The New Landscape Declaration: Looking Back Over the Past 50 Years

Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair
Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair

At the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, which met in Philadelphia last week, more than 700 landscape architects offered personal declarations and contributed their ideas, all in an effort to shape the 50-year follow-up to LAF’s original declaration of concern, published in 1966 amid massive political and social change and an era of environmental degradation in the United States.

Although the focus of the summit was on forging a new declaration and vision for the profession that can guide the efforts of landscape architects over the next five decades, there was also a call to “critically reflect on what landscape architecture has achieved over the last 50 years.”

Amid all the declarations and discussion, a few major themes came out of the reflections on what has shaped landscape architecture since 1966:

The American environmental crisis went global
From the original declaration: “A sense of crisis has brought us together.”

In his introductory remarks, LAF President Kona Gray, ASLA, was quick to note that in the 1966 declaration, “it was all about the American landscape.” The original declaration cites concerns that “Lake Erie is becoming septic, New York City is short of water, the Delaware River is infused with salt, the Potomac River with sewage and silt.” Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, noted that this 1966 description of the American environment was in sharp contrast to what Ian McHarg, influential landscape architect and one of the co-writers of the original declaration, simultaneously referred to as “oriental harmony” of the hydraulic civilizations of Asia. Yet 50 years later, Yu, along with Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University, were struck by similarities between 1950’s America and modern China and India today, where development has also led to environmental problems at an unprecedented scale.

In addition to the local crises of pollution, environmental degradation, and habitat loss that has run rampant in the developing world in the past few decades, new overarching global crises have emerged in the form of human-induced climate change and rapid population growth.

Landscape architects got political
From the original declaration: “We pledge our services. We seek help from those who share our concern.”

While the 1966 declaration does not directly address politics, according to keynote speaker Beth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, Ian McHarg, author of the seminal book Design with Nature, and the other co-writers of the declaration were responding to not only the environmental crisis, but also the political opportunity introduced through the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

McHarg was influential in the development of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s thinking on the value of beauty and nature in cities as well as the launch of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty in May, 1965. He later referred to first lady and environmental advocate Lady Bird Johnson “as his fan.”

Meyer argued then that his central role in creating the 1966 declaration may have been as much about environmental stewardship as a call for increased political influence by landscape architects. Just four years later McHarg would join thousands in Philadelphia for the first ever Earth Day event.

1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia
1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia

This political context set the stage for protest and advocacy by many other leading landscape architects over the past five decades. Just one example of this at the LAF summit is Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners. In her declaration, Schwartz said that to respond to climate change, landscape architects must rekindle their political agency by being “online warriors” and rebuild the political wing of the profession that can “put forth a forceful agenda.” The sentiment was echoed by Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, who suggested that landscape architects must continue to “orient social movements and lead policy.”

People and parks returned to the city
From the original declaration: “Most urban Americans are being separated from visual and physical contact with nature in any form.”

At a time of rampant urban blight, the 1966 declaration made little reference to designing in cities. Fast forward 50 years and Blaine Merker, ASLA, director at Gehl Architects; James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations; Henry Bava, partner at Agence Ter; Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; and Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, among others, focused their declarations around celebrating and expanding landscape’s urban reemergence.

Whether it took the form or urban ecological planning, tactical urbanism, green infrastructure, or new parks and plazas, landscape architects have played a critical role in creating humane green public spaces for a new and increasingly urban generation. This effort has helped concentrate development, improve urban sustainability, and preserve the nature surrounding cities. As Corner championed: “if you love nature, live in a city.”

For others, landscape architecture’s return to the city allowed the discipline to grow beyond its 1966 definition as “applied natural sciences.” Christopher Marcincoski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, argued that landscape architecture has effectively “softened the effect of urbanization,” at least in much of the developed world, but now must better anticipate the political, economic, social, and cultural forces behind urbanization in the areas left behind and the developing world.

For Tim Duggan, ASLA, these places are rich with opportunities. His declaration showed how his work not only over-layed environmental benefits, but also included the “overlaying of opportunities to find a catalytic but attainable scale” for financing and implementing regenerative infrastructure in under-served communities in Kansas City and New Orleans.

 Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation
Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation

Landscape architects called for justice
From the original declaration: “Man is not free of nature’s demands.”

Perhaps one of the most resounding critiques of the 1966 declaration was its now dated emphasis on the conflict between man and nature. LAF president Kona Grey began by contrasting the six white male signees of the 1966 declaration with the 715 diverse attendees of the 2016 LAF summit. Throughout the summit, many speakers made the connection between the increased diversity of our profession and the increasingly diverse communities served by it.

There was Randy Hester, FASLA, a professor at University of California at Berkeley, who has long called for an ecological democracy. David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who showed his methods for working with informal settlements in the global south. And the work of Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, demonstrated that collaborative design can build both social and physical resilience simultaneously. These and numerous other efforts demonstrated a growing push toward environmental justice, combining landscape architects call to serve both the people and the places that sustain them.

In addition to addressing diversity in her talk entitled “Landscape Humanism,” Gina Ford, a principal at Sasaki, ASLA,  also joined others in realizing that humans are no longer “nature’s antagonist,” but rather are inseparable from nature.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, quoted the great 20th century thinker Buckminster Fuller, reminding attendees that “the opposite of natural is impossible.” Yet our inclusion in nature during what is being called the sixth great extinction, led Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, to ask, “who in the Anthropocene will care for the wild things?”

Learning from the shortcomings of the 1966 declaration, the 2016 declaration must respond to a greater diversity of people, living creatures, and agendas in order for landscape architects to continue to “make our vital contribution.”

Landscape architecture expanded in scale and scope
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect is uniquely rooted in the natural sciences.”

Delivering his declaration via a recorded video from Italy, Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, asserted that landscape architecture has grown to a “huge diversity of practices.” Steinitz charted how landscape architecture began as a multi-scalar practice, but has since ebbed and flowed between small, medium, and regional scales as predicted by the demands of each subsequent decade.

While Steinitz, Kelly Shannon, and Dirk Sijmons, co-founder,  H+N+S Landscape Architects, suggested a need to now revisit the regional scale so favored by McHarg and his colleagues, others assessed landscapes’ successes in prototyping smaller projects capable of global replication. The notion of landscape architecture as an expanded field was seen as both a pro and a con as some worried about being spread too thin, and others embraced the notion of landscape architect as infiltrator and instigator of public agencies and allied professions.

Ecological research was translated into design
From the original declaration: “The demand for better resource planning and design is expanding.”

While the global threat of climate change presents new, less visible challenges, many at the LAF Summit recognized that the 1966 Declaration’s call to action “to improve the American environment” had in many ways been answered. Having written, advocated for, and pioneered ecological landscape design projects, the impact of landscape architects has been transformational, many argued. As Mario Schjetnan, managing director of Grupo de Diseño Urbano, FASLA, noted, “U.S. cities have upgraded air quality, reduced soil and water pollution, and improved open space.”

In his declaration, Kongjian Yu, founder or Turenscape, FASLA, spoke of “50 years of experiments with fire, water, floods, and the landscape as living machine.” Noting new sustainability standards and guidelines such as LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), “the change is amazing,” Yu exclaimed. He joined others in calling for the need to now “replicate and open new scales” through global practice.

ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape
ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape

Historic landscapes became more valuable 
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect practices an historic art.”

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, reminded LAF Summit attendees that 1966 was also the year that the Historic Preservation Act passed, and since 1998, Birnbaum, who is the president, CEO, and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, has made enormous gains in documenting and preserving designed landscapes. For Birnbaum, placing cultural value on our existing landscape heritage is key to bolstering the contemporary contribution of landscape architects.

Complementing this perspective was Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who for over 30 years has advocated for “culture-based sustainable development.” Referring to her projects with organizations such as UNESCO and their Historic Urban Landscape Initiative, O’Donnell’s work is exemplary of how the sustaining powers of culture and heritage create “a larger community (for landscape) to participate with.”

Landscape architects emerged as lead collaborators
From the original declaration: “There is no ‘single solution’ but groups of solutions carefully related one to another. There is no one-shot cure, nor single-purpose panacea, but the need for collaborative solutions.”

The 1966 declaration was ahead of its time in its vision of landscape architecture as a collaborative discipline. Many modern declarations reinforced that landscape architects have not only have benefited from these broad collaborations, but also have been increasingly leading teams on the great urban and infrastructural projects of our time.

While James Corner noted the role of his firm in leading large multidisciplinary projects, Kate Orff used her declaration to suggest landscape architecture firms are now the “collaborative glue… convening, organizing, and enabling others” through projects that serve as a “scaffolding for participation.” As LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, observed, increasingly you “can’t achieve sustainability without considering landscape.”

Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE
Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE

Landscape architects learned how to simplify and communicate complexity
From the original declaration: “Once they understand landscape capabilities—the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of environment, the determinants of change—they can then interpret the landscape correctly.”

Following the original declaration by only three years, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature paved the way for the subsequent decades of research, scholarship, and communication by landscape architects to the broader public about the complexities of our ever changing built and natural environment.

From Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden to Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World, landscape architect’s played a critical role in deciphering environmental complexity. In his declaration, Dirk Sijmons, former chair of landscape architecture at TU Delft, showcased recent visualizations from the 2016 International Architectural Biennale, animating scenarios for offshore wind energy development in the Arctic.

2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak
2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak

For Sijmons, “research and design at a large landscape scale” is less about project implementation, and more about building the cultural influence and political will needed to take on the challenges of the Anthropocene – the age of man.

Landscape architects diversified, to some extent

In her opening, Barbara Deutsch noted that the field of landscape architecture still has a major diversity problem, but it’s far more diverse than it was in 1966, when the profession was mostly white and male. Now, membership in ASLA is 36 percent female and now only 68 percent of landscape architecture graduates are Caucasian. And landscape architecture is a global practice, with tens of thousands of diverse practitioners across the world. Still, there is much more work to be done in the future to attract African Americans and Latinos to the field in the U.S.

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

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