecture and planning programs and provided a forum for students, faculty, business leaders, elected officials, and the general public to envision the future of Milwaukee’s industrial waterfront. These efforts were highlighted in the Mayor’s State of the City address and included in the ten-year Sustainability Plan for Milwaukee that identified the Inner Harbor Project as a keystone project for the next decade.

This impact is visible in a master plan for stormwater and habitat restoration projects at the School for Freshwater Science that is being built in collaboration with the City’s reconstruction of Greenfield Avenue. It has also supported City of Milwaukee efforts to restore the last remaining wetland within the Milwaukee Estuary.

For more information, contact James Wasley, Director of the Institute for Ecological Design.