Co-creation with Animals

Honor Award


Eugene, OR, USA
Tori Talbott, Student ASLA
Faculty Advisor: Roxi Thoren
University of Oregon

"This ingenious research project examines the ability of animals to be participants in the design process, especially in underperforming landscapes. Using a vacant site in the Pacific Northwest as a test area, a variety of bird roosting structures were built to test the most effective means of encouraging local birds to disperse seeds and shape the landscape’s restoration. The project sets the stage for further explorations of how animals can be active participants in remediation efforts, allowing them to help “design” responses to stormwater management, pollination, biodiversity, soil aeration, and water filtration. By creating with animals, and not just for them, this engaging project is a reminder that a well-functioning landscape serves all living things."

- 2019 Awards Jury

Project Statement

This research explores the potential for co-creation between animals and designers to restore ecological function to underperforming landscapes. Co-creation, in this case, is where animals participate in the design process in ways that are collaborative, functional and efficient. Findings suggest that designers may co-create landscapes with animals by harnessing functions like seed dispersal, pollination, soil aeration, construction of habitat structures, nutrient cycling, browsing and grazing, wood fragmentation, water filtration and damming. This research proposes a framework for co-creation with specific animal functions and outlines a process for prototype design intervention that is transferable to local restoration efforts. Prototype bird perches that encourage seed dispersal test this framework on a neglected site in Eugene, Oregon. The site and resident birds respond to the perches, producing a feedback loop that informs a succession of prototypes. The resulting designs are tailored to each site and produce cost-effective, suitable, and non-human-imposed outcomes.

Project Narrative

Inclusive landscape design provides subsistence for both humans and non-humans. This research explores ways to equitably address human and animal needs in shared spaces through co-creation, an approach that has not yet been done. Co-creation with animals involves participation from both the designer and animal in the design process. This approach is more complicated than creating for animals, because instead, it is about creating with animals.

In a field study program led by University of Oregon faculty member, Roxi Thoren, students were asked to produce site-specific art installations that co-created over time with a specific animal as collaborator. These projects influenced me to think about the potential to co-create with animals in a broader sense and through an ecological lens. I wondered: is it possible to co-create with all animals? Are there ways to co-create with animals to improve ecological function on a site? And, how do we get animals to show up and participate?

Ecological restoration is defined as "bringing the structure and functions of nature to areas where they have been removed by past land use disturbances (Society 2004, 3)." Facilitating animal participation for ecological restoration may result in more suitable and cost-effective designs because they are creating space for themselves. The resulting design may desegregate human and non-human space creating opportunities for public engagement with animal created spaces. Some designers address this kind of thinking in animal-aided design (Hauk and Weisser 2018), multispecies design (Dooreen et al. 2016) (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010) and biophilic design (Beatley 2016), but these design for animals rather than with animals.

In this research, successful co-creation satisfies a set of criteria derived from definitions of successful ecological restoration (Wortley et al. 2013). The design interventions must be collaborative, functional and efficient. First, the design must be a collaboration between animal and designer. Second, the design must function to achieve the desired ecological restoration. Third, the design must be efficient, i.e., cost effective, low maintenance, time sensitive and self-sufficient in order to compete with human-centered interventions. This research analyzes precedents of co-creation with animals to determine successful approaches to achieve ecological restoration, provides a typology of animal functions with potential for co-creation and provides a framework for how to approach designing with these animal functions. This framework is tested with prototype perches that encourage seed dispersal by birds on a neglected site in Eugene, Oregon.

Is it possible to co-create with all animals?

The precedent analysis shows designs that are more successful, meeting all three criteria: collaborative, functional and effective, tend to be human-led in animal spaces. If successful designs are mostly human-led, then designers cannot engage with all animal functions for a specific desired outcome because they do not happen at every site and at any time of year. However, this research has shown that human-led designs with animals that influence the structure and function of the landscape may enhance ecological restoration efforts.

Animals are geomorphic agents who shape ecosystems on a landscape scale based on their functions and relationships with other animals. Based on prior research by Bruce G. Marcot, a wildlife biologist, I provide a typology of animal functions with the potential for human-led co-creation in the Pacific Northwest. I produced a species composition analysis of each function to provide an understanding of the dominant animal actors. The animal functions that are available in the PNW are: seed dispersal, pollination, soil aeration, construction of habitat structures, nutrient cycling, browsing and grazing, wood fragmentation, water filtration and damming.

How can we co-create with animals to improve ecological function on a site?

The framework I developed in this project guides designers to create site-specific interventions that restore ecological structure and function. The framework starts with a particular site where the designer defines their goals based on historical conditions, reference landscapes or preference. The designer identifies the landscape needs and chooses from the list of animal functions that are available at the site to address them. Design interventions are explored through phases of prototypes to encourage that function. The process begins with model prototypes to determine efficiency with cost and energy. Feasible designs are tested with full size prototypes at the site and observed for meeting the criteria for success: collaborative, functional and efficient. Each phase of prototypes is informed by the animal and site response to refine and strengthen the design.

I tested this framework with a site on the University of Oregon campus that is representative of a vacant lot. I tested the seed dispersal animal function because it addresses most of the landscape needs in a vacant lot such as stormwater management, biodiversity, plant abundance, habitat, pollination, bioremediation and cultural benefits.

So, how do we get animals to show up and participate?

Contextual analysis must be conducted for each site, including an assessment of dominant animal actors. The species inhabiting or proximate to a site determine the possible design intervention. For seed dispersal on the site in Oregon, birds are the more abundant animal actors and confirmed dominant animal available on the site. To encourage seed dispersal, I test various perch designs that will encourage birds to disperse seeds from surrounding areas. The prototype models are inspired by bird perching behavior. One provides tree limbs as a naturalistic option, the second provides an incentive with nesting materials, the third provides different directions for perching, and the fourth provides varying heights.

This test was conducted over a two-week period in the spring. Observation methods to evaluate success are case specific. In this case, sticky paper was set up underneath the prototypes to map seed dispersal and bird activity. The perches were observed daily for an hour after sunrise for four days each phase. The observations of the initial trial phase inform how to refine and strengthen the prototypes in subsequent phases. For the spring time in Oregon, the birds at this location seemed to be most encouraged by the prototype providing nesting material. Based on this feedback, I tested a new phase of prototypes that provided additional incentives like shelter and food.

This test determined an efficient and collaborative direction. In order to establish a functional design, the timing of the intervention must coincide with the desired seeding or fruiting plants and with the birds that disperse them. These prototypes will inform an intentional design intervention at the landscape scale, or, the landscape with equivalent ecological conditions. The number, size and location will influence the animal function patterns. This research also showed potential to test prototypes for specific bird species to disperse specific plants. The design at the landscape scale will continue to be directed and maintained by animal and site response.

Co-creating with animal functions can provide landscape architects with efficient solutions for neglected sites that cannot be addressed due to resource scarcity. The resulting animal-centric designs may be more cost effective because the animals are already providing these services, more suitable for native species because the species themselves are creating the space and it is not human imposed. Creating with animals and engaging the public through design communication will make nature more accessible in urban areas, provide urban refuges for animals, and create opportunities for the public to care about animals and their needs. Co-creation with animals is site-specific, but the framework is transferable. Prototyping is the process for understanding how to design ecological restoration to more responsibly incorporate animal needs. Future research can explore co-creation potential in depth with each of the functions and how they may be applied to landscape needs at various sites. This research starts the conversation about what is possible in co-creating with animals and what is an appropriate way to evaluate success.