How the Garden Moves

In grappling with the Anthropocene, it’s time for landscape architects to become the planetary gardener for a post-wild world. 

By Gale Fulton, ASLA 

Designed plant communities are composed of "design layers" that provide the primary aesthetic interest, and "functional layers: that perform essential functions such as erosion control, soil building, and weed suppression.
Designed plant communities are composed of “design layers” that provide the primary aesthetic interest, and “functional layers” that perform essential functions such as erosion control, soil building, and weed suppression.

Several conditions of the contemporary world present serious challenges to traditional or conventional ways of thinking and making in landscape architecture. Some of these, such as the continuing analog versus digital debates, are tiresome, rarely well-argued (by at least one side if not both), and counterproductive to an advance in the cultural efficacy of the discipline. Others are more complex and unwieldy, but also likely have much greater capacity to expand the scale and scope of landscape architecture in the future. In this category I would place the interrelated questions of “planetary urbanization,” “Nature,” and the effects of the Anthropocene among the most perplexing and fecund for the future of the discipline. As Jedediah Purdy writes in After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, “As climate change shifts ecological boundaries, problems like habitat preservation come to resemble landscape architecture. We can’t just pen in animals to save them; we need to secure migration corridors and help species move as their habitats lurch across a changing map.” In effect, we will have to become planetary gardeners.

Obviously, such massive questions exceed the capacities of any one discipline’s knowledge. But this “bigness” should not be an alibi for continued reliance on outmoded ways of thinking such as notions of cities or sites as discrete, bounded conditions that can be operated on without understanding of context or flows. Similarly, and perhaps even more relevant to the day-to-day practices of many landscape architects, ideas (or ideologies) regarding nature, ecology, wild, invasive, and native continue to be treated as simplistic binary conditions that prematurely shut down what could be a vast territory of conceptual and practical exploration. It may also be that landscape architecture is particularly well-suited to engage these territories because of the unique disciplinary potential made possible through the hybridization of typically distinct science/design/humanities epistemologies. With these larger questions in mind, two recent books prove useful in providing not only new conceptual frames to intellectually engage these issues, but also updated tools and techniques necessary for developing concrete practices to physically and practically engage these conditions in ways that move beyond the status quo.

As the title suggests, Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer, ASLA, and Claudia West, International ASLA, draws upon the notion that the earth is now in some way influenced by humanity at a molecular level and therefore “post-wild.” And although students of complexity theory will no doubt dispute this wild = nonhuman characterization, there is still territory for exploration in the postwild thesis. The authors attempt to make a case for their postwild claim in the preface, where they state that the book represents two “different experiences of nature”—one of “nature lost,” the other of “nature regained.” They see in these two versions the “tension in which nature now exists: its continued disappearance in the wild; its expanded potential in urban and suburban areas.”

The book begins with an idyllic recall of the untrammeled wildness that welcomed the first European colonists—a “paradise” of species diversity and natural production that is now “tamed.” But the authors quickly dispel this vision as one that is, if not mythical, then at least nostalgic, ideological and plagued by an “inflated moralism” when applied to discussions of native versus exotic plants. They borrow the vocabulary/terminology of a “Third Landscape” from none other than Gilles Clément, and argue that there is a vast landscape reserve that, rather than being dismissed as degraded, useless, polluted, and ruined, should be reevaluated by designers for its potential to host otherwise suppressed “natural processes” and productively leveraged as the starting point for a new approach to planting design. Designers must jettison “nature” in order to work with nature—not necessarily a new concept, but judging by the majority of the built landscapes in North America, many designers still fail to understand or accept that future landscapes will be mongrel, hybrid, impure, and out of control by traditional standards. No doubt this would be a welcome reprieve from the dull, static approaches to landscaping (or is it mulchscaping?) that are so dominant in cities today.

The remaining chapters of the book are dedicated to educating readers about Rainer and West’s fundamental strategy for postwild planting—the design, installation, and management of designed plant communities. Designing with interlocking layers of behaviorally (not necessarily natively) compatible species that fully cover the ground is the key component in this approach, as it is deemed critical for the planting to achieve any degree of resiliency to invasions by undesirable species. But this principle of ground coverage is also indicative of a certain geographic (or is it stylistic?) bias by the authors, which one might categorize as being somewhat Midwestern or Eastern North American in its focus. The authors argue for the existence of “a collective memory of nature” based on our shared “evolutionary responses to our environment.” This prompts the identification of “archetypal landscapes,” which, despite the vast range of landscape conditions across the planet, will supposedly resonate with clients or consumers of landscapes because they align with underlying broader conceptual categories (archetypes) that are universally understood and appreciated, if not desired. Each archetype’s physical structure is then carefully deconstructed to distill underlying strategies that can be deployed by designers in re-creating such archetypal environments and effects.

Though this approach to design may be too prescriptive, reductive, or deterministic for some, the book’s final chapter, “Creating and Managing a Plant Community,” tackles the perpetually thorny problem of implementing and, perhaps even more important, adaptively managing planting designs that are anything more than turf or isolated plants in an ocean of mulch. This portion of the book is significant in its attempt to more fully and specifically engage the final layer essential to a postwild approach to planting design—time. The authors embrace the fact that all landscapes, when not intensely managed to the contrary (what Gilles Clément would argue is an example of “working against instead of with”), will move. This section of the book is a useful how-to guide for designers interested in retooling their (postdesign) practices toward the successful creation of more complex designed plant communities including site preparation, collaboration with contractors, and the cultivation of clients who better understand that such landscapes require more time than the mow, blow, and go landscapes they are used to.

Where Post-Wild slants toward the prescriptive and technical aspects of a new approach to planting design, Clément’s “The Planetary Garden” and Other Writings is more a work of social critique and commentary, philosophy, and (land) ethics. Part of the Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture series, the book is wide-ranging, if not at times almost rambling, and it seems as if the collection of previously published essays is gathered together as a sort of retroactive manifesto based in Clément’s many years of practice.

The book is broken into three sections, all of which, or at least versions of which, were published in various places between 1999 and 2008. The first section is titled “The Planetary Garden: Reconciling Man and Nature,” and Clément uses a guided tour through the Planetary Garden exhibition at La Villette in 2000 as a vehicle for exploring the concepts of endemism, intermingling, and assemblage. Each of these terms is then used to describe the state of the planet’s ecosystems today.

Clément defines endemism as “diversity through isolation, a diversity of creatures and of ideas.” Post-Pangaea earth proliferated endemism via separation, and heterogeneity on macro- and microscales produced a wide range of adaptation and local specificity. He further develops the idea of endemism by suggesting that beyond biological endemism there is also ideological endemism—“the diversity of ideas”—which are no less reliant on heterogeneity for their emergence nor less susceptible to eradication via the homogenizing forces of globalization.

Clément's diagram of a "virtual Pangaea" is created by superimposing major climatic zones irrespective of continental geography.
Clément’s diagram of a “virtual Pangaea” is created by superimposing major climatic zones irrespective of continental geography.

Endemism is continuously being eroded via a process of intermingling in which biological adaptations such as the spread of seed by wind or water (the coconut being exemplary in this regard) allow species to move and interact in novel organizations. But no agent of intermingling has accelerated this process like humans have, and now there is the very real danger that intermingling, “the irrepressible process of evolution, endangers diversity,” Clément writes. “Little movement and peaceful isolation produces strong endemism, maximum diversity. A lot of movement and feverish encounters produces weak endemism, minimal diversity.”

It is in the concept of assemblage, however, where Clément seems to find some degree of hope for the future and renewed agency for the gardener. Is it possible that through the creation of new assemblages, the planetary gardener may be able to create new endemisms? Or, as Clément writes, “New associations, new ecological features, new marriages, testing the biological range inherent in each species.” He continues: “What is appearing takes longer to be revealed than what is disappearing.” He then provides a “typology” of garden experiments currently under way including “welcoming the gardener’s allies, producing without exhausting, and knowing how to manage water.” These experiments range from relatively simple ideas such as “worms to fertilize the earth” to more seemingly radical interventions such as harvesting water from fog in the Andes, and the creation of an “Office of Abandoned Spaces” to more productively manage the vast territory of landscapes found in our cities that contribute relatively little to the ecological health of our cities because of a lack of imagination for how they could be incorporated into a larger design and management strategy.

Clément declares that he is a gardener first and foremost because “the garden is at the forefront of our current understanding of the terrain as a whole, and consequently of the landscapes that creep into the garden.” Gardening is critical to this “humanist ecology” in that gardening has always been a place where humanity is fully present and part of nature as opposed to outside it as in other ontologies. For Clément this approach to ecology “applies to a way of understanding the relationships between living beings according to the precepts of ecology, without ever excluding humans.” Here he refers to his important concept of the “third landscape,” which is the composite of a wide range of “neglected” landscapes such as roadsides, abandoned lots, friches (wastelands)—basically “anywhere where it is difficult to exploit the land with machines.” This landscape territory remains “a precious assembly” latent in many, if not all, of our cities, which is largely overlooked by planners, designers, and citizens, whose vision is occluded by more traditional ways of understanding city, nature, landscape, and garden.

If we are to expand this vision, our new approach to neighborhood, metropolitan, regional, and planetary gardening will first and foremost need to embrace the fact that “All life is dynamic; it is constantly inventive.” At all of these spatial scales, and perhaps more importantly, temporal scales, landscape designers and strategists—gardeners—have to acknowledge the “garden in movement” whether in migrations of nutrient and sediment flows to the Gulf or the migration of a colony of sumac along a roadside. This approach to landscape design—one that is predicated upon an understanding of heterogeneous temporalities, novel assemblages, and adaptive and tactical management approaches—remains unthinkable for many who currently design, implement, and manage the contemporary landscape, which suffers from the “‘green as a golf course’ neurosis” in which stasis is seen as the primary objective. As Clément states it in his final section on “The Wisdom of the Gardener”—now that the garden has gone so far outside its formerly walled enclosure to stretch, for now, to the edges of the biosphere, the job for gardeners is one in which we rethink the “brutality of techniques said to be modern with a form of management that is sensitive, diversified, and truly modern.”

Landscape architects, largely because of a willingness to engage time as a medium just as, or perhaps more important than, space or form, could be uniquely suited for the job of planetary gardener. Rainer, West, and Clément have provided two useful guides for why this new job description is necessary as well as some new tools and techniques for how to get to work.

Gale Fulton, ASLA, is the director of the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

One thought on “How the Garden Moves”

  1. Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    The role of landscape architects ad planetary environmental engineers proposed by many landscape architects and urbanists is examined in the writing of these authors – is their view realistic in the face o of global capitialism ?

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