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)




More abstractly, the rise of informality in garden design coincides with a growing interest in empiricism. A devotion to rational geometry gave way to careful observation of the apparent irregularities of the natural world. The serpentine ‘line of beauty’ identified in William Hogarth’s “The Analysis of Beauty” much resembles the serpentine curves of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown lake. In the middle of the century, Brown (1716-83) was ascendant and he remains the best-remembered of his peers, in part because he was so prolific, but also because of his memorable moniker which derives from his habit of telling his patrons, having toured their estates, that he thought he saw ‘capabilities’ in them, his own word for ‘possibilities’ or ‘potential’. Brown’s design formula included the elimination of terraces, balustrades, and all traces of formality; a belt of trees thrown around the park; a river dammed to create a winding lake; and handsome trees dotted through the parkland, either individually or in clumps. Interestingly, Brown did not call himself a landscape gardener. He preferred the terms ‘placemaker’ and ‘improver’, which in many ways are conceptually closer to the role of the modern-day landscape architect than ‘landscape gardener’. (…)

Criticism of Brown began in his own day and intensified after his death. He was criticized in his own time, not for destroying many formal gardens (which he certainly did), but for not going far enough towards nature. Among his detractors were two Hereford squires’ Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, both advocates of the new picturesque style. To count as Picturesque, a view or a design had to be a suitable subject for a painting, but enthusiasts for the new fashion were of the opinion that Brown’s landscapes were too boring to qualify. Knigts’s didactic poem “The Landscape” was directed against Brown, whose interventions, he said, could only create a ‘dull, vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene’. What was required was some roughness, shagginess, and variety. This is an argument mirrored in today’s opposition between manicured lawns and wildflower meadows. In the United States, where smooth trimmed lawns have been the orthodox treatment for the front yard, often regulated by city ordinances, growing anything other than a well-tended monoculture of grass in front of the house can be controversial.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)


Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Blenheim Estate (1764)



Ian McHarg, too, was concerned about unrestricted developement. The idea that some developments are more suitable to some landscapes than to others seems only common sense, but when homes built on floodplains are inundated, or hotels built on cliff tops fall into the sea, the extent of human folly becomes evident. We could avoid such calamities and live more harmoniusly whit nature, thought McHarg, if we took natural processes and values into account. He proposed a method for bringing everything into the picture. Known as ‘landscape suitability analysis’ or sometimes just as ‘sieve-mapping’, the technique he developed involved layering information on acetate sheets. So, for example, in considering the optimal route for a new highway, McHarg would combine layers showing the engineering properties of the substrates with layers showing productive soils, significant wildlife habitats, important cultural sites, and so on. When these were combined, it was the areas which were clearest of symbols that were the better areas in which to construct the road. The method also worked” well for planning development at a regional scale. Typically, after gathering physiographic, climatic, and geological data, McHarg could produce suitability maps, usually zoned for agriculture, forestry, recreation, and urban development. The method, which relied on extensive gathering and manipulation of data, became much easier with the growing availability of computers, and ‘McHarg’s Method’ became the basis of the technology known as GIS (Geographical Information System) which uses digital map layers instead of superimposed drawings.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)

Some years later, however, another nail in the coffin of the designed landscape was drilled: the publication of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature, which cited the natural world as the only viable model for landscape architecture. This text provided landscape architects with both an analytical method and sufficient moral grounds to avoid almost completely decisions of form and design -that is, if design is taken as the concious shaping of landscape rather than its stewardship alone. McHarg emphasized the evolving study of natural ecology and remained within the bounds of natural processes and planning. A strong moral imperative underpinned the discourse; it mixed science with evangelism -a sort of ecofundamentalism. In his writtings and lectures, McHarg took no prisoners and allowed no quarter.

Marc Treib, Nature Recalled (1999)

Ian McHarg, Minimum Social Cost Alignment of a Road (late 1960s)



Functionalism was entirely consistent with the rationalistic and mechanistic world-view which rose to become the dominant European ideology in the seventeenth century. Believing, as they did, that the cosmos was a complicated clockwork, Descartes, Newton, Bacon, and their ilk maintained that it could be analyzed, reduced, investigated and ultimately controlled. If the universe is a machine, it is easy to assert, as did Le Corbusier, that a house ought to be one. It was this connection with science which ultimately distanced the functional approach from ordinary people and delivered it into the hands of technocrats. This did not begin to happen until the emergence of the social sciences in the nineteenth century when functionalism became linked with ideals of social progress and revolutionary political developments.

Ian Thompson, Ecology, Community and Delight (1999)

DROM + Strelka KB, Azatlyk Square (2019)



Turner notes that the word “landscape” has itself undergone a shift in meaning. In the seventeenth century it was a painter’s term. derived from the Dutch, which referred to a picture which depicted inland scenery (as opposed to seascapes, portraits, etc.) The scenery depicted was usually of ideal, or idealised places. The eighteenth-century “landscape gardeners” took their inspiration from painting particularly the works of Poussin, Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain, but sought to realise these ideal Landscapes throught the tangible manipulation of earth, water and vegetation. Things started to go wrong, as far as the meaning of “landscape Archiecture” was concerned, when a secord sense of the word “landscape”, which Turner calls the Geographer’s Sense, gained ascendancy over the original meaning. In this sense “landscape” has come to mean “a tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics and features, esp. considered as a product of modifying or shaping processes and agents (usually natural)”.

As Turner sees it, the problem with “landscape architect”, if “landscape” is used in the Geografer’s Sense, is that it implies God-like powers to rise mountains, to direct the course of rivers, to control the climate and to dictate the pattern of human seattlement” This aspiration to omnipotence is, he says, “as preposterous as it is sacrilegous as it is tyrannical”.

Ian Thompson, Ecology, Community and Delight (1999)



Chris Reed + Stoss; Huangpu Riverfront (2012)




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.

Ian Thompson, Ecology, Community and Delight. Sources of values in Landscape Architecture (1999)

Kamel Louafi, Expo Water Garden (2000)




The focus of this paper has been deliberately narrow; it has examined Geoffrey Jellicoe’s ideas far more closely than it has examined the body of his design work. Many would judge Jellicoe to be an outstanding designer, but my contention is simply that being an outstanding designer does not make him an outstanding philosopher. I am willing to concede that it is rather harsh to judge theories presented in talks and articles written over a lifetime as if they were rigorously argued in a journal of philosophical aestehtics. Nevertheless, it should be said that Jellicoe’s ideas are seriously flawed. In particular he is wrong to make the communication of subconscious contents a necessary condition for creating works of art. Nor can such communication be regarded as supplying a sufficient condition.

Jellicoe’s ideas are wrong, but they are not pernicious. They are unlikely to cause any harm in the world, and have served him well enough in his own art. Seen as a personal philosophy rather than a general theory in philosophical aesthetics, they have value. It is naive to expect great artists, whether they be composers, poets or landscape architects, to be profound or consistent thinkers.

Second, though Jellicoe’s theories do not make complete sense, and in some respects are plainly wrong, he is surely right to maintain that landscape architecture can produce works of art. My purpose in this paper has not been to evaluate Jellicoe’s landscape designs, butI would notdisagree with the view that many ofhis own designs would count asart.

Third, we will never find a single criterion against which to judge those things that aspire to be works of art, and we are mistaken to look for one. It will probably benefit landscape architecture if at least some of its products are considered to merit the appellation “work of art”. To this extent its status is more than an academic question. There is not, however, one right or guaranteed way of producing such work. Some will see that as a problem, others as a liberation. Which schemes are works of art, which are not, and which lie on the borderline, will always remain matters of judgement and debate.

Ian Thompson, Can a Landscape be a Work of Art?: an examination of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s theory of aesthetics (1995)

Sir Geoffrey Allan Jellicoe, Sutton Place Gardens (1983)