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Featured: Gülistan Akar, on Landscape Architecture and more

Gülistan Akar is a botanical illustrator and a landscape architect based in Turkey. Gülistan is experienced in botanical gardens and landscape design, and she has been awarded in the areas of scientific botanical illustration, sustainable management and landscape design and planning from various authorities, including the ones in Germany. As an artist and a landscape architect, Gülistan aims to create more sustainable landscape designs to tackle climate change and preserve endemic species from the hazardous effects of global warming.

Gülistan, we are so glad that you have agreed to be interviewed here with us. Could you please tell us more about yourself?

Dear Deniz, first of all, thank you for inviting me. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Landscape Architecture. I have worked on "art in public space", "dendrology (the scientific study of trees, including their taxonomy, morphology, physiology, ecology, and uses)" and "landscape ecology." Currently, I am pursuing my Master’s Degree in the Department of Ecological Landscape Planning at Yıldız Technical University. I have been trying to do work that will bring my love of nature and art together for as long as I can remember.

Artivism desires to uniquely curate and design visual and performance artworks using multimedia art formats such as acrylic, charcoal, photography, videography and spoken word to promote social justice issues in today's changing dynamics. Nowadays, artivism is crucially important in raising awareness about the climate crisis’ adverse effects and taking action to save our future before it’s too late. As a botanical illustrator, could you please underline artivism’s importance to endemic species?

Born out of the human tendency to recognise nature, botanical illustration has been used for centuries to document and study plant life. It remains an influential tool for botanists and scientists today.

There are small details that distinguish endemic species from other genera of the same family. The main purpose of the botanical illustration is to reveal and record these characteristic and distinctive features. This purpose increases the importance of this art field in endemic species. For example, when you examine two plants you think are the same in nature, the difference that distinguishes these plants may be the leaf texture. This difference may not be seen at first glance or in a photograph, but in botanical illustration, all these details are scientifically examined and illustrated.

On the other hand, artivism is a form of activism that uses art to raise awareness about social and political issues. As for how these two fields intersect, I think we can say that both botanical illustration and artivism share a common goal: To raise awareness about important issues and inspire change. By combining scientific accuracy with artistic creativity, these fields can create powerful messages that resonate with people and make a real impact.

Climate change art can be defined as art that is inspired by the climate emergency and global warming. In this context, what are your thoughts on the position of ‘’Climate Change Art’’ worldwide? Do you think it is a big enough community? Or do you think there are still important authorities to be reached?

I believe that climate change art is a very important and rapidly growing movement that has the potential to reach a wider audience and raise awareness of the consequences of climate change. The community constantly evolves, with new artists joining and established ones continuing to create impactful work.

However, despite increasing awareness of the issue, many major authorities still need to be reached. The climate change art movement can play an essential role in giving voice to climate activists and encouraging action. Yet, effectively addressing the issue requires a collaborative effort from all areas and sectors of society.

As more artists and communities become involved in this art movement with the power to inspire and motivate, I am sure that the impact of climate change art will grow and continue to influence public opinion and policy.

Apart from being a designer, you are also a landscape architect. As a landscape architect, what are your thoughts on sustainable designs and sustainable urbanism? Do you think creating such living spaces will be a necessity rather than a preference in the near future?

I think it will definitely turn into a necessity. We have entered an age of change in this regard. We are already living the scenarios that were expected in the future some time ago. As the world population continues to grow and urban areas become more densely populated, the need for sustainable living spaces will become increasingly important.

Sustainable designs and urbanism can help reduce the negative impacts of urbanisation, such as air pollution, water pollution and biodiversity loss. In addition, sustainable living spaces can help promote healthier and more liveable communities, which can have a positive impact on people’s physical and mental well-being. In conclusion, sustainable designs and sustainable urbanism will become standard practices in the near future as more and more people realise the importance of creating a sustainable future for themselves and future generations.

Which sustainable features should be placed in cities as regards landscape architecture? Can unplanned urbanisation be prevented with these features?

Landscape architecture is a professional discipline that plays a crucial role in promoting ‘’sustainable urbanism’’. There are too many topics to mention under this area, but to put it simply, green spaces, parks and public spaces that support biodiversity, reduce heat island effects and improve air quality should be designed and planned.

When we look at the situation as landscape architects, one of the things to be done in the name of sustainability is the measures that can be taken to repair landscapes. One of these is the efficient and minimum water usage in open green areas, and arid landscaping (Xeriscape) applications should be preferred. In such landscape designs, species requiring less maintenance and irrigation must be chosen in addition to natural species.

There are several general sustainable features that can be incorporated into landscape architecture in cities to promote sustainability and prevent unplanned urbanisation.

These features can be discussed as follows:

  • Green Infrastructure (park gardens, green roofs and walls): These features can help reduce the urban heat island effect, improve air quality and provide habitat for wildlife.

  • Rain gardens and rain harvesting: These measures can help manage stormwater runoff, reduce flooding and improve water quality.

  • Pedestrian and bicycle-friendly infrastructure: By encouraging active transport, cities can reduce their carbon footprint and improve public health.

  • Urban agriculture: By combining community gardens and urban farms, cities can promote local food production and reduce food miles.

  • Renewable energy: Incorporating renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote energy independence.

By incorporating these sustainable features into landscape architecture, cities can support sustainable development and prevent unplanned urbanisation. However, it is worth noting that these features alone may not be sufficient to prevent unplanned urbanisation. Other factors such as zoning regulations, land use policies and community participation are also critical in promoting sustainable development.

You have been awarded the first prize in a seasonal garden competition based in Mainau Island, Germany. How was your experience concerning this? It is estimated that the area (including Mainau Island) of Lake Constance will experience extreme heat waves. Did you experience any negative consequences of climate change during your work there?

Mainau Island is in Lake Constance (Bodensee) in southern Germany, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Although there are many colourful areas renewed with seasonal flowers, what attracted me the most on this island was my encounter with large and old tree species, which I learned belonged to the 19th century and before. Among these, there were also exotic trees that were not suitable for the climate of the neighbourhood. Moreover, I saw many examples of rare plant species that I had never encountered anywhere else.

I was awarded this prize together with two of my group mates in the annual competition called ‘’Seasonal Gardens’’. The year we participated, we designed a landscape design with a theme called ‘’Black&White’’. We were inspired by the contrast between African rainforests and desert ecosystems. It was delightful to work with landscape architecture students from different countries. Thus, I had the opportunity to observe and compare landscape architecture education in different countries.

Although I was there in November, I remember that we had sunny and warm weather in that season, which we are not used to in Germany. I had the advantage of this, but the increase in temperatures and problems such as sea level rise and drought may reach dimensions that will affect the natural life and ecosystem of the island.

What are your thoughts about eco-friendly and non-toxic fine art supplies to sustain the environment?

Eco-friendly art materials are a good endeavour for artists to conserve natural resources and use products that do not affect the environment. Using such materials can be a step towards a more sustainable art industry. I hope it will become more widespread in the near future because, unfortunately, in the country I live in, it is very difficult to access these materials, which are more expensive than other materials.

I know it's a very small step, but I use tiny sponges that I carry with me instead of the disposable napkins that are necessary for water colouring. When I was little, we used to crush leaves to create a green colour. Art has no boundaries and can lead us to more creative and eco-friendly ways.

Environmental forestries purify the air, filter the water, prevent erosion and provide a home for numerous plants and animals. Without a doubt, they also fight as a warrior against climate change. Could you please share your experiences about current forest ecology and thoughts as someone who studies landscape planning and ecology?

According to the climate projections stated in the 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published in 2021, unless there are serious reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years, global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded in the 21st century. Furthermore, the same report states that the average global surface temperature is likely to be 3.3°C to 5.7°C in the period 2081-2100. Such rapid temperature changes in a short period of time will seriously affect forests.

One of the most important measures to be taken here is the measures to be taken against forest fires. Considering the role and importance of forests in combating climate change, they should be identified as priority areas that need to be protected and increased, and strategies should be developed for forestry and forest management. Strengthening the capacities of existing species in the forest ecosystem, protecting/extending tree species resistant to temperature increase and carrying out rehabilitation works may be the first strategies that come to mind.

Why botanical illustration still holds power in the art world?

Botanical illustration should not only be seen as an artistic activity since it is also a scientific activity. As I mentioned while answering the other question, plant illustrations are important for properly identifying plants in botany and as a source for scientific studies to be carried out later. In other words, not only the world of art but also the world of science and is a noteworthy source for botanists can be shown as the reason why it is still effective.

Which region would you like to study the most in terms of botanical illustration and why?

I think I would prefer to work in regions with very diverse climates as the diversity of species would increase. I am especially interested in Indonesia as it harbours various islands. I am not very experienced in this field, but plant illustrator Işık Güner, who has worked in regions such as Nepal, Chile and China, always inspires me.

Since trends in habitat destruction interact with climate change, there is concern that the Amazon could become entangled in a series of ‘’feedback loops’’ that could dramatically accelerate the forest loss and degradation rate, bringing the Amazon to the point of no return. At this point, please elaborate on the necessity of the botanical illustration of the area.

The Amazon Rainforest is one of the richest areas in terms of biodiversity worldwide and serves as home to many species. For this reason, illustrations of the species living in this region are important for their identification, documentation and conservation. Moreover, botanical illustration can be an important tool for documenting these species and passing them on to future generations. Hence, the conservation and sustainable management of the Amazon rainforest is of great significance for the whole world.

Lastly, please tell us your favourite plant-based milk. (It’s a tradition😊)

Almond Milk 🙂.


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