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Bloor-Annex BIA Parkettes - DTAH, Toronto, ON

The Wonderful Messiness of Multispecies Design

Text by Heather Schibli, OALA

First, I noticed the eggs, red and glossy, arranged in tidy rows on a serviceberry leaf. Good, I thought to myself. After all, this was the point of my planting native species in my backyard. Having channeled Douglas Tallamy and Akira Miyawaki, an entomologist and a botanist, respectively, I had planted thirty odd species of trees and shrubs with an emphasis on oaks, cherries, and maples. Although this planting is very much for my own benefit, the design was also informed by the needs of other species, our fellow earthlings.

Our property is surrounded by an abutting parking lot, residential homes, and multiplexes. I live downtown where I can walk to work, to my daughter’s school, and to the city centre. I welcome urban density and the diversity of people; however, sometimes I yearn for the forest. Sometimes, I yearn for other species. I know I am not alone in this sentiment. If I were, there would be far fewer cottages, no eco-tourism, birding, nor ornamental gardening. So, to address this desire, I have planted a broad array of native species within my property. And I hope this forest I planted will one day tower over our house, the multiplexes, and the parking lot. I hope this miniature, pocket-sized forest will house birds, insects, mammals, and fungi. I hope it will teem with life.

Last year, when I first noticed those tiny red eggs, this little forest was small in stature. These trees are just babies, still small enough to be clipped clean by a rabbit in winter. Curious, I searched for more eggs. To my delight, I found more, and then… more. A creeping dread settled in replacing my initial enthusiasm. I worried there were perhaps too many eggs. It is hard not to meddle; I had to actively curb my impulse to remove those eggs. Within a couple weeks, the eggs hatched, revealing first-instar boxelder bugs. Like the red eggs from which they emerged, these young, soft-bodied insects gleamed bright red against the rich green foliage. Boxelder bugs are true bugs, sporting straw-like mouth pieces for feeding. They can’t bite. A North American species, boxelder bugs are named after their preferred host plant, the boxelder tree, which is better known in Ontario as the Manitoba maple. Although unpalatable to many, these critters are food for other insects, spiders, birds, and mammals. They fed upon my little forest, though, aside from their presence, evidence of feeding evaded me. No damage could be seen on my thriving trees.

Boxelder bug illustration. IMAGE/ Heather Schibli

In his last book, E.O. Wilson pleads for humanity to protect 50 per cent of the Earth’s surface for species other than humans. This sounds like a lot, but, flipped upside down, it is far more striking that just one species (us) takes a full half of the planet, which is home to an estimated 8.7 million species. Of course, there are species that live with us too, but those numbers pale in comparison to all that is on this planet. Likewise, the 30X30 movementis an international push to protect a minimum 30 per cent of land and water by 2030, plus another 20 per cent protected as climate stabilization areas, which is deemed necessary for any hope of staying within a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in global annual temperatures. These targets are geared to protecting what intact biodiversity and high carbon stocks remain. But what about the rest? What of the places we call home?

I hope 30X30 is implemented and upheld and I hope we attain E.O. Wilson’s dream of 50 per cent global protection. These protections, however, do not challenge western culture’s binary ideology of human versus nature. Nature with a capital ‘N’: pure and elsewhere, protected from us humans. But nature is neither pure nor elsewhere. We are nature, it just so happens the habitats our species creates within the global dominant culture tend to exclude most other life. What if we adopted a land ethic that recognized and embraced the messy entanglement of life on this planet? What if we designed our spaces to celebrate life by creating habitats and providing food for biodiversity? Instead of selecting the standard ‘pest free’ Eurasian cultivars we’ve come to rely on, what if we planted these spaces to support insect development? Like milkweeds and monarchs. Like oaks and the 450+ species of moths and butterflies they host.

I challenge you to adopt a land ethic whereby a full 50 per cent of your designs consider and aim to support species other than us. How? By employing multispecies design, which is the practice of designing systems, spaces, and objects that address the needs of humans and of non-human species, thereby supporting biodiversity. Try employing the following multispecies design principles adapted from Daniel Metcalf’s 2015 thesis “Multispecies Design."

Garden, white ash, Ocellate gall midge, red maple leaf, smooth serviceberry leaf and flat-tailed leaf-cutter bee and garden illustrations. IMAGE/ Heather Schibli

1. Non-human species as clients of design
In addition to designing for humans, consider plants, fungi, and/or animals as your clients. This can be accomplished with targeted species design, whereby a species is identified and their habitat requirements to feed, breed, rest, and nest are researched and implemented. More generally speaking, adopting multispecies design elements is to introduce complexity in both form and function. For instance, include multiple food sources and irregular terrain. Incorporate many native plant species with varying shapes and sizes into your design. Complexity is key.

2. Human/non-human interaction as  a designed experience
Consider the interface between humans and non-humans, but also between wild and domesticated animals. How might this space be utilized by humans and their pets? How might their usership impact wild animals, fungi, and plants? For example, enlisting amphibians or birds as clients where cats frequent undermines the goal of multispecies design. Most species conflicts arise from routine feeding by humans to other species. Minimize species dependencies on humans within your design. Control access through programming and design elements.

3. Human created systems are extensions  of ecological systems
It is crucial to recognize our habitats are part of larger ecological systems. Much like beavers, our actions define our habitats. We are a keystone species. The ways we define our habitats greatly impact other species. Our habitats—cities, agricultural fields, parks, city blocks—are not outside of ecological systems, but merely spaces within. How does your design impact the landscape’s ecological functionality?

4. Respect for other species
This can best be achieved by minimizing maintenance. Know that other species possess intelligence we may or may not perceive. Trust their capabilities and respect their autonomy. For instance, leave the leaves. Trees and their allies (insects, fungi, etc.) have evolved to capitalize on fallen leaves. Leave them! Leave dead stalks and seedheads over winter and into late spring. If you must cut them, leave them on the ground in situ. There are likely insects housed within those stalks. And the material will nourish the soil ecology.

Life on this planet is messy and complex, and that is exactly what makes it so exquisitely beautiful. “Messy” is a loaded word. In land ownership, it is often tied to “unkept.” But perhaps if we consider messy as the complex web of life that is unknowable and ultimately beyond our control, we can begin to welcome other species’ autonomy into our spaces. There are many boxelder bugs in my backyard. I have since learned that boxelders collectively insert their straw like mouths into the seeds of Manitoba maples, whereby they liquify the contents before slurping them up. The female fruit-bearing Manitoba maple in my neighbour’s backyard explains the profuse number of boxelder bugs in my yard. I don’t want Manitoba maples germinating within my forest; thus, I am both relieved for leaving those eggs and pleased to share this space with these insects. Another benefit I’ve seen from their presence is that my daughter, who was at first afraid of these black and red insects, has since built a relationship with them. She now gently carries them to safe havens and prides herself on becoming a good steward.

BIO/ Heather Schibli, OALA, is a landscape architect, ecologist, and arborist, who draws upon her deep affinity for the natural world to guide her design practice and consulting work for Dougan & Associates, a Guelph-based terrestrial ecology firm. Since 2019, she has been an administrator for the Network of Nature (formally CanPlant), which is a partnership with Canadian Geographic that is dedicated to supporting and restoring Canada’s unique biodiversity against the stresses of development, extraction, and climate change.