18 A Higher Order of Heroism

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In the towns and cities across America, it is common to find a town

square with a large monument to one military hero or another. Seldom,

however, does one find the designers of those towns or town

squares similarly memorialized. A smarter and more durable society

would first acknowledge those with the foresight and dedication to

design our places well, not just those who defended them in times of

trouble.We need to recognize a higher order of heroism—those who

helped avoid conflict, harmonized human communities with their

surroundings, preserved soil and biological diversity, and created the

basis for a more permanent peace than that possible to forge by violence.

These are quiet heroes and heroines who work mostly out of

the light of publicity. The few who do receive public acclaim are

mostly reticent about the attention they get. Some like Frederick Law

Olmsted, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson develop a wide international

following. Most, however, labor in obscurity, content to do

their work for the satisfaction of doing things well. John Lyle, professor

of landscape architecture at California Polytechnic Institute, was

such a man.

I met John in the mid-1980s during a visit to Cal Poly. During the

two days we spent together, we talked about his concept of regenerative

design and his plans for the Center for Regenerative Studies, now

named the Lyle Center, and walked over the site—located between a

large landfill and the university. In subsequent years, John and I met at

conferences and sometimes collaborated on design projects, including

one located in a remote, hilly, southern rural community. Our first site

visit coincided with an ice storm the previous day that had covered

the region with an inch of ice. We got within a mile of the site in a

rental car, but had to make our way down a long, steep hill with a

sheer drop of several hundred feet on one side. For the final mile on

what passed for a dirt road in that part of the country, the rental car

was useless, so we began to slip, slide, and tumble our way down the

hill. Near the bottom, the road banked steeply to the right, but we

had to reach a trail on the left side. There was no way to walk across

that ice-covered dirt road to the other side, so we did what professionals

in our circumstances are trained to do: we crawled across the

ice on our hands and knees. Midway, hands bleeding, John turned to

me and said, “I don’t mind crawling this way, or even getting run over

by a pickup truck, but I sure hope no one sees us.”We both laughed so

hard that we lost our grip on the ice and slid backward into the ditch.

Later that day I learned that John had diabetes.

When I began the project described in chapter 14, John was the

first person I called to help organize the effort behind what later became

the Adam Joseph Lewis Center at Oberlin College. John’s dedication

to that project was legendary. Flying from California, he

would usually arrive in Oberlin about midnight, but would be ready

to work by 8 A.M. the next morning. On more than one occasion he

arrived in town too late to get a hotel room and spent the night in a

rental car or on whatever spare couch he could find, always without a

whisper of complaint. John was that kind of person—modest, diligent,

self-denying, creative, and supportive of those around him.

I talked with John in the spring of 1998 before I left on a trip to

Greece. He had a nagging cough and was scheduled for a checkup.On

my return I called to inquire how he was feeling. “They’ve given me

two weeks to live,” he replied. Stunned, I sat down to write a farewell

letter to a man I’d come to depend on as a valued colleague, friend,

and mentor. Words at times like that are utterly inadequate, but

they’re all we have. That letter read in part: “The Oberlin project

simply would not have happened without your dedication and quiet

competence from the very beginning. In more ways than I can recount,

you held things together. You were a rock throughout the entire

effort. For that and for all of the late-night trips to Oberlin, the

untold hours of work on the landscape design and on the entire project—

thank you, thank you, thank you.” When my mind goes back to

John Lyle, it is always with gratitude for the time spent with him and

for the example of his life. Before he died, Oberlin College named the

plaza in front of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center the John Lyle Plaza.

On the Cal Poly campus John Lyle’s legacy is the Center for Regenerative

Studies—the facility that he helped conceive and develop.

The center represents the manifestation of his thought about architecture,

integrated design, and the educational process, as well as an

utterly clear-headed view of the human predicament in the twentyfirst

century. John’s professional work, both written and built, is a

legacy in the form of a challenge to the conventional wisdom of our

time. Trained as an architect and landscape architect, John was a pioneer

in a new and more encompassing field of ecological design that

embraced virtually all of the liberal arts. He left behind a body of

ideas in two remarkable books and dozens of articles. That portion of

his legacy comes as a challenge to all of us, but especially to educational


First, John Lyle challenged us to face the fact that “we have created

a world that is simultaneously growing out of control and progressively

destroying itself” (1997, 1). A world designed around linear

flows will, in due course, come to ruin. As a result, this generation of

students will live in a radically altered world. Sometime in 2001

world population passed 6 billion, and it may reach 8–10 billion

within the lifetime of a current university student. Given present

trends of species loss, these young people will live in a steadily more

biologically impoverished world. Estimates vary, but it is not inconceivable

that 15–20 percent of the species now extant will disappear

within the next 60 years, with consequences that we cannot know.

This will be the first generation ever to experience human-driven climatic

change and with it increased storms and storm damage, rising

sea levels, droughts, heat waves, spreading diseases, and political turmoil.

These and other trends will interact in ways we will not foresee.

All of this is to say that the rising generation will live in far more

volatile and stressful world than any previous generation. And none

has ever faced a more daunting agenda.

But Lyle’s legacy to us is not one of despair, denial, or wishful

thinking built on fantasies of heroic technologies or salvation by economic

growth. It is, rather, one of hope founded on more solid

ground. Lyle was an optimist who believed that “what humans designed

we can redesign and what humans built, we can rebuild” (Lyle

1997, 2). If we act wisely, the future would be better than that which

is now in prospect (Lyle 1994, 12). To act wisely means making our

actions conform to ecological realities. To that end Lyle proposed to

equip people to become ecologically competent by understanding

the physical processes, energy flows, landforms, and the biota of the

places where they lived.

Second, Lyle challenged us to deal with the structure of what ails

us, not merely the rates of change. “The problems,” he wrote, “are

manifestations of structural failure in the global infrastructure”

(1994, 9). In our circumstances, neither half-measures nor Band-Aid

solutions will do. The vast infrastructure of steel, chemicals, and concrete

characteristic of the modern world would have to be replaced

with, as he put it, “neotechnic” solutions that are regenerative. Regeneration

implies “replacing the present linear systems of throughput

flows with cyclical flows” and moving “to a [world] rooted in natural

processes” (ibid., 10–11). Regenerative systems would slow the velocity

of water and materials, replacing machines with landscape. In such

a world “mind and nature join in partnership” (ibid., 27).

Few have thought more deeply or more practically about what

such a partnership with nature would mean. Lyle’s vision of regenerative

design was founded on 12 principles:

• Let nature i.e. natural processes do the work for us.

• Use nature as the model for human enterprise.

• Aggregate functions and processes to create resilience.

• Strive for optimum levels, not maximum.

• Match technology to needs.

• Replace power with information.

• Provide multiple pathways.

• Solve many problems simultaneously.

• Manage storage as a key to sustainability.

• Shape form to guide flow.

• Shape form to manifest process.

• Prioritize for sustainability.

For Lyle, these were not simply abstract principles, but guidelines

for the development of the Center for Regenerative Studies and other

projects in which he was engaged. In a larger context, the principles of

regeneration were the blueprint for a society that would be powered

by sunshine and grounded in the facts of nature, not grand ideologies

or abstract economic theories. Consequently, society would operate

at a scale, speed, and elegance fitted to natural systems. For Lyle, a regenerative

society was not austere, but richer in experience, satisfaction,

and conviviality.

In Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development (1994), Lyle

described in great detail how a better and more sustainable society

could provision itself with energy, materials, food, shelter, and cycle

its waste. He did not stop with technical details but went on to the

harder issue of politics. The largest obstacle to sustainable development

was the “concentrat[ion] of power and resources among a very

small number of people” (ibid., 264). Because they are smaller in

scale, dispersed, and modular, regenerative technologies do not lend

themselves so easily to the concentration of power. Rather than rely

on the long-distance transport of energy, water, and materials, a regenerative

society would make “their life support systems . . . integral

parts of the local landscape” (ibid., 266). Power and wealth in that society

would be more dispersed.

How would a truly regenerative society come into existence?

“How do we educate the mind in nature?” (Lyle 1994, 269). The

crux of the matter is to change our manner of thinking, and this

means changing both the substance and process of education to join

art and science. The curriculum evolving at the Center for Regenerative

Studies draws from many sources, including the work of John

Dewey, but mostly Lyle thought it should emerge from the experience

of the enterprise itself. Education in a “paleotechnic” society,

Lyle wrote, “tends to focus on products, treating them as if they were

frozen in time.” But in an ecological perspective, “all that exists is

in process” (ibid., 270). Education appropriate to a neotechnic society

would begin with the basic facts of change and interconnectedness.

But how do we change educational institutions that have, as he

put it, “strong tendencies toward rejection” (ibid., 273) of new ideas

and integrative purposes? Lyle posed the question, but others will

have to answer it. His role was to initiate the Center for Regenerative

Studies in the faith that it would become part of a larger process

of educational regeneration grounded in place and aiming toward


Lyle’s strategy was rendered visible in the development of the

Center for Regenerative Studies at Cal Poly, which he intended this to

be a working model for students, faculty, and administrators. The center

was to be more than an island sealed off within a larger structure.

Lyle intended, rather, to change the very DNA of the institution, altering

its evolution in order to engage the deep problems of our time.

The subsequent history of the effort is unsurprising except for the

fact that the vision has survived despite differences over administration

and purposes. These are not, I think, unusual. A worldview

rooted in the principles of regeneration is unavoidably at odds with

the extractive mindset of the industrial order. Similarly, a curriculum

that equips students for lives in a world that is ecologically durable

runs counter to one that aims to equip students for success in a failing

paleotechnic society. Implicit in Lyle’s work is the challenge to find

common ground between these two views in order to build a world

that is ecologically solvent while retaining the hard-won advantages

of an open and free society.

Lyle ended Regenerative Design by relating the potential for regenerating

larger systems, cities, regions, and entire economies. His

aim was to forge the links between locality and geographic regions

and between ecology and an ecologically robust economics. He recognized

that processes of degeneration were rooted in pre-ecological

theories of economics and in massive subsidies to extractive industries.

Regenerative solutions that worked with the ecology of specific

places seldom received federal subsidies or research funding. He recognized

the need for a larger revolution in the conduct of national

and international affairs built on a more honest accounting of the

costs of what we do.

Lyle’s legacy is that rarest of gifts: the example of an honest and

searching mind uncluttered by trivialities or intellectual fashion. His

scholarship gives testimony to his remarkable breadth of knowledge

and the clarity of his mind. But John Lyle was no pedant. He aimed,

rather, to harness knowledge and research to improve the human

prospect by grounding it in the ecological realities of particular places

and landscapes.

Lyle gave us a model of a better kind of education. He was an educator

in the best sense of the word. In my experience with him over

15 years in various projects and settings, he never imposed, but rather

quietly educed, which is to say, he brought forth ideas from his students

and colleagues. He had an ecological view of learning which focused

on process, interaction, and, above all, the power of good example.

Lyle challenged his students in the 606 design studio and all of

us to make something real of our ideas and to take responsibility for

how those ideas are used in the world.

Lyle helped develop a larger response to the world in what he

called environmental design, which is “where the earth and its

processes join with human culture and behavior to create form . . .

where people and nature meet where art and science join” (1994, ix).

Design, the art of making things that fit harmoniously in an ecological

context, is now beginning to inform architecture, landscape architecture,

urban planning, business, and economics. Lyle played a key role

in what, I believe, later generations will regard as the ecological enlightenment

that began in the final quarter of the twentieth century.

Finally, Lyle’s legacy to us includes the example of a life lived

with grace, stamina, and purpose. All of his colleagues, students, and

clients would agree. Lyle combined exemplary professional skill, personal

humility, kindness, and dogged determination. He joined style

and substance to do the right things in the right way. The power of his

TABLE 18.1. Conflicting Paradigms: Paleotechnic versus Neotechnic

Paleotechnic Neotechnic

Worldview Industrial Ecological

Scale Large Small

Scope Narrow Integrated

Power Concentrated Dispersed

Wealth Concentrated Dispersed

Energy Fossil fuels Sunlight

Planning Fragmented Integrated

Solutions Technological Ecological/community

Knowledge Concentrated Dispersed

Accounting Start-up costs Life cycle

work came from the synergy of steadiness and vision. He showed

everyone who knew him that largeness of vision could and should

come from largeness of spirit.

By all standards, John Lyle left behind a remarkable legacy. But

what will institutions of higher education make of it? One answer is

that it will be largely ignored in the same way that a body rejects a

transplanted organ by sealing it off. The Lyle Center for Regenerative

Studies would then be merely a museum of quaint ideas and technologies,

but not the start of something fundamentally regenerative.

On the other hand, the center could grow to be a transforming force

throughout higher education. Lyle challenged us to talk and listen

across the barriers of different intellectual perspectives and disciplines

and to transcend the routines of hierarchical management and

the pettiness that often pervades academic politics. He challenged us

to develop a curriculum that joins head, hands, and heart and thereby

make education an agent of regeneration in the world. But most important,

John Lyle left his example of a man responding to the challenges

of our time with good heart, imagination, professional skill,

and hope.