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)

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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)

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Big Nature

Our performance -how we consume, how we waste- is incontrovertibly connected to the state of the environment. We have always had a desirous relation to nature- whether agrarian or industrial, literary or aesthetic. As our technological culture accelerates toward entrepreneurial environments, bonding with Big Nature may come… well, naturally.

Recently, critic and landscape architect Richard Weller pointed out that “landscape architecture is yet to really have its own modernism, an ecological modernity, an ecology free of romanticism and aesthetics”. Because of their functionalism, we are tempted to understand these nexts landscapes as a kind of ecomodernism. But to flourish, they will need to appeal, if not to our sense of romance, at least to our sensibility about how decisions we make today impact the future. We are no longer innocent; contemporary culture is coming to grisps with the Anthropocene epoch, a period that, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggests, began in the late 1700s with the onslaught of fueled human activity.

The onus of our new environmentalism includes a call for an advanced stewardship that is not just about protection or remediation, but an entrepreneurial redefinition of our relationship to nature.

Jane Amidon, Big Nature (2010)

Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, Qunli Stormwater Park (2011)

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School of Thought

As a school of thought, landscape urbanism compresses the polarisation between design and planning in an effort to combine the strengths of each. It shifts the landscape architectural project from an art (or craft) of making beautiful landscapes to one of interdisciplinary negotiation and the seeding of strategic, development processes. Just as it has been inspirational, the landscape urbanist polemic has also been grandiloquent. Accordingly, I have tried to condense the rhetoric into a set of basic principles without falling prey to reductionism. In short, as I interpret it, landscape urbanism claims to do the following:

include within the purview of design all that is in the landscape—infrastructure and buildings, etc., and shuffle across scales so as to bridge the divides between landscape design, landscape ecology, and landscape planning.

bring greater creativity to planning operations and greater rationality to design operations.

• conceptualize and then directly engage the city and its landscape as a hybridized, natural, chaotic ecology.

emphasize the creative and temporal agency of ecology in the formation of urban life as opposed to envisaging an ideal equilibrium between two entities formerly known as culture and nature.

understand and manipulate the forces at work behind things and less with the resultant aesthetic qualities of things.

interpret and then represent landscape systems so that these systems can in turn influence urban forms, processes, and patterns.

prefer open-ended (indeterminate and catalytic) design strategies as opposed to formal compositions and master plans.

Richard Weller, Landscape (Sub)Urbanism in Theory and Practice (2006)

Dirk Sijmons + H+N+S, Coastal Urban System Flanders (2017)

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