Zoë Metherell: Designing for people and biodiversity

As a practicing landscape architect, Zoë Metherell saw that land transformation could have a positive impact on biodiversity. Now nearing the end of her PhD, Zoë talks us through her interdisciplinary research journey, and why she is optimistic about the future.

The pathway to a PhD

A profile image of Zoe MetherellI started out at RMIT, where I did my undergraduate degree in landscape architecture. We learnt some science, but it was mostly a design degree.

After about six years in the field, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue in landscape architecture. I’d always been interested in science and I thought I’d like to know more about science policy and some of the bigger-picture questions. That’s why I chose the Master of Environment.

By then, I was working at a landscape architect firm that specialised in children’s landscapes, so I did a lot of work on school grounds and playgrounds, trying to introduce more nature play. One of my favorite projects was Growing Wild at Melbourne Zoo, which is all about connecting children with nature and helping them to develop a love of nature.

I also worked on a project duplicating a railway line over Merri Creek, during which we had to consider how to complete the work ecologically.

These questions kept coming up. They got me thinking about doing a PhD in urban ecology with the School of BioSciences, and eventually led on to what I’m researching now.

Designing for Biodiversity

The Clifton Hill Railway Project that Zoe helped to designI’ve always been really interested in biodiversity. I think biodiversity loss, and conservation and enhancement for biodiversity, is an extremely serious issue.

One of the big causes of biodiversity loss is transforming land. And I realised - “Well, that’s what landscape architects do. Maybe they could change their practices so that transforming land becomes positive, rather than negative.”

That is the reason I feel hope and excitement, and that drives my passion for what I do. It’s not so much focusing on the sad story of extinction - I get to study how we can do something about it.

There needs to be a way to design for people and biodiversity.

Implementing Strategy

Part of the Melbourne Zoo project that Zoe worked onThere has been a lot of work around planning and big-scale landscape architecture. What I’m interested in is how to do it on a smaller scale.

When I started my PhD I also started my own practice, ZM Environments. The idea was to use that as a vehicle for case study projects. So, I’m combining science and design, and I’m combining practice and research. I’m halfway between everything!

I’ve completed two case study projects. The first was with the City of Moonee Valley, who wanted to implement a design scenario showing how a recreational park could also cater for biodiversity.

After that, I worked with landscape architects for the City of Melbourne, developing a toolkit to help them design for biodiversity. They already had a biodiversity strategy, but they needed to know how to implement it. The project was basically about exploring tools and methods necessary to address gaps from the beginning.

Challenges of interdisciplinary research

I’m not proposing a new field, since landscape architecture has long been about integrating ecology. But a lot of the work that’s been done is about strategic planning and bigger picture stuff, rather than design. Design is about forming a space at more of a site scale. There’s less known about how you apply science in that context, which is what I’m exploring.

I’m also exploring how design can influence science, rather than how science can inform design.

Any interdisciplinary research poses a challenge. That’s why they set up Master of Environment. The program is really amazing, you can pick and choose from different Faculties and make your own course. I got a lot out of doing that.

Planning for a biodiversity-friendly garden

Part of a plan for an ecologically designed gardenIt’s been shown that if people make their garden more habitat-friendly, increasing biodiversity and wildlife, their mental and physical health benefits! I think there’s a lot more awareness about that lately, with the recent coronavirus. People are asking themselves where they can go to get that restorative feeling.

So, it’s not just what habitat gardening can do for biodiversity. It can actually do a lot for people, too.

I remember one of my supervisors, Mark McDonnell, telling me at the beginning of my PhD, “Everything is an ecosystem, Zoë. Even if you’re not designing it to be one, it is still an ecosystem.” So, in a sense, every garden is a habitat garden. But is it enhancing biodiversity? That’s where the focus should be.

Changing for the better

We’re doing things all the time, making incremental changes. If you’re changing the land, you also have the ability to make a big change for the better. It doesn’t have to cause biodiversity loss.

With the motivation and the right tools, people are starting to do that now. That makes me feel optimistic. It’s important to hold onto that.

Just lately, with coronavirus, we’ve seen a lot of really big changes happen really quickly. The City of Melbourne is taking out parking to make room on the street because more people are walking or riding their bikes instead of driving. It just goes to show that things can change suddenly, and in a good way.

Zoë acknowledges the incredible support of her PhD supervisors Dr Amy Hahs, Professor Gini Lee and Dr Mark McDonnell. She thanks the Moonee Valley City Council and the City of Melbourne for the opportunity to collaborate on research projects and recognises all those who have worked with her to design for people and biodiversity. Her research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

Connect with Zoë Metherell via her website and LinkedIn, where you can also join the Science Alumni group.