Landscape Architecture and Political Action

Two recent articles I posted comments on, one from Land8 and the other from The Dirt , on the need for landscape architects to engage with the political process in order to further the goals of a small profession that sees itself as stewards of the environment, makers of urban places and guardians of cultural heritage, reflect the hubris that the many built environment professionals, not just landscape architects, are prone to indulge in. The unstated belief behind these ideas is that we as educated and trained professionals know what’s best for the design of the public places that all of us inhabit together, including the uneducated poor and needy, the educated and avaricious rich and greedy as well as all the rest of us enmeshed in the consumerist world we find ourselves part of.


This bias on the part of landscape architects is again clear in many of the statements by the keynote speakers at the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016, which was attended by over 700 landscape architects, here are some extracts form a post on The Dirt. Many of these speakers held out lofty environmental goals and ideals: Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University argued that “A central part of achieving that just landscape planning and design approach is to better respect the other 2.5 million known species on the planet, “We must think of the quality of being for them, too.” To protect their homes, landscape architects must lead the charge in “re-establishing the role of the wild.” There are also some social goals: Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, explained how her community-centric approach “creates a scaffolding for meaningful participation that is an active generator of social life.” For her, it’s all about “linking the social to the ecological and scaling that up for communities.” On the apparent need for many more landscape architects Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Mexico’s leading landscape architect, said that the existing numbers may not be enough and more numbers are needed. For example, while there are more than 150,000 architects in Mexico, there are only 1,000 landscape architects.

He said: “There are not enough landscape architects in the developing world. And we need a global perspective. The U.S. and Euro-centric perspective must change. More landscape architects from the developing world studying in the U.S. and Europe need to return to their countries and help.” Political engagement and advocacy: Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, may be the epitome of the political landscape architect. His work spans planning and design across mainland China, but he spends a good amount of his time and energy on persuading thousands of local mayors and senior governmental leaders alike on the value of “planning for ecological security.” He called for landscape architects to “think big — at the local, regional, and national scales” — and to influence decision-makers. and of course the role of design: Marc Treib, professor of architecture emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, added that “the sustainable is not antithetical to the beautiful. We can elevate the pragmatic to the level of poetry.”

My enthusiasm for these ideals and goals was seriously tempered by a response to the post by RANTING LANDSCAPE PHILOSOPHER

I am calling Bull-shit (please excuse my language), what we need is planners and policy makers to have a design education.Do we need to train more Landscape architects or students in public policy? It seems that Landscape needs policy to stay relevant (though policy would benefit from an influx of design thinking) Do we really need more landscape architects? Most won’t go into the political system? Is it really fair to draw students in with promises of “changing the world” when the reality of these EXPENSIVE programs turns out to be a debt ridden individual that works horrible hours for scraps (usually under an emotionally abusive boss).Don’t you think it’s a bad sign that it is always is the same 10 names on repeat? James, Laurie, Martha, Kongjian….etc If we want new ideas then we need to start hearing from other voices and get out of this annoyingly incestuous family.”

This is not to say that these articles are wrong, I do believe that as a design profession we need to engage politically, without political engagement very little is possible, especially here in Africa where there are very few landscape architects and we are continually sidelined by economic and social pressures that undermine our ability to perform real service to those who need it most. As we see in the landscape and architectural design press, the big projects are mostly for the rich or for the reinstatement of large environmental disasters funded by governments who are ill-equipped to manage the implementation of these grand schemes or unable to stop similar resource extraction disasters in the future. Many of the projects of this kind, outside of a few rich countries, become hamstrung by the time-scales of their implementation, bureaucracy, corruption and are seldom able to become a reality.

To my way of thinking landscape architecture and the other design professions need to be able to show its worth by real projects that make a difference to people and the environment and by their success in generating community or local scale interventions that have a broader impact, as John Thakera is quoted in a recent interview in Domus “Thackara is one of those rare people who can open up huge intellectual vistas, but who can also give a very practical idea of the tools to use to realise them. To do that, he points to projects from around the world that interweave design, urban and rural planning, energy efficiency, and new ways of sharing resources, and in which communication technologies play a key role, but always in the service of the real needs of the people who live in a specific place with well-defined – and resolvable – problems. It is through these myriad small solutions, conceptualised and then put into practice, that the world will change. Thackara mentions here the theory of complexity: tiny changes can accumulate over time until one final alteration, apparently irrelevant in itself, provokes a radical transformation across the whole system”

 For the landscape profession to make the difference it believes is needed, will require more than the limited advocacy landscape architects on their own can achieve, I believe it is way past bedtime now and we will need to put aside academic and professional egos, get out of the silos that we have built so arduously and actively solicit and engage with the professions that have the greatest numbers, budgets and political clout i.e. Engineering, Quantity Surveying and Architecture. Many practitioners and firms in these professions have rapidly moved to embrace new technologies and have made sustainability, albeit in the limited versions of LEED and Greenstar, central to their practices, engineering has literally taken over the entire sustainable water systems and energy fields and most acknowledge the need for landscape architects to make their projects “fit or be more natural.”

Most  landscape architects have experienced varying difficulty with multidisciplinary teams that are dominated by project mangers, architects, urban designers or engineers that dominate the show and expect landscape architecture to decorate the spaces left over after design, frustrations with the public participation process and its relative ineffectiveness, true co-design is still long way from becoming a reality, but it is my belief that it is only by engaging side by side with these professions and showing them what we have to offer as discipline and as individuals that we will be able to make the difference we desire and combined with them as a reasonably convergent group, be able to have our say in the planning, and political policy of our towns, cities and countries and from that on the places and people who we profess to serve.

A recent visit to the Venice Architecture Biennial “REPORTING FROM THE FRONT” highlights a proposed realignment of architecture with people’s needs, environmental concerns and grass-roots research and action.

Quoting its organizer Paulo Barrata “We are not interested in architecture as the manifestation of a formal style, but rather as an instrument of self-government, of humanist civilisation, and how it demonstrates the ability of humans to become masters of their own destinies. Architecture in action as an instrument of social and political life, challenges us to assess the public consequences of private actions at a more fundamental level. We need to engage with the public and with all possible stakeholders in the decisions and actions whereby our living spaces are created, both as individuals and as communities. As Architecture is the most political of all the arts, the Architecture Biennale must recognize this.”

And Alejandro Aravena, the curator of this years Biennale , has this to say “REPORTING FROM THE FRONT will be about listening to those that were able to gain some perspective and consequently are in the position to share some knowledge and experiences with those of us standing on the ground. We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life. Given life ranges from very basic physical needs to the most intangible dimensions of the human condition, consequently, improving the quality of the built environment is an endeavor that has to tackle many fronts: from guaranteeing very concrete, down-to-earth living standards to interpreting and fulfilling human desires, from respecting the single individual to taking care of the common good, from efficiently hosting daily activities to expanding the frontiers of civilization. Our curatorial proposal is twofold: on the one hand we would like to widen the range of issues to which architecture is expected to respond, adding explicitly to the cultural and artistic dimensions that already belong to our scope, those that are on the social, political, economical and environmental end of the spectrum. On the other hand, we would like to highlight the fact that architecture is called to respond to more than one dimension at the time, integrating a variety of fields instead of choosing one or another.



REPORTING FROM THE FRONT will be about sharing with a broader audience, the work of people that are scrutinizing the horizon looking for new fields of action, facing issues like segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and participation of communities. And simultaneously will be about presenting examples where different dimensions are synthesized, integrating the pragmatic with the existential, pertinence and boldness, creativity and common sense.

 Such expansion and synthesis are not easy to achieve; they are battles that need to be fought. The always menacing scarcity of means, the ruthless constraints, the lack of time and urgencies of all kinds are a constant threat that explain why we so often fall short in delivering quality. The forces that shape the built environment are not necessarily amicable either: the greed and impatience of capital or the single mindedness and conservatism of the bureaucracy tend to produce banal, mediocre and dull built environments. These are the frontlines from which we would like different practitioners to report from, sharing success stories and exemplary cases where architecture did, is and will make a difference “

I suggest that it is worthwhile endeavour that is being sought and we as landscape architects would be more able to achieve the ends of stewardship and advocacy for all the causes we believe in, if we are able to combine our skills and insights in the way Aravena is suggesting.

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