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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Reframing the Argument for Sustainability

By Peter J. Ellery, 2012 University Olmsted Scholar

One of the most difficult tasks we face as professionals charged with shaping the environment is convincing our clients, and indeed the public at large, of thinking more sustainably. While this argument has ebbed and flowed in response to political and social conscience, it has been mostly moot in influencing any large-scale social change. This is in spite of the consequences now being seen in some areas of the world and scientific forecasts that paint an even bleaker future. So why is this sustainability argument highlighting our self-demise not working?

In response to this issue, art and architectural historian Dr. Rodhri Windsor-Liscombe, suggests, “The arguments for sustainability tend to be excessively technical or technocratic, preoccupied with instrumental or technological solutions, cast in cataclysmic narrative or disconnected from individual behaviour. Each provides opportunities for the average citizen to either detach themselves from the problems and potential solutions, or to expect others, be they corporations or governments, to correct the situation.” If we continue to frame this argument using strategies that emphasize cataclysmic or punishment-based “stick” scenarios to threaten us, is change likely?

We currently use a “pathogenic” or disease management approach when arguing for sustainability and changes to the general public’s behavior. This approach emphasizes the identification and treatment of the problem, along with the consequences we face should the problem continue unresolved. In contrast, a better approach might be to utilize a “salutogenic” perspective  to promote sustainable choices and behavior change. This perspective emphasizes environmental choices and behaviors because of the inherent value they provide, rather than what they help us to avoid. Central to this approach is the framing of the sustainability argument so that it falls within the general public’s sense of coherence. This involves presenting the argument to the public in a way that is meaningful, manageable, and comprehensible to them.

For the sustainability argument to be meaningful, it has to allow the public to see the value in making these decisions. For example, rather than using scientific or economic concepts like carbon footprint, or carbon credits, that have little meaningful value to the general public, consider highlighting the positive rewards that result from sustainable choices. This could involve showing how a green roof helps businesses save money in terms of heating and cooling costs, and for some, this might be the right motivation needed to make this choice. However, the general public will also respond to rewards that are intrinsic to the environment as well. For example, the argument for a green roof or space around a building being dedicated to vegetation and trees only, becomes much more compelling if you emphasize the smell of the garden in spring, the view of the garden from overlooking office windows, and the opportunity for those working in nearby areas to have lunch and relax in a shaded, park setting.

Second, the ideas offered in sustainability arguments must be manageable. They have to fit within the public’s life patterns and daily routines. The public is unlikely to walk or ride a bicycle to work in locations where vehicular traffic is a safety issue, the weather is extreme in either heat or cold, or if the distance is excessive. For those required to wear a suit as part of their job, even providing shower and changing facilities at work may not be enough if they do not have the extra time needed for the commute or to bathe and dress in their daily routine. Emphasizing strategies and design features that address these concerns, and yet still fit within the public’s existing lifestyle is essential to successfully arguing for sustainable behaviors.

Finally, we have to consider what the public finds comprehensible to their way of life. For example, it is not that the public is against the idea of wind powered energy systems. As Steffen Danborg of the Danish Wind Industry Association explains, the public in general is very supportive of wind-powered energy. The concern, in many cases, lies in the locating of windmills and windmill farms that generate this energy. It is simply difficult for some people to accept such an intrusive addition to their current understanding of the environment in which they live. As a result, arguments like noise, electro-magnetic interference, and visual eyesore (either real or perceived) are used in the “not in my backyard” counter arguments, which often lead to legal action and delays in wind power development. Interestingly, research shows public opinion changes in a positive and accepting direction, once people become acclimated to the presence of the wind turbines. The moral here is that our sustainability arguments need to consider the amount of change that those involved will need to accommodate (again, either real or perceived), and either introduce the change slowly so that acclimation can occur, or use a less intrusive approach so that change occurs within parameters of our understanding of the world in which we live.

The essential point being made here is that we need to change the way in which the case for sustainable development is presented. It is time to acknowledge that the current cataclysmic threat or “stick” approach to the sustainability argument has provided little motivation for change in public behavior, and instead, more meaningful, manageable and comprehensible strategies are necessary to get this sustainability “mule” moving in the right direction.

Peter Ellery is in his final year of a Master of Landscape Architecture degree at Ball State University. His thesis explores the expansion of educational opportunities through environmental design and looks at how an effectively landscaped environment can both enhance and extend the primary school curriculum of a Building Tomorrow Foundation Primary School in rural Uganda.

LAF Events at the ASLA Annual Meeting

If you’ll be in Phoenix for the ASLA Annual Meeting & EXPO, we hope you’ll join us for one or more of the following events to support and raise awareness about LAF programs. We’ll celebrate the fifth year of our acclaimed Olmsted Scholars Program, showcase the new resources in the Landscape Performance Series , and promote the 2013 Case Study Investigation (CSI) progam.

lafatasla1Sonoran Celebration, LAF’s 27th Annual Benefit
Fri, Sept 28, 7:00-10:30pm
Join top designers and leaders from practice, academia, and industry for a vibrant and memorable evening at the Phoenix Art Museum. Enjoy cocktails, fine food, and live music all while raising money for LAF’s research and scholarship programs. We’ll celebrate the fifth year of LAF’s Olmsted Scholars Program by recognizing the 2012 scholars and $25,000 winner, catching up with past Scholars, and making a special announcement about the program’s future.

lafatasla2LAF Booth in ASLA Expo Hall (#446)
Sat-Sun, Sept 29-30, 9:00-5:00pm
Visit our booth to learn more about LAF, register for the Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes, meet the 2012 Olmsted Scholars, and learn how you can participate in our 2013 Case Study Investiga- tion (CSI) program to document the benefits of high-performing landscape projects. On Sunday, we’ll be conducting video interviews, so come prepared to share your thoughts for inclusion in our Conversations with Leaders in Landscape series - we’d especially like to hear from past Board members, scholarship winners, and research grantees.sweepstakes-e-announce

Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes
Sun, Sept 30, 4:30pm
Join us at our booth in the ASLA Expo Hall as we announce the winner of our one-of-a-kind trip for two to New York City, featuring a day of private tours led by Michael Van Valkenburgh and staff. You can make a donation to register to win right up until the drawing. Entrants need not be present to win. All sweepstakes proceeds support LAF’s research and scholarship programs.

aslaedsessionAssessing Performance Education Session
Mon, Oct 1, 8:00-9:30am
Don’t miss Assessing the Performance of Landscape Projects presented by LAF’s Heather Whitlow, Kurt Culbertson of Design Workshop, and Bill Wenk of Wenk Associates. Learn methods and tools to identify and quantify performance benefits based on two years of success, challenges, and lessons from the Landscape Performance Series and Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. Then hear how Design Workshop and Wenk Associates are using landscape performance in their respective practices to set goals, develop design strategies, assess the effectiveness of designs, and show value of landscape solutions to clients and other stakeholders.

Leaders Roundtable: Technology and the Landscape

Each year, LAF and Landscape Forms co-host a Leaders Roundtable to foster dialogue among distinguished design professionals about emerging trends in design and professional practice.

In June, fourteen leading landscape architects met in Philadelphia to explore the impact of technology on the design of the landscape, the experience of landscape, and the way professionals conduct their practices. The meeting was moderated by landscape architect Rodrigo Abela of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, who kicked off the discussion by observing that, “The people in this room are probably the last generation who will remember the world before we were connected.”

While participants’ use of digital technology varied, all were very aware of the way cell phones, laptops and tablets impact the design and use of outdoor spaces. A short video and excerpts from the dialogue are below. For a full summary of the conversation, see the Roundtable Report on Technology and the Landscape.

“Two hundred years ago the landscape was the source of productivity in human settlement. It would be amazing if technology could make us more productive in the landscape again. Landscapes are good for you. The more we can encourage work activity out there, the better.”
                    — Richard Roark, LEED AP, OLIN

“People in cities are not necessarily looking for a full-blown experience of nature, but they are interested in being outside and bringing technology with them. If we embrace technology in a helpful way and make even the smallest space incredible, that will help them notice nature in those moments when they look up from the screen.”
                    — Laura Solano, PLA, ASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

“Metric technology will make us better informed about people and the environments we design for them. It’s inescapable.”
                    — Lee Weintraub, FASLA, Lee Weintraub Landscape Architecture

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Making Connections - Science, Urgency, and Opportunities

By Matthew Gonser, 2012 University Olmsted Scholar

Our built environment reflects how and what we learn and what we believe is important to convey. The physical plan and its operations should embody our sustainability values. Also, “Students aren’t dumb.”

This quote, from my boss, Dr. E. Gordon Grau, the Director of the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program (UH Sea Grant), preceded the above declaratory principles during a 2-day conference held this past August at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM). The conference, which focused on rainwater catchment, was organized by UH Sea Grant with the support of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) and the Center for a Sustainable Future. One of the many outcomes from this 2-day event was a statement of principles and list of potential pilot projects that reflect the science, urgency, and opportunities for optimizing our water resources here in Hawai‘i. Certain principles and projects spoke directly to the role of the University in demonstrating forward thinking and prudent activities as they relate to education, planning, design, and operations of our facilities and grounds.

We at the University have the privilege to conduct research, educate, and dream. But it should also be acknowledged that our facilities have as much influence on students (if not more) as what they are being taught in the classroom. That is, are we walking the proverbial walk?

gonser01UHM campus from above Mānoa Valley looking toward Diamond Head Crater and Waikīkī

UHM is located at the opening of Mānoa Valley on the island of O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. As the flagship campus of the public UH system, and one of O‘ahu’s greatest users of municipal water, UHM has the obligation to lead and demonstrate innovative solutions and practices to manage our constrained resources, through any number of activities: efficiency of fixtures, rainwater catchment, education and conservation efforts, stormwater retention and recycling for non-potable uses, etc. To that end, it is not only the responsibility of students to push for moving beyond status quo practices, but so too should faculty and staff (while still towing a fine line between advocacy and disrespect for a collective University operation).

An aspect of my position as an extension educator is making connections: to connect knowledge with users, research with application, and people with people. I am in the fortunate position of helping those with energy and resources connect with those who are interested in learning, collaborating, and contributing additional resources. Though UHM does not have a Landscape Architecture (LA) program, it does have faculty members with LA degrees (including two new hires that began this semester in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning and in the School of Architecture, respectively). It also has a variety of expertise and a culture that understands the necessity of seeking out others to co-produce with.

gonser02The Sustainability Courtyard from the balcony of UH Sea Grant

From just two days of faculty, staff, students, government officials, and trade experts sitting, talking, and listening, we have realized shared interests and a willingness to support each other. One manifestation is developing an entry into the EPA’s Campus RainWorks Challenge, a student competition for innovative green infrastructure design on campus. A target project is the ambitiously named “Sustainability Courtyard”. This conspicuously verdant and busy courtyard, with food vendors, a free bike pump, art installations, and a student managed edible garden, provides the opportunity to highlight the science, urgency, and opportunities for optimizing our water resources.

gonser03The courtyard is an active campus node.


With a diverse team of designers, scientists, engineers, and artists involved, the project also demonstrates the fruitfulness of working together. As the campus updates its Landscape Master Plan and Drainage Plan, a student supported vision for conservation, re-use, and celebration of water resources could be an important step in the continued efforts for the campus’ physical plan and operations to embody our sustainability values.

Since March, Matthew has held the position of Extension Faculty, Community Planning and Design, with the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program. His work includes research for and organization of workshops, conferences, publications, and other outreach and education materials for (and in cooperation with) citizens, community groups, non-profits, and public agencies, focused on livability, sustainability, and resource management issues in Hawai‘i.

LAF Board Member Chip Crawford Joins Forum Studio

LAF past President and current Board Member Chip Crawford, FASLA has joined Forum Studio as Senior Principal in the St. Louis, Missouri office, where he will lead a dynamic team of planners, landscape architects and urban designers. Chip comes to Forum from HOK where he built the HOK Planning Group, a global business unit of the renowned architecture firm.

chipcrawford-forumAccording to the press release from Forum Studio:

“We are set to bolster our presence and build Forum Studio in to a leading design firm with global reach. Having an internationally recognized landscape architect like Chip Crawford is a key component to our strategy,” said Chris Cedergreen, Forum president and senior principal. “Chip is a legendary leader in the industry for 28 years. His design vision, leadership and experience are critical differentiators that will help us deliver on our promise of expertise-driven, performance-based design.”

“Forum Studio presents an exciting opportunity for me to design in a truly collaborative environment, where innovative design ideas meet real-world construction and implementation expertise,” said Chip. “As the name suggests, it’s the forum that we are creating that enables us to deliver outstanding results for clients. I am thrilled to be a part of that.”

Chip has served on the LAF Board since 2005 and had been instrumental in the foundation’s growth with his big-picture thinking, global perspective, interest in performance. Congratulations to Chip and Forum!