Has Landscape Architecture Failed?

Welcome to the Anthropocene / The Topograph

“A sense of crisis has brought us together. What is merely offensive or disturbing today threatens life itself tomorrow. We are concerned over misuse of the environment and development which has lost all contact with the basic processes of nature… A key to solving the environmental crisis comes from the field of landscape architecture, a profession dealing with the interdependence of environmental processes” — I. McHarg, C. Miller, G. Clay, C. Hammond, G. Patton, and J. Simonds. 1966. A Declaration of Concern.

In 1966, Campbell Miller, Grady Clay, Ian McHarg, Charles Hammond, George Patton, and John Simonds marched to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and declared that an age of environmental crisis was upon us and that the profession of landscape architecture was a key to solving it. Their Declaration of Concern launched, and to this day underpins the workings of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), now headquartered in Washington. To mark its 50th anniversary, the LAF will hold a summit at the University of Pennsylvania involving over 60 leading landscape architects from around the world. Delegates are being asked to deliver new declarations (manifestos if you will) about the profession’s future. Drawing upon these statements, the LAF Board will then redraft the original 1966 Declaration of Concern so that it serves to guide the profession into the 21st century.

On one level, redrafting the declaration is relatively straightforward: it would simply need to stress the twinned global phenomena of climate change and global urbanization — issues which were less well understood in 1966. On another level however, the redrafting of the declaration is profoundly complicated, because if it is to be taken seriously then a prerequisite to doing so is to ask why, after 50 years of asserting landscape architecture as “a key” to “solving the environmental crisis” does that crisis continue largely unabated? Seen in this light the declaration can be read as an admission of failure. Consequently, we must ask if McHarg and his colleagues were justified in placing such a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of landscape architects why we have we failed so spectacularly to live up to their challenge?

The immediate response is to discredit the question; for surely the so-called environmental crisis is too general and enormous for any single profession to “solve” and then be measured against. The environmental crisis is the by-product of the ways in which the industrial revolution (modernity) has spread globally, beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and continuing on as capitalism exploits resources for profit and growing populations work to free themselves from poverty. This, arguably, is completely out of landscape architecture’s — or for that matter any other profession’s — control.

Be that as it may, many landscape architects subscribe to McHarg’s assertion — made repeatedly in his manifesto Design with Nature which soon followed the Declaration — that landscape architects are “stewards of the earth.” If that is so then they have a prima-facie responsibility to answer for the continued denudation of the planet since 1966. Even if we reign in the question of failure to something more tangible than the entire environment — say just land-use in North America — then landscape architecture still appears to have largely failed in mitigating the most basic elements and causal forces of environmental degradation. In fact, it is hard to think of any environmental topic which landscape architecture could claim to have substantively improved over the last 50 years.

In our defense, we might argue that landscape architecture is a very young and very small profession and an even smaller academy. We can also protest, as many do, that other, more established disciplines — such as engineering and architecture — have restrained our rise to environmental leadership. We can argue that the status quo of political decision-making makes it impossible for us to meaningfully scale up our operations and work in the territory where our services are needed most. These justifications (or excuses) all contain aspects of the truth but here, by way of self-reflection on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the original Declaration of Concern, we inquire more fundamentally into the evolution of the profession’s theoretical basis over its life time. Via this route we will return critically to the original declaration and argue that landscape architecture over the last 50 years is less a story of abject failure and more one of a discipline taking the time that has been needed to prepare for a more significant role in this, the twenty-first century.

The proliferation of theory and practice that emerged in response to McHarg’s ecological method in the latter half of the twentieth century can be organized through the archetypal paradigms of knowledge production; that is, through the competing epistemologies of positivism and constructivism. Positivism — the notion that objectivity is possible, that knowledge is constructed through empirical deduction, and that such deduction could lead to generalizable Truths – constitutes the knowledge paradigm within which McHarg’s ecological method evolved. For landscape architects, this meant that “there was a design for the earth, which made it for every form of life that has existed, does now exist, and all imaginable forms in the future” and that an intervention was “right when it [tended] to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” This form of landscape positivism evolved into the contemporary forms of thought and action known as landscape performance, in which the ecological function of landscapes is measured, optimized, and even monetized; urban metabolism, in which broader urban systems are conceived as systems of stocks and flows to be measured and stream-lined; green infrastructure, in which landscapes large and small are designed to deliver a suite of ecosystem services; and to a lesser degree urban ecology, in which the relationship between social and natural systems form a more descriptive than prescriptive field of study. Put another way, landscape positivists argue that the solution is “out there” — finding it is simply a matter of empirical study and that relative equilibrium between natural and cultural systems is the aim.

Alternatively, Constructivism — the philosophy premised upon the notion that objectivity is a mirage, that knowledge is socially and inductively constructed, and that such inductions have little relevance outside of a very specific context — constitutes the knowledge paradigm within which reactions to McHarg’s positivism emerged. By the 1980’s in the “deconstructionist” phase of post-modernity, designers began to question McHarg’s prescriptive method, asking: Design with which nature exactly and according to whose values? Simultaneously, in practice the profession became predominantly involved in the design production of public, urban space; denatured places where McHargian land suitability analysis has only limited, if any applicability. In such places, phenomenological theories such as genius loci as well as attention to human behavior, aesthetics, and innovative construction techniques were found to be more inspiring and more useful. During the 1980’s the sublime art work which emanated from a generation of so called land artists was also brought to landscape architecture’s attention, reminding us of the historical depth and poetic potential of our medium.

In this vein in 1997, James Corner, ASLA, launched a critique that the “continual emphasis upon rational prowess — often at the exclusion of phenomenological wonderment, doubt, and humility — fails to recognize the very minor degree to which the combined landscape architectural constructions around the world have affected the global environment.” He argued that landscape architectural theory ought “…to find its basis less in prescriptive methodology and formulaic technique than in the realm of perception, phenomenology, and the cultural imagination.” This is to say that the staggering complexity of social-ecological systems and the inherent subjectivity of creative perception rendered McHarg’s notion of design as evolutionary fitness moot; positioning the designer as more of an artful interpreter than a landscape scientist.

Corner’s remarks echoed statements made a few years earlier by McHarg’s nominal antithesis, the consummate landscape architect Peter Walker, FASLA. Responding to allegations of environmental disinterest in his work, in 1995 Walker expressed regret that “… we’ve been held up by our fellows as being somehow culpable, but actually we’re a very small part of this whole problem.” He pointed out that with their “parks” landscape architects only impact about 0.02 per cent of the earth’s surface. Walker seems however to have missed the point: for whereas he used the profession’s puny territorial impact to absolve it of any significant environmental responsibility, from the perspective of the LAF’s founding fathers he just provided the statistical confirmation of its abnegation. Indeed, landscape architecture can not ignore the fact that in the same time that it has produced designs for Walker’s 0.02 per cent of the world’s surface, the global conservation community under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has by now legally secured an extraordinary 15.3 per cent of the planet as protected areas.

This raises the crucial question of landscape architecture’s professional identity and its scope: for if we follow Walker’s delineation that landscape architecture is in reality a profession more or less limited to the production of small, rarefied sites such as gardens, parks, and plazas then landscape architecture is – as its name suggests – most akin to the high design discipline of architecture, not planning or environmental science. For Walker landscape architecture is a public art and as such the environmental crisis is not its yardstick. As such we have not failed at all. On the contrary, over the last 50 years we can see that landscape architecture’s contribution to the subject of designing public space and creating ‘a sense of place’ in the wake of modernism has been a story of great success. In much of the the post-industrial, developed world, the transformation of the public realm into attractive, inclusive, and multifunctional places by landscape architects has been perhaps the most salient feature of post-modern urbanism. The problem remains however that this work is materially insignificant when compared to the reality of the “crisis” identified in the LAF’s original Declaration of Concern.

To try and broach this troubling discrepancy, what McHarg and later the landscape urbanists realized was that if post-modern landscape architecture was ever to transcend its history and be more than the design of gardens, parks, and plazas in locations predetermined by others, then the profession needed to “jump the garden fence” and somehow take on the city as a whole. In the case of McHarg, following in the lineage of Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford, this meant zooming out and placing the city in its regional context. This in turn inspired his methodological veneration of large-scale landscape systems as the ideal determinants of urban form.

Recoiling from McHarg’s positivism and New Urbanism’s reactionary, neotraditional aesthetics, in the early twenty first century landscape urbanists began to reconceive of previously stable notions of the city, nature, and landscape. Firstly, that thing called “the city” as a bastion of culture opposed to nature was conceptualized reinterpreted as a ubiquitous and hybridized combination of both; a new condition Neil Brenner labelled as “planetary urbanism.” Secondly, landscape urbanists found themselves mainly working in brownfield situations where “the environment” or “nature” had to be re-invented, not simply protected. Thirdly, landscape urbanists, along with everyone else were enveloped by neo-liberal economic restructuring, against which state sponsored large-scale (master) planning, at least in North America, was increasingly ineffectual.

So, whereas McHarg had zoomed out so as to control and direct the city in terms of its bioregion, landscape urbanists, for better or worse, realized they had to “get inside” the logistics of both shrinking and sprawling cities if ever they were to harness and redirect those forces toward more ecologically and socially just ends. Put simply, if they were to do more than just design post industrial parks and the usual repertoire of small public commissions, landscape urbanists had to also become urban designers and urban planners. It is no mistake then that Waldheim has, for the last decade or so, set about constructing a lineage of landscape architecture (via Olmsted, Wright, Hilberseimer, Branzi, Frampton and Koolhaas), which champions landscape architects as “the urbanists of our age.”

Substantiating this big claim has however proven difficult for the landscape urbanists: for not only have other disciplines not so easily given over the keys to the city, but landscape urbanism’s own adherents have been largely unable to substantiate the movement’s urban design aspirations with built work. To date, landscape urbanism has not been convincingly applied to at least three major forms of contemporary urbanization; mega-regional decentralization, suburban and peri-urban sprawl, and exploding informal settlement patterns in the developing world. This is not to say that the theory is flawed, on the contrary landscape urbanism is well suited to these challenges, but it seems hard to sustain the argument that  landscape architects are the urbanists of the age when they have so little to do with its major twenty first century characteristics.

In any event, hypothetically the question becomes what sort of city would landscape urbanists create if they could and in what way will it fulfill the environmental mandate of the original Declaration of Concern? The predictable answer is of course that they will create a green and “sustainable” city. Indeed, for much of the life of the Declaration of Concern, and especially since the Brundtland Report of 1987 “sustainability” has been a cure-all expression for everything the environmental crisis entails. In this sense, sustainability operates as a form of contemporary utopianism, literally a utopos meaning a good place, which is no place. Along these lines we argue that the sustainable city is an impossibility. Why? Because it is predicated on a stable-state view of the world.

The world view that idealizes equilibrium, harmony, and stability has roots in early twentieth century models of ecosystems, where it was thought that if left to their own devices natural systems tend inexorably toward stable climax states via the process of succession. During the era in which McHarg and the LAF envisioned such a harmonious relationship between humans and nature, mainstream ecological thought believed that systems could and should be stable if only we could remove human disturbance. But the science of ecology in the last 50 years has evolved away from the notion of stability and towards one of indeterminacy and resilience. Now, all of the ecological and physical sciences tell us that nature is chaotic, something we can only partially predict. If this is true, then how could humanity ever expect to achieve a McHargian balance with nature? Understood as a perfect end-state, sustainability is what systems theorists such as Donella Meadows describe as the “seventh archetype of systemic failure”: seeking the wrong goal. In other words, it is not that landscape architecture has failed to bring about sustainability — it is that sustainability is the wrong model!

In the wake of sudden chaotic events such as stock-market crashes, earthquakes, and 100-year storm events resilience theory has emerged as a more realistic theory of environmental and cultural change. Unlike the teleology of sustainability, resilience theory stresses adaptation to constant change and the ability to cope within a certain range, with that change. One of the most attractive attributes of resiliency as a new design paradigm is that it also operates in full-recognition of its short-comings. It is also organized around the idea of coping capacity — or the ability of cities, people, and ecosystems to cope, persist, and co-evolve with change and disturbance. Rather than working deductively — as sustainable development principles might — to superimpose an image of “good” upon a place and then work to reshape that place in a preferred image, resilience theory works from the local asset base outwards. For some this could be construed as sustainability without hope, a dystopia where the best we can do is calculate risk, but in its incipient stages as a theory of urbanism we prefer to think of it as design now getting closer to the way the world really works.

Considering our historical moment one is reminded of the incredible optimism with which the moderns announced theirs. In 1920 the great architect Le Corbusier launched his journal L’esprit nouvea with the declaration: “There is a new spirit: it is a spirit of construction and synthesis guided by a clear conception … A great epoch has begun.” A mere 46 years later a small group of landscape architects would declare that epoch as one of environmental crisis. And now, precisely 50 years later as we acknowledge their original Declaration of Concern the International Commission on Stratigraphy is expected to formally announce the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch: a new geological period defined by the fact that the earth’s systems are now fundamentally and irreversibly altered by human activity.

The philosophical and practical consequences couldn’t be greater: in short, Nature, as Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, noted, is no longer that ever-providing thing “out there,” it is, for better or worse, the world we have created and the world we are creating. The landscape of the Anthropocene is one of permanent ecological crisis. As such the Anthropocene is overwhelming, but since it is by definition a human creation, the Anthropocene is some thing we must take responsibility for, something we can design. This doesn’t automatically sanction the hyper modernity of geoengineering planetary systems but it does return us, humbly and critically to McHarg’s concept of stewardship.

As sketched in this essay, from the last 50 years of landscape architecture we have two dominant epistemological paradigms; positivism and constructivism; and three models of professional identity and scope; the landscape architect as artist (Walker), the landscape architect as regional planner (McHarg), and the landscape architect as urbanist (Waldheim). Rather than see these as competing models cancelling each other out, perhaps what we have really learned from the last 50 years is that each is somewhat incomplete without the other. If however we make a concerted effort to combine these various paradigms and models, we begin to give credence to the notion of landscape architecture as a uniquely holistic discipline, one especially well-suited to engage with the contemporary landscape of planetary urbanization and climate change.

So has landscape architecture failed? Yes and no! The small discipline of landscape architecture may not yet have impacted vast territories but it should be acknowledged for its lofty ethical concerns and for ranging so far and so wide in its pursuit of a relevant professional identity. And if in that pursuit it has been stretched too thin too far then rather that admonish it for failure, we see the last 50 years as a necessary process of preparation for this historical moment. For this is now landscape architecture’s century — all the major issues of the times are at root about how we relate to land — and if by the end of it we are still small, weak and ineffectual, and if the world is a worse place than it is now, then we will only have ourselves to blame.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania (PennDesign) and an LAF Board member, and Billy Fleming, a doctoral candidate in the Department of City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is conducting case study research on the use of natural features in climate change adaptation within cities along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Read a full version of the paper with footnotes.

18 thoughts on “Has Landscape Architecture Failed?

  1. Randal Scott Romie, ASLA 03/23/2016 / 10:31 am

    Thank you for this history and sense of time to bring relevance to LA. I have applied to present at this year’s LA Annual Conference In New Orleans that addresses how we go forward from everything that you mention. (I have not heard back yet.) Of course LA has not failed. All life and the Universe continue to emerge; we must do our part and we are most responsible in what we claim to do as stewards. My presentation brings to the dialogue the is writings of Thomas Berry who proclaims, and even mentions Ian McHarg in one of his books, that we must usher in the Ecozoic Era and do it now. As you report 50 years have passed and action is required.

  2. Kay McDonald 03/23/2016 / 12:55 pm

    Kudos for this article. It is beautiful writing.

    I think the belief in urban density as a solution to climate change (which I’m not personally convinced of – seeing it equally as an economically-motivated ambition) has shut out aesthetics of landscape architecture, because urban planners and designers think space for dense human habitation is too precious to be given to landscapes, which incorporate beauty and nature.

    This comes down to the values of the urban powers that be… dense human living spaces or beautiful natural spaces designed for the use of humans?

    • Cass Turnbull 04/04/2016 / 3:36 pm

      I see society’s embrace of the Urban Density/Smart Growth philosophy as the major threat to landscape architecture, urban green spaces, the local environment, and the future of environmental stewardship. Not only do green spaces wed beauty and nature, they also contribute all those ecosystem services, health, social benefits that we would otherwise have to pay for. In Seattle I see the race to densify as an object lesson in unintended consequences. It’s creating a lot of air and water pollution locally due to stormwater and traffic congestion, and driving up housing costs. That causes people to move to the suburbs and commute to work in the city. Not to mention that our City is becoming hot, crowded and ugly. Our population is becoming less diverse and so are our buildings. Our neighborhood, cultural and historical identities are being wiped out and small businesses are being run out of town. Backyards, vacant lots and green belts are becoming things of the past.
      One of my main concerns is that environmentalists can usually trace the beginning of their interest in the natural world to some childhood memory of a green space they once knew intimately. If those spaces are eliminated where kids they grow up, where will the futrure environmentalists come from? Who will steward the Earth then?

  3. Mark Francis, FASLA 03/24/2016 / 5:29 pm

    This essay fails to recognize the social designer (like “artist”, “regional planner” and “urbanist”) as the fourth leg of the profession. Professionals, researchers and theorists like Hester, Cooper-Marcus and others have done as much to convince generations of landscape architects and their clients that the profession is foremost a culturally defined practice.

    They also point out the danger of landscape architects simply talking to each other to find truth and relevance.

  4. Mike Anthony 03/25/2016 / 11:35 pm

    Many of us trained in landscape architecture have moved into the planning profession. We are having an impact as “planners” shaping urban and regional design — introducing our principles into the world of planners. It’s frustrating at times…we tend to be visual, creative, people while planners are trained to be bureaucrats and policy makers. When I tell people I have a Master’s degree in landscape architecture, I’m inevitably asked a question about plants. Of the professions with which we are naturally aligned, I find landscape architects capable of being the most versatile and least appreciated. To be honest, I’m concerned that our professional leaders are not doing an effective job getting the word out about who are and what we do. We need a public relations campaign.

    • Brandon M. Herman 03/31/2016 / 11:25 am

      Spot on. I feel my work as a planner has much more relevance than my work as an LA (perhaps they are one in the same). Will society simply come to realize, with our current trajectory, that LA’s are qualified, or should we be doing a better job of proving our worth? We can be real pushovers; I think there may be a general inferiority complex within the profession.

      • MindWerks 03/31/2016 / 11:39 am

        Inferiority complex indeed! We aren’t equipped with the egos of our allied professions! I like to tell people that cities are designed, that ” land uses” could be more effective regulated, restricted, or encouraged using the spatial design knowledge and skills we inherently possess.

  5. Pim Olmie 03/29/2016 / 2:36 am

    First of all it needs to be said the article is with regards to the USA and similar New World countries where there was a strong push to create the profession of landscape architect.

    In Europe it worked and works well. Planners, garden designers, urbanists have managed to create over centuries human friendly, socially positive and aesthetically pleasing spaces, well connected throughout cities, with high densities, constantly upgraded and improved to modern standards.

    It also shows that one cannot learn how to design well while growing up, living and studying in badly planned and designed LA or NY or Sydney, no matter how hard she/he studies (not to mention the sources she/he draws the knowledge from). It is certainly a cultural factor.

    The sooner the world realizes that it picked the wrong example to follow (US landscape architecture and planning) the better.

    I have been to many places designed by the American designers, following the American planning standards, IBC (some even try to call it ‘International’ standards with feet and inches), that destroyed the local cultures and places — just as it has happened in the USA.

    The profession of the landscape architect “made in USA” should be put on trial for the crimes against the humanity and its existence terminated.

    • lesmuskey 07/14/2016 / 9:58 am

      I think you might be confused due to how you imply that “planning standards” were influenced by landscape architects. I was trained as an LA but worked a number of years in a typical planning department, and the influence of all design professions on planning outcomes is minimal (it is the reverse that occurs). Planners themselves were also frustrated by their own constraints. They are allowed to review but barely influence development other than for health and safety, at least in many places. You might want to put some political influences on trial, but are far off the mark blaming the LA profession, which has operated from a severely marginalized position. That very fact is reflected in the writer’s felt need to explore remedies in this essay.

    • Brandon M. Herman 07/14/2016 / 12:05 pm

      I would have to agree. Our standards are archaic and mostly driven by greed, masked as a “public good”.

      • lesmuskey 07/15/2016 / 2:25 pm

        I was puzzled by the post’s referral to “crimes against humanity” by the profession itself, which is ridiculous. We also have “planners, garden designers, urbanists,” who play constructive roles in the US, but the entire array of those plus the titled professionals do not drive anything. I should have said their combined role is so rarely credited as to be invisible. They most certainly don’t hold any power that would let them command destruction of local cultures and places, even if that was their philosophy, which it is not. Perhaps the comment writer has been somewhere else that he felt had excluded people without professional credentials, or that some government or press story had claimed to be copying a model that in fact doesn’t exist, to excuse their own local calamities?

  6. Barry Woltag 03/29/2016 / 11:19 am

    RE: Has Landscape Architecture Failed? 03/23/2016 by The Dirt Contributor
    RE: http://www.Facebook.com/Herkimertrolleybridge
    As the admin-advocate behind this Facebook page, I have challenge for the landscape architecture community to converge their collective talents upon a pristine environment off the beaten path and transform this area into a destination beyond anyone’s comprehension who lives in the Village of Herkimer. Let’s see what the landscape architecture community is really made of and what’s important to them, their legacy or pocketbook?

  7. Bill Eubanks, FASLA, LEED AP 03/30/2016 / 9:33 am

    I do not consider myself a “new urbanist” or a “landscape urbanist” but perhaps just an “urbanist”, even though I live in the relatively small town of Charleston, South Carolina. I think one of the failures of McHargian thought is that our profession produced a lot of sprawl over the decades in the interest of designing environmentally. In my community, I serve on the Board of a Land Trust. Why? Because I think it’s important to conserve as much of our natural landscape and our agrarian landscape as possible. One way to achieve this is to not let it become sprawl. So, the other side of the coin is to develop compactly and densely in the right places and to promote infill and redevelopment where possible. When we design in more urban forms we, as landscape architects, give up opportunities for some aspects of design because the spaces we design are much smaller. I’m okay with this. I’m actually more concerned about a strong public realm than anything else. I think we, as a profession, still have a lot to learn about growing our towns and cities well while still being the stewards we claim to be. But I also think we, as a profession, are better equipped for task that than anyone else out there. Let’s create some great places for people!

  8. Kirby Date, RLA, AICP 03/30/2016 / 9:37 am

    I started out as a landscape architect, and was disappointed upon leaving school to find out that it was mostly about building stuff. That’s where the money was. After a dozen years, gravitated toward community planning where I have found a home… but ever grateful for my understanding of conservation, the natural and built environments and (gasp) construction and development in helping communities to navigate their options and make good decisions. We are gaining more opportunities for LA/planner/organizer/geographer/engineer/architect/artist/economist/ecologist collaboration, and should continue to encourage same. We need all perspectives, and the technology/knowledge base has advanced to the point where no one profession can keep it all in mind.

  9. group projects 03/30/2016 / 8:28 pm

    The industrial revolution actually began in the 19th Century (not 18th, as noted) and continued into the 20th. Also, so many typos! I’d hope ASLA could do better with such an important article.

  10. Henry Ross, PLA, ASLA 03/31/2016 / 10:38 am

    As pointed out by Mike Anthony, the overwhelming perception by the public is very narrow and equates our knowledge base with plant materials. I constantly explain the depth of the profession to clients, friends, and other allied professionals. Like most firms, we frequently drop the “landscape” from conversations, because the word means plants or plant installation in our society. This perception problem is in large part due to contractor’s overuse of the term “scape.”

    I usually call myself a land or site planner, a recreation designer, a land architect (illegal), or an environmental designer. As a practicing profession, I believe we do great things and we have not failed. However, we do a disservice to ourselves by not changing our profession’s name for the modern times. It is time that we as a professionals start the conversation.

    • MindWerks 03/31/2016 / 11:43 am

      Well said Henry. I do like to point that the fundamentals of garden design are not very different from the fundamentals of good urban design.

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