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.
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?
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?
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.
When environment is something more than a group of factors and parameters, when we sometimes enjoy the landscape or the nature just as a merchandise, when we talk about tourism or about natural parks as theme parks, when we talk about the forgotten landscapes of the outskirts…has not the ideas changedenough in its use, the values and management of the ground so that have to give a new name to the elements of the landscape, the tools to contemplate it, or to make it? (…)
It is an ethic for thelandscape necessary?
What “makes up” the landscape, what defines this presence that insists on appearing? In the Great Wall of China separates territories so far away from each other that what it does is to define them. In the definition of the hermeneutics as “understanding” of the text to make possible the human participation in the construction of the world. In the construction of the human landscape.
Talking about transgressions, I was reading the quote of Adorno in a short story of Kafka. The story of the man that waits in front of a door: the law has a door and the door a doorman. A man arrives and asks him to let him go in. The doorman answers that at the moment he cannot let him go in. The man waits and when he was very old and almost blind, he asks again why is the door open or why it is open when nobody has crossed in all that time. The answer is that the door is just for him and, indeed, the doorman thinks he will have to close it soon.
I think about the definition of this other world that was born separated from the architecture – the vacuum full of meanings and the other things that make up the environment: trees, plants, animals, wind, the sun… that contrasts it because of the construction of the city or of the strip surrounding the buildings, gardens, roofs… I think about streets, roads and motorways. We should study how its “nature” as a constructing way and after that, explore the nature of the transgressions that take place between both worlds to create complicities, to accept each other. Is not that sustainability?
A sustainable activity or use is one which, in practice as well as principle, can continue forever. It can be argued that sustainability is essentially a homocentric concept, since the touchstone of moral value remains the effect that actions will have upon the quality or continuance of human life. The idea of sustainable development is ambiguous in that it can be given a technocentric slant, in which environmental conservation criteria are traded-off against economic development criteria, or a more radical, ecocentric spin, which emphasises the constraints on human activity that must be accepted if biospheric systems are to be protected against further life threatening deterioration. The Brundtland Report is inclined to regard species and ecosystems as resources for humans rather than things which have intrinsic value. However, it recognises that the quality of human life can only be guaranteed if it does not put excessive demands upon the carrying capacity of the supporting ecosystems. Following Callicott and Mumford, we may prefer the term ‘ecological sustainability’ to the term ‘sustainable development’. The latter is often taken to imply (or at least condone) continued economic growth, whereas the former encourages a vision of steady-state economic development in which human wants are met through greater efficiency rather than an increased consumption of resources.
Following Brundtland, the principles of sustainability received further definition in Conserving the World’s Biological Diversity. Of particular interest is the set of ethical principles suggested by the authors of this document, which represent an attempt to get beyond ‘resourcist’ thinking. They are based upon the idea of interdependence: ‘humanity is part of nature, and humans are subject to the same immutable ecological laws as all other species on the planet’, from which it follows that sustainability must be ‘the basic principle of all social and economic development. Personal and social values should be chosen to accentuate the richness of flora, fauna and human experience.’ So far these principles could be construed as homocentric, as could the report’s insistence that the well-being of future generations is a social responsibility of the present generation. However, the document also embraces Naess’s principle of biocentric egalitarianism when it states, ‘All species have an inherent right to exist. The ecological processes that support the integrity of the biosphere and its diverse species, landscapes and habitats are to be maintained.’
The report’s attempt to balance the ecocentric with the homocentric is valiant. It attempts to draw a parallel between conserving species diversity and encouraging diversity in ethnic and cultural outlooks towards nature. In doing so, it inevitably ducks some of the difficult, maybe even intractable, conflicts that are sure to arise when the effects of particular cultures or lifestyles are examined closely. Nevertheless, its overall thrust is surely right; it acknowledges ecological limits within which human society must work, but emphasises that these are not limits to human endeavour; ‘instead, they give direction and guidance as to how human affairs can sustain environmental stability and diversity’. If Norton’s convergence hypothesis is right, the steps taken to implement such a policy of sustainable development should also meet most of the concerns of the deep ecologists. What the landscape architectural profession requires, at this stage in its development, is a revised system of values which places sustainability alongside the more traditional interests in aesthetics and utility, together with credible visions of how these three value areas may be combined in realisable landscapes.