Sustainable Land Systems

John Motloch, Landscape Architecture, Ball State University


This interdisciplinary course explores regions and sites as parts of complex adaptive systems; and the integration of economic and community development within these systems in ways that promote sustained whole-system health and productivity. The course focuses on sustainable resource harvesting and regeneration, environmentally responsible materials and technologies, sustainable planning and design, community-region and building-site synergies, and other sustainable land system issues.

In the course, readings inform small group seminar discussions that identify sustainable development issues. Knowledge about these issues is enhanced through lecture, videos, and increasingly through TED talks directed to each issue. The knowledge gained enriches subsequent small group seminars.

Course Size:

Course Format:
small group seminar

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is an upper level interdisciplinary elective course for undergraduate and graduate students. It usually attracts students from the planning and design disciplines, natural resources and environmental management, non-traditional studies, general studies, economics, political science, and other disciplines. It attracts a significant number of students from the university's honors college, its minor in sustainability, and its interdepartmental minor in sustainable land systems.

Course Content:

The course focuses on the emerging knowledge of sustainable development as a complex adaptive system. It builds student understanding of how to manage, plan and design sustainable land systems, using Universities of the Future as the primary case-study application vehicle.

In the course, students conceptualize a University of the Future that seeks to educate students to address the profound challenges of the immediate and long-term future if humankind, as we know it, is to survive. Students do a comparative study of Western and indigenous knowledge systems, and the value of integrating both in the development of sustainable land systems. Students research the role of development within complex adaptive systems; and how to intervene in complex adaptive systems in ways that promote whole-system health and regeneration. They study whole-system sustainable development methods.

Students conceptualize frameworks for building the knowledge needed for development to co-adapt with Earth as a complex adaptive system. They apply the knowledge they have gained in case study research of a bio-region and associated culture as co-adapted sustainable development.

The course usually includes a field trip to a case-study community with innovative sustainable development projects. The most recent trip was to Milwaukee, and included visits to the Office of Sustainability (City of Milwaukee), Growing Power Inc. (an aquaponics-based integrated urban farming system), Sweetwater Organics (an aquaponics micro-business redevelopment of an old factory into an urban farming system), and other innovative sustainability projects.

Course Goals:

The specific goals of the course change significantly each time the course is taught. The goals change because human understanding of land-based systems as complex adaptive systems is rapidly changing. In addition, understanding of the implications of development in these systems is also rapidly changing. The general intent is that upon completion of the course, students can demonstrate an understanding of systems, systems dynamics, system regeneration, and sustainability. They can apply this understanding to make sustainable land system decisions, with an awareness of the nature of the materials and technologies of development; and the deep interconnectedness of these materials and technologies with complex adaptive contextual systems. The further intent is that students can demonstrate a knowledge of sustainable land design theories and sustainable design frameworks; and can demonstrate an ability to use these theories and frameworks to inform decisions about sustainable human intervention in land systems. Upon completion of the course, students should be able to apply an awareness of cutting-edge approaches to sustainable design; green materials and technologies; design education, demonstration, and research; and whole-system approaches to sustainable development, planning and design.

Course Features:

The course usually includes a capstone knowledge-application project. Most recently this has been a Regional University of the Future (RUF) project. The project has challenged students to make conceptual decisions about the creation of an RUF that could teach people to understand and address immediate and long-term regional challenges so humankind, as we know it, can survive into the future. The intent is for graduates of the RUF to have potential to become societal leaders who address: 1) the major global environmental, social and economic challenges of the 21st Century, 2) challenges of how to intervene in complex adaptive systems in ways that promote an ecologically, socially and economically healthy world, 3) challenges of learning how to live within nature's universal laws and within local and regional limits, and 4) challenges of educating students to help their communities understand the dynamics in their local region and pursue sustainable (environmentally-responsible, socially-just, economically-viable) economic and community development.

In the project, students have also been challenged to conceptualize a curriculum that could educate students to address the system degradation resulting from expanding populations, consumptive worldviews, advanced technologies, and education systems that empower growth beyond limits. The intent is that the RUF curriculum educate students to address major regional and global challenges including global warming, water shortages, dying oceans, failing nation states, collapsing economies, and so on. It should also teach students to see today's profound challenges as a unique opportunity IF these challenges can trigger the explosion of knowledge and technological capability for a sustainable future.

Course Philosophy:

Universities of the present do not adequately develop student abilities to make whole-system decisions through deep trans-disciplinary collaboration. This course was designed to challenge students to think about how to integrate natural systems as humankind's primary supports, engineered systems as our secondary supports, and built-environments as our tertiary supports to make whole-system decisions; and how to plan and design sustainable community-regions and built-sites as integral parts of Earth as a complex adaptive system.

The course was also designed to help students learn how to integrate diverse knowledge systems (KS) including local and global KS, formal and informal KS, community-based and university based KS, and scientific and indigenous KS. It was designed to help students learn how to make informed decisions about what is, what could be, and what it means to live sustainably within the systems they help co-create.


Assessment takes place in four ways. The first assesses student understanding of readings, lectures, videos, TED Talks and other course experiences as communicated through the quality of student participation in small-group seminars. The second assesses the student's ability to apply the knowledge gained in the course as represented through their performance on projects and assignments. The third assesses student ability to facilitate innovation through leadership of small-group seminars including seminars targeted to recommended enhancement of the course in further years. The fourth assesses the effectiveness of the course through formal course assessment by the students.


References and Notes:

Key reading resources that are integrated in this course includes readings in seven categories. These include readings about complex adaptive systems including Emergence by Stevens, The Journey of the Universe by Swimme and Tucker, The Age of the Unthinkable by Ramo, Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Chris Cowan, and Integral Theory by Ken Wilber.

The course includes readings about sustainable land systems including Introduction to Landscape Design, by John Motloch; Design with Nature by Ian McHarg; Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development by John Todd and readings from the U.S. Green Building Council, EPA, and futures-focused design journals.

The course also includes reading about people and place including a wide range of cultural worldviews and bio--regions (in the U.S., Latin America, Africa, Island Nations and elsewhere). It includes readings on the new economy including its waste-reduction and circularity, eco-economic production streams, life cycle analysis, and green systems, technologies and materials. The course includes readings about regionally sustainable development including community development, production technologies, regional materials and site-based projects. It includes selected readings about systems and change including systems modeling and metamodeling, second-order change to sustainability, and benchmark sustainable development projects. The course also includes self-directed readings