The practical measures of sustainable design make the landscape function more efficiently and reduce the amount of wasted materials and energy; they are conceived to contribute to the overall health of the planet rather than detract. But without an artistic or cultural component to the landscape, we are creating natural places that function like machines. A truly sustainable place works on a more visceral level. We are transforming places so people will love them, will take better care of them, will want them to flourish for their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. If we just look at what are called “best practices,” meaning the technologies that are accepted as most environmentally healthful, we still would not necessarily know how to make a landscape that people will internalize, make their own. Sustainability is about people taking ownership, learning how to sustain, rather than abuse or just consume, the landscape. It is about making clear the connection between human practices and our environment.
The field of landscape architecture can make these connections between humans and our environment.
Since the 1990s, the landscape field has reinvented itself in different guises including, but not limited to: landscape-as-art, landscape urbanism and landscape infrastructure. Each of these frameworks combines new ways of thinking about the city as an environmental system with varying emphases on form, performance, and program. Further, technological advances in digital terrain modeling, Google Earth, diagramming, and the use of computer programs to generate photorealistic perspectives have all changed the content of landscape architectural design processes and content.
Beyond technology, the field has been expanded and enriched by an expanded understanding of process derived from evolving ecological theory, including the systems-based emphasis of landscape ecologists such as Eugene Odum, who developed the modern notion of ecology as an integrated discipline. Odum’s work has provided a ground for further evolution in the topic by Richard T.T. Forman, Steward Pickett, Steven Handel, and Nina-Marie Lister, among many others. This emphasis provides a crucial corrective to the traditional, interventionist mode of landscape architecture and the emphasis on ecological systems in this vein can to be further enriched with an equal attention to sociology and political science. Moving forward, we need to think analytically about the interconnectedness of social and physical systems, knit these strands together, and derive new territories for action.
Landscape architecture has seen a paradigm shift in the last two decades, requiring designers to respond to the dynamic and temporal qualities of landscape. This response examines the long-held view that landscape embraces an ephemeral medium constructed and maintained through generations. Landscape—a dynamic and temporal medium—is expressed through careful manipulation of vegetated, hydrological, and stratigraphic systems. Combining this shift with the increased accessibility of responsive technologies presents a new approach for challenging static design solutions. The ability to sense and respond to environmental phenomena invites new ways to understand, interpret, experience, and interact with the landscape.
This shift can be traced to several parallel events inherent to the discipline of Landscape Architecture and seeded by new paradigms in scientific thought particularly within ecology. A generational trend has emerged within landscape architecture that promotes a form of “distanced authorship,” emphasizing natural processes such as succession, accretion, or passive remediation as agents for landscape design. In the essay, “Strategies of Indeterminacy in Recent Landscape Practice,” Charles Waldheim uses the term “distanced authorship” to describe how the “privileging of landscape strategy and ecological process distances authorial control over urban form, while allowing for specificity and responsiveness to market conditions as well as the moral high-ground and rhetorical clarity of environmental determinism.” Autonomy within these systems has the potential to create scaffolds for designed landscapes, urbanism, or territorialization. This approach privileges the actions of biology and geology over manufactured static conditions and instead seeds these dynamic processes through an overarching ecological regime to shape designed conditions over time.
This is where landscape as an idea, an operative agenda, and a set of material dynamics offers potent ways forward. Landscape has the capacity to mark time, initiate transformation, adapt to ongoing inputs (whether physical, environmental, political, or bureaucratic), and engage multiplicity and indeterminacy in productive ways. In so doing, landscape as a mode of thinking and operating shares characteristics with systems ecology, which describes the environment as always in a state of change, constantly adapting to evolving circumstances and inputs. Ecological health is now defined more in terms of an organism’s or ecosystem’s ability to change and adapt rather than to embody a particular idealized state or form. By extension, we might apply landscape and ecological thinking to Lerup’s metropolis-in-motion and discover new starting points for instigation and intervention that help to reimagine and reframe the 21st-century metropolis moving forward. Retooling, then, is as much conceptual as it’s physical and operative. It invokes animaginative rethinking of what constitutes the meitropolis 20-some years after Lerup. It entails speculation about design intervention that can physically reshape territory at both the site and urban scale. And it embraces time and indeterminacy in creative and productive ways, allowing for catalytic actions that play off and redirect, the dynamics of an extended metropolitan landscape and its formational systems-in-action. Chris Reed, Rethinking a Reformulated Metropolis (2017)
A burgeoning literature over the last few decades suggests that access to green space and natural environments may offer health benefits that not only contribute to reductions in ill health as measured by publicly available health data but, perhaps just as importantly, offer opportunities for people to manage their own health and cope with illness. This view of the landscape as therapeutic or palliative is one that has resonated historically and has been discussed both in relation to particular landscapes chosen or designed for their therapeutic qualities and in relation to more everyday landscapes within and around the urban environment. (…)
In this context, it is interesting to note how consistently, in the westernised world at least, we associate the landscape with health benefit and positive feelings, perhaps reflecting our urban lifestyles and a romanticised attitude to a natural environment that is often hard to access in practice. But this was certainly not always true historically, and there are many parts of the world where the natural environment still offers many hazards, from floods and landslides to wild animals and disease vectors, some of which may return to challenge the developed world more forcefully under climate change. This is no doubt one of the foundations for the widespread evocation of an idealised landscape across many different cultures and geographical zones, from the Buddhist gardens of Amida to the Persian paradise tradition that has influenced so much of our Eurasian garden culture. Throughout history, it seems that people (perhaps only a privileged few) have evoked gardens that were not merely practical places for growing things but gardens of sensory delight and an idealised version of ‘nature’, that excluded the unpleasant, the dangerous and the unwelcome.
What does this mean for the kinds of landscapes we want and need in our urbanised world today, to enhance the health of all people, regardless of ability, income or ethnicity? Well-managed gardens have been attractive as a private retreat from time immemorial and still seem to offer something important, recognised by widely varying groups of people. The restrictions that can be placed on access to private gardens allow some aspects of the paradise garden to endure: the idea that it is a safe and secure place, where the natural world is carefully managed but nonetheless experientially rich. This is perhaps especially important as a resource for the very young and the very old, and for people with some kinds of impairment or illness and those who care for them.
By contrast, public parks (like urban squares) have been popular since the nineteenth century as a place to meet (or at least observe) diversity and difference, to encounter groups and individuals who may be like us or very different from us. They are therefore important both as a place for offering some public version of the paradise garden, a comparatively safe haven in a managed, natural world, but also a place that offers some of the positive qualities of the city. They allow us to enjoy the pleasures of meeting with family or friends in attractive surroundings, regardless of the constraints of the buildings in which we live. They allow us a place and a context where we can get away from people, too, if we want to be alone and with space around us. And, they also allow us to watch from a distance those whom we don’t know or have connections with, to get a sense of the ‘other’ in society, without having to engage at a personal level. On top of this, they offer a natural (if managed) environment for multi-sensorial experience. In human evolutionary terms, they are a very recent phenomenon, and perhaps we are still coming to terms with what they mean for the anthropogenic age, but they may be important as the only green or natural spaces with which many people have contact, and therefore play a prime role in our future development, both individually and as a species.
This brings me to ‘wild’ or semi-natural areas, sometimes still contained within urban areas but more often on the fringes or in the more remote countryside. These have performed different roles in recent history, from liminal areas of informal activity to places for nature study or where people can encounter physical (and psychological) challenge of a different sort from most that the city can offer. Such places can offer a sense of being immersed in the wider order of natural things, a very powerful experience for some. Such an experience can engender a spiritual response or a feeling of the transcendent—a feeling rarely experienced by many in an increasingly secular society—that seems to be appreciated all the more for its sense that we are just a small part of something much bigger and beyond our imagination or full comprehension.
The most frequently quoted reference on locality is probably Christian Norberg-Schulz’s book ‘Genius Loci’. He stresses the importance of place for our existence—whatever happens, happens somewhere i.e. in a place. Place is not an abstract or quantifiable but a qualitative phenomenon. He criticises the way that modern architecture deals more with abstract functionality that can be applied in a generic way than with tangible meaning that is specific to a place. For Norberg-Schulz, “the existential purpose of building (architecture) is therefore to make a site become a place, that is, to uncover the meanings potentially present in the given environment.”. In other words, the specific character of a site needs to be understood and developed. If this is achieved, people are able to really dwell there—a highly desirable goal for Norberg-Schulz, because it indicates a“total man-place relationship”. Two psychological needs are fulfilled in this ideal situation: orientation and identification. Following Kevin Lynch, he explains the importance of orientation for human dwelling: without orientation,“man feels lost’”. But identification with the environment is even more important. Identification means becoming friends with a particular environment and its properties.
Norberg-Schulz’s phenomenological call for real things and the importance of character and orientation are useful advice for designers of urbanisation projects—but the issue of identification is more difficult if you have a site that offers little with which people can identify. How can you design for identification then? This issue exposes a problem with Norberg-Schulz’s theory, which relies heavily on existing layers of history to which new construction has to relate. Although he stresses the importance of time and change in realising the genius loci by mentioning: “To respect the ‘Genius loci’ does not mean to copy old models. It means to determine the identity of the place and to interpret it in ever new ways.”, most of his arguments have a preservationist perspective, which isn’t much help in the face of rapid urbanisation. Another problem of his theory is the use of dualisms, like settlement versus landscape or natural spaces versus man-made spaces. Almost forty years after he wrote Genius Loci, these oppositions have become questionable in the light of contemporary debates on planetary urbanisation or the Anthropocene.
To summarise: Norberg-Schulz offers a deep analysis from a Western point of view and raises awareness of the topic. However, he gives scant advice on designing for locality in contemporary and future urbanisation projects on previously unsettled territory.
The substantive project this century will not be just the perpetuation of vibrant public space – in fact the public and the so called placemakers – whoever they really are – have pretty much now worked out they can just “pop it all up” for themselves.
The future of substantial and interesting work for landscape architects lies in redesigning cities in terms of social justice and ecological performance. This means going deeper into socio political processes and harnessing and actively redirecting their internal forces to more just and more ecological ends.
It means understanding the city metabolically and systemically which in turn means not just working “in the old idea of the city as a place of many buildings and filling designated sites with design composition – it means tracking supply chains to the ends of the earth – identifying the relationality between where you and your project are in both space and time in relation to the sources and sinks that can be traced to it.
It means identifying points along those continuums to apply design intelligence with particular accuracy so that change might reverberate through the system. It means working with time more than space.
This ultimately means a correlation of planetary urbanism with the complexity and holistic nature of the earth system across all scales.
At least that’s the theory.
And before you think I’m just swinging the old pendulum back from art to instrumentality, working with the ecological mechanics of the city doesn’t mean we just apply the cold hand of reason – the evolution of planetary urbanism is not just a technical matter of performance metrics, nor is it a moralizing, punitive project – it is an artistic, critical and beautiful project.
The possibility of society becoming a constructive rather than destructive force of nature is as profound and poetic as it is practical.
At the beginning of the 1990s Dieter Kienast mentioned another aspect that underlines the significance of the garden and garden thinking in our lives today: The garden is the last luxury we have today, as it demands those things that have become the most rare and precious in our society (i.e. time, attention and space). “It is a true reflection of nature in which, once again, we require spirit, knowledge and craftsmanship in the careful handling of the world and its microcosm, the garden. Changing social values are causing a garden renaissance.” In light of current tendencies, referred to collectively as “urban gardening”, it actually is possible to speak of a garden renaissance. If vegetable gardens in large cities were considered to be an anachronism or a sign of dislike for cities a few years ago, today they are thought of as being expressions of a progressive environmental consciousness, even if this isn’t really true in all cases. As varied as the reasons for gardening in cities may be, from a desire to be self-sufficient to a way of resisting planning paternalism, or as an expression of a wish for intercultural communication, one thing is the same for everyone: ”ln the garden we learn how to deal with nature without having to deny the creative power within us. And thus, it becomes a model and a test case with regard to how we deal with the entire natural and built environment”.
If the disciplines of urban planning and civil engineering respectively form the impervious architecture and fixed framework of cities of Western industrial society today, then planners and engineers are thefoot soldiers in the maintenance and management of the myth of instrumental reason. Perpetuated by State-driven policy, the over-emphasis on “legibility” in strategies of abstraction (land use keys) and data aggregation (demographics) have simplified complex information, and where “predictions have often been wildly wrong.” The risk of reason is personified in the positivist role of technocratic engineer “the best exemplar of the power of expertise… reinforcing directly and indirectly the rule of instrumentalism and unending economic growth. Over time, the implementation of legal limits, and categories of accountability-institutionalized through standardization and systematization, have gradually contributed to the rigid and segregated space of cities today. “The modern engineering enterprise is primarily a colonizing project, ” both self-aggrandizing and totalizing. Removed more and more from regional resources and dynamic biophysical processes, the neutralization and normalization of process is heightened by the security found in quantitative logic and numerical precision. Anthropocentric economies of expediency and exactitude simply externalized ecologies of race, class, and gender. The assumed neutrality of infrastructure is perhaps its most dangerous weapon.
When it first came into being, the word landscape had two meanings. It denoted an area, an extent of the earth’s surface with boundaries, a meaning that has persisted until the present day. But landscape referred also to the group that shaped that area through practices, rituals, and institutions. Like the modern ‘township,’ landscape in this original sense was both a physical space and a political community. And like political communities everywhere, landscapes were almost always marked by unequal degrees of power. Landscapes were, and remain, places of contest and conflict, of hard work and brute force, even when studiously concealed. To ignore this political dimension of any landscape is to miss a fundamental part of its essence.
So: recover the political dimension of landscape. Wherever you work, know who has influence, who lacks it and why. Take the measure of old rivalries. Understand power.
Perhaps politics has really taken notice of the landscape? Is the opposite also true? The crises accompanying periods of great change are often occasions for new moments of creativity. The time has come to adapt and initiate a dialogue that manages to involve the general public. The landscape involves the science and technique of relations; it is not only an object of contemplation and reaction, but also a discipline in its own right. In recently times, the relationship between the landscape and politics has grown schematic, ambiguous and evanescent. Successively, it is as if it foresaw the imminent coming of a moment of truth, a moment that would raise a question that is not only cultural, but with notable effects on social and economic, and thus eminently political values. The greatest difficulty was to admit the need for a new approach, that it was no longer possible to wait and that the time had come to act and take risks. Despite the anti-political nature of a vision of the landscape as a controlled and guaranteed consumer good, a new way of speaking about the landscape and politics gives precise meaning to these two terms. The problematic dimension of the landscape viewed as a «project» highlights the urgency for transformation, a dimension that demonstrates not only an elevated level of ductility, but also a usefulness, in many cases strategic, to the governance of phenomena in an explosive phase of becoming. The thesis, to date in no way to be taken for granted, is that the question of designing the landscape is a challenge, a political emergency to be confronted as a priority.