Last December, we had the opportunity to meet Jon Dolan, a brilliant Scottish landscaper/architect who works for the landscaping design company Salad Dressing. Based in Singapore, the company focuses on designing and developing unique landscape designs for various types of climates and companies around the world, with a specialization in Pacific Asia. In this interview, John communicates the importance of landscaping while planning responsible tourism projects.
Hopineo: How can landscaping relate to responsible tourism?
Jon: We think eco-tourism should allow humans to reconnect with nature. Landscape designers are the negotiators between people and nature. As a landscape designer, I’ve found that there is a niche, where we can play our role in the bigger picture of conservation. A vital yet often overlooked part of human willingness to respond to the adverse changes in our climate and natural world is based on how we feel about the land, and our emotional attachment to the land.
That is where a negotiator can help, to show the beauty and fragility of the land, to showcase the natural world within our modern contexts, and allow people to develop an emotion for lost nature. Eco-tourism is usually concerned with showing people the dwindling natural world, with showing people new green technologies and for using science and studies to back up our reason for conserving nature.
What a landscape designer can hopefully do is inspire the need to conserve nature from a different perspective; grabbing an inherent sense of biophilia we all have in us and allowing us to dream of flora and fauna returning to our urbanized world.
Hopineo: How can landscaping help preserve a site’s natural ecosystem?
Jon: Before design, first we need to understand the natural history of the site, to know the plants and animals that should be there or used to be there. We also see what plants and animals are on the site now, and why or how they appeared. We establish how we can bring out the natural beauty of the site by building with plants, and if that beauty can be sustained by itself.
The natural order of succession can be started again or encouraged to continue, so our understanding of local plants is critical. We also look at water, how it can be cleansed by plants and how water can play a role in each particular ecosystem, usually of course in natural forests fresh water is incredibly vital.
Hopineo :How do you quantify the benefits of sustainable landscaping?
Jon : For us, as negotiators between humans and nature, nothing is more valuable than bringing out the natural beauty of the land. For example, if we can extract the essence of natural rainforest and place it successfully in an urban condition for people to feel a reattachment to plants and animals, we believe that is of huge benefit.
There are of course some clients and developers that need to know reasons other than the immaterial. Of course our knowledge of plants and trees can control the microclimate of their development, bring shade and fresh air to a building or an outdoor space. Landscaping can solve water discharge problems, it can solve maintenance problems by providing the correct species for each location etc.
But I think the main way that we can use landscape for conservation is to resonate the charm and beauty of nature through as many people as possible. Because people who are in love with the natural world, feel the saddest when they see it being destroyed, and they are the first to act to sustain our environment.
Hopineo: What project are you most proud of?
Jon: (for replacing a section of a rainforest back within the city.)
We are probably most proud of SG Enable, which recently won the president’s design award. We took a section of the forest, the natural forest that used to thrive in Singapore, and we replaced it back into an urban setting. The environment at SG enable is a microclimate controlled by plants and a number of water systems. The water is cleansed by plants, a process known as phytoremediation, and no filters are required. Fish and animals enjoy fresh clean water, and people are allowed to observe the whole balance.
What we did is not about conserving the past, rather it is a conservation of the present. By working with conservationists who feel as strongly for nature as we do, we also established a conservation of the future. Naturally occurring biodiversity is a work in progress, we still go down to the site today and add things like epiphytes onto the trees for example. But we have started to create memories within a forest garden in the city. The feeling of the rainforest is there, and people visiting SG Enable will feel an attachment to the gardens and the water as they use the site on a daily basis. This is creating a feeling to conserve the land, by bringing the forgotten rainforests back into our daily lives.
(For establishing a love for the land, from within the forest)
Jon: We also talked about our treetop cinema. Placed in the forests of Borneo, we built a tower reaching 20m up into the canopies of the trees, and built a cinema at the top. It was all removed within a week without leaving behind a physical trace.
All that remains now is the visceral memory of being high in the canopies of the trees, observing the natural forest from a precarious vantage point that is unusual for humans. We showed a movie called Sandokan, which bridges the gap between the west and Borneo, and we also showcased the insects and molluscs of the forest canopies.
But the sudden absence of something powerful leaves behind a resonance in the emotions of those who witnessed it. It can be very moving and almost tragic for those who had recognized its value. Memory creates nostalgia, the feeling and fear of losing something. The absence after a deep encountering, hopefully will serve as a catalyst to spread conservation of the forest.
(For the conservation of an existing forest)
Jon: As for resorts, we spoke about Alila Bintan. This was our first project involving the conservation of a whole ecosystem as we introduced the resort. It was about the creation of spaces within the forest and trying as much as possible to conserve the environment and repair the parts previous damaged.
This project was significant because of the fact that the path to conserving the environment and the rainforest was a conscious and deliberate choice taken, by the design team and the client. Built structures of course were incurred onto the area, but we fully integrated them while managing to conserve the entire ecosystem. By understanding the land, and the complex biodiversity of nature, 1074 trees in total that are easily more than 30m high were saved by our development.
We looked at our role as designers who express the beauty of plants. We were in a site that was not empty, but a site that was rich with lifeforms and a semi-established order of nature. We had the opportunity to work with people who had passion in the conservation of the rainforest, who stemmed from completely different backgrounds. Successful eco-tourism requires a diverse and passionate team to produce a place for humans to feel something for nature again. This is why careful eco-tourism operators are critical.
The rainforest has such an enormous presence, that the magnitude of this giant living and breathing mass cannot be easily disregarded when it is entered. We conserved as much as possible for the resort to allow people to feel closeness with nature. It is our hope that this close engagement will highlight to everyone the importance of humans integrating into a natural environment, and build a desire to protect it as much as possible.
Hopineo: What are the main challenges you are currently facing?
Jon: Mainly to find clients who put real value into the land, although we have had some success with this. It is to find people who recognize that good design can assist the scientists and specialists in the actual role of conserving, by creating emotion in individuals to support conservation. It is to find people who enjoy the beauty of nature coming back to the urban context. It is to work with governments or be noticed by them for showcasing the importance of plants and animals living together with humans.
But if we stay passionate, and find others who have fallen in love with the land, there really is nothing challenging to accomplish.