The Landscape Architect as Urbanist for Our Age

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 Charles Waldheim, Honorary ASLA

The anniversary of the founding of the Landscape Architecture Foundation and the original LAF declarations invites us to revisit the identity and aspirations of the field itself. The founders of the “new art” of landscape architecture specifically identified architecture as the most appropriate cultural identity for the new professional. In so doing, they proposed an innovative and progressive professional identity. This new liberal profession was founded during the second half of the 19th century in response to the social, environmental, and cultural challenges associated with the industrial city. In this milieu, the landscape architect was conceived as the professional responsible for the integration of civil infrastructure, environmental enhancement, and public improvement in the context of ongoing industrialization. American boosters of the new art of landscape committed the nascent profession to an identity associated with the old art of architecture. This decision to identify architecture (as opposed to art, engineering, or gardening) as the proximate professional peer group is significant for contemporary understandings of landscape architecture. This history sheds compelling light on the subsequent development of city planning as a distinct professional identity spun out of landscape architecture in the first decades of the 20th century, as well as on debates regarding landscape as a form of urbanism at the beginning of the 21st century.

This line of inquiry points toward the long-standing lineage of ecologically informed regional planning that grew out of the origins of landscape architecture in the first half of the 20th century. That tradition manifests itself in the reformulation of landscape architecture as a highly technical and specialized branch of environmental science in the second half of the 20th century. It was in part based on this sense of landscape architecture’s potential as a scientific activity that many of the original declarations were framed. Over the past half century this position has come to stand for an empirically informed planning process dependent upon a robust welfare state for implementation. For a generation of landscape architects trained primarily as environmental advocates, this approach proved to be an unfortunate detour en route to the anticipated enlightened future of rationally informed ecological planning of urban form. In too many contexts, the project of rational ecological planning came to be perceived, rightly or not, as antiurban. It was equally received in many contexts as transcendentalist, and ultimately rather anti-intellectual. This commitment of the identity of the field to a subdisciplinary sphere of environmental science also came to be seen as less than pragmatic in the context of the withering of the welfare state and the rise of the neoliberal economy.

The recent renewal of landscape’s relevance for discussions of contemporary urbanism has little to do with the project of ecologically informed regional planning. It has rather much more to do with an understanding of contemporary design culture. Today, the challenges of urbanization have seemingly less to do with the strengths of empirical knowledge and scientific method, but rather more to do with the political failures of a culture that has largely abandoned welfare-state expectations of rational informed ecological planning. Landscape’s recently renewed relevance in questions of urbanism, rather than originating in the long-standing tradition of environmentally informed regional and urban planning, has much more to do with landscape’s recent rapprochement with design culture.

In many ways, the contemporary interests of the most recent generation of leading landscape designers can be found to have originated within architectural discourse during the past quarter century, as if postmodernism has finally come to landscape. Not surprisingly, many of those leading landscape architects began their education in landscape ecology only to have that knowledge catalyzed by architectural theory. The generation of landscape architects and urbanists trained in this way exhibits a tendency to combine several seemingly contradictory understandings of ecology. Among the diverse modes for deploying ecological subjects, many contemporary landscape designers deploy ecology as a model of urban forces and flows, as a medium for deferred authorship in design, and as a rhetorical device for public reception and audience participation. They also reserve recourse to the traditional definition of ecology as the scientific study of species in relation to their habitats, but often in service of a larger cultural or design agenda. In addition to its status as model, ecology has come to be an equally effective metaphor for a range of intellectual and disciplinary pursuits. Ecology has been found relevant as an epistemological framework operating at the level of a metaphor in the social or human sciences, the humanities, history, philosophy, and the arts. This metaphorical understanding of ecology has been particularly significant for its subsequent absorption into the discourse around design. While landscape architecture and urban planning have historically tended to view ecology as a kind of applied natural science, architecture and the arts have received ecology as a metaphor imported from the social sciences, humanities, and philosophy. In the most intriguing of contemporary urban projects conceived through this understanding, urban form is given not through planning, policy, or precedent but through the autonomous self-regulation of emergent ecologies. In many examples, the ultimate urban figure is attained not through design but through the agency of ecological process directed toward social, political, and cultural ends.

A survey of contemporary landscape design practices internationally offers a provisional thesis: In many instances, landscape design strategies precede planning. In many of these projects, ecological understandings inform urban order, and design agency propels a process through a complex hybridization of land use, environmental stewardship, public participation, and design culture. In these projects, a previously extant planning regime is often rendered redundant through a design competition, donor’s bequest, or community consensus. In many of these projects, the landscape architect operating as an urbanist reconceives the urban field, reordering the economic and the ecological, the social and the cultural in service of a newly configured urban condition. Collectively, these practices represent the landscape architect acting as the urbanist of our age.

Charles Waldheim, Honorary ASLA, is the John E. Irving Professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He also directs the school’s Office for Urbanization.

3 thoughts on “The Landscape Architect as Urbanist for Our Age”

Leave a Reply