Fifty Years of the Declaration: Evolution and Prospects

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 Mario Schjetnan, FASLA

The 1966 Declaration of the Landscape Architecture Foundation established very clearly the group’s concern about the poor environmental conditions, social inequalities, and loss of quality of life prevalent in most North American cities around that time. It was a timely and valorous call, an outcry and a moral declaration by landscape architecture leaders of their time.

To be honest, many U.S. cities have in these 50 years upgraded their levels of air quality, decreased their contamination of soils and water, and improved their public open spaces. Many of these cities have rehabilitated and repopulated their city centers and enhanced habitability in general.

However, many other challenges and global concerns have now arisen, including climate change, the horizontal expansion of cities, and, in the United States, still the highest levels in consumption per person of natural resources, energy, land, and water in the world.

Fifty years ago in Latin America, there were very few landscape architects and not a single organized professional society or specialized school. Today there are several schools and master’s degree programs in the region and 16 professional associations.

However, the toll in these 50 years on the environment has been exponential with desertification and the loss of many ecosystems, including enormous chunks of the Amazon jungle, rain forests, wetlands, and mangroves. That deterioration affects not only local or regional communities but also environmental conditions at the global level. In Mexico, 300,000 to 400,000 people each year abandon their lands because of soil degradation (erosion and salinization).

With regard to the urban environment, the expansion of cities has been phenomenal in Latin America. Today there are 66 metropolitan areas of more than one million inhabitants and five megalopolitan areas with 10 million inhabitants or more (Mexico City, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Lima). While there are 150,000 architects in Mexico, there are probably fewer than 1,000 landscape architects in the country. (In 2015, the Observatory of Urban Mobility of the Urban Development Bank of Latin America studied 15 metropolises and found that these cities had problems of congestion and contamination with 24 million cars, one million buses, and 590,000 taxis. The inhabitants lost more than 118 million hours a day to transportation.)

Most of the global urban expansion in the next 50 years will come in the so-called developing nations, including China, India, and nations of Latin America and Africa. Already, according to The Economist, developing economies surpass the so-called rich countries, including the United States, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand, in multiple indicators such as consumption, exports, imports, oil, steel (75 percent), and cement. Some 82 percent of mobile phone subscriptions and 52 percent of all purchases of motor vehicles happened in 2011 in these economies.

Therefore our newest Declaration must be global, since much of the environmental impact and urban growth is happening in the developing world. Indeed, the Eurocentric or U.S.-centric visions have to change if landscape architects aspire to influence in meaningful ways the development of urban places and the viability and conservation of world resources.

Green technologies, sustainable societies and cities, and the green economy are terribly relevant for our means and aspirations.

The profession of landscape architecture is a serious player and a major means to accomplish environmental justice and social equality and to improve urban and rural marginality.

A green economy and technology can provide jobs and generate new economies and synergies. (In 2015, Mexico exported more dollars in the agroindustry than in the petroleum or tourist industries.)

Landscape architects must be educated, capacitated, and fit to lead an authentic and urgent green evolution toward a sustainable, viable, just planet.

Substantial numbers of candidates need to study in North American universities and return to their respective countries.

The Landscape Architecture Foundation can document, distribute, or disseminate successful interventions, where landscape architects have positively transformed communities, environments, landscapes, and portions of cities, and have improved people’s lives, in particular in developing countries.

Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, a landscape architect and architect, is a cofounder of the interdisciplinary firm Grupo de Diseño Urbano in Mexico City.

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