Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics matter to everyone, and the sort of virtue ethics approach outlined in the preceding section has implications for everyone alive. However, in terms of scale and impact, it is those who take managerial decisions about land, whether they are politicians, policy-makers, farmers, planners, landscape architects, property developers or foresters, who ought to examine their characteristic values and reflect on their actions the most closely. Those ethicists who have argued in favour of plural sources of values and who have been willing to embrace anthropocentric reasons for protecting the environment, are surely closer to the thinking of the majority of such professionals, as well as to that of the wider public. Recognizing this however, we should never allow ourselves to slip into the sort of resourcist thinking which sees the environment with its multitude of component landscapes as a warehouse of reserves solely for the use of human beings, a point made powerfully by Heidegger in his later writings. The main message of environmental ethics is that environmental problems are not just managerial or resource problems but are moral issues, which, as Jamieson observes, ‘brings them into the domain of dialogue, discussion and participation’.

Ian Thompson, Landscape and environmental ethics (2013)


This ecosystem-focused project becomes a political statement when analyzed in relation to the threat posed to the environment in Poland. Since 2017, following the green light granted by the Ministry of Environment and State Forests Agency, the forests of Poland have been ravaged, including even the most precious primeval woodlands. Logging activities threaten the whole ecosystems – both plants and animals – as the harvesting is nonselective and enormous areas are destroyed producing ‘environmental massacre’ landscapes.

In this context the project is seen as a unique example of environmental awareness accomplished after an intense investors engagement process – The City Council of Iława, environmentalists, local historians and a broad team of designers and engineers from different disciplines. Since the very beginning of the project it has been clear that the more subtle a design intervention is, the better for the ecosystem. Also, after a long process of encouragement the decision was made to change the character of the project to non-productive and natural forest, which resulted into a no-wood-harvesting policy and protection of the dead wood.

Landscape Architecture Lab, Iława Forest (2018)



Mad Scientists

On the eve of the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal, ground staff at the gigantic Stade de France in Paris had left the stadium’s lights on, for security reasons. Attracted by the blinding floodlights, thousands upon thousands of migrating Silver Y moths descended into the empty arena. Those not killed by the heat of the lamps eventually ended up among the grass of the playing surface, where, after the lights were turned off, they hid throughout the day of the big match. As evening fell, 80,000 spectators took their seats and the lights were turned back on. The sleeping moths stirred, and soon thousands were zigzagging among the players. Photographs taken that night show annoyed football officials picking moths off each other’s suits, while the swarm blocked the lenses of TV cameras and hung from the goalposts. Perhaps the highlight came when Cristiano Ronaldo sat injured and weeping on the pitch, while a lone Silver Y sipped his teardrops away.As the Portuguese superstar had discovered, the mingling of urban development with the natural world can throw up some weird and wonderful occurrences. Cities are like mad scientists, creating their own crazy ecological concoctions by throwing all kinds of native and foreign elements into the urban melting pot, then spicing it up with artificial light, pollution, impervious surfaces and a host of other challenges. Researchers around the globe are documenting how globalisation and urbanisation are changing the behaviour and evolution of animals.Indeed, evolutionary biologists no longer need to travel to remote places like the Galápagos todiscover their holy grail: speciation, the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. The process is going on right in the very cities where they live and work. In tune with their human population, cities have been assembled from immigrants from around the globe.

The Guardian , Darwin comes to town: how cities are creating new species (2018)

Moebius, Arzach, 1976


There has been no lack of architectural responses to the threat of rising tides, especially in the metropolitan cities of the Global North; in fact, what might be called ‘climate megastructures’ have become something of an entire genre of architectural proposal, both real and fictional. Going beyond more prosaic calls for the sustainability of individual buildings, climate megastructures operate at the scale of neighborhoods, cities or regions. Some are imminently buildable, based on contemporary technologies and knowledges up to the task of mitigating sea level rise and the increasing frequency of storms associated with it. Others are far more speculative and cleave to a faith similar to that found in climate geoengineering — the belief that humanity can, someday, figure out a technological magic bullet that can stop or even reverse the worst of climate change. Large, infrastructural-scale thinking is a first step in the right direction towards coping with a problem as daunting and inevitable as sea level rise. But too often, both of these categories of climate megastructure share a common, deeply flawed assumption: that architecture can, and should, be deployed to rescue the urban status quo in the face of existential threat. “Green” megastructures that dutifully fulfill their role as an economic investment first — or just ignore their own place in a global real estate industry that ensures the consequences of climate change will be unevenly felt — might be “thinking big,” but fail to think systemically. When architecture proposes to save the flooding cities of the world, who or what exactly is it trying to save?

Joshua McWhirter, Stop Seeing Climate Change as an “Opportunity” for Architecture (2018)

Bjarke Ingels, + BIG et alt, The Big U (2014)


Dominant Narrative

The dominant narrative upon which conservation’s global mandate rests is therefore one of immanent ecological catastrophe. In this tragedy, humanity is cast as a destructive force in an otherwise harmonic environment. In this account nature is right and humanity is wrong and as such clear moral lines can be drawn. It is however possible to think that the nature, of which we are now undeniably a part, is in itself as destructive as it is creative, the one necessary to the other. Similarly, the new paradigm in ecology, as ecologist Robert Cook explains, is one in which the ecosystem is understood as inherently chaotic and humans increasingly accepted as a ‘natural’ albeit currently destructive part of both its history and its future.

Optimistically, as neither destroyers nor saviors we can begin to re-imagine ourselves as participants in, and perhaps managers of, endless ecological change. As Jedidiah Purdy writes, “the question is no longer how to preserve a wild world from human intrusion; it is what shape we will give to a world we can’t help changing.” Michael Soule, the founder of the Wildlands Network brings Purdy’s point full circle, explaining that “when we choose the kind of nature we will live with, we are also choosing the kind of human beings we will be. We shape the world, and it shapes us in return. We are the creator and the created, the maker and the made. Zuzanna Drozdz, a student of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania puts it perfectly when she writes: “by making a cultural decision to embrace, protect, and engender an ecologically robust, biodiverse world, we start to build a new identity for ourselves as a constructive force in nature.”

Richard Weller, Atlas for the End? (2017)

Richard Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World (2017)



Taxonomy is both the science of classification and the language of botany. As a science, it facilitates identification, evaluation and specification by comparing shared and common qualities. As a language, taxonomy provides a Latin name for the plant, or a binomial label that systematizes across cultural and physical divides. Thus, the science of classification increases our understanding of the plant while the language of botany expands scholarship, generating a coherent global currency. This familiarity is recognized through evidence contained in a herbaria specimen. At once a science, a language, and an artifact, taxonomy establishes confidence that the natural World is known and that knowledge can be fixed. Each authoritative procedure informs our capacity to exploit, as plants are bought, sold, traded and specified through the exacting terms of taxonomy.
Landscape architects rely on the orders of taxonomy to shape planted environments. Although plant taxonomists and landscape architects share a common interest in the natural world, techniques and outcomes vary tremendously. Landscape practices depend upon familiarity with living plants, rather than data obtained from desiccated specimens or sampling methods. Designers aim to make their make practices comprehensible to a broad public, and to transmit imagination and speculation through experience. Manipulating the location, aspect, and form of an individual plant is a known practice; just as the maneuvering of water, earth and rock underpin our profession. Yet designers seldom interrogate the mutable characteristics of science, or question established procedural orders. When confronted with plants, designers tend to digress into botanical laymen, accepting the influence of taxonomy as an expertise that lies outside their field of knowledge. This limitation also extends to other scientific discords such as native and non-native dichotomies. In other words, the Held of landscape architecture is more comfortable manipulating the tangible world (soil, water and plants) than in manipulating the theory of science. This tendency facilitates the expanding distance between design and botanical speculation, delaying the advancement of a critical agenda on plant life. Outside of formal characteristics or classificatory status, perhaps the enjoyment of plants as live organisms with particular behaviors and mutable contexts is the territory of the landscape architect.
At the core of this book is a perspective on the relationship between identification and experience, according a more effective role to the latter. While taxonomy offers a window into a rich and wide-ranging history of knowledge, the herbaria specimen has gradually expired as a useful fool for expressing the behavioral and mutable characteristics of plant life. Taxonomy continues to expand the ordering of plants, but indexes do little to advance an understanding of the relationship between plants.  Yet, the binomial and the specimen continue to feature prominently. As environmental risk escalates and ecological scales become the new norm for sites, novel and experimental directions in planting are required in response. How can plant life re-engage with human knowledge through this thick tangle of cultural and scientific history?

Rosetta S. Elkin, tiny taxonomies at the Jardins du Métis Festival (2016)



Prepositions [sic]

Preposition 1
The emergence of ecology and the resurgence of geography in late twentieth century North America is advancing the social and political agency of landscape architecture.
Preposition 2
The fundamental problem with urbanization is that we consider it a problem.
Preposition 3
Global, taylorist forms of engineering and euclidean planning practices cannot exclusively address pressing urban challenges of changing climates, resource economies, and population mobility.
Preposition 4
Decentralization is one of the greatest structural forces reshaping patterns of urbanization.
Preposition 5
Reversibility of ecological externalities and the recirculation of wastes can reform industrial economies, diversify markets, and extend material cycles.
Preposition 6
Landscape infrastructure is a live index and indeterminate interface of hard technological systems and soft biophysical processes by design.
Preposition 7
Time is an unseen territory of design and vital zone of intervention where different processes and projections converge, coincide, and collide.
Preposition 8
Urbanization is a synthetic ecology of different flows, materials, and processes, extensive and intensive, combining waste and water, fuel and food, mobility and power.
Preposition 9
The physical, material, fluid, and energetic extents of urbanization lie far beyond the footprint of cities.
Preposition 10
Ecologies of scale are the new postindustrial economies for the weak world of future.

Snøhetta, MAX IV Laboratory Landscape (2016)




We should be careful of green. Greenwashing does not help anyone. Green intentions are all very good, but a lot of follow-through and care is required to get to a green result in both senses of the word: color and sustainability. Even the best of intentions can go in all sorts of ungreen directions if someone’s asleep at the wheel. For instance, much of the paper and plastic packaging on green products is contaminated through the dyeing process. This surely is a metaphor for the highly irrigated and highly chemicalized green spaces in our cities, the worst of which are “sterile, monocultural, soaked in poison,” as the political ecologist Paul Robbins puts it. Despite, or perhaps because of, its economic, political, social, and cultural importance, green becomes a huge drain on natural resources, with cities like Manama using over half their water resources on the irrigation of greenery.

The paradox of green environmentalism is not restricted to arid beige environments such as Bahrain and Dubai. Indeed, Rem Koolhaas, who is not especially known for his environmental credentials, remarked, “Embarrassingly, we have been equating responsibility with literal greening.” William McDonough and Michael Braungart have chronicled
another form of green desert, the American lawn: “The average lawn is an interesting beast: people plant it, then douse it with artificial fertilizers and dangerous pesticides to make it grow and to keep it uniform-all so that they can hack and mow what they encouraged to grow. And woe to the small flower that rears its head!” Americans allegedly spend more money on watering lawns every year than they do on their federal tax returns. In an essay on public space in Cairo, Vincent Battesti says that green spaces “promote public frenzy.” He argues that the limited green space in Cairo has become a magnet for citizens during holidays and weekends. The draw of green is almost universal, although that attraction may be particular and culturally bound.

Gareth Doherty, Paradoxes of Green (2017)

Gilles Brusset, L’enfance du pli (2017)


Nature as ideology

But what do we mean by “nature” or “the natural”? The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) addressed the problem long ago, pointing out that many of the connotations attached to the two terms led to terminological confusion because they were based on a commingling of moral concepts legitimization, and normative aspects? This article, however, is not primarily concerned with the Millsian definition of nature, which characterized it as, among other things, “a name for the mode, partly known to us and partly unknown, in which all things take place.” This article deals much more with the concept of “nature as ideology,” which the German landscape designer Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn described as, “Nature, understood in this way, is a (more-or-less) systematic scheme of ideas, held by particular social, political, cultural, and other groups.” In that assessment, nature represents an intellectual construct. And according to Wolschke-Bulmahn, it is only human reflection on nature that produces an emotional bond and the assignment of values to nature.

The terms nature and naruralness are associated with positive or negative values depending on the cultural context. In the European context, “natural” is assigned a predominantly positive value and often functions as a kind of seal of approval, with which products, but also landscapes, are stamped. Urban dwellers in particular often express a yearning for “the natural.” But the German philosopher Thomas Schramme argues that when people think of “the natural” they mean only a specific part of “nature”–to wit, exclusively the beneficial part of nature. Everything else, such as the dangers or unpleasantness associated with nature, is ignored. The historian Rolf Peter Sieferle characterized nature as “that which is elementary, self-contained, spontaneous, sprouted, unavailable, unproduced, while on the other side is that which is artificial, technical, regulated by arrangements and agreements, made and compelled, designed and cultivated.” And even things that have the positive connotations of “natural” are subject to differing levels of meaning: “the natural as biological, as self-evident, as non-artificial, as non-cultural, and as non-technical.” When we talk about the “naturalness” of a landscape in a landscape architecture project, the emphasis is often on the “non-artificial” aspect. However, landscape architecture has in fact a long, historical-cultural tradition of dealing with artificial representations of nature, with the imitation of putatively untouched landscapes. Landscape architects have always been busy creating images that suggest “nature” and “natural,” but are thought through down to the tiniest technical detail and “artificially” effectuated by humans.

Representing landscape as a facsimile of nature is a gardening tradition that has its roots in the Chinese gardens, in which the emphasis was not on the construction of a paradise, but rather on a devotion to honoring nature, by creating as perfect a copy of real landscapes as possible. Chinese garden designers adhered to geomantic principles and focused on designing an efngy of an ideal microcosm that was closely allied to traditional, allegorical Chinese landscape painting. No trouble was spared, and they constructed artificial seas as well as artful replicas of entire mountainous massifs. In Asia, the “natural landscape garden,” which had spread out over ]apan, was replaced over time by sublimely excessive citations of landscapes. Landscapes were reproduced on a smaller scale, or individual aspects, such as water, were symbolized by materials like gravel, turning them into artifacts. An artificial refinement of “raw nature,” in place of purely replicating it, became the expression of the gardening art.

Susann Ahn & Regine Keller, False Nature? (2017)

Z+T Landcape Architects, Vanke Eco-Campus (2011) 



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.

Kate Orff, Toward an Urban Ecology: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture (2016)

Kate Orff + SCAPE and Richard Misrach, Petrochemical America (2009)


That’s the theory

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.

Richard Weller, OMG, There is an Anthropocene in my Backyard! (2016)

Kongjiang Yu + TURENSCAPE, Houtan Park (2010)