Landscape Architecture vs. Consumerism


The design professions are at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile design’s role as an engine for consumer-driven economic growth with its role in imagining and implementing sustainable lifestyles and businesses. There’s a “meaning” gap between designers’ potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serves as the context for the professions.

In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here I look at a few examples from landscape architecture.

Consumerism acts as an engine for economic growth. This engine shapes design as market values increasingly outweigh civic or environmental values. One example is private suburban communities. Peter Cannavò reports that the growing trend for making new suburbs private—privatization is a requirement in a number of cities—means that more and more whole neighborhoods are managed as property rather than as communities or civic places. This type of management usually limits the variety of structures and allowable types of landscapes, often aiming for an outdated suburban ideal of big houses, big cars, and resourced-intensive landscapes, all of which drive increased consumption.


New suburbs are privatized, becoming consumption-driven commodities rather than communities. Photo Patrick Huber.

Consumerism also shapes landscape design when market actors control the location of public places. Emily Talen describes how cities such as Phoenix and Chicago implement new parks and other public spaces not according to where they are needed, but rather, according to where developers have paid impact fees. In the case of Phoenix this means that parks are planned for low-density, peripheral locations rather than strategic locations that might synergistically enrich the public landscape. This is similar to other “privately owned public spaces.” Whoever has money to pay impact fees determines location, whether or not the location adds wider value. The locations and contexts then dictate the benefit that any landscape design can bring to the urban fabric as a whole.

How Landscape Architecture is Reshaping Consumption

Despite these problems we’re also seeing cases where landscape design is shaping, or reshaping, consumerism. Here we look at the examples of sharing, appropriation and interactivity. The discussion above suggests that the location of landscape amenities can limit the way they enrich the public realm. Although we think of a landscape as stationary, recent examples of mobile urban farms and floating parks begin to question what it means to share a landscape. Two examples are the Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool, essentially a floating park, and “The Farm Proper,” a mobile urban farm.


Set & Drift developed this experimental, mobile urban farm using abandoned shopping carts, among other things.

Landscape architects are also looking at ways to appropriate and reassign existing landscapes that are underperforming socially, often because spaces are shaped by market efficiencies, to the exclusion of social or environmental values. In these cases designers highlight and uncover added value in tactical ways. An example is the Park(ing) Day project by ReBar, where money in the meter converts on-street parking spaces into temporary pocket parks.

Western countries are driven increasingly by “positional” consumption—for status rather than to meet basic needs. But research indicates that providing a better quality commons, including public space, could offer new means for gaining social distinction and weaken the link between status and private consumption. To this end, designers are enriching public spaces in new ways.


Play encouraged by flexible, fiber-optic “stalks” that emit sound and light as people passed near them in “White Noise, White Light” by J. Meejin Yoon. Courtesy of Howler + Yoon Architects.

Examples are experiments in interactive landscapes such as Enteractive (by Electroland Studio) and White Noise White Light. In both cases public spaces were “wired” to react to public and social activity. This interaction introduced play, but also temporarily personalized the place without privatizing it. Interesting developments occur as these interactive components are deployed in urban greenscapes as well as hardscapes.

This guest post by author Ann Thorpe is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism (Earthscan/Routledge 2012). Thorpe currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called Luum. She is also author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

2 thoughts on “Landscape Architecture vs. Consumerism

  1. Ann Thorpe 11/12/2012 / 6:57 pm

    Many thanks to The Dirt for hosting the guest post on my virtual book tour. Readers if you’ve got comments or questions, post them here and I’ll respond.
    -Ann Thorpe

  2. Yoey 04/02/2013 / 8:44 pm

    I have not read your book but…It is interesting how “positional” consumption as you describe it may be an opportunity for designers to refocus on public space, diminish private consumption, but still placate interest in status (sometimes perhaps the objective of those funding the project or owning the space) that is often otherwise grounded in consumerism. I am curious in what other ways you see landscape design may be actually gaining potential by directly interacting with consumerism (economic interests). For example, building landscapes that generate ecosystem services (which may be largely social/environmental benefits) but actually are coherent with a driving economic concern/consumption demand? Does your book look at this coherence between market efficiencies and social/environmental concern that you touch on here?

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