Make a Difference

The breadth of knowledge demonstrated by Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and other pioneers in designing and planning the land continues to amaze me. They seemed to have studied and rigorously understood biology, the physical environment, aesthetics, and socioeconomics. They successfully tied together nature protection, recreation, sewage treatment, transportation, land restoration, visual quality, solid waste disposal, and water quality. Amazing!

Today society and the land desperately need designers and planners, or some other knowledgeable group, to step forward onto the broad solid shoulders of those giants. Ecologists, economists, and engineers obviously contribute in major ways. But today each has too few of the tools needed to create a sustainable synthesis of nature and culture. Meanwhile, most landscape designers are inspired by and primarily focused on important aesthetic dimensions, leaving society’s other major objectives to secondary status. And most planners today highlight important economics or public policy dimensions, leaving lesser status to other key societal objectives. Not surprisingly, I salute the impressive exceptions to these general patterns. Also, clearly, each field evolves over time, and today each has its vision of sustainability.

Nevertheless, this leaves society with tough questions: Is landscape design now largely peripheral to the major concerns of society? Is planning now largely enmeshed in the economic and governmental status quo? Is society now degrading landscapes and land at an accelerating pace? Do we hear the environmentalists’ crescendo calling for a sustainable future for land and people?

“Yes” resounds for all four questions. Yet I believe that design and planning have the potential to make a difference for land and people. Indeed, the footsteps of a vanguard of emerging leaders, outlining a new design and planning field, can be heard. Some have their names in this book.

Three key steps are needed to reach this new level.

First, the science of ecology must become a central foundation of design and planning. This will noticeably strengthen the field. But it also makes this the only discipline with a palette of expertise effectively embracing both natural systems and human culture.

Second, theory must become clearly stated and put to use in design and planning. That is, the central body of principles needs to be delineated and refined, both to solidify the field and to underpin dependable practice.

Third, boldness must become the norm. Boldness is an alternative to tinkering or the status quo, not a license that “anything goes.” Rather, to alter the dominant direction of human land-use change that is so detrimental to long-term nature and culture, boldness requires either a multitude of minor changes or a major new vision. In either case, the proposed solution must be sufficiently understandable and beneficial to society that it has real potential to spread widely in the near future. Neither a few minor changes nor an idiosyncratic new vision holds promise for accomplishing this objective. Assuming a major role in society requires stepping forward with bold new solution.

Richard T. T. Forman, The Missing Catalyst: Design and Planning with Ecology Roots (2002)

Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux & Co., Riverside (1869)


Frederick Law Olmsted, Emerald Necklace (1878-1894)


Published by


vty is professor on Landscape Theory and Landscape design at the Catalonian Politecnical University in Barcelona and at the Politecnico di Milano

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s