What the Heck is a Holistic Perspective?

NOTE: It’s a great privledge to kick off Design Ethos’ latest initiative with a commentary from Sustainability Leader at DIRTT Environmental Solutions Andrée Iffrig.

By Andrée Iffrig

Sustainability professionals frequently reference holistic perspectives as superior to prescriptive ones, but what does that mean when you’re on the ground, trying to solve an intractable problem like poverty or replacing fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives?

I recently attended a conference in Savannah on greening the economy called The Georgia Green Economy Summit. The conference organizer, Albert George, proposed a grand plan for improving social, environmental and economic outcomes by developing the salt marsh as an economic resource. It would become a new Silicon Valley along the Georgia coast.

I found myself wondering, how will we operationalize this plan? If we use conventional, linear planning approaches – expert economists, marine biologists, ecologists, business people and bureaucrats each doing their own thing – this grand project is doomed. We’ll only get more of what we already have: an unsustainable economy that has yet to create jobs for the disenfranchised, never mind protect the environment.

One way to approach this holistically is to explore what we can learn from nature. The salt marsh, the designated site for redevelopment, has already figured out how to be a sustainable economy. Natural environments like the salt marsh have the following attributes:

• They are diverse, because that’s nature’s way of ensuring an ecosystem’s viability and regenerativity. (Most planning processes seek to simplify rather than enhance complexity and diversity.)

• Every plant and animal has a purpose contributing to the economy of the marsh. (Hint: this is diametrically opposed to what Savannah has now: 28 percent of the population does not participate in any economy.)

• Diversity means the ecosystem can adapt to changing conditions. The salt marsh’ adaptability will be critical to its survival as climate change effects magnify.

• Redundancy is built in, furthering the ecosystem’s annual renewal. Think of the number of seeds in a pod – more than is strictly necessary, but intended to ensure the regeneration of the species from year to year. (Linear planning processes typically reduce or eliminate redundancy.)

• There is absolutely no waste – one organism’s output is another’s input. The salt marsh is amazingly productive at feeding a multitude of species.

• Only locally-available resources are used.

• The marsh provides valuable ecosystem services – carbon sequestration and storm mitigation to name just two.

In a nutshell, the economy of the marsh is resilient. If we were to apply these principles to the challenges we face, we’d be taking a holistic approach.

During the conference, only one person mentioned the need for respectful processes that involve all citizens. A concern for people – those who will actually live with the consequences of all our planning – was strangely absent. This is not how a natural ecosystem treats its denizens.

If resilience is going to be driver of urban policy and economic planning we need an engaged community of diverse stakeholders and the recognition that local, non-expert knowledge has a high value in our planning. To achieve this, there’s going to have to be a fundamental shift in the planning paradigm. What better way to try to achieve these lofty goals than through an approach that meets people where they are and empowers their meaningful participation. That’s another way to be holistic.


Award-winning graduate architect and community builder, Andrée Iffrig LEED AP is passionate about sustainable design. She is a leader with the Sustainability Team at DIRTT Environmental Solutions where she manages the green building function. Andrée is the author of the Inglewood Design Initiative, a sustainable community plan based on the SmartCode developed by the Congress for New Urbanism. A prolific writer, her articles have been published widely. Andrée is a co-founder of the Alberta Biomimicry Network.

A Royal Architectural Institute of Canada medalist, she uses her design background to collaborate with others in building more sustainable environments. During this past year’s Historic Savannah Foundation Preservation Andrée gave a talk on “Urban Village Narratives” which was very well received by the Savannah community.

Leave a Reply