Design and the Future of Landscape Architecture

If landscape architects want to remake the world, we can start by remaking our discipline.

A thought provoking critique of the role Landscape Architects actually play in society versus what they believe they do, this very relevant to the current educational and work crisis that Landscape Architecture faces in South Africa and many other parts the world : Here are few excerpts from the long article, quoted and acknowledged, in the interests of generating a similar discussion in other parts of the world: “Design and the Green New Deal” from Places Journal by Billy Fleming who is the Wilks Family Director for The Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

Read the full essay here

Aa Dr, Ida Breed, senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria where the undergraduate Landscape Architecture program has been terminated due to poor enrolment numbers, says in a private correspondence: ” I think the article is very right in the money to say that the profession is mostly dominated by neoliberal and elitist project briefs, yet,  landscape architects are often very bad at showing what they are already doing. Relevant work is happening, but as we know we are low in numbers, and there is a need for more volunteers and more participation from industry and practitioners in work that does not only profit our/ themselves… More could be done!”

“It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty, to provide the means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.” 25 Frederick Law Olmstead

Rooftop of the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, along the San Francisco Bay.
Wish it were public: Rooftop garden at the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, along the San Francisco Bay. [Designed by CMG Landscape Architecture with Gehry Partners; photo by Trey Ratcliff]

I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it. The New Landscape Declaration — a book emerging from a 2016 summit attended by the brightest thinkers in our field — frames landscape architecture as an “ever more urgent necessity,” if not the foundation of civil society. As engineers shaped the built environment of the 19th century and architects the 20th, landscape architects have claimed this century as their own. 1 That’s a bold statement for an obscure profession whose 15,000 U.S. members spend most of their time designing small parks, office courtyards, and residential projects for private clients. Yet it’s not just landscape architects who see a big future for the field. Famed industrial designer Dieter Rams has said that if he were starting his career today, he’d focus on landscapes, not machines. And public officials have recruited landscape architects to the front lines of urban development (as James Corner’s High Line and Thomas Woltz’s Public Square frame Hudson Yards) and climate resilience (as the federal program Rebuild by Design ties hurricane recovery to coastal defense). 2

Ian McHarg
The Crazy Political agendas of SHADE

I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it.

But if The New Landscape Declaration sought to articulate and elevate our professional ideals, mostly it exposed the gap between rhetoric and reality. The book arrived in fall 2017, a few months after David Wallace-Wells published his alarming article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” with its memorable opening line quaking, “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” That 7,000-word jeremiad was later expanded into a bestselling book, with acknowledgments thanking the dozens of climate writers, scientists, and activists who informed the author’s research. This is mainstream media’s most comprehensive account of the climate movement, and it contains no mention of work by landscape architects. There is no commentary on Rebuild by Design. It’s as if landscape architecture does not exist. Setting aside the justified critiques of Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic framing, what does it mean that landscape architects are missing from this prominent book on a topic we claim as our own? Is our discipline a necessity? Are we closing the gap between ideals and practice? We are not, I promise, saving the world. 3

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters proposal for Rebuild by Design

We don’t need playful design proposals; we need high-impact built projects — prototypes for the resilient futures we’ve been promised.

Contemporary practice is focused on sites, not systems; and on elite desires, not public interests. Our work is limited in scale and subordinate to client mandates. Rather than challenging or subverting these core structural constraints, Rebuild merely tweaks the machine of disaster recovery and redevelopment. Such incrementalism has been a key feature of landscape architecture — and much design-based activism — for decades. Though some scholars have credited designers with central roles in social and environmental movements — from the Progressive Era, to the New Deal, to the radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s in America — I would argue that that landscape architects rarely contributed to the organizing and the politics of those movements. 20 By and large, we have been bystanders to progress, not principal actors. If the gap between our ambitions and impact is ever to be narrowed, it won’t be through declarations of our principles. We must rethink how landscape architecture engages with social and political movements.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Ocean Parkway
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Ocean Parkway in New York, which featured the first bike path in the United States. [via NYC Parks]

We seem to have forgotten an important lesson about Olmsted: his eagerness to enter the political arena and challenge the status quo.

ut here again we see designers as participants in, not leaders of, the social movements of their time. In the postwar era, they went through the same cultural realignment as the rest of the country, reorienting away from public works and land conservation and toward greenfield development and roadside parks, away from cities and toward suburbs. Landscape designers also made what was in retrospect the fatal mistake of lending their technical skills to urban renewal programs that reinforced racial segregation. 27 When the backlash to urban renewal began — sparked by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities — planners and designers lost much of their access to large-scale projects, and those who still worked for public agencies saw their power diminished. As Thomas Campanella argues, they became professional caretakers, “reactive rather than proactive, corrective instead of preemptive, rule bound and hamstrung and anything but visionary.” 28

The environmental movement galvanized by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring achieved great success in regulating pollution — influencing the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — but it was less successful in compelling a truly sustainable program of land use. Put another way, it had tremendous influence over how we live, but almost none over where we live. It was in this era that Ian McHarg produced the seminal work that would make him the most consequential landscape architect of the last half century. McHarg was a singular figure in the field, a public intellectual who mixed with people like Margaret Mead, Julian Huxley, and Loren Eiseley, moving between academia (as chair of landscape architecture at Penn), government (as an adviser to White House commissions, task forces, and environmental policy boards), and popular media (as host of the CBS show The House We Live In); and through these activities he sought to place environmental design at the center of American life. He aimed to reinvent nearly everything about the discipline of landscape architecture — its methods of inquiry, its scope and scale of impact, and its cultural and political position. For a brief moment, it seemed he would succeed.

Landscape architects have not yet meaningfully dealt with the unforeseen consequences of McHarg’s rational philosophy; with the fact that his technocratic legacy would leave the field ill-equipped to negotiate the major cultural and political realignments of neoliberalism — the hollowing out of governments at every level, the privatization of public services, and a waning belief in the ability of governments to bring about big, positive change. 34 Beginning in the 1980s, urbanists and designers were forced to defend everything from clean air to mass transit to public education through the narrow lens of cost-benefit analyses. Landscape architecture, a small and client-centric profession, with no real institutional or political presence, was overwhelmed by the rise of an anti-government, anti-science movement amongst conservatives. By the end of the century, landscape architecture had become once again a largely project-driven enterprise, dependent upon the elite, private interests that now shape urbanization, even in ostensibly public spaces. 35

At key political flashpoints of the past decade — Occupy Wall Street, the Standing Rock protests, and, now, the Green New Deal — landscape architects have been conspicuously absent. Our field has responded to neoliberalism with ever larger global corporate practices, a proliferation of boutique design firms, and a retreat from public service. We have ceded most government work to engineers. Professional societies have further depoliticized the field, ensuring that landscape architects are locked out of the policymaking process and constrained by the limits it imposes. 36

Chart of annual global temperatures from 1850-2018
Annual global temperatures from 1850-2018, covering 1.35°C. [Ed Hawkins]

The revival of an activist federal design bureaucracy is necessary to the success of a Green New DealIt also presents a unique opportunity to create alternative models of practice in landscape architecture.

That means our professional societies need to find ways to train a rising generation of landscape architects for careers in public service — or, as the organizers behind The Architecture Lobby have shown us, we will need to build new institutions. Starting tomorrow, the ASLA and Landscape Architecture Foundation could offer awards and fellowships for designers engaged in bureaucratic and political work, as they do for excellence in private practice. They could make the case that truly public spaces and infrastructures are funded by taxes and run by governments, not by corporate partners or the donor class. We need to dismantle the philosophies of neoliberalism and philanthrocapitalism that underwrite many urban development projects, and withdraw support for disruptive urban tech startups. As Levinson writes, “not only are the self-appointed change agents unwilling to push for meaningful action that might threaten the systems that have allowed them to accumulate vast wealth; often as not they’ve caused or contributed to the very problems they are claiming to solve. The modus operandi is not structural reform but personal generosity. The arena is not electoral politics but the free market. The ethos is patronage and volunteerism.” 45 Too many leaders in our field occupy positions of incredible power and prestige, while maintaining that they must make the best of a bad system. But we cannot be content with merely narrowing the gap between our ideals and our reality. The politics of design belong at the center of landscape architecture, and our institutions have an obligation to do more.

We need to train a rising generation of landscape architects for careers in public service. Students will need coursework in public administration and finance, political theory, and community organizing.

Educators, too, have a unique responsibility to change the culture of the profession. The students who wish to fill the ranks of the new design bureaucracy need coursework in public administration and finance, political theory, and community organizing. We can offer scholarships and awards for public-interest achievement, and give internship credit for working with political campaigns or community organizations. And we can acknowledge — through our public programs, our scholarship, and other aspects of design education outside the studio — the extraordinary moment we are in, our complicity in creating it, and our responsibility to develop alternatives.

Panel at the Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, Philadelphia, 2016. [You Wu]

Whatever form the Green New Deal eventually takes, it will be realized and understood through buildings, landscapes, and other public works. Landscape architects have knowledge and skills — from ecological management to systems analysis to mapping and visualization — that are essential to that project. Now is our chance to re-institutionalize design expertise in government and, at the same time, to break the stranglehold of neoliberalism that has long undermined the ambitions of landscape architecture. Let’s get started. 46

Billy Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal,” Places Journal, April 2019. Accessed 20 May 2019. <https://placesjournal.org/article/design-and-the-green-new-deal/&gt;

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