Visualizing Nature: A Contemporary Approach to Nature Writing

Visualizing Nature: Essays on Truth, Spirit, and Philosophy / Princeton Architectural Press

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA

“As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest cognitive project,” writes Nobel-prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk in her book Flights. Her subject is Wikipedia. She continues, “It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads.”

Sometimes she doubts the project: “After all, what it has can only be what we can put into words — what we have words for. And in that sense, it wouldn’t be able to hold everything at all.”

Tokarczuk’s sentiment echoed while reading Visualizing Nature: Essays on Truth, Spirit, and Philosophy, a svelte tome edited by Stuart Kestenbaum. The 21 authors included in the book also understand the limits of what can be put into words, particularly given the subject at hand. Bringing expertise as entomologist, landscape architect, farmer, and more, they variously contemplate themes within Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature to yield essays that consider topics such as climate change, racism, and the imprint of childhood landscapes on a psyche. Across the essays, there remains one constant: the authors’ moving human attempts to articulate the natural world knowingly can only go so far. But perhaps that is the point.

At the book’s beginning, Emerson is quoted: “Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word…I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.” In Kestenbaum’s view, the writers included in Visualizing Nature “continue to learn and speak this same language.” It is likely an infinite striving, and one that can never be fully articulated in our own dialects.

The essays touch on what each author experiences by nature, or in nature, a word defined in the last essay by Rachel Carson, as “the part of the world that man did not make.” Topics concern the intersection of the personal and the natural world: nature as balm, nature as escape, nature as ancestral connection. They probe nature as joy and mystery, as provocateur of sorrow, as prompt for action.

It’s a subject matter that could easily veer saccharine, though most essays do not. Rather than letting romanticized nature obscure daily realities, as nature writing can easily do, many authors use nature to address them. Journalist Juan Michael Porter II writes of the freedom he finds in nature, a freedom absent from New York City, which is hampered by “strictures of decorum and race.” Even if nature’s “invitation to breathe freely…is constantly challenged by those who refuse to see me beyond the fear that they project onto Black men,” he remains grateful. Nature, after all, doesn’t take sides. “Nature cannot protect me,” Porter writes, “but nor will it deny me my divine right to its bounty.”

Others write about the transformative powers of nature. Thomas Woltz, FASLA, owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, likens the evolution of friendships to the fluid, aqueous geographic contexts that he finds himself in, both in work and life.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. Duke University Water Reclamation Pond. Durham, North Carolina. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Mark Hough, FASLA
ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. Duke University Water Reclamation Pond. Durham, North Carolina. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Mark Hough, FASLA
ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. Duke University Water Reclamation Pond. Durham, North Carolina. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Mark Hough, FASLA

Maulian Dana, the Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Nation in Maine, writes about her first time sitting in a sweat lodge, an experience of rebirth for tribal members like herself. “The sweat lodge taught me how to be a mother because it brought me face-to-face with parts of myself that needed to learn and suffer in order to be worthy and closer to my mother, the earth.”

Many authors discuss observation of nature. Whatever shortcomings our language may have in face of the natural world, it’s also a form of observation that gives us agency: “The specificity of such [nature] language empowers more detailed seeing of particulars in the dense wild,” notes writer Kim Stafford. She mourns the loss of words like nectar and kingfisher from the dictionary to make room for attachment and bullet point. She points to the language of Hawaii, which employs not merely rain and drizzle and downpour, but words for “fine light rain, bitter rain of grief, rainbow-hued rain, light-moving rain, and lunar rainbow.” For Stafford, language becomes a way to “make peace” with the earth, and to restore “our buoyancy daily.”

The essays themselves might facilitate that. They are short, a few pages each, and the book makes for a tranquil read despite its myriad serious topics. Words may have limits, but that should serve most saliently to move the reader from the page to the outdoors, reminding us of nature’s power over us and the responsibility we have to it. As Carson entreats, “Go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before.”

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

Breathe: Imagining a New Relationship with the Atmosphere

Breathe: Investigations into Our Atmospherically Entangled Future, edited by Klaus K. Loenhart, Birkhäuser

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA

According to Klaus K. Loenhart, editor of Breathe: Investigations into Our Atmospherically Entangled Future, most of us have forgotten about air.

In the middle of a global pandemic, fault of a respiratory virus circulating through the air; amid the recent global surge of record-setting wildfires that have sullied air near to them and far; given the blankets of smog that smother places like Delhi, Riyadh, and Beijing, that claim of forgetting air seems unlikely.

Yet, assert many authors in Breathe, we’ve forgotten our one-ness with the air—how all of us are, effectively, “being-in-the-air.” It’s a forgetting inherent in Western metaphysics, from the Enlightenment to Heidegger to the Anthropocene, an outgrowth of the lineage that holds humans as separate from nature. But it is impossible to isolate ourselves from air, Loenhart argues. Simply breathing “means immersing ourselves in a reality that flows through humans just as much as the air and atmosphere of the planet.”

Loenhart invites us to remember both our place literally in air and the agency of it. In twelve essays, contributing authors reflect upon our relationship with the atmosphere: how it can be reformed to match this moment of climatic change, how to coalesce social and cultural understandings of atmosphere with the scientific, how to live more collaboratively within the planet. The overarching gesture of the volume invokes humankind to reframe how we live on earth by creating new interrelationships with “our planetary whole.” And that is where design comes in.

Throughout the volume’s three sections, authors use the words “air,” “atmosphere,” and sometimes “climate” in one sense interchangeably, but also with intention. For instance, literature scholar Eva Horn employs air because of its “rich ontological, social, cultural, and anthropological and aesthetic implications” that the word atmosphere doesn’t include. The variance of vocabulary supports the book’s claim of the ubiquity of air throughout our lives, from the scientific to the spiritual to the aesthetic.

Essays in the book’s first section underline humankind’s intertwining with our atmosphere, and the significance of that relationship. “Through our breath,” writes culture and media scholar Heather Davis, “we become the universe, we begin to understand our connections to the universe.” Yet as much as it unites, Davis reminds us too that the atmosphere reflects “the differential condition under which our lives are prolonged or foreshortened, depending on whether our bodies are valued or not.” Environmental racism or the murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd are a few tragic testaments of that reality.

Horn also emphasizes our relationship with air as based in cultural and social fact. Limiting our understanding of air to scientific knowledge—like atmospheric or climate science—restricts our human experience. She advocates embracing “historically outdated, indigenous, tacit, or imaginative and fictional forms” of knowledge. Doing so can facilitate our understanding of existing in air, “going beyond the divide between organism and environment towards a consciousness of our exchanges with it—the ways we breathe it, feel it on our skins, sweat and shiver, notice the smells and changes of the seasons.”

In the second group of essays, authors write about atmospheric and climatic forces in society. Urban researcher Jean-Paul Thibaud recognizes air as manifesting in four different ways: weather; “sub-nature,” like unpleasant urban byproducts including smoke, smog, or industrial debris; “commodity,” manifesting in aestheticized urban spaces like artificial climate; and ambience.

Some of these manifestations are, according to philosopher Gernot Böhme, examples of design: constructed spatial atmospheres. To illustrate his point, he cites C. C. L. Hirschfeld’s nineteenth-century tome, Theory of Garden Art, which explains how to produce landscapes that “attune” visitors to respond in a certain way or that can appropriately match their mood. Böhme writes that employing landscape architecture in this fashion demonstrates Hirschfeld’s astute understanding of the “phenomenological experiences of nature,” and how they impart a “specific spatial atmosphere.”

This power to make atmospheres, says Böhme, is critical: “it touches human sensibilities, it affects the temper, it manipulates the mood, it evokes emotions.” It’s so important, in fact, that he argues humans have not only a “basic aesthetic need to live in an environment where I feel well but also a basic need…to atmospherically co-determine my surroundings through my presence and be substantially entangled with them.”

In the volume’s final section, Loenhart brings together authors, many of whom are designers, envisioning a world expressing a new relationship with air. It is the design disciplines, writes Leonhart, that must articulate “a drawing together of all existence in the atmosphere.”

One way to do this starts with plants, “the life-giving entanglement of the lithosphere and the atmosphere,” in Loenhart’s words. Landscape architect Rosetta Sarah Elkin advocates increased attention to plant life, asserting that looking to plants and their relationships with other life forms, can exemplify “the potential of working together.” This awareness could, in turn, amend our relationship with plants to be more inclusive, less utilitarian, more communal—not “exempting” our human selves from nature. Elkin, too, advocates uniting science and common knowledge and practices—enabling reciprocal, collective ways to interpret and describe plant life.

This section is likely to be of most interest to readers eager to envision what exactly. the “new imaginary” Loenhart talks of could look like. Within this collection of cerebral essays, a reader may wish for more models of this atmosphere-based world, but the breathe! pavilion offers a vivid example of how we could design for it. The project appeared at the EXPO 2015 in Milan, and Loenhart himself took part in creating it. The 560-square-meter planted forest amplified the inherent cooling effect of trees and plants and highlighted the “biometeorological entanglements” between light, humidity, sound, wind, temperature, and odor. The resultant atmospheric landscape transported visitors into a calm space, cognitively removed from the hectic EXPO. Fittingly atmospheric, evocative photographs of the pavilion illustrate the book.

Visualization of the breathe! pavilion / Image courtesy of Breathe Austria
Floor plans of the breathe! pavilion / Image courtesy of Breathe Austria
Section drawings of the breathe! pavilion / Breathe Austria

Loenhart explains the pavilion invited visitors to see themselves as connected to the “planetary interior,” a vantage from which “the bodily-sensory experience of synergy in the atmospheric naturally activates deeper meanings of our being-in-the-world.”

And it’s from here, Loenhart imagines, that we can rethink how we are living in the world, conceiving of new, collaborate relationships with the planetary whole. Given our current reality, we will only be increasingly in need of new habits, negotiations, and systems that allow us to continue living within our world. For anyone striving to design for our changing planet, especially those dissatisfied with the status quo and in search new inspirations and considerations, this book could be a welcome prompt.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

Landscape Architects Poised to Lead New Era of Infrastructure

ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Portland Mall Revitalization. ZGF Architects LLP / ZGF Architects LLP

By Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA

The House of Representatives just passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which makes significant investments in the nation’s transportation, water, renewable energy, and broadband infrastructure. The legislation incorporates 13 of the transportation, water, and natural resource policy recommendations sent by ASLA’s Government Affairs team to the leaders of Congressional transportation and infrastructure committees and the Biden-Harris administration.

The legislation includes a five-year re-authorization of transportation programs and dramatically increases funding for safe, active, and low-carbon transportation programs, such as the Transportation Alternatives program, the Safe Routes to School program, and the Complete Streets initiative.

The package creates new programs that will allow landscape architects to lead projects nationwide. These include the Healthy Streets Initiative, as well as programs to remove invasive plants, create habitat for pollinators on highway rights-of-way, and plan and design new wildlife crossings.

There are also some first steps to address the legacy of environmental and social inequities in cities created by highways that have divided communities for decades. The Reconnecting Communities program provides $1 billion to remove highways and reconnect communities through multi-modal transportation options, boulevard-like green spaces, and new connections to economic opportunity. These are projects landscape architects are poised to lead.

The legislation increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Fund programs, which landscape architects will be able to access to help communities address their water quality and quantity issues.

The legislation will also create five new Stormwater Centers of Excellence. These will enable landscape architecture educators to explore new types of nature-based green infrastructure methods to improve existing designs and strategies for financing and rate-setting, public outreach, and professional training.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP / Lloyd/SWA, courtesy of SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MAN-FREDI

ASLA transportation priorities incorporated into the legislation:

1) Increased funding for the Transportation Alternatives program, and new regulations allowing states to allocate funding to counties, local governments, and Metropolitan Planning Organizations, as well as other regional transportation organizations, increasing local control over funding and projects.

2) Expanded eligibility under the Highway Safety Improvement Program to include projects covered by the Safe Routes to School Program, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, signage, and bus stop shelters.

3) Increased federal highway funding for states to create a Complete Streets program and projects.

4) Funding to create seamless active transportation networks and spines within and between communities.

5) A pilot program aimed at helping underserved communities tear down urban highways and rebuild the surrounding neighborhoods.

6) Elevate Context Sensitive Solutions as a tool in the decision-making and design process for transportation projects, particularly for projects in underserved communities.

7) Dedicated funding from the National Highway Performance Program for the protection of wildlife corridors that intersect with vehicle rights-of-way and establish critical reporting and training opportunities on the issue.

8) Emphasize design techniques that address pedestrian and bicyclist safety in our nation’s rights-of-way and support Vision Zero goals.

9) Invest in transit and transit-oriented development to meet growing demand for expanded public transportation.

ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. The 606. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Scott Shigley

Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:

TRANSPORTATION

Active Transportation Infrastructure: $1 billion over five years to build active transportation networks that connect people with public transportation, businesses, workplaces, schools, residences, recreation areas, and other community activity centers.

Healthy Streets Program: $500 million over five years ($100 million a year) for a new trust fund-financed grant program that can be used for cool and porous pavements and expanding tree cover in order to mitigate urban heat islands, improve air quality, and reduce impervious surfaces, stormwater runoff, and flood risks. Priority is given to projects in low-income or disadvantaged communities. Maximum grant amount is $15 million.

Invasive Plant Elimination: $250 million over five years to eliminate or control existing invasive plants along transportation corridors.

Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program: $350 million over five years from the Highway Trust Fund. At least 60 percent of funding must go to projects in rural areas. Projects must seek to reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity for terrestrial and aquatic species.

Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program: $1 billion over five years for a pilot program to reconnect communities that were divided or were separated from economic opportunities by previous infrastructure projects. Planning and capital construction grants will be available.

Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA): $1.25 billion in Federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.

Complete Streets Initiative: Each state and Metropolitan Planning Organization will now set aside funding to increase safe and accessible options for multiple travel modes for people of all ages and abilities. Funds could be used for: creating Complete Streets standards, policies, and prioritization plans; new transportation plans to create a network of active transportation systems; or projects that integrate active transportation and public transportation, improve access to public transportation, connect communities through multi-use active transportation infrastructure, increase public transportation ridership, and improve the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians. Also covered are regional and mega-regional planning and transportation plans that support transit-oriented development.

Safe Routes to School: Codifies the program, expands federal funding sources, and includes high schools.

Safe Streets & Roads for All Grant Program: $5 billion in emergency funding over five years ($1 billion per year) for a new program to support local initiatives to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities on roadways. Grants will be provided to Metropolitan Planning Organizations and local and Tribal governments to develop and carry out comprehensive safety plans to prevent death and injury on roads and streets, especially cyclists and pedestrians — sometimes known as “Vision Zero” initiatives.

Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement Program: Eliminates current formula for calculating annual state apportionments for the program and replaces it with set dollar amounts — increasing from $2.5 billion for fiscal year 2022 to $2.7 billion for fiscal year 2026. Projects now eligible include shared micro-mobility projects, such as bikeshare and shared scooters.

Multimodal Transportation Investments: $13.5 billion in emergency appropriations over five years for multimodal infrastructure, including $5.0 billion for RAISE (previously known as BUILD or TIGER) grants, $7.5 billion for local and regional projects of significance.

Support for Pollinators: $10 million over five years to benefit pollinators on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.

ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Award of Excellence. Dilworth Plaza, Philadelphia. OLIN / James Ewing, OTTO

WATER INFRASTRUCTURE

With regards to water infrastructure, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act incorporates numerous recommendations ASLA has also sent to the Biden-Harris administration.

ASLA water priorities incorporated into the legislation:

1) Increase funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds, which provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and includes funding, research, and other tools to implement green infrastructure projects.

2) Adequately fund the Chesapeake Bay program and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Specific projects include improving water quality, combating invasive species, and restoring habitat and addressing shoreline erosion.

Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:

The Act provides $55 billion over 5 years, specifically reauthorizing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) at $11.7 billion each. Many landscape architects access funds from these programs to design and implement water management projects.

Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Grants: $1.4 billion over five years for critical stormwater infrastructure projects, including those with combined sewer overflows and sanitary sewer overflows.

Clean Water Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Grant Program: $125 million for a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that provides grants to help communities strengthen the resilience of their publicly owned treatment works against the threats of natural hazards.

Stormwater Infrastructure Technology Program: $25 million for five new Stormwater Centers of Excellence. The EPA will administer an application process for colleges and universities, research organizations, and nonprofit groups to become centers of excellence. These centers will explore new types of nature-based green infrastructure, methods to improve existing designs, and strategies for financing and rate-setting, public outreach, and professional training.

ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Awards. Roving Rangers: Bringing the Parks to the People. Bay Area, CA and Santa Monica, CA. BASE Landscape Architecture / Ben Fash

NATIONAL PARKS and PUBLIC LANDS

While most national park and public lands programs and funding were successfully included in the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in 2019 and the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020 as a result of ASLA’s advocacy efforts, there are additional recommendations that were also included in this bill.

ASLA national lands recommendations incorporated into the legislation:

1) Invest in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.

2) Support increased funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard mitigation revolving loan fund.

Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:

Federal Lands Transportation Program: $311 million over five years to improve roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure in parks.

Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program: $55 million a year and up to an addition $300 million a year to address large repair projects in our parks and other public and tribal lands. This program also prioritizes sustainable and natural designs to improve the resilience of park roads and bridges to intensifying climate threats.

Also included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: $46 billion to mitigate damage from floods, wildfires, and droughts.

Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, Esq., is director of federal government affairs at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

ASLA Announces 2021 Student Awards

ASLA 2021 Student General Design Honor Award. The Interaction Between Masks And Desertification: A Paradigm of Family Sand Control by Mongolian Herdsmen. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Xi Zhao; Xue Li; Xinyu Yang; Qiong Wang, Student International ASLA, Beijing Forestry University

ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.

“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.

Student Award recipients will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Student Award winners

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 16-30)

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John James Audubon / Audubon Society

US to Declare Ivory-billed Woodpecker and 22 More Species Extinct — 09/29/21, The Guardian
“It’s a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists have exhausted efforts to find these 23 species and warned that the climate crisis, on top of other pressures, could make such disappearances more common.”

Record $5 Billion Donation to Protect Nature Could Herald New Green Era of Giving — 09/29/21, The Guardian
“Last week, a group of nine philanthropic foundations made the largest ever donation to nature conservation, pledging $5bn to finance the protection of 30% of land and sea by the end of the decade.”

Forget Coworking. Your Next Desk Could Be in the Middle of a Forest — 09/28/21, Fast Company Design
“The Finnish city of Lahti takes the concept of remote work literally. In partnership with creative agency TBWA\Helsinki and Finnish design company Upwood, the lakefront city has installed a series of open-air desks for remote working out in the middle of the wilderness.”

More Americans Are Moving into Fire-Risky Areas — 09/24/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“‘Only a few clients in the last year or so have told me they don’t want to live here because the fire risk is too great,” [Dave McLaughlin] said from his own home on Malibou Lake, an affluent neighborhood where dozens of homes were destroyed in 2018 and which has seen surging sales in the past year. ‘Covid erased people’s wildfire fears.'”

Here’s What’s in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill — 09/23/21, CNN
“Here’s what we know so far about the latest version of the infrastructure package, according to the CBO report, an updated fact sheet provided by the White House, as well as the bill text and 57-page summary.”

How America’s Hottest City Is Trying to Cool Down — 09/20/21, Vox
“As Phoenix deals with a rising frequency of extreme heat waves — which can be deadly, but also cause worrisome spikes in energy demand — the city is looking to trees as part of its heat mitigation strategy. Phoenix isn’t devoid of trees, but they’re distributed unevenly across the city.”

Landscape Architects Can Become Changemakers, But First We Need to Change How They Are Taught

Design as Protest charrette organized by landscape architecture students at the University of Washington, Seattle in 2017. / Jeffrey Hou

By Jeffrey Hou, ASLA

To address climate change, environmental degradation, and social inequalities, we need coordinated political action and systemic change on a global scale. With a mission to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public, landscape architects can become important agents of that change.

Given our ability to work with social and ecological systems at multiple scales, landscape architects are uniquely positioned to bring about positive systemic change locally, regionally, and across temporal and territorial borders. But to become true changemakers, landscape architects also need to take a more proactive approach beyond the current business as usual. We need to work with a greater network of partners and allies. We need to approach design as a form of activism and a vehicle for change.

Study abroad programs provide opportunities for students to work with underserved communities. / Informal Urban Communities Initiative team (aka Traction)

For landscape architects to become changemakers, we must change how they are taught. In a new report titled Design As Activism, we propose a framework that design schools can adopt to create opportunities within their programs for both immediate and enduring change:

  • Politicize – Develop the ability and capacity in students to engage in the political process to create change; understand better the language and systems of power; accept the responsibility of professionals as engaged citizens and as members of a democracy.
  • Hybridize – Build knowledge and capacity beyond the traditional core of the profession; engage in collaboration on research, teaching, and service with other disciplines; learn from how other fields generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge, and how they engage the public and advance their agenda.
  • Glocalize – Think and act both locally and globally; build connections with stakeholders, including communities, public agencies, civic organizations, and the professional community locally and across borders; examine the intersections between local and global challenges.
  • Improvise – Make use of what already exists, including courses, curriculum, programs, and other resources; utilize strengths and assets already in place in a program or a community, including existing connections and relationships; be tactical and creative with opportunities and circumstances.
  • Problematize – Question assumptions and challenges facing an institution or a community; develop a deeper understanding of issues and take a critical stance; make issues of equity, justice, and resilience in a current program, curriculum, institution, or community the focus of education and actions.
  • Authenticize – Create opportunities for self-discoveries through experiential learning; develop and support long-lasting relationships for collaboration with community stakeholders; work with communities and stakeholders in the actual context with real issues.
  • Entrepreneurize — Provide students not only with technical skills but also entrepreneurial knowledge; develop partnerships with programs on campuses and organizations in the profession to offer courses and workshops; provide students with skills and opportunities to pursue alternative practices.
  • (Re)organize – Examine critically how education and professional practices in landscape architecture are organized; collaborate with the movement organizations and find critical intersections of our work; identify allies and build coalitions and greater capacity for the profession
  • Democratize – Begin by reexamining the power structure within our educational institutions; fully engage students, faculty, and the professional community in program decision and implementation; ensure that all voices are included in courses, projects, and initiatives; build capacity in the community we work with.

This framework and additional recommendations in the report drew from discussions at national conferences, an online survey, and interviews with practitioners and program leaders in the U.S. We explored the skills and knowledge required for design activists and the challenges and opportunities facing the integration of design activism into landscape architecture education. To learn from the existing efforts in the field, we further examined the current models of engaged learning that included community design centers, community-university partnerships, and service-learning programs.

Landscape architecture students worked with students and professionals from other disciplines to create social design solutions for issues ranging from racial inequality to voting right. / Jeffrey Hou

As educational programs in landscape architecture vary in their focus, size, and organization, and as they respond often to different contexts and constituents, the proposals here are not meant to be one-size-fits-all, nor are they exhaustive. Instead, we ask each program and school to assess its own mission and goals and develop appropriate strategies and actions together with students, faculty, and the professional community.

While the framework and suggested actions are specific to education, we firmly believe integrating this mission in the professional world of landscape architecture is also essential. A broader transformation can only occur through collaboration between education, practice, and social engagement.

Learn more about the project.

The report was the outcome of a Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership awarded to Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, Seattle, with the support of a working group whose members include: Kofi Boone, FASLA, North Carolina State University; Mallika Bose Pennsylvania State University; Chingwen Cheng, ASLA, Arizona State University; David de la Peña, University of California, Davis; Joern Langhorst, University of Colorado, Denver; Laura Lawson, ASLA, Rutgers University; Michael Rios, University of California, Davis; Deni Ruggeri, Norwegian University of Life Sciences; and Julie Stevens, ASLA, Iowa State University.

50 Countries Agree to Protect 30 Percent of Their Land and Waters

ASLA 2019 Landmark Award. Crosswinds Marsh Wetland Interpretive Preserve, Sumpter Township, Michigan. SmithGroup / Aaron Kiley

The global movement to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and 30 percent of its oceans by 2030 achieved a major breakthrough this week. At the One Planet Summit, the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People, which is led by Costa Rica, France, and the United Kingdom, announced 50 countries on six continents have agreed to protect 30 percent of their land and oceans by 2030. This commitment is a major step towards setting a new global target among all nations at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15, which will be held in Kunming, China this year.

The global 30 x 30 campaign is one of the most high-profile efforts to reduce extinctions and save the Earth’s irreplaceable remaining terrestrial and marine ecosystems. According to The Guardian, the campaign’s goal is to make the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity the “Paris Climate Accord for Nature.” However, pessimists note that government leaders have not met previous conservation commitments, and much greater financing for land and ocean conservation efforts is also needed to ensure new commitments can be realized.

The High Ambition Coalition includes major economies like Canada and Japan. A number of biodiversity powerhouses in Africa joined, such as Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Uganda, and others. In Europe — beyond France and United Kingdom — Denmark, Slovenia, Switzerland, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Finland, and the European Commission, along with other countries, got on board. In Latin America and the Caribbean — beyond Costa Rica — Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Grenada joined. The U.S., as represented by the Trump administration, Russia, China, and Brazil didn’t sign on.

There is a history of setting ambitious global conservation targets. More than a decade ago, 190 countries, as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which called for “at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas” to be conserved by 2020. When those targets were created in 2010, just 13 percent of the world’s terrestrial areas were under any protection, and there were hardly any protections for ocean ecosystems. Fast forward to today and just 15 percent of terrestrial ecosystems and 7 percent of oceans are now legally protected. The world missed these relatively low targets, in large part because of the lack of financing.

In 2019, a major report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — found that 75 percent of terrestrial environment have been “severely altered” to date by human actions, along with 66 percent of marine environments. Furthermore, there has been a 47 percent reduction in “global indicators of ecosystem extent and condition against their estimated natural baselines.” In other words, the health of remaining ecosystems is also dramatically falling.

The report’s central finding was a shock: “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” Of existing species, “more than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.”

Globally, landscape architects and planners have a crucial role to play in reducing plant, animal, and insect extinctions; restoring ecosystem health; and expanding legally-protected natural areas. The United Nations calls for the adoption of “multi-functional landscape planning, cross-sector integrated management,” and the expansion of ecologically-sound agricultural practices. They state that cities and suburbs also present opportunities for the preservation of natural areas and biodiversity. These are all domains in which landscape architects can help plan and design smart solutions that also increase people’s connection to nature.

Landscape architects and planners can also partner with and empower indigenous communities, which currently manage nearly 25 percent of the world’s remaining natural areas.

In the U.S., President-Elect Joseph Biden has committed to protecting 30 percent of American land and waters by 2030. His nominee for U.S. Interior Secretary — New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland — has sponsored legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to support the 30 percent by 2030 commitment. With such powerful advocates, there is now a greater chance of achieving the goal.

In the past few years, ASLA has helped write and pass major conservation legislation, including the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act and the Great American Outdoors Act. ASLA’s dedicated advocacy and lobbying efforts resulted in the permanent authorization and full funding of the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is the primary program for conserving new land.

As the Sierra Club outlines, more work needs to be done to achieve the 30 percent target in the U.S. The group notes that 1 million acres of nature is lost to development each year. Due in large part to the loss of habitat to development, the number of birds in the U.S. and Canada have declined by 3 billion, or nearly 30 percent, in the last half century. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, half of all freshwater and saltwater wetlands have also been lost. Protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and water would not only preserve remaining ecosystems and biodiversity but also help offset an estimated 21 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Explore the American Nature Campaign, a project of the Resources Legacy Fund, and the Campaign for Nature, a project of the National Geographic Society and the Wyss Foundation.

Hug a Tree for 15 Minutes (and Complain to It)

After this challenging year, Marina Abramović, perhaps the world’s most famous performance artist, recommends everyone vent their frustrations to a favorite tree in a public park. She tells you to hug one tightly for no less than 15 minutes and pour out your woes to it. Your angst will be “absorbed in the bark,” and you will feel “rejuvenated.” This is tree-hugging on a whole other level.

Abramović believes there is a degree of energy flow between us and our arboreal friends. “Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you.”

Complain to a Tree / video still from Design Boom
Complain to a Tree / video still from Design Boom
Complain to a Tree / video still from Design Boom

This participatory performance work — Complain to a Tree — is part of series of exercises called the “Abramović Method,” which was developed by the artist to “practice being present.” In Abramović’s most well-known art work, The Artist Is Present, she sat nearly immobile at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City for 736 hours, facing 1,545 visitors over the span of weeks. Being present became a form of “endurance art.”

In the video, Abramović states that “trees are like human beings. They have intelligence. They have feelings. They communicate with each other. And also, they are perfectly silent listeners. You can complain to them.” And she notes that many cultures worship and commune with trees.

For those inclined to try this out in public, Abramović offers guidance:

“One important thing is that you really choose a tree that you like. It can be small and even not that beautiful a tree. But you have some relation to this tree, emotionally. Don’t pick the tree because of the beauty of the tree. Pick the tree because of its smell, the bark, the leaves. Whatever triggers your affection. So look around, and take the tree you like.

Don’t immediately hug the tree. Just feel the energy of the tree. Even not touching it but just holding your hands a little bit above.

And then complain your heart into it. This is the whole idea. Have any of you ever complained to a tree before? No. So this is something that you will be doing for the first time. This is like a journey into the unknown. So get out of your security box and do something that is different.

I hope we can create some kind of trend, that actually people are going to run to the parks and start complaining to the trees. This is one way of healing at this moment of our history.

Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you. So the tree is actually healing the complaint. You’re opening your heart. You’re just telling all your negativity and what bothers you in your life. And the tree is a silent listener. And everything is absorbed into the bark of the tree. And you feel rejuvenated. You feel happy after that.

This is the message for the public. Please—go to the park near you. Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.”

The performance was part of a 5-hour public program Abramović produced for the Sky Arts TV channel in the United Kingdom in early December.

Our Vanishing Coasts, Pictured

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Alex MacLean Impact / Birkhäuser

Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines, aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book, captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock.

Trained as an architect, MacLean is well-known for his decades-long work photographing landscapes from above. A cursory review of MacLean’s aerial photography shows a fixation with the seams and stitches at the edge of our built environment. Those interstitial zones offer valuable insight into our relationship with rising sea levels. Impact’s photos show us pristine lawns and asphalt driveways grafted on to lagoons, mansions pinned to subsiding cliffs, and suburban housing divisions encircled by tumultuous waves.

Impact’s photos are endowed with an instant nostalgia. Knowing that sea level rise is in the process of re-configuring the pictured landscapes, Impact feels similar to a yearbook, freshly published. “Remember when,” one might find themselves saying while flipping through the images years from now. Remember when Casino Pier extended proudly from the boardwalk at Seaside Heights in New Jersey? The Jet Star roller coaster perched on top, not crumpled in the water like it was found after Hurricane Sandy?

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Casino Pier post-Sandy / Birkhäuser

MacLean dedicates a portion of his book to the documentation of hurricane devastation, showing what high winds and flood waters can do to the built environment. But we’ve seen these photos before, haven’t we? And after Superstorm Sandy humbled Seaside Heights, Casino Pier was rebuilt, complete with a new roller coaster, Hydrus. So what lessons does Impact have for us that we haven’t already declined to learn? That depends on the reader, but MacLean’s photos will leave an impression, regardless.

Impact’s most sublime photos are those that maximize nature in the frame. It’s easy to cover the strip of land shown in some if his images with a hand, giving the page over to ocean. MacLean has captured the radical flatness of his coastal environments, where buildings and people are co-planar with the sea.

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In his photos, aerial photographer Alex MacLean captures the radical flatness of the Atlantic coastline. / Birkhäuser

MacLean expresses slight repulsion at the opulence on display at some of the beachfront communities he photographed. The recreational boating, the ostentatious architecture. He seems to desire that nature be re-grafted back over the development.

It’s tough to argue with him given the glut of development MacLean photographs. Faux-Italian villas situated on barrier islands seems comical. So do the beachfront homes supported by more stilts than there is likely lumber in the house’s frame. MacLean cuts any humor though with images of the aftermath of devastating storms. Stilts remain upright, but there’s hardly a house left to support.

What many of us know and have come to accept is that our foothold in coastal areas is precarious. Most would acknowledge our coasts receding and anticipate our structures drowning. But we count on insurance recouping us. We may even choose to rebuild in hazard zones. Whether these two latter statements remain true, this stance underestimates the willful endangerment we’ve engaged in at the coast.

Perhaps Impact’s most striking photo is of the Sabine Pass liquified natural gas production facility in Louisiana, sitting directly in the path of future hurricanes. When critical infrastructure, energy, and waste facilities are impacted by sea level rise, we will be left with very different, less desirable memories than we hoped for.

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Sabine Pass LNG Terminal in Cameron Parish Lagoon, Louisiana. / Birkhäuser

How to Lead in the Era of Wicked Problems

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

By Susan Apollonio

If, like me, over the course of 2020 you’ve had thoughts like there has to be a better way or what the world needs now are better leaders, then Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems may just be the book you need to prepare for 2021 and beyond. Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of wicked leadership in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike.

Roadmap for the Anthropocene

Humanity is just 70 years into the Anthropocene, the age where “humans create Earth’s conditions that support or threaten civilization.” In our new epoch, the problems we have created and need to solve are “wicked.”

Wicked problems — climate change, inequality, urbanization, water scarcity, agriculture, energy, and the linear economy — are “extraordinarily difficult to define and even more difficult to solve.” Wicked problems are polarizing; exist across interconnected systems; span cultures, borders, institutions, governments, and markets; and “no one organization or sector of society can know in advance how to solve” them. Throughout these systems are people who adhere to diverse beliefs and whose values are often not in alignment with our own. How do we establish trust, facilitate meaningful communication, and hold space for the beautiful natural diversity that exists in our world to create a sustainable future? With leadership strategies for sustainability, of course.

For readers looking for an entry point that relates to their personal interests or area of professional focus, you may wish to start with a quick review of the “Introducing Leadership Stories” section. Specifically, the Navigating the Leadership Stories table, which maps Anthropocene challenges (stormwater, biodiversity, urbanization etc.) to the key actors and the leadership practices illustrated in the respective case study, while also referring to where in the toolbox the practice is explained.

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

Toolbox for Wicked Leadership

Wicked problems require leadership that empowers everyone to “lead from where you are,” regardless of title or recognized authority. To provide context, Hull and his co-authors unpack the necessary leadership practices required in wicked situations as compared to what is required in tame and crisis situations.

Leadership for wicked problems is defined by the concepts of “direction, alignment, and commitment,” which occurs only when “stakeholders agree on a direction for their efforts, align their resources as needed to achieve that direction, and commit to delivering those resources as well as supporting each other.”

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

A key point here is that everyone is responsible for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment. What makes this approach such a powerful tool is that it is clear, can be applied broadly, and it “works in most cultures, contexts, and situations,” as the case studies section demonstrates.

At this point in the book, the authors begin to illuminate a better way and introduce readers to leadership practices, which support professionals to “connect across space and time, collaborate across differences, and adapt to uncertainty” when problems are wicked. Caution is noted here: professionals need to understand that these practices must be used appropriately for the given set of circumstances.

To that end, specific strategies are detailed, which serve as a guide to achieving self and situational awareness, so that appropriate action plans can be implemented. For example, to connect across space and time leaders might establish a “community of practice,” so that “professionals can learn from each other and become more effective in their respective practices.”

In this reviewer’s opinion, the section on collaborating across differences is perhaps the most valuable because it provides strategies for navigating what often blocks individuals and groups from successful outcomes — our differences. How do we collaborate when people “hold different identities, agendas, factual beliefs, world views and values?”

The first step is self-awareness and requires understanding our individual preferences, values, influencing style, and approach to dealing with conflict, all of which evolve over time. With this awareness we can better communicate who we are, develop greater capacity for empathy and respect for difference. In turn, increased self-awareness better prepares us for the practices of adaptive leadership.

The chapter on “Adapting to Change, Uncertainty, and Failure” delves into achieving direction, alignment and commitment, when “situations are characterized by confounding uncertainty and dynamism.” Readers are introduced to a powerful sense-making tool, and strategies for collaborative innovation specific to sustainability.

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

Storybook: People Practicing Wicked Leadership

In the final section of Leadership for Sustainability, we meet the people in the field who have successfully implemented the leadership practices for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment — by leading from where they are to find solutions to the greatest challenges of our time. It is through their stories that we find our own opportunities and inspiration to make new connections, collaborate, and adapt our way to a better future. Thank goodness we now have a new set of tools that we can customize for the task.

Susan Apollonio is a leadership coach who writes from Phoenix, Arizona. She partners with natural resources and design professionals to develop their leadership presence for professional and personal success.