Joseph E. Brown, FASLA, discusses the front-end role of landscape planning, the shortcomings of academic pedagogy, the uphill challenges facing Obama’s presidency, and the urgency of post-carbon public works.
This interview was conducted by Pierre Bélanger, Associate Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Recipient of the 2009 ASLA Medal, the highest honor conferred by the American Society of Landscape Architects, Joseph E. Brown is chief executive of planning, design, and development at AECOM. Educated as a landscape architect and urban designer with a master’s degree from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Architecture from Catholic University, Brown’s background has included a range of high-profile design and planning projects worldwide, from the National Capital Commission in Washington, D.C., to Tokyo Midtown in Japan. An aggressive advocate for global, interdisciplinary practice and for leadership by landscape architects, Brown is a Fellow of ASLA, a member of the American Planning Association, and an Associate Member of the American Institute of Architects. Brown has maintained an active registration as a landscape architect in the State of Virginia since 1982.
In 2005, EDAW teamed up with architecture and engineering giant AECOM in an unprecedented merger of intentions and objectives. As the chief executive of planning, design, and development at AECOM, why has this revolutionary merger between the largest landscape planning firm in the world and the largest engineering firm in the world gone almost unnoticed by the design disciplines?
The merger has been noticed but only anecdotally, in small separate pieces by the individual design disciplines. AECOM’s intranet is read by more than 43,000 people. That presence alone is approaching half of Architectural Record’s readership worldwide. If we go by the measure of what notice is taken, the world is a little upside down. Regardless, we’ll be noticed very soon, as a major architectural firm acquisition is on the horizon…a move that will effectively complete the total service delivery capabilities of the organization.
Is this merger indicative of the underlying urban agency of land-based challenges in the discipline of civil engineering today?
By this coming November, we’ll be integrated horizontally across all our other practices including landscape, engineering, building engineering, and structural and site engineering. AECOM will provide the front-end planning expertise to oversee those operations. As a landscape architect and urban designer, I’ll be in charge of the entire set of capabilities including architecture, building engineering, design, planning, economics, and program management. I’ll be leveling the playing field among disciplines as opposed to the current cafeteria-style model of practice, which is inflexible and hierarchical. In our future, engineering and architecture will be calibrated with science, counterbalanced with the fields of ecology and landscape.
Is this alliance of disciplines—the design commons—better equipped to see the future challenge than governments?
Yes, I certainly hope so. The professional world is changing quickly, but designers are, ironically, the slowest to change. They may dress creatively, and they may draw creatively, but their thinking is very conservative, stolid, and entrenched. Designers fail to understand the foreshadowing of the challenges we face today, let alone to grapple with the magnitude of conditions lying ahead. Think about the complexity of current issues: Take the usual conditions of program, use, cost, public-private constituencies, factor them by disaggregated systems of infrastructure that are falling apart, and then top them off with budget crises, carbon urgency, climate change, and population migration. We’re not in catastrophe mode or a doomsday scenario, but we’re confronted with complex challenges with many variables that require strategic, systemic thinking.
Given the current magnitude of ecological challenges, are landscape architects equipped to engage infrastructural challenges and to take the lead on new public works projects?
Consider this: In the past 30 years of liberalization in China, 300 million people have migrated from one side of the country to the other. The rural has become urban. In the next 50 years, there will be a great exodus of people moving from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere chasing food and water due to climate change. In the next 30 years, 50 percent of the built environment will be entirely replaced. Notwithstanding the effect of global climate change on global metropolises with rising sea levels, we can’t keep doing things the same way. We need global-scale intelligence to communicate and a global scale of operating that addresses these challenges in a unified system. That’s where ground-level implementation comes into play, and that’s what AECOM is about…the integration of that system.
Are these challenges contributing to the rediscovery of planning?
Look back to 1968. We had a war in which 55,000 young Americans would die, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, all the major cities were burning and lit up with riots. In that moment, America understood what was at stake, and we were motivated to do something about it. One could compare current global environmental, economic, and social conditions to a 1968. It is a watershed moment, but we are lacking the recognition and the motivation. What needs to happen for people to embrace a more radical approach to these issues?
You have never resorted to the facile tactics of the New Urbanists that foster American traditionalism and excessively memorialize the legacy of the past. Instead, for the past 40 years, you have been cultivating a long-range, local-scale landscape milieu where urbanism, industry, infrastructure, conservation, and communities converge, cooperate, and coexist. At AECOM, how do you distinguish yourselves vis-à-vis the predominant canon of the New Urbanists that seems to be sweeping parts of America?
What AECOM is doing, integrating services, connecting architecture and infrastructure—green, and gray, and blue infrastructure—is more important than the concern about New Urbanism. We’re dealing with a larger context, solving larger problems. We should not dismiss New Urbanism—some of the alternatives it has provided to suburban development patterns have been helpful, if not very significant. But New Urbanism is superficial when compared with the real design and engineering project of making built, natural, and social systems function together.
Should we begin to start large-scale, long-range plans?
I would say that we did that in the 1930s. Some projects worked, and some others failed. The megastructures movement of the 1970s marked an end to that era. Architecture lost its final grip. But what we haven’t done is planned the middle scale between the large-scale geographic plan and the site scale. We’ve never really planned the 1:5,000 to 1:500 with urban configurations and infrastructure systems. We essentially need performance-driven, technology-driven planning and design. It’s no longer about pretty surface, but about firm foundations. We need to be developing metrics at the middle scales.
Do you foresee the emergence of public design competitions as an important contributor to this watershed change?
It’s very difficult for public design competitions to address all of the issues at all of the scales. Public design competitions are narrowly defined, and they have to be for people to compete effectively. But they only deal with one sector of the design agenda. They can get very random and strange when they attempt to tackle large-scale problems.
As public think tanks, are universities well positioned to engage this mission?
They are extremely well equipped, but they’re holding back. They need more open-minded teaching environments to different scales and different practices. In some universities, faculties can’t even integrate their own departments, while on the other hand, others speak fluidly across their faculties and departments. So far, that level of interdepartmental collaboration has yielded mediocre work. So, we can’t be producing average work and excuse it for collaboration. We need to do high-quality work and demand high-quality performance. Academy and the public sector have to pick up the pace and operate at a bigger scale, because the professional world is experimenting much more and much faster. Harvard has a good shot at that but must tackle its financial challenges first, and quickly. The current economic climate is the perfect opportunity. With its unique position, Harvard has to leave its legacy as a private university with private interests aside and put forward a public agenda with new forms of public interests. Knowledge should be organized around a set of defined challenges and issues relevant to our time like housing affordability, health, and water quality that could be tackled by a “dominant problem” studio series addressing major challenges and major problems. Harvard should work more on the engineering side with MIT—they’re just down the road. If only Harvard would get much more radical. In fact, historically, Harvard used to be radical.
In a 2003 article in Topos magazine titled “Emerging Territory,” you discuss how the partitioning and fractioning of the design disciplines into small boutique firms goes “against the grain of cooperation.” Is this the result of professional education programs that ironically bolster small individual practices that are overabundant instead of cooperative public organizations?
It seems to be. There is a widespread model of atelier-based offices throughout North America. In certain parts of the world, there are regulatory parameters that, in fact, prohibit large agencies. In universities, there are values, mentors, and leaders that foster small-scale work. In fact, most professional program faculties are made of owners with small, private practices and very few public practices. In France, for example, there is a legal structure that disincentivizes firms larger than 15 people and reinforces the atelier or small design workshop model. It is pervasive in Europe. Elsewhere, what seems to be taking place today is another round of initiatives and changes—alternatives that are attempting to integrate project delivery methods. This is being driven by the need for high-performance buildings, energy systems, curtain walls, and technology systems that are produced with design tools such as BIM, the building information modeling process that generates and manages building data during its life cycle. There’s just a new wave of concurrence about testing some alternatives. The horizontal integration taking place involves the steps we go through for design and the technology and the performance metrics we are using to rationalize those steps. The vertical dimension deals with disciplines by putting them all on a more level playing field for architecture, landscape, urban design, ecology, economics, social programs, engineering, and site engineering to achieve sustainability at the community scale. This may mean that the single model atelier and signature may survive, but maybe those practices will have to dramatically change.
Is there not enough engineering in design?
It sounds like heresy, but there’s too much rhetoric and not enough engineering. The crisis in design is like Wall Street and the financial crisis—too much conceptual derivatives and not enough financial engineering. Right now, there’s too much talk about sustainability in every definable dimension, axis, and mode, in dimensions ranging from the social to the economic. These are all important subjects, but we need tighter, more hard-core systems of integration between the landscape of infrastructure and urbanism, where site systems interface with spatial experiences and connect with ecological processes.
In reference to your Harvard Design Magazine article “Landscapes as Complex Adaptive Systems” (2008), in which you state that “the era of thinking about bridges, buildings, pipes, parks, streetscapes, or restored river courses as separate things is decisively over,” are we witnessing a need in other allied disciplines, especially civil engineering, to engage biophysical processes and ecological dynamics as part of their overall strategies?
Yes. Infrastructure that was or is currently done by civil engineers all by themselves in a disciplinary vacuum is one day all going to be ripped out. Most of them cannot deal with the pressure for creative solutions when dealing with multiple challenges at multiple scales. This is a factor of isolated problems, isolated budgets, and isolated clients…but that’s on the verge of total change. It’s a blunt statement about the flattening of the design disciplines, and you would think that this is common knowledge. The public sector has its public works departments: roads here, parks and rivers over there, water and supply and sanitary over here. And they all go about building these systems without an integrated strategy. Notwithstanding cohesion and configuration of density, mix of uses, park design, and open space systems, it’s shocking. Then when everybody is trying to be comprehensive, everyone misses each other, and misses each other’s comprehension. It’s the fallout of the pattern of disciplinary segregation.
Is this a good moment in history to reclaim the field of infrastructure that was taken hostage by civil engineering in the 20th century?
From our end, AECOM has inspired engineers who understand the simultaneous functionality at all scales with the ecological fundamentals. Very few professionals can deal with the integration of complex systems. We need to reeducate professions, the policy makers, the politicians, and the clients.
Is this departmental/disciplinary divide due to the municipal stronghold on urban projects that often lie beyond municipal borders, more legitimately dealt with at the scale of the region?
Strategies in the future must be interregional. These forms of collaboration lie in a more contemporary, more instrumental understanding of the region that can slide across the layers of federal, state, and municipal authorities. Regional governance in other countries is fundamentally different than in the United States. Take the United Kingdom and Canada, for example. The UK actually has federal policies about land use, and Canada has regional watershed organizations with major funding mechanisms in place and some legislative authority. The United States has little or no federal policies on land use, while regional organizations are limited largely to conservation. On this end, the United States has a lot of federal strings attached to federal funding. That’s what America does. It attaches strings to highway building and to mass transit construction. Depending on the administration du jour, funding mechanisms work like a gas pedal: Sometimes we press hard on road-related infrastructure and at sometimes on mass-transit monies. Given the limitations of a four-year term, the Feds are the least predictable in the American system and have very little to do with the actual designed landscape of America, irrespective of the General Services Administration (GSA) or the arts program and various piecemeal programs of design and planning. Public funding at the federal level is not a substitute for federal policy, nor is it a substitute for a national vision for our land.
Is there a simple, effective strategy that you could propose to the current administration to change this?
I’m dedicating myself at the moment to this very idea. In this era of infrastructure funding, we will see two phases of change. The first deals with shovel-ready projects and off-the-shelf projects like pothole patching that immediately stimulate the economy. But the second wave of projects should be much more strategic and address major questions about our future: Where do we want infrastructure, and how do we integrate it with urban fabric? Conversely, how does urbanism become more infrastructural? For example, what modes of transportation—light rail, heavy rail, freight rail—do we want? How do transportation systems tie in, and where do we position harbor and airport access? Simultaneously, there should be strings attached to these major infrastructure networks to combine and integrate urban land uses and urban configurations. I believe we need to research, determine, and mandate a ratio between development of previously used land within the sphere of existing or planned infrastructure versus development on unused land. I suspect it would end up being around 60/40. The current practice is practically 20/80. My strategy gives landscape [architecture] a leading role as the discipline that connects all the dots and sees the bigger picture. It’s not a Socialist policy; it’s a simple, nimble federal metric.
Are you recalling the New Deal Era of the 1930s?
There is nothing nostalgic about revisiting the greatness of FDR’s federal initiatives. The so-called alphabet of agencies that he created legitimately integrated almost a century ago what we call today blue, gray, and green infrastructure with urban development and cultural programs. It was a total synthesis of the built environment.
How did trust in federal governance and federal leadership wane?
The 1980s saw a lot of change. The winning of the Cold War by Reagan, who was a major promoter of small government, fed the distrust in the public perception of the federal government to a level that was inoperable. Barack Obama is fighting an uphill battle that involves rebuilding trust in the government for the common good. The task at hand is not so much about regulation or about federal takeover of programs like health care; it is about redressing the effects of a piecemeal and uncoordinated private sector that has dominated the past three decades by providing leadership from the public sector. We need to address long-term foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges: Remember, in the next 30 years, 50 percent of the built environment will be completely replaced. We’ve reached a tipping point, and it calls for an avant-garde integration of private, public, federal, state, and local strategies and roles.
Pierre Bélanger is an associate professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and is a registered landscape architect and urban planner.
NOTE: Since the date of the interview, AECOM subsequently announced that it has acquired Ellerbe Becket, a 100-year-old architecture, interiors, and engineering firm. Read press release.