Dr. MaryCarol Hunter retires after 15 years at SEAS
The career of landscape architect and ecologist, MaryCarol Hunter, has followed many pathways, but you can be sure they were all well designed.
After 15 years at SEAS, Dr. Hunter retired as an associate professor of Landscape Architecture at the close of 2020. Her work considers the intersection of ecological, psychological, social and aesthetic aspects of sustainable urban design. It focuses on the design of resilient urban green space under climate change and the impact of nature experiences on mental wellbeing. She also developed research-based design guidelines to support urban sustainability and stewardship by creating places that people appreciate and protect.
Dr. Hunter’s multidisciplinary approach to ecological design had its foundations in a career shift from evolutionary ecology 20 years ago—when her focal research was about maternal effects. She explains that “maternal effects” are time-lagged impacts of environmental quality on the fitness of offspring, something that typically goes undetected because it is challenging to quantify.
“My maternal effects research led to a decision that effort would be better spent improving environmental quality in the present rather than investigating and reporting just how bad things could get,” says Dr. Hunter. “I settled on landscape architecture because the field provides the opportunity to be a first responder to environmental threats during the creation and maintenance of the built environment.”
Dr. Hunter notes that after four years in private practice as a licensed landscape architect, she returned to academics because it seemed more efficient to share the benefits of a professional design practice founded in a truly ecological framework through teaching.
"By bringing this foundation into the studio,” says Dr. Hunter, “I believe that the legacy of caustic maternal effects and the ongoing production of environmental ill health is dampened immediately, because landscape architects design and implement well before the desired policy, legislation, funding, and cultural cooperation are in place.”
Dr. Hunter recalls how she came to choose U-M SEAS (then the School of Natural Resources and Environment) for her return to teaching.
“I left a job I quite liked to join the School because it stood out among all others in its commitment to interdisciplinarity and the relevance of translating research outcomes for functional application,” explains Dr. Hunter. “The School’s LA group had a track record of dedication to ecological design, and the University of Michigan champions innovation. This gave me the freedom to do research and teaching at a newly evolving nexus of ecology, psychology and aesthetics.”
Dr. Hunter capsulized all three of these research areas across two presentations in the fast-paced Lightning Talks series hosted by SEAS in early 2019. The lectures, "Translating ecological processes for the design of resilient urban green space under climate change" and “Designing urban spaces for effective and equitable delivery of psychological ecosystem services" are brief snapshots of Dr. Hunter’s research that demonstrate how these fields overlap and coalesce.
In another “Tiny Talk” featured in the “Fast Food for Thought”—an event held annually at SEAS and organized by the U-M Sustainable Food Systems Initiative—Dr. Hunter presented examples of urban agriculture in Detroit, Chicago, and D.C. in "Cultivating Aesthetics to Fertilize Urban Farming."
“A positive aesthetic experience builds engagement,” Dr. Hunter explains in the lecture. “And when we’re engaged—and it’s something that we like—we tend to protect it. So, with urban agriculture, the trick is to make it beautiful—year-round.
“But we also must remember not to make assumptions,” she cautions, “We have to ask, ‘beautiful to whom?’”
The Nature Pill
Perhaps it took the unique perspective of a licensed landscape architect who earned her PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology—and pursued research in environmental psychology—to identify what came to be known as “The Nature Pill.”
While it was generally accepted that positive experiences in nature offer a calming and restorative effect, Dr. Hunter was interested in learning more.
“The overarching research question,” she says, was, “How much nature and what quality of nature best supports mental wellbeing?”
The answers would prove especially meaningful for urban dwellers with harried schedules—who live far from the solace of national parks and wide-open spaces.
The Mcubed study she led, published in Frontiers in Psychology (April 4, 2019), established for the first time the most effective dose of an urban nature experience.
"We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us," says Dr. Hunter. "Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature."
After the study’s release, those 20 to 30 minutes daily, dubbed the “Nature Pill,” could be prescribed by healthcare practitioners in the knowledge that they have a real and measurable effect. News of the “Nature Pill” gained media attention across 144 outlets, and it remains in the top 5% of all research outputs. For the past year, this article remained in the top 1% for views and downloads of all Frontiers publications. To date, it has nearly 80 citations.
“I can’t say how satisfying it is to see a research outcome get such strong purchase across academic disciplines and professionals from many walks of life,” says Dr. Hunter. “This is exactly what I’d hoped for when transitioning from pure science to research-based design.”
One year after the study had been published, COVID-19 had struck, and the need for shelter-in-place restrictions resulted in high stress all around. Recognizing that the Nature Pill was especially timely, the Michigan News hosted a Q & A with Dr. Hunter in April, 2020.
“In this time of uncertainty, social isolation and adjustment to a different lifestyle, spending time in nature—while maintaining proper social distancing, of course—is one type of antidote for our distress,” said Dr. Hunter in the Q & A. “Exposure to nature has many benefits, including better sleep, reduced inflammation, improved immune function and, key among them, a better state of mental well-being, including stress reduction, the ability to stay focused and the experience of awe.”
A Breath of Fresh Air
Like the Nature Pill which Dr. Hunter recommends, she herself often provided that restorative sense to colleagues. Professor Emeritus Bob Grese—who retired from his role at SEAS and as director of the Nichols Arboretum in June—described her influence this way:
“In faculty meetings and committees, MaryCarol was a breath of fresh air, often being able to distill discussions into a few cogent points, or offer common-sense approaches that many others of us failed to see—as we were lost in the details,” says Grese.
Current Master of Landscape Architecture student Kat Shiffler (MLA ’21) echoes Grese’s sentiments.
“Dr. Hunter’s thorough and thoughtful approach to teaching brought out the best work in me and in many others,” says Shiffler. “Her course, Ecological Planting Design, was the highlight of my graduate school experience at SEAS because of her ability to roll together complex topics in ecology and aesthetics into a practical skill set that I will definitely apply in a future career.
“It was clear that she thought a lot about how people learn, how that might be different among individuals, and how best to reach everyone. She spent countless hours outside of class to provide amazingly detailed feedback and advice—it's a wonder she ever slept!”
M’Lis Bartlett (MLA ’09, PhD, LA ’15), now Program Manager of the Environmental Fellows Program and a lecturer at SEAS, was advised by Dr. Hunter. She recalls that Professor Hunter had her students listen to poetry and classical music before beginning their planting designs. “She wanted us to bring all of our senses (sight, sound, touch) and our emotional responses to our ecological knowledge, and only then to begin to design. I was immediately enthralled,” says Dr. Bartlett. “This was a small example of how I came to know her as a broad creative thinker who was excited to bring the strengths of multiple disciplines—environmental psychology, human health, art, and ecology to her work as a landscape architect.
“MaryCarol helped me understand LA as a rigorous and creative way of approaching a problem,” says Dr. Bartlett. “And I always appreciate that she did not think, as some might, that rigor and design are contradictory. This approach is part of what makes her an incredible teacher and mentor. She likes to think through difficult problems, and she let me struggle with my big questions—but didn't leave me on my own with them. She was a ‘thought partner,’ and pushed me to think broadly and deeply.
“She taught me that being a landscape architect was about making a place work—whether it was a parking lot or a healing garden,” adds Dr. Bartlett. “In MaryCarol’s view, a parking lot was never just a ‘parking lot.’”
Professor Grese notes that he appreciated Dr. Hunter’s experience growing up in the Detroit area. “Her personal history with Detroit area proved invaluable with working with community groups there,” he says, noting that for the past few years, Dr. Hunter served as an advisor on the Piet Oudolf naturalistic public garden on Detroit’s Belle Isle, slated to open in summer, 2021. Dr. Hunter wrote about the importance of Piet Oudolf in 2017.
“Bringing the art of Piet Oudolf to the Detroit landscape is undeniably exciting for Detroit as a place of cultural and ecological resilience,” wrote Dr. Hunter. “This new public garden will add to the growing list of reasons to experience the city more fully, as a resident or a visitor.”
Grese, who happened to be in the office next to Dr. Hunter’s, had the opportunity to watch her interactions with students. “I greatly admired her dedication to mentoring and teaching students about research methods,” he says. “I also watched the hard work she put into all of her teaching, as well as her flexibility—particularly this past year in adapting new approaches to teaching design studio courses online.”
Current MLA student Kat Shiffler notes another aspect of Dr. Hunter which those who know her will recognize.
“Dr. Hunter is a kind person driven by curiosity,” says Shiffler, “She’s someone every student felt lucky to spend time with.”
It’s doubtful that any professor would ask for a finer legacy.
Former advisee of Dr. Hunter, landscape architect Amy M. Beltemacchi (MLA ’08), is currently a Partner of Earth Art Creatives, creating curated environments by merging nature, culture and aesthetics. When she learned of Dr. Hunter’s retirement, she offered to share her experience, along with her gratitude:
“MaryCarol Hunter made a difference in each interaction with her students. She was thoughtful, deliberate, and purposeful while standing in the complexity, beauty, awe, of the natural world and how we live in it. She was a constant example that the practice of Landscape Architecture incorporated art, beauty, mystery, science, natural systems, grading, and calculations, along with that little bit of sparkle magic she snuck into the mix. It was a privilege to have her as a teacher simply because she thought it was a privilege to teach and practice Landscape Architecture.
“When I reflect on my experience with her, I think the greatest impact she had on me was that not only did she teach from what she knew, but that she took on new challenges and taught new classes that were outside her area of strong expertise. A lot of us have an idea that a teacher should ‘know’ the subject matter better than us. On one hand, that may be true, but for me, participating as MaryCarol took on new challenges is a constant example of what we all need to be in the world. To walk into the unknown, to lead without 'knowing' the answer. To discover it for ourselves and to guide people to do the same for themselves.
“Many thanks for her generous participation in my life, and living a life that touched, moved, and inspired me and I'm sure many others.”