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.
The city is a landscape; its soils and geology define its fundamental character. Our work and interests stem from understanding time and territory, the geology and wider landscape patterns, the river catchment with propositions for water sensitive urban design, the urban forest with how liveable the city is and how resilient the urban dweller feels. Our work ranges from strategic planning to forensic analysis of the below-ground condition, considering the soil’s biological complexity and its capacity for yield and absorption. Collaborations enable our practice to reach widely into the marginal territories that inform our work; the poetry and science of soils; the sound of geology; the value of shared grass roots knowledge; the biomimetics of spider sheet webs. Our profession concerns that which makes land a landscape, the people who inhabit it and the resilience of the environment and the individual that together create city communities in all their density and diversity. We seek an archaeological narrative and creative ways of how to stimulate the stewardship of the city’s natural capital.
Johanna Gibbons, Interview (2015)
Long-term sustainability necessitates an inherent and essential capacity for resilience – the ability to recover from disturbance, to accommodate change, and to function in a state of health. In this sense, sustainability typically means the dynamic balance between social-cultural, economic and ecological domains of human behavior necessary for humankind’s long-term surviving and thriving. As such, long-term sustainability sits squarely in the domain of human intention and activity – and thus – design; it should not be confused with the ultimately impossible realm of managing “the environment” as an object separate from human action. Instead, the challenge of sustainability is very much one for design, and specifically, design for resilience.
A growing response to the increasing prevalence of major storm events has been the development of political rhetoric around the need for long-term sustainability, and in particular, its prerequisite of resilience in the face of vulnerability. As an emerging policy concept, resilience refers generally to the ability of an ecosystem to with- stand and absorb change to prevailing environmental conditions; in an empirical sense, resilience is the amount of change or disruption an ecosystem can absorb and, following these change events, return to a recognizable steady state in which the system retains most of its structures, functions and feedbacks. In both contexts, resilience is a well-established concept in complex ecological systems research, with a history in resource management, governance and strategic planning. Yet despite more than two decades of this research, the development of policy strategies and design applications related to resilience is relatively recent. While there was a significant political call for (implied) resilience planning following New York’s Superstorm Sandy in 2011 and the ice storm of 2013 in Toronto and the North- Eastern US, there is still a widespread lack of coordinated governance, established benchmarks, implemented policy applications, tangible design strategies, and few (if any) empirical measures of success related to climate change adaptation. There has been too little critical analysis and reflection on the need to understand, unpack and cultivate resilience beyond the rhetoric and to develop specific tactics for design. Design for resilience would benefit from an evidence-based approach that contributes to adaptive and ecologically responsive design in the face of complexity, uncertainty and vulnerability. Put simply: What does a resilient world look like, how does it behave and how do we design for resilience?
Landscapes often contain and are subject to natural processes that change the designer’s original plan. There are also landscape designers who intentionally seek to obscure the human act of design. These concerns deepened with the development of modern landscape architecture in the twentieth century. Borrowing many of its tenets from modern architecture, which distrusted allusion and stressed honesty of expression and truth of materials, modern landscape architects considered how their work could be a true evocation of modern times. This thinking is evident in the writing by one of its earliest proponents, Christopher Tunnard. For Tunnard, gardens and landscapes that appeared to be the act of natural processes were not only old fashioned, but also deceiving. In his appraisal of the work of Swedish Garden Architects at the First International Congress of Garden Architects in Paris in 1937, he chided this Association for clinging to a romantic conception of nature when they suggested that planting should ‘give the impression that they have grown there spontaneously’. Tunnard cautioned, ‘the imitation of nature is a long perpetuated fraud’.
also see: Messy Ecosystems
Parks are not the answer. Not for impoverished cities plagued with socio-economic crises that are painfully embodied in immense tracts of land abandoned by defunct industries and antiquated infrastructure. The question is: what if reframing formerly urban fallow sites as fertile ground for regeneration constitutes a means for a city to reinvent itself? When traditional redevelopment under-delivers or fails to materialize, as it often does in times of fiscal distress, can landscape architects offer resourceful design strategies that require a new way of seeing and a fresh vocabulary?
The term ‘wildland’ posited here attempts to brand cultivated urban wilds along with other unconventional landscape- based tactics to fill the gaps and dispel the stigma of disinvestment. Can wildland assume a role as healthy urban fabric, no lesser an asset than parkland? For well over a decade, notable examples in Germany invented ‘urban nature parks’ promoted by progressive planning policies to convert fallow land into productive resources for the current and future city. Yet American municipalities default to mowed lawns to keep blight at bay, albeit at a great cost. The unfortunate urge to tame urban wilds denies the reality of urban entropy and sacrifices the socio-ecological benefits that citizens could harvest from a landscape with a savage tenacity.
Olmsted employed the term pastoral instead of the beautiful or picturesque to evoke a familiar, tranquil, and cultivated nature as a counterpoint to the city. Olmsted’s pastoral wove together the precepts of eighteenth-century landscape theory and Jeffersonian agrarianism.
Even more than Downing, Olmsted regarded the landscape as an instrument of social order. Gently undulating grass, serpentine lakes, sinuous pathways, and leafy woodland groves provided urban dwellers a much-sought-after alternative to the dense industrial city, presumably with salutary moral as well as physical effects. Not intended as a zone of active use, the pastoral public park presented composed scenery for passive viewing. The purpose of this engagement Olmsted described with typical zeal: “No one who has closely observed the conduct of people who visit Central Park can doubt it exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and lawless of the city —an inﬂuence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance.”
Urban dwellers proved much more resistant to “harmonizing” than Olmsted expected, and in the face of American pluralism, public parks became more diverse in their activities and accommodations. Nevertheless, as reiterations of Central Park appeared in cities large and small across the United States by the beginning of the twentieth century, the enveloping pastoral aesthetic of the public park prevailed and carried with it the equation of pastoral scenery and ameliorative social influence.
Frank Leslie, The Central Park. A delightful resort for the toil-worn New Yorkers (1869)
Header: Frederick Law Olmsted + Calvert Vaux, Map of Central Park, New York City (1868)
It is always a bit of a dilemma to write about the landscape’s role in sustainability. How do we sound relevant when our basic training and ethos have been conjoined to the ideal of sustainability even before the word ‘sustainable’ became common parlance? Learning how to site buildings so they sit softly upon the landscape and operate passively to conserve and generate heat; to shelter them from winds; to control and harness water and protect a site’s permeability; to create and protect habitat and encourage bio-diversity; to use plants to remediate and modify climate conditions; and to create beauty are what we learn and teach at school. As landscape architects, learning to design with “green” in mind is core to what we do as a profession.
So how does “ecological urbanism” expand the core values to a profession that is essentially focused on the role of the landscape- a field whose basic ethos is to work within an ecological framework? How does this really differ from basic training?
Five years ago I became a guerrilla gardener. I stepped out into the world to cultivate land wherever I liked. The mission was to fight the miserable public flowerbeds around my neighborhood. Until then I had always lived, more or less, on the right side of the law.`I had recently moved to a high-rise flat on a bleak roundabout in south London – an area notorious for its labyrinth of pedestrian underpasses, garish pink shopping centre and traffic volumes to rival Britain’s busiest motorways. It is the kind of environment that drives people to crime. My crime was gardening on public land without permission and battling whatever was in the way.
Even when one has permission, cultivating a garden is always a fight. We cut back one plant to allow another one to flourish; we scatter seeds, but we rip up weeds and snatch away flowers and fruit before their seed has dispersed. Our gardens are scenes of savage destruction. “Animals uproot, frosts cripple, winds topple, rains flood. The guerrilla gardener shares this constant battle with nature with other gardeners. But we have other enemies and ambitions.
This handbook has been compiled from my experience of guerrilla gardening and that of guerrilla gardeners around the world. Radical and reticent, active and retired, successes and failures – they have all shaped these pages. I have also drawn on the documented advice of ‘conventional’ guerrillas, whose analysis of strategies and tactics can be applicable to our fight. The debate and instruction goes well beyond gardening. To succeed a guerrilla gardener needs to know more. Do not be daunted: read on.
(Header: Richard Reynolds at work)
Sustainable landscape design is generally understood in relation to three principles -ecological health, social justice and economic prosperity. Rarely do aesthetics factor into sustainability discourse, except in negative asides conflating the visible with the aesthetic and rendering both superfluous.
This article examines the role of beauty and aesthetics in a sustainability agenda. It argues that it will take more than ecologically regenerative designs for culture to be sustainable, that what is needed are designed landscapes that provoke those who experience them to become more aware of how their actions affect the environment, and to care enough to make changes. This involves considering the role of aesthetic environmental experiences, such as beauty, in re-centering human consciousness from an egocentric to a more bio-centric perspective. This argument in the form of a manifesto is inspired by American landscape architects whose work is not usually understood as contributing to sustainable design.