Carnegie Mellon University
msides_phd_design_2024.pdf (61.27 MB)

Relate, Repair, Restore. Ecological transitions by design

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posted on 2024-05-29, 20:09 authored by Madeline Sides

 Environmental degradation is a super wicked problem. Changes in global  climate and land use are driving undesirable ecological transitions that put the  futures of human and non-human communities at risk. At numerous locations  worldwide, ecological restoration projects are being carried out to steer the  direction of these changes and mitigate their impacts. Yet, the framings and  approaches that governments, NGOs, and other restoration actors use to guide  restoration initiatives too often leave out the human dimensions of restoring  ecosystems. They frame environmental degradation as primarily a matter of  biophysical characteristics of place, overlooking the past and present connections  ecosystems hold to human life and culture. This oversight significantly limits our  understanding of the problems to be solved and the range of solutions available  when we restore.

 In this doctoral dissertation in Transition Design, I present evidence  from case studies, practitioner interviews, and participation in restoration in  Northern California to examine why some restoration initiatives support holistic  socio-ecological change while others practice restoration as a one-dimensional,  technological solution to environmental degradation. My primary research  question concerns how damaged and degraded ecosystems can be restored in  ways that simultaneously address the degradation’s symptoms and root causes.  Through this inquiry based on the four nodes of the Transition Design framework, I  also surface new knowledge, mindsets, and postures for designing from ecosystem  restoration practice that can augment our capacity to intervene wisely in living  systems in general.  

The evidence I present in this dissertation suggests that we should  reconceptualize ecosystem restoration as a practice of designing interventions  toward beneficial ecological transitions. It also emphasizes restorationists’ capacity  to work as localized problem-solvers and visionaries at the landscape scale. By  embracing a design mindset for restoring nature, we learn to see ourselves as part  of nature. When we see ourselves as part of nature, we are more inclined to deeply  consider the human dimensions of addressing environmental harm. By bringing  ecological restoration into conversation with Transition Design, this research aims  to increase the capacity of restorationists and designers to steward beneficial socio?ecological transitions that benefit people and the planet. 




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • Design

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Jonathan Chapman Gideon Kossoff

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