Nina-Marie Lister is planting purple asters. As I approach her front yard in Toronto, which is planted as a meadow, she rises from the soil where she’s placed a cluster of the flowering plant – transplanted, that afternoon, from the edge of a farmer’s field.
“These adapt really well in cities,” Lister, an ecological designer and Ryerson University planning professor, said of the asters. “They like disturbed soil, and they’re super-pollinators; a lot of butterflies like them, particularly monarchs.”
This one small plant does lots of work, and it evokes themes important to Lister: biodiversity, an acknowledgment of the complexity of natural systems, and connecting people with nature. In this garden, she said, “there is a beautiful order that emerges from disorder.”
Lister has been recognized with a major design prize for her work in these areas. On Tuesday, she was named the winner of the Margolese National Design for Living Prize, a $50,000 award issued by the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) at the University of British Columbia.
“We were above all impressed by Nina-Marie’s ability to design spaces that were both beautiful and that made a difference,” said jury member Aaron Betsky. “Moreover, she does so as part of a larger field of action, building an argument for ecological infrastructure.”
The Margolese was first awarded in 2012, but the prize took a hiatus before returning in 2020 with a new focus: “to elevate the people and the work of people who speak to the larger challenges facing society,” said Ron Kellett, SALA’s director.
This reflects a larger shift in the design world over the past decade – away from the bespoke and expensive, and toward design that has a broad and beneficial social impact.
Lister’s work, which links ecology with planning and spatial design through her studio PLANDFORM, fits well with this mandate. One major theme of her academic work has been in adaptive complex systems.
“That is a scholarly way of saying that the way in which ecological processes work is surprising,” she said, standing in a thicket of milkweed, “and that means we need to plan for them differently.” To address the climate crisis and an accompanying loss of biodiversity, she suggests, requires good scientific data and a willingness to design for constant change.
Lister leads the Ecological Design Lab at Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, a research incubator that focuses on applied urban ecology and design. In collaboration with graduate students, professionals and community members, the centre has addressed wildlife crossings (keeping wildlife corridors intact over or below highways), the ecology of Toronto’s urban ravines and a park strategy for Edmonton. “Almost everything I do is collaborative,” Lister said. “After all, there is almost no kind of design activity – particularly in planning – that is done by one person.”
Lister, who has also taught at Harvard University’s influential Graduate School of Design, has been a strong advocate for an ecological lens on the design of parks and public spaces. And that work has also involved her private garden. The “informal meadow” spurred complaints from neighbours, and in 2020, Lister led a legal challenge to a City of Toronto bylaw requiring “grass and weeds” to be cut short. She won.
The goal was to push back against the conventional landscape of the manicured lawn – which her Toronto neighbours clearly prefer, but which is built on a colonial aesthetic, a lack of biodiversity and lots of hard labour. Lister’s yard has apricot, peach and crabapple trees as well. Logs near the sidewalk provide a resting place for kids passing by.
It’s a small gesture, but also a sign of how a single household can contribute to ecological and political change. “It’s critical to make sure that the landscapes that most of our children will know, which are urban, are the best possible quality in every respect – from transportation to park design to biodiversity,” Lister said.
“And if you can start doing that in your garden, then you absolutely should.”
The Margolese Prize will host a talk by Lister in Vancouver on Oct. 22, which will also be livestreamed.
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