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Cultures, Communities and Design

Ecotopia – Architectural Ecotopes as an approach to combat biodiversity loss
H. Boulanger
11:00 am - 1:00 pm


The Anthropocene is a post-natural world, where wilderness has virtually disappeared and the distinction between ‘city’ and ‘countryside’ no longer exists. Human expansion and rampant, unbridled “growth” have augmented landscapes, depleted biodiversity, and eroded life-supporting ecological functions and habitats so extensively that we are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction. Despite the efforts of urban designers and landscape architects to preserve urban blue-green networks and ringfence pockets of wilderness as ‘nature reserves’, a mere 17% of global terrestrial area was slated to be protected under the 2020 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (and we are currently falling short of even this target). The remaining 83% of the natural world is being steadily eroded by human activity. Buildings – all buildings – erase ecological function and fragment habitat simply by being built. To conserve ecology, it is simply not enough to focus on the shrinking spaces around buildings. Cities will keep expanding and densifying in response to population growth and economic incentives; buildings will keep getting built. The Architectural industry should acknowledge its role in biodiversity loss, and assume responsibility for conserving, replacing, restoring, and regenerating nature lost to construction and urban development. Architecture should blur distinctions between ‘urban’ and ‘natural’, ‘man-made’ and ‘ecological’, ‘city’ and ‘countryside’, so that buildings may be designed as part of greater urban ecosystems – as constructed landscapes or ‘Architectural Ecotopes’. This approach to architecture – a new type of ‘critical regionalism’ – is more ‘Gardening, less Architecture’ , yet extends beyond conventional biophilic design to map, integrate, and/or design for site-specific endangered/endemic fauna and flora and local biotic and abiotic systemic relationships such as soil substrates, topography, hydrology and weather patterns in architectural form-making and spatial design.


Heidi Boulanger is an architect, designer, spatial researcher, and lecturer at the University of Cape Town. Her research focuses on 21st Century socio-ecological spatial relationships and incorporates systemic- and biophilic architecture, regenerative design, ecological urbanism, urban rewilding, sustainable construction, adaptive re-use and ‘waste’ within the circular economy. She is also a member of the UCT Future Water Institute and coordinator of the APG MediaLab.
Heidi practiced as a Professional Architect and independent researcher for close to a decade before joining UCT as a full-time lecturer in 2021. She completed her M.Arch (magna cum laude) at the University of Pretoria in 2013, finishing first in her class and receiving the National Corobrik Student of the Year Award (2013). She is the recipient the LafargeHolcim Award for Sustainable Construction (2014 and 2017) and the LafargeHolcim Next Generation Research in Practice Grant (2018). She also received a CIFA Commendation for built work with studioMAS in 2019 . She has been involved with the Lafarge Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction on various research projects and conferences (Beirut, 2014), (New York, 2015), (Nairobi, 2017), (Mexico City, 2018), (Cairo, 2019), (Zurich, 2019), and was also an invited guest speaker at the 2018 AZA (Tshwane).