Into an Era of Landscape Urbanism

From We Declare in the May 2016 issue, five landscape architects, scholars, and advocates revisit “A Declaration of Concern” for the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration.

By Gina Ford, FASLA

Fifty years ago, the voice of our profession was eerily prescient, undeniably smart, and powerfully inspired. It was also, let’s admit it, almost entirely white and male.

I note this with no disrespect to the six incredible leaders of our profession who penned the Declaration of Concern. Clearly, their call—to reconcile the needs of humankind with sound knowledge and respect for the natural processes of our environment—is as relevant (or even more so) today as it was then. Equally, their edict for landscape architects to command the technical skill sets associated with natural resources and processes—geology, physiography, climatology, ecology—remains of vital importance.

Yet, as we look forward and consider the significance of climate change, demographic shifts, and income inequality, the Declaration’s “man” as nature’s antagonist feels strangely abstract and incomplete. To maintain relevance over the next 50 years, the profession needs to demonstrate the highest level of natural systems expertise, but must devote equal attention to the human dimension of the equation. Accordingly, this response outlines some reasons we as a profession need to diversify our ranks, as practitioners need to sharpen our technical skills vis-à-vis the needs of the people we serve, and as collaborators need to hone our communication and leadership prowess.

Our Profession: Diversify Our Ranks

The Declaration of Concern calls for recruitment and retention of more trained landscape professionals to help fight the environmental crisis. Yet, broadening our social impact over the next 50 years will also require the diversification of our ranks and the retention of population segments that have historically seen slim representation or significant attrition. Nationally, our population is experiencing dramatic demographic change, yet membership in the profession does not correlate with this trend. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic and Latino population has increased by 43 percent, and the African American population has grown by 12.3 percent, but together these groups represent less than 10 percent of ASLA’s membership. While many graduating classes from the country’s best schools of landscape architecture are predominantly female (and have been for a number of years), the percentage of women in leadership positions in private practice is still far from equal to men.

While these imbalances are certainly not unique to landscape architecture, more and more they are seen across industries as both a socioethical challenge and a barrier to achieving higher levels of innovation. In general terms, the business case for diversity includes the cost savings associated with the retention of talent, the value of mirroring the profile of the marketplace, and the quality of ideas generated by less homogeneous teams. In design terms, our ability to stay relevant as a profession relies on our desire to reflect the broader population and embrace more diverse perspectives and approaches.

In Practice: Design with Humanity

The Declaration of Concern points to a series of impending environmental disasters and laments the potential for “life in such polluted environments” to become “the national human experience.” I have personally worked in a number of communities affected by recent natural disasters, including floods in the Midwest, hurricanes on the Atlantic shore, and oil spills on the Gulf Coast. The hard fact is that life in these most impacted, polluted environments has already become the daily experience for many of our most socially vulnerable and minority populations. More often than not, the communities most affected by natural disasters are those who are already unwittingly living with the highest levels of risk, the least resources for recovery, and the most underrepresented voices in broader planning dialogues.

From New York City to New Orleans, designers and planners focused on resiliency have come to realize that addressing significant environmental change demands tackling issues of social equity. Landscape architects who understand social networks and cultural fabrics are needed to both inspire participation in this critical dialogue and build governance toward lasting, meaningful, and sustainable change.

Collaboration: Cultivate an Ecosystem

The Declaration of Concern urges “a new, collaborative effort to improve the American environment.” Truly sustainable development requires the careful orchestration of complex layers of technical expertise as well as the inclusion of many distinct voices and constituencies. Now, more than ever, landscape architects are taking the lead on highly complex, multijurisdictional, and, as we say in Boston, “wicked” problems. Our unique ability to understand interconnected natural and human systems positions landscape architects as leaders among interdisciplinary teams and positions design as a key linkage between planning, social science, and engineering inputs. This undertaking requires exceptional communication skills from its leaders, who must translate these inputs into legible and inspiring materials that enable shared evaluation and understanding.

From the reclamation of the Los Angeles River to the post-Sandy regional response led by Rebuild by Design, landscape architects are truly in the lead on some of the complex problems of our time. As we tackle these challenges, it is many of our softest skills—communication, leadership, empathic listening—that will enable successful engagement and positive design outcomes.

The future of our profession is bright. The world is more in need of us now than perhaps ever before. We must leverage this moment and bring the best of our nation’s talent to bear. If we embrace humanism as a core value in our profession, we truly can overcome the seemingly herculean challenges we face. It will certainly require understanding the specifics of the processes of our physical environment. We will also need to wholeheartedly embrace the rich diversity of who we are and strive more ambitiously to understand and meet the needs of the people we serve.

Gina Ford, FASLA, is a landscape architect, cofounder, and principal of Agency Landscape + Planning in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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