Developing Landscapes of Resource Management

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 Alpa Nawre, ASLA

With what are we welcoming our future generations? Piles of plastic? Polluted air and dirty water? Life in degraded environments with mismanaged resources is the normal human experience in many parts of the world, and it’s only expected to get worse with the predicted climate change. Of the total world population of 7.2 billion, about 6 billion live in developing countries, where access to clean water, clean air, and efficient systems of waste disposal is often a daily struggle. I entreat all landscape architects to rise above parochial discussions and go beyond territorial and disciplinary comfort zones to address the very real issues related to water, air, food, waste, minerals, energy, and more that the rapidly urbanizing, developing world is now grappling with. The agency and action of landscape architects in these contexts and on these issues at both systems and site scale are critical for global sustainable development.

The dominant landscapes of conflict in contemporary times concern resources. Today, we in the developed countries are shocked by reports or even personal experiences of Beijing’s air quality, the water crisis in India, or food scarcity in Africa. Conditions, however, were not so very different in the 1950s and 1960s in North America, when people would wear gas masks in Los Angeles or decry their region’s rotten, filthy rivers. When a small group of landscape architects gathered right here in Philadelphia and crafted the Declaration of Concern noting the degradation of America’s water and air, the world was not such a different place. If anything, the issues have become more global, critical, and widespread than ever. And in this context of contested resources, landscape architects must again step in to do what we can: restore and re-establish healthy relationships between humans and their environment with a global perspective.

The last 50 years have been a time of coming of age for the profession of landscape architecture in North America. We have mapped large territories and systems, asked uncomfortable questions that have led to startling spatial observations, and passionately engaged with the environmental concerns of modern life. We have drawn on our formidable skills of research and analysis for understanding these multilayered issues, conveyed this understanding to the general public through visualization of complex landscape systems spanning both scale and time, and designed better human and nonhuman habitats. Yet, much remains to be done in the context of resource management, especially that of water, food, and waste, in developing countries, which constitute some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. Specifically, we need to focus on understanding and mapping of existing systems of resource management in developing countries; designing improvements in existing landscapes of resource management, and envisioning alternative paradigms for new urban developments; communicating the agency of landscape architecture in improving resource management in these contexts; and training the future generations of landscape architects to address these pressing issues.

Similar to the uncovering of the American territory, there is an urgent need to understand the various ecologies of resource management in the developing world. There are many lessons to be learned from countries in the developing world on alternative definitions, frames, and paradigms of resource management, which are rapidly being transformed and degraded as we speak. What lessons can be learned from cultures that designed multifunctional resource infrastructure and practiced community ownership of landscapes to inform the design of resource management in industrially developed countries, and vice versa? Before we engage in design, we must understand and evaluate the existing systems.

As designers, we have two avenues of intervention to address resource issues. The first is through design aimed at improving existing resource landscapes, and the second is creating alternative paradigms for better resource management through structuring of new built environments. The projected increase of the world’s population to 9 billion by 2050 will be attributable almost entirely to population growth in developing countries, accompanied by rapid urbanization. This is a territory that desperately needs the expertise of landscape architects equipped in the design of urban landscape systems for better resource management, and also presents a fantastic opportunity for design experimentation. How do we take the lessons we have learned in the urbanization of developed economies and apply them in our design responses to the resource management problems of the developing world?

Part of the challenge ahead of us is not only to address resource management issues head-on, but also to make the general public, especially the decision makers in the developing world, aware of the contribution that we can make in improving resource management. In most parts of India, when I introduce myself as a landscape architect, people either catch only the first part and transform the phrase to “landscaping or gardening” or latch on to the familiar word “architect.” And that’s not surprising, because there are very few landscape architects in these contexts, and of these, fewer still engage with issues of resource scarcity or mismanagement. As landscape architects, we have to actively make opportunities for engagement to happen by being better prepared with alternative design solutions and communicating these to the public.

Today’s landscape architecture students live in a complex, networked world and must be prepared for a future defined by the global professional practice, to meaningfully engage in and craft the built environment of not only their own community but also of cultures dramatically different from their own, while dealing with critical life-threatening issues related to water, food, and waste. These issues often fall outside a landscape architect’s traditional scope, which is a missed opportunity for the discipline. Training the future generation of landscape architects to deal with these issues at different scales is the only way to make our discipline relevant in the coming 50 years.

This is a very exciting time to be a landscape architect if we embrace the incredible opportunities and challenges ahead of us. There must be absolute, crusading determination on the part of landscape architects to address the real issues of resource management if we are ever to permanently establish and realize the true potential of our discipline.

Alpa Nawre, ASLA, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning at Kansas State University, and partner at her design practice, Alpa Nawre Design.

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