The Case for Precision in Landscape Architecture

Renderings of Concurso La Carlota competition entry / Luis Callejas

According to Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the question of whether to pursue a more regimented, process-based approach or use a more open-ended design model has occupied the field of landscape architecture for the past three decades. In a lecture at GSD, Berrizbeitia said landscape architects must contend with a range of dynamic forces in every landscape — from changing seasons, hydrologic cycles, and plant life-cycles, to more anthropogenic processes, such as climate change, economic volatility, and rapid urbanization. “One of the challenges with process is it’s difficult to calibrate. But with the fully open, come both good and bad. How do we design with a more precise notion of openness?”

In the face of destructive processes, such as rising sea levels or increasing socio-economic inequality, Berrizbeitia sees a problem with completely open-ended design interventions that indiscriminately let processes unfold, unobstructed and uncontested. She proposed precision as the primary approach that will enable designers to better contend with existing processes and create a better future.

Berrizbeitia noted that the word precision is most commonly associated with computation, architecture, and certain art forms, but rarely landscape architecture. She gave examples of a number of projects that use precision in an exemplary way.

One example is a competition proposal by Berrizbeitia and colleagues for a park: Concurso La Carlota in Caracas, Venezuela (see image above). The park was to be located in a former air force base, which had for years acted like a void in the city, prohibiting access to the everyday citizens of Caracas. Thus, the design became all about access, literally, by bringing people to an area that was once inaccessible, and, metaphorically, by providing “access to the political processes of a decaying democracy.”

A single, precise topographical gesture in the form of a massive earthwork was designed to serve various purposes. First, it would help reverse the hydrological processes that cause flooding in the area. Next, the earthwork would selectively keep an 8-lane highway out of view while also bringing in pedestrians from all the surrounding communities. The monumental earthwork would also create an elevated promenade with views of surrounding valley, creating a new view that would have been impossible before.

Another model of precision is a park in Santiago Chile called Quinta Normal, designed by Teodoro Fernandez and Danilo Martic, a renovation of a garden originally used for acclimatization of European plant species to Chile. The designers were tasked with creating public space for a densely-populated and impoverished neighborhood while preserving the beautiful old trees. The landscape architects resolved this by laminating the ground with a series of wood and stone surfaces, none exceeding one foot in height. These precisely-designed surfaces create space for new and unprecedented forms of public interactions in this under-served neighborhood. They allow public access to an important historical and cultural resource — the existing trees — while simultaneously protecting them from harm.

Children frolic in the fountain at Quinta Normal in Santiago /
Children frolic in the fountain at Quinta Normal in Santiago /

The lecture ended with a response by Michel Desvigne, a French landscape architect, who, through his three-decade-long career, exemplifies for Berrizbeitia a practitioner able to achieve a coherent ecological, social, and aesthetic vision through the implementation of precise interventions. Desvigne called Berrizbeitia’s lecture “a key moment” for landscape architecture. The scale of Devigne’s projects are so grand that they require new institutional frameworks between clients and designers. For example, one of Desvigne’s current projects, a master plan of Bordeaux, has a projected completion date of 2034. Desvigne emphasized that without precision, projects of this scale wouldn’t be possible.

Right Bank of Bordeaux succession diagrams / Scanned from Intermediate Natures: The Landscapes of Michel Desvigne
Right Bank of Bordeaux succession diagrams / Scanned from Intermediate Natures: The Landscapes of Michel Desvigne

“The precisely-designed landscape negotiates. Its forms reveal rather than obscure; its high-definition communicates, draws in, describes, and enables.” Berrizbeitia’s lecture was a heartening reminder that landscape architects have the power to give form to processes in the face of constantly-shifting conditions. With precision, designers can create landscapes that result in positive and lasting social and environmental change.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

What’s Next: Career Paths for Emerging Landscape Architects

Work and Days Symposium Participants / Katie Black and Colin Curley
Work and Days Symposium Participants / Katie Black and Colin Curley

This time of year design students everywhere are asking themselves, “What’s next?” Whether weighing summer options or searching for a job post-graduation, the closing of the spring semester is  a critical moment filled with the excitement and apprehension of choosing the right path. While students can draw on many traditional sources for advice, a recent symposium at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design sought to offer a deeper forum, not just about careers, but rather on “what the role of the designer is, can, and should be in the twenty-first century.”

The Work & Days symposium mined the broader field of landscape architecture, assembling 17 panelists who represent the “realistic breadth of jobs available to emerging landscape designers.” Career paths range from start-ups to large firms, publishing, conservation, interdisciplinary work, industrial and structural engineering, socially-oriented practice, and academia. The idea for the event originated with master’s of landscape architecture students Katie Black and Colin Curley. The duo “recognized the increasing agency and expansion of landscape and its allied professions,” and yet, a lack of honest discussion about the highs and lows of these varying career paths.

Although each 10-minute presentation had its own distinct story, many themes resonated across speakers. One common theme throughout the day was the pros and cons of the straight versus the meandering path. Ellen Nieses, an adjunct landscape architecture professor at PennDesign, kicked off the presentations listing the 30-plus jobs she had held before coming to landscape architecture. As an academic and practitioner, Nieses drew on her diverse experiences outside of the world of landscape “to meet people designers don’t usually meet and go places designers don’t always go,” expanding the reach of the profession as she seeks to “see big stuff happen.” However, she admits her approach has a “fruition problem,” in that big paradigm-shifting projects are slow, hard to complete, and thus result in little built work.

With 16 years of practice at Olin, Richard Roark, ASLA, offered students a different but complementary perspective, showing how a landscape architect can evolve at one firm. His more linear career in landscape architecture had allowed room for him to grow from a young student protester to a partner at Olin leading community-based projects such as the Philadelphia Rail Park and Detroit’s Eastern Market. Roark sees these projects as “political dialogue,” requiring “an act of collaborative intelligence.”

For careers outside of academia and private practice, many speakers emphasized the valuable managerial skills and inquisitive instincts learned through design education. Nette Compton stressed the importance of effective “design translation” in her ascension to the position of director of green infrastructure at the New York City parks department and her current role as the senior director of ParkCentral and city park development at The Trust for Public Land.

Regardless of their career choices, many presenters acknowledged and even celebrated the inevitable role of serendipity. For Aaron Kelley, Assoc. ASLA, an associate at James Corner Field Operations, this meant landing his first design job while in line for a coffee, but for others, this meant bouncing back from unexpected professional and personal challenges. Olin CEO Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, spoke candidly about these “bumps” in her own life, adding that “the disorienting dilemma is an important moment — use it wisely.”

While the symposium highlighted the range of possible professional pathways for students to consider, it also revealed that the question of “what next” is not just reserved students, but is an ongoing question for the discipline of landscape architecture.

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

Material Provocations

Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Aqueduct, New York/Source: Ken Smith Workshop
Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop

Landscape architect Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, founder of Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, and James Lord, ASLA, principal of Surface Design, can provoke reactions with their creative use of materials. While these landscape architects couldn’t be more different, what unites them is a passion for how materials can create  memorable experiences. At a recent symposium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), each practitioner revealed how they do it.

Smith draws much of his creative inspiration from fashion. “I go to clothing stores and look at clothes like people go to art museums. But when you go to stores, you can touch the clothes, inspect the seams, see how things are put together.”

He presented his work on Croton water treatment plant, a golf driving range located over a subterranean 9-story water treatment facility in the Bronx, NYC. He admitted it was challenging to control the expression of a concept through the use of materials in a project so large and with so many constituents, but found clever ways to push the boundaries. When the fire department came in late in the design process and required a fire lane, Smith could have seen this as an annoyance.

Instead, he turned this moment into an opportunity to show an indeterminate edge, expressing one of the conceptual threads of the project by using simple unit pavers in an unusual way. “Usually, good craft with a unit paver is to have an edge restraint and cut the units because good craft is about expressing the form. But I adopted bad craft, and in this case, bad craft is good design.”

Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop
Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop

Cochran said she came to landscape architecture though an interest in art, but didn’t feel at home in the profession until she began to work at a design build firm. “Suddenly, it brought me back to materials — touching and feeling things and thinking more like an artist. My work really changed once I started to think from the building blocks to the bigger scale, rather than designing these huge things and trying to figure out how they would be composed.”

When seeing a site for the first time, she asks herself “how does it want to feel?” She is precise in the manipulation of color and texture to create perceptions. One of her projects is a residential project on a steep slope in San Francisco, in which a grade change of 18 feet had to be resolved from the entrance, to the doorway of the residence.

Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, Perry Residence, San Francisco/Source: Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture
ASLA 2015 Perry Residence, San Francisco/ Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Cochran knew she wanted to make this a visceral, almost scary experience. She created cantilevered walkways out over the edge of the cliff, giving the illusion of falling off the edge. This effect was heightened by the addition of non-reflective glass at the end of the walkway, and a floor that is a porous grate. “Some people won’t walk out on it, it’s too scary. I love the fact that we have been able to elicit a strong emotion with use of material.”

Lord first completes a rigorous process of site analysis, which involves researching the history, culture, and even the folklore of the place, before he begins designing. What he learns informs the choice of materials.

He presented the IBM Plaza in Honolulu, which won an ASLA professional design honor award in 2015. In Hawaii, places on a map aren’t traditionally spoken of in terms of north, south, east, west, but in terms of that place’s relationship to the mauka (mountains) and the makai (ocean). There, what’s important is one’s location in relation to the Pacific Ocean.

With a deeper understanding of Hawaiian culture, Lord sought to bring the sensation of the ocean to the site, using materials like glass, metal, and water to evoke the horizontal, reflective, and blue nature of the surrounding Pacific. “Descendant stories were key. By listening, we were able to define the materials that makes a place authentic.”

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. IBM Plaza, Honolulu bt SURFACE DESIGN, / Marion Brenner
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. IBM Plaza, Honolulu, SURFACE DESIGN / Marion Brenner

These three landscape architects express their provocative ideas about materials through the manipulation of light, color, and texture, no matter how large or small the site.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

The Future of Suburbia

Rendering of Possible Future Suburbs/Source: Center for Advanced Urbanism, MIT
Rendering of Possible Future Suburbs / Center for Advanced Urbanism, MIT

Almost 70 percent of Americans live in a suburban environment, according to Alan Berger, professor of landscape architecture and co-director of the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) at MIT, who kicked-off a recent conference there on the Future of Suburbia. United Nations estimates show about 1 in 8 on Earth now live in a dense mega-city, a city with more than 10 million people, which means that 7 out of 8 live in another kind of environment, likely suburban. For Berger, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the majority of people don’t live in dense urban areas and most likely won’t far into the future. Trends suggest cities are increasingly becoming the place only for the “super-rich and very poor.” The two-day conference at MIT, part of a multi-year research project at the CAU, aimed to generate some new ideas about suburbia. If suburbs are growing, what planning and design solutions can make them more just, sustainable, and livable? Can “heterogeneous, productive, autonomous, and experimental” suburbs provide the answer?

Heterogeneous: We often assume that the suburbs are demographically homogenous. A white, upper-middle class nuclear family comes to mind as the archetypal suburb-dweller. This notion is increasingly being challenged by the reality: suburbs are becoming more diverse. At the conference, Jed Kolko, an economist and statistical analyst, dismantled the assumptions we may have, showing how the poor and seniors are becoming more suburban. And Ali Modarres, director of urban studies at the University of Washington, used the suburbs of Seattle and Los Angeles as case studies to show that suburbs are becoming more racially-diverse as well as home to a growing number of people born outside of the United States.

Productive: “The purpose of this panel is to get beyond the typical planning view of vegetation as ‘green blobs,’ and to look at how the ecological systems actually function in relationship to socioeconomic systems, which is what productivity is all about,” said Peter Del Tredici, urban ecologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Because of their inherent horizontal nature, suburbs enable a more productive and “metabolic” use of the landscape, whether for growing food, carbon sequestration, or waste and floodwater absorption, even to the point where they could support urban cores.

Professor Susannah Hagan, professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, said looking to the past for models of productive suburbs could be a useful exercise for today’s planners and landscape architects. “Ornamental landscapes and productive landscapes have not always been mutually exclusive,” she said. The 18th century English landscape was a quintessential metabolic landscape.

Next was professor Joan Nassauer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture, University of Michigan, who talked about greening sprawl, lawn culture, and carbon storage in the suburban landscape. While the suburbs are rife with mowed turf lawns, they under-perform ecologically. “What we should be asking from these spaces is more ecosystem services.” Allowing for the growth of more diverse and mature vegetation will sequester more carbon, but this requires a major shift in cultural preferences.

And Mitchell Joachim, founding co-president at Terreform ONE, showed his speculative ecological-design prototypes, such as his modular cricket farm, so that the protein-rich crickets can be harvested as food.

Prototype of Urban Farm Pod, by Terreform ONE/Source: Inhabitat
Cricket farm / Terreform ONE

Autonomous: This panel, moderated by Joseph Coughlin, founder of the Institute of Technology AgeLab at MIT, addressed autonomous mobility. “Transportation reflects and reinforces how we chose to live with each other. How close do you want to live to your neighbor? What activities, and in what density and intensity, do you want to do?” Each panelist looked at how to retrofit our current suburban fabric to enable more autonomous mobility.

Dr. Knut Saue, Hyperloop Tech, advocated for his public transportation project called the Hyperloop, the brainchild of Elon Musk of Tesla, which he sees as the “backbone of the future transportation,” transporting not only people, but also goods at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour in a system of tubes.

Rendering of Hyperloop Pod in Dock / Source:Hyperloop Tech
Rendering of Hyperloop Pod in Dock / Hyperloop Tech

Eran Ben-Joseph, head of urban studies and planning at MIT, said personal transportation will continue to be a major force in shaping the suburban landscape. “Did the car destroy the environment, or was it the way we designed for it?” Widespread use of autonomous vehicles (or driverless cars) could change the way we design and plan the suburbs. For example, parking could be made more spatially-efficient, which means impervious surfaces could be greatly reduced.

And Nick Roy, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, provided yet another example of autonomous mobility: transportation of goods by drone. The drone industry, he said, aims to “take the friction out of transportation, so that anyone can get anything at anytime and anywhere.” Roy didn’t foresee drone-filled skies in the near future, as he outlined the many regulatory, economic, infrastructural and safety obstacles standing in the way of this reality.

Experimental: Allison Arieff, SPUR, led a discussion among panelists in the final series of presentations, which presented suburbia as the future site of innovative and experimental land-use, in a state of permanent flexibility, changing in response to shifting environmental or economic conditions.

Robert Geolas, Research Triangle Foundation, presented an alternative model of suburban living and working: the suburban research park. The Research Triangle Park was initiated in the 1950s, on a piece of land in North Carolina that was “all pine trees and possums.” Fast forward six decades and it’s the largest research park in the country, with at least 200 companies representing sectors such as biotech, green technology, and finance.

Paul Feiler, CITE Development, thinks “there are many more exits than there are entrances for innovators.” He views government regulations as obstacles preventing innovations from entering the market. To bypass these obstacles, he and his colleagues have created CITE, a privately funded “ghost town” in the middle of the desert in New Mexico, a self-sustaining testing evaluation and certification facility modeled after a typical American town of 35,000 people, except it will be uninhabited. The above-ground town exists only as a test site; below ground are laboratories and facilities where innovation occurs.

Rendering of CITE in New Mexico / CNN
Rendering of CITE in New Mexico / CNN

And David Neustein, Other Architects, presented experimental ideas for suburbia in Australia, the most suburbanized country in the world, with the largest houses on earth, located on lots half the size of the average U.S. suburban lot. He presented ideas of how to retrofit existing Australian suburban architecture to make homes more socially and environmentally sustainable, allowing residents to downsize without having to relocate.

An aura of cautious optimism at the conference kept energy levels high. Conversations with attendees revealed relief that discussions about the planning and design of suburbia can be speculative and inventive.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.



The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has decided to adopt the Sustainable Sites Initiative™(SITES®) certification program for GSA’s capital construction program. The GSA determined the incorporation of SITES — which provides a focus on ecological services and sustainability beyond a building’s envelope and also possesses the ability to be applied independently or coupled with LEED certification — offers a highly effective and efficient way to compel environmental performance.

This decision has been memorialized in the 2016 version of our Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (P-100) document, which establishes design standards and criteria for new buildings, infrastructural projects, major and minor alterations, and work in historic structures for the Public Buildings Service (PBS) of the GSA. This document contains both policy and technical criteria used in the programming, design, and documentation of GSA buildings and facilities.

The GSA is an independent agency of the U.S. government whose mission is to deliver the best value in real estate, acquisition, and technology services to government and the American people. The agency’s Public Buildings Service is one of the largest and most diversified public real estate organizations in the world. Its portfolio consists of 376.9 million rentable square feet in 8,721 active assets across the United States, in all 50 states, 6 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia.

This guest post is by Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture, U.S. General Services Administration.

Adelaide Will Plant 100,000 Square Meters of Greenery by 2020

Adelaide Design Manual
Adelaide Design Manual

Only a few years ago, if you mentioned the words sustainability, green, or global warming you were probably met with an eye roll and maybe some sort of off-handed remark about being a hippy. Now, the opposite has happened: it’s totally uncool to be disinterested in the environment, as celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio bring climate change to the foreground for the public.

Locally, the Adelaide City Council in South Australia is leading by example. Our new Adelaide Design Manual provides strategic and technical guidance for designing streets, squares, parks, with a strong focus on greening and water-sensitive urban design. The design manual will help the city achieve ambitious goals identified in the 2016-2020 draft strategic plan: to become one of the world’s first carbon-neutral cities; plant an extra 100,000 square meters of greenery by 2020; and provide a path to a real reduction in city temperatures by 2040.

The Adelaide Design Manual outlines a greener approach when designing for Adelaide and ensures consistency across projects at all scales. This means whether you are working on a garden, green wall, or multi-million dollar project, the principles for greening are exactly the same.

These principles include:

  • Considering and integrating greening across the city and at all stages of public space design;
  • Creating a connected network of greening;
  • Reinforcing the urban character through thoughtful approaches to greening;
  • Harnessing the multiple functions greening can provide through shade, shelter, stormwater management, and traffic calming;
  • Creating conditions for the success and longevity of greening by providing the right conditions for greenery to survive;
  • Using greenery to provide beautiful, comfortable, and inviting spaces that enhance the city’s social and economic value; and
  • Maximizing the seasonal benefits of greening for high-activity streets and enhanced building performance.

So much of our daily life is shaped around the public spaces we inhabit. The Adelaide Design Manual’s approaches will help the city improve these spaces, enabling greater accessibility, community health, and safety, and promoting a stronger sense of cultural identity and neighborhood character, supporting a sense of civic pride. In a warming world, the successful implementation of green infrastructure will bring more people outdoors and boost their well-being.

Some approaches will cost more up front, but realize savings in the long term. For example, Adelaide City Council’s Go Green with Public Lighting project has swapped 1,500 lights from halogen to LED lighting, which have a lower life cycle cost and will save the city $150,000 annually over their lifetime.

Adelaide Go Green with Public Lighting /
Adelaide Go Green with Public Lighting /

The Adelaide Design Manual will transform Adelaide into a design-led city, focusing on quality, not quantity, through gradual and long-term change.

The manual will provide the foundation and clear direction for the future of Adelaide as one of the world’s great small cities.

This guest post is by Suzanna Parisi, Adelaide City Council.

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.

GBCI Now Developing SITES AP


In a recent Green Business Certifications Inc. (GBCI) survey, 80 percent of respondents said they planned on implementing SITES® in their organization or practice, and 89 percent indicated interest in earning a professional credential, such as SITES Accredited Professional, or “SITES AP.” As a result, the development of SITES AP is currently under way at GBCI.

The new SITES AP credential will not only establish a common framework to define the profession of sustainable land design and construction, it will also provide landscape professionals with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, expertise, and commitment to the profession and will help scale up the market for SITES.

What is involved in the process of creating the SITES AP?

1. Conception: GBCI will bring together leading experts in the fields of sustainable landscape design to form a Job Analysis Committee. This committee will include landscape architects, planners, consultants, horticulturalists and water, soil, and human health specialists from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The committee will be responsible for creating content areas that lay the groundwork for building the SITES AP exam.

2. Validation: GBCI will enlist the help of a wider group of subject matter experts, who will review the content areas and their relative importance through the SITES AP Job Analysis Survey. The survey will give experts in the sustainable landscape community an opportunity to contribute to the SITES AP credential. GBCI will then gather and analyze results to create an exam blueprint, which will outline weight distribution for exam questions by content area.

3. Development: Once the blueprint is finalized, GBCI will enlist subject matter experts to write and review questions to appear on the SITES AP exam. With expert consensus, a well-rounded exam will be created and launched for the SITES AP credential. The exam will be finalized and placed into the testing platform for aspiring SITES AP candidates.

The SITES AP exam will be an important tool for all professionals practicing sustainable landscape design who are looking to grow their careers and impact the direction of land development and management.

If you would like to contribute as a subject matter expert and help write or review test questions that will shape the first generation of SITES APs, please fill out our call for volunteers survey to get involved.

We are also conducting an online job analysis survey to seek industry feedback on what a professional should know and do to perform competently as a SITES AP. Take the SITES AP Job Analysis Survey.

GBCI will begin offering testing for the SITES AP in October 2016.

For more information about the Sustainable Sites Initiative™, visit

Houston’s Green Makeover Only Reaches Some Neighborhoods

Busy freeway flyovers above Buffalo Bayou Park near Downtown Houston / SWA Group
Busy freeway flyovers above Buffalo Bayou Park near Downtown Houston / SWA Group

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s recent conference in Houston comes a time when the “car-centric, zoning-averse city,” as TCLF president and CEO Charles Birnbaum described it in a recent Huffington Post article, is receiving national acclaim for its public spaces and parks. As Mimi Schwartz wrote in The Texas Monthly, “Houston doesn’t look like Houston anymore.” It has “become fanatically green. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on this extreme makeover. And ‘you can’t believe you’re in Houston’ has replaced ‘it’s not as bad as you think,’ as an unofficial motto.”

This was the context for the conference, Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation, held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which highlighted uncomfortable but perhaps unavoidable truths about the character of Houston’s green transformation — that access to green space, which was largely made possible through public-private partnerships (PPPs), with an emphasis on private financing, is growing but remains highly inequitable.

Birnbaum first identified lingering perceptions that Houston is “built on private interests” with “light-handed planning” and remains an “inchoate community with little available public space.” He traced some of these perceptions back to Calvin Trillin’s 1975 New Yorker essay, “On the Possibility of Houstonization.”

This perception remains. Despite the city’s deeply rich investment in parks and public spaces during the last decade, many Houstonians in attendance still move around in their cars in a city that comprises 676 square miles, as Joe Turner, Director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, pointed out during his introductory remarks. (Stressing, in the next breath, that this means “lots of opportunities for landscape architects.”)

Later, Bill Fulton, who directs the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, took an informal poll of the audience, asking how many arrived via transit at the museum, which is next to a stop on the city’s main light rail line. Three people, Fulton included, out of more than 300 hundred raised their hands. This was underscored by a fact shared by Birnbaum: 75 percent of Houston was built after the end of World War II, when the car assumed precedence in American life. Now, Houston boasts the signature public spaces that were the darlings of the day, but it also boasts about the widest freeway in the world, the Katy Freeway, and three ring roads, the most recent of which, the Grand Parkway, now under construction, is well on its way to a grand total of 170 miles around — good for the longest beltway in the country. Houstonization, indeed.

So, any analysis of the city has to take into consideration former Rice School of Architecture Dean Lars Lerup’s formulation of “stim and dross” in the “suburban metropolis,” which he described in his book, After the City. At the conference, the “dross” of Houston’s chain retail, low-slung apartment complexes, and four-lane thoroughfares that lie outside the increasingly urban Loop 610 — where most of those 676 square miles are — was never mentioned. But the “stim,” or “areas of stimulation,” as Lerup has it, was heavily praised, especially in the first panel, moderated by architectural historian Stephen Fox. Panelists went through the design and planning of these examples of stim — Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou Park, and the Menil Collection.

Discovery Green, designed by Hargreaves Associates, opened the conference up to one of the major themes of the day: the public-private partnership, or PPP, as it was referred to throughout the day. As Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, senior principal and president of Hargreaves Associates, noted, Discovery Green was “part of a plan to bring high-rise residential” to what had been “a sea of parking” and “a few scraggly oak trees” around the George R. Brown Convention Center, completed in the ‘80s. Thus, a number of interests were invested in creating what Jones called a “memorable, transformational place.” Her point about the power of the PPP was anticipated earlier by Keiji Asakura, FASLA, principal and founder of Asakura Robinson, in his welcome address: “What is so unique about Houston?” he asked. “The one word is PPP. That’s certainly been the key in changing the dialogue.” The first parks in Houston, according to Birnbaum, were privately funded.

The second panel moved on to discuss projects now in development. Chip Trageser, FASLA, principal at The Office of James Burnett, detailed improvements to Levy Park, positioned now as a kind of Discovery Green for the Upper Kirby neighborhood, an affluent area northwest of Rice University. Douglas Reed, FASLA, partner at Reed Hilderbrand; Steven Spears, FALSA, principal and partner at Design Workshop; and Thomas Woltz, FALSA, principal and owner, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, all discussed their work at Memorial Park, a park twice as large as Central Park that is subject to the extremes of Houston’s volatile climate — severe flooding during Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the worst drought in the history of Texas in 2013, killing tens of thousands of trees. NBWLA is creating a master plan for the park, adding 38 miles of trails, and restoring, at a massive scale, the park’s decimated tree canopy with “memorial groves” of pines, while Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand are creating new master plans for its Arboretum and Nature Center.

Rendering of land bridge for Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
Rendering of land bridge for Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Notable during this panel, moderated by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, dean at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, was the presentation by Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, partner at West 8 New York, on the Houston Botanic Garden. This was the one green space presented at the conference to be funded entirely through private money, and it was the one outside Loop 610. (Maslyn said it was “proximate to Downtown,” but it’s a 20-minute drive, at least.) Though the PPP was still a large part of the discussion for these projects, a second theme began to emerge, especially with regard to the West 8 master plan for the Botanic Garden: equity, or, in this case, equal access to green space for everyone.

In the third and final panel, moderated by Christopher Knapp, co-founder and CEO of Chilton Capital Management, attempted to address this theme of equity. That morning, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, managing principal at SWA Group, the firm behind Buffalo Bayou Park, noted a divide between the east and west sides of Houston. The only public space on the east side of town discussed during the conference is West 8’s Botanic Garden, though SWA Group and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the conservancy in charge of the improvements, have begun to extend their work on the city’s signature bayou east into historically under-served neighborhoods.

Because the bayous run east to west, Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, touted the potential of the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 plan to right the wrong of park inequity. The ambitious plan, which is funded through a PPP, is to build 150 miles of hike and bike trails along Houston’s original infrastructure: bayous. A recent update to that plan that Houston Chronicle arts, design, and culture reporter Molly Glentzer called a “green grid” would connect more hike and bike trails on utility corridors and other north-south easements to the east-west-running bayous. Skelly stressed that the bayous “go through all neighborhoods.”

Cyclist on White Oak Bayou Greenway north of Downtown, Houston / Houston Parks Board
Cyclist on White Oak Bayou Greenway north of Downtown, Houston / Houston Parks Board

The ambition of the design and breadth of investment by PPPs in parks and public spaces in the affluent areas of “car-centric, zoning-averse” Houston is, arguably, what attracted TCLF to Houston in the first place. But the conference concluded with questions about repeating these efforts in neighborhoods where private money doesn’t flow as abundantly. This is a tension that Fox touched on in his introduction to the first panel: the power of PPPs reveal a relative lack of power and vulnerability on the part of the city to design, pay for, build, and maintain signature parks on its own, without the oomph of philanthropy. Thus, some of the same inequities afflicting the city at large — lack of access to affordable housing and public transit, heavier pollution in some neighborhoods, and food deserts in others — remain as true for access to parks. Though anyone is welcome at Discovery Green or Memorial Park, these remain destinations, not neighborhood parks. Now we know it to be true, just as Charles Moore wrote: you have to pay for the public life.

This guest post is by Allyn West, staff writer and assistant director of communications, Rice Design Alliance.

SITES Offers ASLA Members Early Adopter Discount for Certification


Traditional land development and land-use decisions often underestimate or ignore healthy ecosystems. Sustainable land development is cost-effective, better for the environment and fosters resiliency. Last year, GBCI expanded on its vision of speed to market transformation for the built environment to cover nearly every facet of sustainability, including sustainable landscape design and management. GBCI now administers the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®), the most comprehensive program for designing sustainable landscapes. To recognize those who have made significant contributions to sustainable landscape design, GBCI is excited to announce new pricing that rewards the early adopters. From March 1 to May 31, GBCI is offering a $1,500 reduction in paid registration and registration/certification bundle fees.

SITES-certified projects provide ecosystem services and create ecologically resilient communities, help reduce water demand, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, involve no or limited pesticide use, conserve or restore natural resources, and provide wildlife habitat. They also offset development impacts, reduce energy consumption, help sequester carbon, improve air quality and human health, and provide essential benefits that humans and other organisms depend on for survival.

In June 2015, GBCI launched project certification for v2 of SITES. Already, SITES v2 has seen projects registering across the world, from New York to Los Angeles, from Vancouver to Hong Kong. SITES certification is available for development projects located on sites with or without buildings, ranging from national parks to corporate campuses, from streetscapes to gardens. SITES is being used by landscape architects, designers, engineers, architects, developers, policy makers, and others to align land development and management with innovative sustainable design.

Take advantage of this special pricing opportunity by registering your project today with SITES.

Just as LEED undeniably transformed the built environment, SITES has the ability to transform land development and use under the administration of GBCI. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) is produced by the Green Business Certification Inc., which owns exclusive rights to the SITES rating system, its publications, and its trademarks. The material on which the SITES rating system is based was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.