There are three primary types of sound in our environments. There is geophony, which is the sound made by geophysical forces like rain, snow, rivers, ice, and cobble stones; biophony, which is the “sound of life,” including birds, frogs, and other animals; and anthropony, which is the “sound we make” through air conditioners, trains, and cars that creates a “low hum, like the base drum of the world.” In every soundscape, one component of sound dominates: NYC is clearly defined by its anthropony, while the Brazilian rainforest is one of the purest expressions of biophony. Soundscapes are the acoustic representations of a place and can be conserved, enhanced, or actively managed.
“Our sense of hearing is often overlooked, but sound is critical. It’s our first sense in our mothers’ wombs — the sound of our mother’s voice.”
Humans can hear farther than they can see. Nature, in fact, privileges sound. “All higher vertebrate animals have hearing but not all have sight.” Without sound, many species, like birds, which rely on song to attract mates, wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Other species, like whales, even create “pop songs” that can go viral, spreading through their oceanic communities. “We think they create songs to impress their mates.” Predators rely on sound to capture prey, and prey use the same sense to evade being eaten.
In a world filled with Anthropogenic noise, “we are forgetting how to listen,” which is a shame because we can learn a great deal from hearing to the natural world. For example, if you listen carefully, you can tell the temperatures from the frequency of the chirps of the Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni).
Through the noise we make, we are not only “interfering with our own experience of nature” but also nature’s ability to communicate. Frogs, for example, stop their chorus for up to 45 minutes after being disturbed by a “big noise.” Being silent for that long makes them more vulnerable to predators and also stops them from mating.
The health of an ecosystem can in part be determined by the sound it makes. The traditional method of analyzing the vitality of an ecosystem is to use jars and nets to capture fish, butterflies, birds, bats, and other critters. Another common approach is a Bioblitz in which a group of citizen scientists scour a given territory and count all species in a given time frame. The problem is these kinds of surveying are “very labor intensive, take lots of people, and also stressful on the animals themselves.”
Instead, a soundscape analysis conducted many times a day can be “worth a thousand pictures.” The depth and variety of sounds in an ecosystem can provide a metric for species density and diversity.
Streb showed a slide of an expanse of woods that had been recorded both before and after it was thinned out through logging. A base level was created to capture the sound of the stream and bird chatter, and then after the logging, recorded again. “The soundscape was totally different,” with a noticeable reduction in the amount of sound.
According to Lauren Mandel, ASLA, an associate and researcher at landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, “soundscape mapping” can help landscape architects maximize geophonic and biophonic sounds humans and animals naturally gravitate to and minimize the anthropogenic sounds that create a negative physiological response.
Working with Michael Mandel, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, who brought deep expertise in how to apply digital tools to measure the quantity and quality of sounds, Andropogon mapped the sounds of the 6,800-acre Shield Ranch in Austin, Texas, as part of a master plan that determined areas of development and preservation. One goal was to protect the the most vital ecological soundscapes while allowing anthropogenic noise in areas that are already impacted by human sounds. Areas in red on the map had the largest amount of anthroponic noise.
Michael Mandel said measuring the sound along the river and amid canyons of the ranch was challenging, as “sound travels in waves and ripples through the air, and when sound waves encounter a solid object, they bounce off, echo.” On a mountain top, for example, the case is “if you can see something, you can hear it.” But in other areas where echoes happen, “there are things you can hear but can’t see.”
And at the 2,500-acre Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook, Long Island, which includes a diverse range of landscapes such as forests and tidal marshes, Andropogon also created a soundscape map that not only helped plan and design a new 7-acre park within the landscape, but also schedule public events and educational programs.
After a BioBlitz that identified the number of species at Avalon, Andropogon and their team set up audio recording devices to measure the type and decibel levels of natural and human sounds throughout the site. With sound meters purchased on Amazon.com, they conducted three readings a day in different locations. Andropogon also brought in local middle school and elementary school students to help with sound measurements. Older kids used a checklist while younger ones had a “visually-oriented form with images instead of words,” said Lauren Mandel.
While capturing decibels is useful, “getting measurements of sound quality is much more valuable.” Breaking the site into zones, Andropogon discovered the most pleasant sounding spaces were near meadows and forests, while the least pleasant next to a road crossing. The analysis led them to put a large sculpture, which was initially planned for a space in the woods, an area with a very high sound quality, in a place with a low sound quality. Visiting the sculpture is an anthropogenic experience anyway and bringing high numbers of visitors into the woods would only degrade the sound quality there. Thoughtful efforts like these helped increase the biodiversity in Avalon by 35 percent.
Sound guided the program schedule for spaces, too. To avoid “sonic conflicts,” they didn’t organize yoga at the same time as lawn mowing or mechanical pruning. And they also scheduled programs for kids when birds were their at their noisiest. “We shifted the program based on sound.”
Mandel explained how urban soundscapes can also be managed. Designers can use buildings, walls, and trees to dampen sounds. Reducing urban noise in green spaces increases their habitat value. And audio recordings of birdsong can be added to spaces to help reduce the negative impacts of anthropogenic noise.
Soundscape mapping can be done at the very large scale as well. Artificial intelligence is being programmed to listen to thousands of hours of recordings of Caribou and migrating birds made across millions of square kilometers of Alaska in order to analyze the ecosystem impacts of climate change or oil and gas exploration. The same systems can also be used to measure the effectiveness of ecological restoration efforts, explained Michael Mandel.
Artificial intelligence is already helping sound become a more mainstream species identification tool. Birdnet uses machine learning to help users identify what bird they have heard.
Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.
Grove linked the current misalignment between public space and private development to the long history of “decoupling policy making and placemaking.” Urban planners have led in the policy and regulatory-making realm while landscape architects have proven expertise in placemaking.
Landscape architects can instead lead and participate in urban policy-making through “upstream urbanism” while prioritizing public spaces as the dominant placemaking strategy in cities.
To illustrate the importance of this approach, Jeneck discussed the typical block structure of San Francisco, which is 360 feet by 360 feet, as it relates to floor area ration (FAR), or the amount of building area in relation to the size of a lot.
A four-story building occupying 50 percent of the site would have a floor area ratio of 2, which Jeneck notes is on the low end for urban development. Assuming the lot is the entire block, the dimensions of this building would be 180 feet by 360 feet, a footprint with an impractical amount of interior space.
This undesirable set of dimensions for a building can result in design teams creating assemblages of towers, which to achieve the same FAR could take up 70 percent of the site, greatly limiting public space. Developments like this happen because policy makers haven’t accounted for public space corridors and connections from the beginning.
The speakers set out five scales in which urban design takes place: regional plans, city general plans, city area plans, city-specific plans, and project plans.
Landscape architects are intimately familiar with the project scale, but need to shift up in scale towards the regional plan, affecting policy that begins to shape the form of the city.
Scaling up gives landscape architects a larger role in designing the broader framework in which smaller urban, area, and project plans must exist, a crucial role the profession is currently lacking.
According to Johnson, landscape architects’ ability to work with complex systems makes them a natural choice for managing the goals that must be met at each scale.
He gives the example of a set of scalar jumps, 1, 10, and 100. 1 is the site scale, the place landscape architects are currently most comfortable, 10 is the city scale, and 100 is governance and public policy.
All presenters looked at lessons from past planning movements in order to inform what a future landscape architect-led planning framework could look like.
They traced the history of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham on the City Beautiful Movement. While the Garden City and the City Beautiful movements were highly influential, they were also ensnared in class politics, giving them a green veneer without truly being equitable.
Cities account for 3 percent of our land area, but 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Getting the next generation of urban planning and design right is imperative.
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.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announced the 2019 Professional and Student Award winners.
Chosen from 544 submissions, this year’s 36 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.
Chosen from 368 submissions, this year’s 26 Student Award winners represent the bright future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service categories.
“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs are the oldest and most prestigious in the profession. This extraordinary and diverse array of winners represent both the best of landscape architecture today and the brightest hope for our future,” said ASLA President Shawn T. Kelly, FASLA.
“This year’s awards reflect the global nature of landscape architecture and demonstrate to professionals and the public alike how our profession addresses some of the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change and resilience, livability, and the creation of healthy and equitable environments.”
All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture on Monday, November 18, in San Diego, California. There are still complimentary press passes available.
Background on the ASLA Awards Programs
Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.
Professional Awards are presented in six categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.
This year’s Professional Jury included: Andrea Cochran, FASLA (Chair); Henri Bava; Kofi Boone, ASLA; Gina Ford, FASLA; Deb Guenther, FASLA; John King, Honorary ASLA; Pam Linn, FASLA; John Vinci; and Keith Wagner, FASLA. Joining the Professional Jury for the selection of the Research Category were representatives on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA): Stephanie A. Rolley, FASLA and Galen Newman, ASLA.
Student Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.
This year’s Student Jury included: Linda Jewell, FASLA (Chair); Diana Fernandez, ASLA; David Gouverneur; Robert Gray, ASLA; Damian Holmes; Kendra Hyson, ASLA; Maki Kawaguchi; Signe Nielsen, FASLA; and Daniel Tal, ASLA.
Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA), has produced a series of five educational short videos, featuring conversations with 18 notable landscape architects on topics such as how to design with nature and time.
According to Gabriel, “the primary aim of the conversations with this informal industry advisory group was to educate the agency’s design and construction staff, thus enabling the agency to deliver higher-achieving projects,” which the “GSA plans, designs, builds, and manages on behalf of the American public.”
Material and Perspective explores the “world view” of landscape architects (see video above).
Designing with Time addresses the “unique temporal issues” that come with using trees and plants that change over seasons and as they grow.
Ecological Infrastructures explores how landscape architects design with natural systems to improve human and natural health and support biodiversity.
Site as Security shows how landscape architects can meet tough security requirements while also creating accessible, beautiful places.
Preservation and Design Evolution shows how historic places can be rehabilitated and re-purposed to fit contemporary needs.
Videos include interviews with:
Jose Alminana, FASLA
Diana Balmori, FASLA
Charles Birnbaum, FASLA
Shane Coen, FASLA
David Fletcher, ASLA
Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA
Mikyoung Kim, FASLA
Tom Leader, FASLA
Patricia O’ Donnell, FASLA
Laurie Olin, FASLA
Marion Pressley, FASLA
Chris Reed, FASLA
Ken Smith, FASLA
Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA
Jerry Van Eyck, ASLA
Thomas Woltz, FASLA
And projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, Columbus Circle, and Hunters Point South Waterfront in New York City; Rose Kennedy Greenway and Harvard University Plaza in Boston; Yards Park, the United States Coast Guard Headquarters, and the Washington Monument grounds in Washington, D.C.
Close to 1,400 attendees and several thousand online viewers watched the day-long Designing a Green New Deal conference hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, which brought together for the first time the policy experts and activists driving the Green New Deal (GND) with landscape architects, architects, and planners.
“It is really important to think about what it would mean to build out a GND,” said event co-host Billy Fleming, ASLA, Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center. “The policy experts didn’t have anybody that could help them think through what it would look like and how it would work.” Fleming hoped the event would spark a conversation between policy experts and designers about what kind of built work might arise from and hasten a GND, and how those projects could address both climate and social issues.
Some of the most inspiring ideas came during the event’s first session “Beyond Hagiography – Mining the New Deal Legacy.” Nick Pevzner, ASLA, senior lecturer of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, presented speculative and built projects that put energy infrastructure to creative use and deploy renewable power in sensitive ways (see image at top).
“The GND implies a rapid expansion of renewable energy infrastructure,” Pevzner said. How and where this infrastructure might be situated in the landscape, and what co-benefits it may provide, are issues that landscape architects should be considering.
As Pevzner pointed out, conflicts are already arising between renewable energy infrastructure and existing land use. Landscape design and careful planning can help navigate those conflicts.
Landscape architect Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, who spoke at during the event’s “Bold Visions for a GND” panel, emphasized the ability of design workshops to spark policy. She asked attendees to think about ambitious projects that would transcend municipal and state boundaries, projects that would inspire “new, casual coalitions of self-interest,” and a stronger, greener federal mandate.
Among these ideas were a Mississippi River National Park, as well as a coastal “shore-way” featuring “equitable, managed retreat, investing in living shorelines, and stemming the collapse of coastal biodiversity.”
“We need to visualize and give form to this exciting, new, low-carbon landscape,” Orff said. But is a GND necessary to realize projects of such scope and ambition? Yes, Orff told me. “This kind of change requires federal, state, and local cooperation in ways that are currently elusive.”
Fleming agreed, saying “it’s impossible to imagine a world in which we’re able to take on challenges like climate change, climate justice, and social justice at the scale at which it is occurring without a GND. We’ve reached the limits of what we can do through the project-by-project, private firm-driven development of the world.”
One of the event speakers, Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at University of California at Santa Barbara, elaborated on the challenges of de-carbonizing the U.S. power sector with or without a legislative package as transformative as the one the GND implies.
“We’ve been living on borrowed time” in terms of our energy resources, Stokes said. The potential of hydro and nuclear power has for the moment been tapped. Wind and solar represent our best hope at de-carbonizing the power grid and transportation system. In order to do that, the U.S. will have to approximately triple its current capacity in the next 10-20 years, according to Stokes.
In other words, “we have to get really good at building stuff better and quickly,” Fleming said. Beyond projects that foster renewable energy or low-carbon modes of transportation, landscape architects have a role to play in ecological restoration, environmental justice, and social justice. Fleming pointed to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and the Emscher Landscape Park in Germany as projects that took on critical issues outside of energy, such a biodiversity and adaptive reuse of industrial land.
Architect Peggy Deamer, representing The Architecture Lobby, laid out several principles that designers can hold themselves to that are in line with the GND’s principles. “We have a say in what we build,” Deamer told the audience. “We need to build projects that aren’t just objects of capitalist consumption.” She also emphasized that project stakeholders are not just the owners, developers, or users of a project, but the environmental and social community in which a project sits.
Several other speakers echoed this sentiment, including Orff and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy director for New Consensus, who advised the designers in the room to “meet people where they are” in order to listen and share how planning and design can benefit their communities.
Fleming said he expects the conversation between policy experts like Gunn-Wright and design experts to continue, with the McHarg Center facilitating dialogue between greater numbers of design firms and GND policy experts.
The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most precious ecosystems. It provides 6 percent of the oxygen produced on the planet. It stores an estimated 100 billion tons of carbon – about 17 percent of the world’s carbon – in its trees and plants.
This year alone, about 80,000 fires have raged across the forest, more than an 80 percent increase over 2018. Through July 2019, over 7,200 square miles of the Brazilian rainforest were burned, an aggregated area roughly the size of New Jersey. We can and must do more to protect the Amazon and avoid catastrophic consequences.
This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Natureand was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.
As curators we worked for well over a year to select the 25 works in the exhibition. We began by asking colleagues around the world for project recommendations. We stipulated in some detail that projects had to be “McHargian” in scale and scope. From well over a hundred nominations, we reached the short list of 25 and organized them into five categories: Big Wilds, Urban Futures, Toxic Lands, Fresh Waters and Rising Waters, which can be explored online.
• Great Green Wall, Africa
• Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, USA and Canada
• National Ecological Security Pattern Plan, China
• Malpai Borderlands, Arizona and New Mexico, USA
• Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, Indonesia
• Landscape Regeneration of Western Waiheke Island, New Zealand
• Willamette River Basin Oregon, USA
• Qianhai Water City Shenzhen, China
• Envision Utah Salt Lake City Region, USA
• Medellin, Colombia
• Barcelona Metropolitan Region Plan, Spain
• Emscher Landscape Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany
• Stapleton, Denver Colorado, USA
• Freshkills Park, New York, USA
• Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, England
• The BIG U, New York, USA
• A New Urban Ground New York, New York, USA
• Fingers of High Ground Norfolk, Virginia, USA
• Zandmotor Ter Heijde, The Netherlands
• 2050—An Energetic Odyssey North Sea, The Netherlands
• Healthy Port Futures Great Lakes Region, USA
• Room for the River The Netherlands Rijkswaterstaat
• Los Angeles River Master Plan California, USA
• Weishan Wetland Park Jining, China
• GreenPlan Philadelphia Pennsylvania, USA
It’s important to note the final list of projects doesn’t mean we completely endorse the work, nor is the exhibition a collection of the “best of.” This is not an awards forum; it is a representative selection of work that we think does a pretty good job of scoping, extending, and in some cases questioning McHarg’s legacy into the 21st century.
Without being too coy about it, we generally think these projects indicate important directions for the future of the profession. A criticism we accept and have worried over is the collection is geographically and culturally quite limited, itself a reflection of landscape architecture’s current professional reach.
So what do we mean by extending McHarg’s legacy? Simply, the works we’ve chosen tend to be “plannerly,” that is, they are big in terms of site and timescale and tend to involve complex socio-political and ecological processes with multiple authors and agencies. In short, there are no gardens, plazas, or streetscapes (to name but a few types) in this collection. This is not to say these are unimportant, they just don’t fit the raison d’etre, or the occasion of this exhibition.
Turning to the question of designing a planet: the functionalist definition of design is to make a tool that will do something more effectively than prior to the tool’s existence. But what’s most important about this—at least what largely seems to distinguish us to some degree from many other species—is that the invention of the tool, or the desire for the invention of the tool, takes place in our minds before it takes place in the world.
Without wanting to at all elevate humans above other species, we do have an exceptional propensity for imagining causality. In a word, we have foresight.
In Greek mythology foresight was the special gift of Prometheus – the father of humanity. We, the “Anthropos” (meaning not only humans, but also “the lower ones”), received our ability for foresight from Prometheus. Under instruction from Zeus, who wanted some pets to alleviate his boredom, Prometheus made the Anthropos out of clay taken from somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates, and with the admixture of Athena’s breath, here we are!
As the story goes, Zeus told Prometheus to give the Anthropos some degree of free will so as to make them more entertaining, but he stressed not to give them so much that they might then compete with the Gods themselves. Of course, by giving us not only a modicum of foresight, but also fire, Prometheus gave us everything we needed to do exactly what Zeus feared we would. And the rest, as they say, is history.
From the origin of the Anthropos we can trace an arc to the 1960s when, just before McHarg released his manifesto, Stewart Brand, the man responsible for persuading NASA to release the original earth image, pronounced: “We are now as Gods and should get good at it.” This is a hugely significant thing to say, but what’s more is that Brand recently updated his statement to “we are as Gods and MUST get good at it.”
In other words, not only have the Gods abandoned us, but we are now so deeply implicated in the workings of the Earth system that we really have no choice but to try and design it. In so far as we know, for the first time in evolutionary history, there is now a form of networked planetary intelligence registering its own environmental predicament. If so, then humanity is the first species in evolutionary history to attempt to design a planet, a fact as preposterous as it is, according to Brand, a necessity.
The poster child for the historical drama in which we now cast ourselves as both the villain and the hero is the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who popularized the term Anthropocene. As Crutzen explains, the Anthropocene is an act in three parts: first, the industrial revolution; second, the great acceleration (consumer-driven capitalism since 1950); and now he says we should move into a third phase in which we begin to, and I quote, “steward the earth.”
This of course is exactly what McHarg said 50 years ago. Now you might say that we have already designed the planet. Certainly, humanity has colonized and impacted every square inch of the earth’s surface, but we haven’t really done this with foresight. Until recently, we haven’t done it in a way that is self-conscious in regard to the problem of the tragedy of the commons. The question now is not whether we should design the planet, but how. Ironically then: If it’s true that species naturally over consume their environments to their own detriment, then since we have no major predator, we now need to learn to become unnatural. And in a further semantic twist, according to McHarg and his disciples, we can only do this by designing with nature.
However, the problem is this assumes we know what nature is. Truth be told, we do not. Accepting that fact is important because it protects us against anyone ever using nature as justification for authoritarian politics or any number of other oppressive ideas. Accepting then the partiality of knowledge, all we can do is develop approximations of how nature works and try different ways of productively coexisting with it as such.
We write in the introduction to the exhibition’s eponymous book that by asserting the sum-total of what we mean by design (human foresight) could be based on a singular—and in McHarg’s case, a scientific idea of nature—McHarg created a significant intellectual problem for himself and the profession. This problem is brought to light by Ursula Heise during a keynote at the Design with Nature Now conference, which was held at Penn alongside the exhibition in June, 2019.
Heise explains “the basic goal of cultural studies for the last twenty years has been to analyze and in most cases, to dismantle appeals to ‘the natural’ or ‘biological’ by showing their groundedness in cultural practices rather than facts of nature. The thrust of this work, therefore, invariably leads to skepticism about the possibility of returning to nature as such or of the possibility of places defined in terms of their natural characteristics that humans should relate to.”
Correct though she may well be, the problem with this postmodern skepticism is that if nature is not one thing, it’s everything. And if its everything, its nothing, and if it’s nothing, it can’t very well guide our designs, let alone an entire civilization as McHarg intended.
How then are we to respond to the conditions of ecological crisis? Well, you don’t have to agree with McHarg’s teleology of humanity fitting into a certain idea of nature to accept and use the sheer practicality of his method. Inversely, you also don’t need to be debilitated by the recognition that post-modern nature is a cultural construct. On the contrary, recognizing the design of nature as a cultural construct can be completely consistent with an ecological world view, just not a tyrannical one.
The ecological crisis and the misuse of land that McHarg directly confronted is not just a postmodern cultural construct – it is an appalling reality and McHarg’s importance is that he proposed a simple, replicable, and practical method for addressing it.
McHarg represents then the beginning of modern culture taking responsibility for the land with modern technology. Other societies throughout history have done this in different ways, but a modern method suited to the abstraction of modern development processes had to be created. People like Geddes, Mumford, Leopold, Carson and others provided the narrative and McHarg the method. And that he did this is enough. We don’t need to make him into anything more or less than that.
Designing with Nature Now means designing with the new nature of the Anthropocene. And to understand the Anthropocene we need to turn to both the sciences and the arts. The scientific bible for the landscape of the Anthropocene is, I think, the bookGlobal Change and the Earth System, published in 2005. It is to the Anthropocene what the encyclopedia was to the Enlightenment.
To quote directly from its introduction, the book’s purpose is “to describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total earth system, the unique environment it provides for life, the changes that are occurring in that system and the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions.” This last expression “…the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions” is critical because this is not the study of nature as something separate to culture; this is now the study of nature as culture.
Global Change and the Earth System is the work of literally thousands of scientists, all bringing their various models of different phenomena together in an attempt to form a complete, holistic model of the Earth System. The idea being that if we can at least better understand how the Earth system functions then we can make more informed decisions about our actions within that system.
One can imagine the ecological revolution in design, which McHarg catalyzed in regard to settlement patterns and which we are still in the early historical phases of, now means that everything we design will increasingly be conceived, tested, and valued as to how it performs within the larger material flows of the Earth system as a whole. Hyper-McHarg, if you will.
Now, while the scientists are working on their empirical models, the question in the arts is not so much how the Anthropogenic Earth works but what the Anthropogenic Earth means. To wit, just look at the plethora of recent books that use the word Anthropocene in their titles. Notably, almost all are dramatic and apocalyptic. Indeed, thoughout the humanities, there is evidently outright panic about the advent of the Anthropocene. And rightly so, because the old idea of nature as something stable and inviolable, history’s backdrop, has literally just evaporated into the carbon-saturated atmosphere of our own making.
To help make some sense of this panic, I’ve added some keywords to a sample of books on the topic of the Anthropocene (see larger version of the image below). These keywords establish polarizations that demarcate spectrums of current thought, at least as I read it. The first polarization concerns the question of whether or not we should even be calling this the Anthropocene. For its critics, the term naturalizes climate change and casts a new colonizing term over the entirety of the human race, many of whom have had very little to do with the industrial modernity that created the problem in the first place. Instead, they argue this should be called the Capitolocene, which is to say climate change must be apprehended as a cultural matter, and the blame for its advent placed squarely at the feet of first-world capitalism, and presumably communism, since it too has had an appalling environmental record.
First, with regard to the politics of the environmental movement I would place Eco-socialists at one end of the spectrum and Eco-modernists at the other. For the Eco-socialists, technology (unless its green) is a problem before it is a solution, and it is only through a return to communitarian, small scale, low-population, stable-state economies that true sustainability can be achieved. For the Eco-socialists, only the worst of climate change can now be avoided, whereas for the Eco-modernists, modernity is an incomplete project, and through technological rationality the best is yet to come, or at least, the worst can be avoided.
For Eco-socialists climate change warrants socio-political and theological revolution, something Clive Hamilton, the author of Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, for example, calls a “rupture” with history. On the other hand, for the Eco-modernists, history since the agricultural revolution is a continuing saga of environmental modification at the hands of technology. In this sense, even though there is now more at stake, for the Eco-modernists we are just doing now what we’ve always done. This latter position is effectively that taken by the other keynote speaker at the Design with Nature Now conference, the geographer Erle Ellis.
Second, to translate this spectrum of environmental thought into design discourse, I use the terms mitigation and adaptation respectively. Taken seriously, mitigation means taking on the causes of climate change, not only the fossil fuel industry, but also the economics of capitalism and the the philosophy of liberal humanism. Adaptation, on the other hand, means adjusting to the conditions of a changed climate but not necessarily changing its causation and certainly not changing the fundamentally-modern belief in techno scientific rationality to solve our environmental and socio-economic problems.
Per McHarg, adaptation means fitting ourselves benignly into the landscape. But this now seems way too pastoral for a planet of 8 billion people in the throes of rapid climate change. More likely and more frightening is that adaptation will become the rationale for climate engineering: regulating the albedo of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans, and planning vast landscapes so they not only feed us, but also help stabilize the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
Both adaptation and mitigation point towards what is now routinely referred to as resilience. Even though in the illustrative diagram I am situating resilience equidistant between adaptation and mitigation, I think resilience theory and practice tends more towards adaptation than it does mitigation.
The reason for this is that the utopia of sustainability, which is what mitigation implies, has by now proven itself to be something of an impossibility. Accordingly, resilience has been criticized as sustainability without hope. In other words, for its critics, resilience is seen as abandoning any possibility of mitigating the environmental and social crises of modernity. Instead, we, and in particular the poor, must now learn to live with the symptoms. In this sense resilience is palliative, conservative, and at worst complicit in preserving the very systems that created the risk in the first place.
Maybe so, but this is all a little too black and white. I would also add that resilience is realistic, whereas mitigation is hopelessly idealistic. Resilience brings sustainability closer to the indeterminate way that both the natural and cultural worlds actually work. Whereas sustainability was based on an idealized ecology of equilibrium, resilience is based on an interpretation of nature as a state of disequilibrium. I think McHarg hoped ultimately for a world of equilibrium between the natural and the cultural but seems now that this is just not the way the world works.
Turning briefly now to the projects in the Design with Nature Now exhibition, there are two particular aspects of McHarg’s legacy that I want to channel. The first is his aspiration for large-scale impact and the second is his anticipation and use of digital technology. The first is what I call Big Plans and the second is Digital Natures.
Let’s start with Big Plans. On the map below, Global Landscape Connectivity Projects, you see most of the major conservation projects planned or under construction in the world today. This is an extraordinary image because it shows humans now, for the first time in (modern) history, actively and intentionally reconstructing ecosystems at a planetary scale – so yes, effectively designing a planet, or at least treating it as a garden instead of a mine. (See larger map).
McHarg would love this map and it should give us all hope. And yet from a professional perspective much of this restorative activity doesn’t currently involve landscape architects. That we think it should is why we’ve included projects such as the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative in the United States and the Great Green Wall across sub-Saharan Africa in the exhibition.
For example, the Y2Y is a remarkable ongoing story of collaboration (and tension) between land owners over some 2,000 miles of territory in order to create landscape connectivity for species migration. The Great Green Wall is also a remarkable story of what began as a top-down initiative to resist the southward encroachment of the Saharan desert but has since evolved in to a mosaic of bottom-up initiatives to boost local agrarian economies across the 14 impoverished nations it comprises. When completed, if ever that day comes, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living thing ever created by humanity.
A third Big Plan, I’d like to single out that is versed in McHargian methods is the 2008 National Ecological Security Patterns for the whole of China by landscape architecture firm Turenscape, which was founded by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and the Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. The plan shows where the ecological security of land in China should be prioritized.
This research coincides with President Xi Jinping’s 2013 declaration that China should transition from a Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-focused civilization to an ecological civilization. And in this regard, while the study represents a powerful breakthrough for landscape architects, it is also something of a Faustian bargain. It raises the question of whether plans done in the name of national ecological health for totalitarian governments could come to overrule local culture in the same way development projects previously did in the name of the national interest. Imagine mass evictions not for hydroelectric dams, but now for biodiversity corridors.
Regarding the second aspect of McHarg’s legacy, the theme of Digital Natures relates to how landscape architects today are increasingly able to simulate environmental conditions in order to guide design decisions. There are two aspects to this. The first is the ability to create one’s own data instead of just passively receiving it from an authority, and the second is the increasing capacity to model complex, chaotic systems such as hydrology, and perhaps eventually entire ecosystems, cities, and ultimately the Earth system itself, as we see in the case of the book Global Change and the Earth System.
The key here is being able to model systems in the fourth, not just the third, dimension. That is, we are moving into an era where the old problem of a map being redundant the moment it is drawn can finally be overcome. It is early days in the emergence of the genre of Digital Natures, but the work of academic practitioners such as Keith Van Der Sys, Karen M’Closkey, Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, Justine Holzman, Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis — all of whom are variously modelling fluvial landscapes — is promising.
For example, the Healthy Port Futures project in the Design with Nature Now exhibition by Burkholder and Davis foregrounds digital modelling to predict sediment flows in the world’s largest inland water body, the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada. The project centers on creating simulations to show how instead of being treated as a useless waste product, sediment can be redirected so as to create new landscapes of ecological and social value. Stemming out of the academic Dredgefest initiative, Burkholder and Davis’ work is significant for its methods and also because with it they are muscling their way into territory otherwise dominated by engineers.
Which leads to what is for me the most extraordinary and perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibition: the so called Sand Motor (Zandmotor) constructed in 2011 off the coast of the Netherlands. The Sand Motor is a novel approach to coastline protection in which sand is mined offshore and added to the beach at a strategic location so that the littoral drift steadily redistributes the material further along the coast, thus reinforcing Holland’s coast against the sea. This could only be done through predictive modelling of the coastal system. Absent recent advancements in computing power, such analysis would have been previously prohibitive. Now, not only could the Sand Motor’s behavior be accurately predicted before it was built, it is also continually monitored, establishing a feedback loop between the digital and the real.
The Sand Motor marks a new technological and predictive level of human engagement with the environment, one that will expand at both macro and micro scales this century. In addition to designing gardens, parks, and plazas as we always will, the kind of systems design the Sand Motor suggests it is as foreboding as it is promising.
Even if unintentionally, the sand motor is also, I think, a highly aesthetic work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the great artworks of the early Anthropocene, something land artist Robert Smithson pointed to 50 years ago. I imagine a scene where Professor Marcel Stive, the lead engineer of the Sand Motor, now replaces Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, not to contemplate God’s awesome creation, but rather ours.
And that brings me full circle to where I began with origin of the Anthropos. For if we have now become Gods then, for all their complexity and contradiction, I do think the projects in the exhibition show that we can be good at it.
This post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania.
A team led by West 8 was announced as the winner of the Baltimore Middle Branch Waterfront Revitalization competition. The core team, which includes Baltimore-based landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc. and infrastructure engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol, will develop a climate-resilient, ecological plan to connect Baltimore’s southern waterfront neighborhoods through a series of new parks and trails while restoring wetlands in the Middle Branch Patapsco River. The West 8 team was ultimately selected by Mayor Bernard C. Jack Young after he received comments from the public and an esteemed jury of local stakeholders and nationally-recognized landscape architects.
The design re-imagines 11 miles of Baltimore’s Middle Patapsco River waterfront as an ecological cove populated with piers, boardwalks, and parks. The team will create new marshlands by “squeezing” the water channel under the Hannover Street Bridge and subsequently using the dredged material to build ecological habitats. Newly created marshland will help to buffer the cove from storm surges and clean the water.
A new island in the Patapsco River, named Riverbed Island, and peninsula on the south edge of the river, named Patapsco Park, will be constructed as the support points for a new bridge predominantly for vehicles that will replace the Hannover Street Bridge, which will be turned into a pedestrian-friendly linear park. The new island’s location was selected to maximize existing sedimentation flows in the river and will rely on naturally shallow areas to begin establishing wetlands off of the island.
The team proposes using geotube mud socks, a geotextile used to set dredge material, to help initiate the wetlands. Slurried dredge material will be pumped into the geotextiles, which retain the sediment but let water flow outward. In their competition presentation, the team describes the technique as “a simple, inexpensive way to protect and improve water quality through local plant communities while structurally stabilizing banks and shorelines to prevent erosion and slumping.”
Once established, slurried dredge will be used to fill in the rest of the wetland ecosystem back to the shoreline. The initial geotubes mark the boundaries of the wetland, allowing the team to shape the inlets and form of the wetlands.
While significant dredge and infrastructural work is necessary to develop the wetlands and reroute vehicle traffic, much of the work to redefine the “blue green heart of Baltimore,” as the team refers to it, is being done along the water’s edge.
The waterfront parks will span 11 miles of shorelines around the inlet of the Middle Branch Patapsco River. Pavilions, boathouses, a bandshell, a lookout over the marshland, and a repurposed swing bridge act as “cultural pearls” scattered along the waterfront. These design elements are a mix of revitalized structures and infrastructure and new amenities. For the design team, “the pearls celebrate and symbolize a time that once had and now again will represent optimism, innovation and progress.”
Among the new “cultural pearls” is the Lookout Loop, a circular ramp that brings visitors above the water’s surface, providing views of the Hannover Bridge in the distance. The Lookout Loop branches off from a boardwalk path that cuts through the newly created wetlands.
The Newland Band Shell will be an open air concert venue, located near the Hannover Street Bridge. A sloping hill will offer seating to see live music and performances.
The Hannover Street Bridge, which connects the industrial area of South Baltimore to Cherry Hill neighborhood, will be converted from a 5-lane road into a park space, completing the loop of parks. Bays of trees, flower plantings, and vine trellises fill the top surface of the bridge, while a new boat dock and seating area will be created under the drawbridge. The dock gives people kayaking a place to stop and rest while out on the water.
The Great Lakes, the largest fresh bodies of water in the world, face dire environmental problems. Nitrogen and phosphorous run-off from farms has led to destructive algae blooms that kill off lake life. Stormwater runoff from nearby communities has polluted the lakes with the chemicals that slick streets. And invasive species, like the Asian carp and zebra mussels, have wrecked havoc on native Great Lakes ecosystems. The governors of the states that border the lakes called for greater federal action, particularly in highly-contaminated “areas of concern.” The result has been the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which brings together some 16 federal agencies and has spent $2.4 billion on 4,700 projects designed to restore the lakes to environmental health.
Some $12.5 million is available for projects in these categories:
• Riparian restoration to reduce runoff to the Maumee River
• Green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff
• Manure management to reduce nutrient runoff from farms
• Accelerating adoption of nutrient management through farmer-led outreach and education
EPA Region 5 Administrator/Great Lakes National Program Manager Cathy Stepp said: “Reducing stormwater and nutrient runoff is a critical part of restoring the Great Lakes.”
And the EPA has made some $1.5 million available for four innovative water quality trading projects that promote “cost-effective and market-based approaches” to reduce excess nutrients and stormwater runoff hitting the lakes.
According to the EPA, “non-federal governmental entities, including state agencies; interstate agencies; federally recognized Indian tribes and tribal organizations, local governments, institutions of higher learning (i.e., colleges and universities); and non-profit organizations” can apply. Learn more.