Beth Meyer: Natural Beauty Has a Ripple Effect

Beth Meyer / National Building Museum

Beth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, is this year’s recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize, which is bestowed by the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C.

Just the second landscape architect to receive the prize, after Laurie Olin, FASLA, in 2017, Meyer is widely viewed as one of the most influential landscape architecture professors teaching today. Scully Prize jury chair Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said: “she has left an indelible mark on theories of aesthetics, sustainability, culture, and social impact.”

In a wide-ranging, dynamic conversation at the NBM with her friend Thaïsa Way, the resident program director for garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Meyer demonstrated her ability to enlighten and create a sense of wonder. She helped the audience better understand the deep impact beauty has on us, particularly natural beauty in the public realm.

A few highlights from the conversation:

On how she formed her ideas: “I grew up in Virginia Beach as a Navy brat. I spent endless hours on beaches and boardwalks, walking the promenades and public spaces. There was every body shape and size imaginable.”

“I came to landscape architecture sideways. Visiting Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-60s, I saw urban renewal projects demolish buildings and communities, and what was created as a replacement was not great stuff. I became interested in design really through demolition. I wanted to make cities better. I later discovered cities involve dynamic processes that result from political and social factors.”

“I found a niche between historian and designer. In landscape history, there had been an over-emphasis on ecology. I wanted to focus on cultural and social aspects and human agency.”

“I left my suburban life to study, work, and live in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Suburbia is so segregated, but I discovered that urban parks are outdoor living rooms where you encounter people who are not like you. By recognizing the humanity of a stranger different from you in public spaces, you develop empathy and tolerance, which is the basis of community and democracy.”

“Sitting outside alone is also an act of self care. There is an intimacy to being alone in public, which allows you to quiet the usual busyness and see each other. That intimacy creates conviviality and moments of connection, which is an act of self care.”

On how to understand the social, cultural, and political aspects of landscapes: “In Southern cities and towns, there is a racialized topography. Wealthy and white live up on the ridges; poor and black live in the bottoms, the bowls, which leads to temperature, health, economic, and social disparities. Analyzing power and race topographically provides a lens for understanding public space. Landscape is a text for reading issues of power and privilege.”

“I think a lot about who has the right to the city? Who has the right to linger in public spaces? How do you define lingering versus loitering? What if a park is the only place someone has to go to during the day?”

“I’m not into the theory of landscape urbanism. It doesn’t engage with the social and political. Landscapes are a framework.”

On the importance of natural beauty: “There is a real pleasure and joy in the experience of — and interaction with — plants that are changing. Places with plants can cause people to become distracted, to pause and wonder. Princeton University professor Elaine Scarry calls this ‘wonder in the face of beauty.’ It arrests time and causes us to care. When something beautiful happens, when the mist rises, there is a ripple effect on others.”

On why we need to design with nature: “Public spaces are more than human when we recognize the agency of soil, microbes, plants, and critters. There is this constellation of life in it together. We co-construct public space with other species. Interacting with the biophysical world also alters our mood and sensibility — and our ethos and ethics.”

On climate change: “To combat the threat, landscape architects can care for materials and small things; people’s need for public space and the ability to self care; and beauty. Design matters because it alters the ethos of people who use the spaces.”

“It’s not only humans that are feeling the threat of climate change. I saw a Dogwood tree outside of Dumbarton Oaks the other day that was blooming with browning leaves.”

On how positive change can happen: “I understand now that the aggregated experience of natural beauty among many people can change our collective mood and create a cultural shift.”

Now more than ever then, natural beauty is needed in our public spaces.

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