The Art of Survival
June 10, 2016
Kongjian Yu, DDes, FASLA
Founder and Dean, College of Architecture and Landscape, Peking University
This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. Each of the 25 invited speakers was asked to write a 1,000-word “Declaration” of leadership and ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time and the next 50 years. These Declarations were then presented at the Summit.
The Art of Survival
The past 50 years, since the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s 1966 Declaration of Concern, have been fruitful for the profession of landscape architecture. Compared to the environmental situation that our ecological planning pioneers faced 50 years ago, North American and European countries, where urbanization and industrialization had led other parts of the world, have seen great improvement. The profession of landscape architecture has been a key to these improvements by raising public awareness, improving the practice of planning and designing our natural and human ecosystems, and better managing our natural and cultural assets using a variety of techniques like design with nature, sustainable site management, ecological stormwater management, greenways and green infrastructure, green roofs, and community engagement. Such obvious success has proved what had been projected by our forerunners 50 years ago: “There is no one-shot cure, nor single-purpose panacea, but the need for collaborative solutions.”
But the challenge to survival is not yet over. Such fortunate improvement at the limited regional scale in the United States cannot remediate the deteriorating global situation. Today, along with globalization and worldwide urbanization, what had been regional and national environmental issues 50 years ago are now global and particularly troublesome in developing countries like Southeast Asia, India, and China. Moreover, climate changes are undeniably severe. Increasing water, food, and energy shortages coupled with environmental degradation threaten the survival of humanity itself. In China, for example, in the past 50 years the population has doubled, the population in urban areas had increased six-fold, 75% of the surface water is polluted, and 400 cities suffer water shortages. At the same time, 70% of the population struggles with urban and rural flooding every year, one-third of the nation is under threat of heavy smog, 50% of wetlands have disappeared in the past 50 years, and a significant number of rare species will never be seen again. In addition, we have the significant loss of much of our rich cultural heritage. Just as our professional leaders said half a century ago: “What is merely offensive or disturbing today threatens life itself tomorrow,” and it is clear that we have no place of escape.
We are however not helpless. What our pioneers have done since the 1966 declaration in North America at least proves to the world that the charge launched by the profession of landscape architecture against environment degradation is successful, and an integrative and symbiotic approach, namely design of landscape processes and patterns, is the key. What we need to sustain us in the next charge against global environmental degradation is to replicate what has proved successful in best practices, opening up ever more integrative and symbiotic approaches at even larger scales, and working still more comprehensively. More than at any other time in history, we must fulfill the mission of healing the earth, a mission defined by our forefathers, where the landscape architect should be a “conductor,” as McHarg declared, not a solo artist, who can bring all related disciplines and individuals of all professions into the medium of landscape.
To face such global challenges and opportunities, we have come to the point of redefining the profession of landscape architecture as the art of survival: to heal the earth and sustain humanity. Landscape is the medium where all natural, biological, and cultural processes interact, and landscape architecture (the planning, design, and management of the landscape) is, therefore, the profession that could lead in meeting the challenges of survival in a complicated physical and cultural environment.
In facing contemporary ecological and environmental issues, three strategies will allow our profession to take leadership:
- Planning Practice: Secure and consolidate across scales an integrated ecological infrastructure that safeguards various ecological and cultural assets and provides effectively multiple ecosystem services, which will be the tool and framework for smart growth and smart preservation.
- Design and Management Practice: Define a new aesthetic, the “big feet” aesthetic (the aesthetics of sustainability), as opposed to the distorted “little feet” aesthetics of ornamental, calling for deep forms (as opposed to the costly shallow or fake forms) with human desires based on healthy ecological processes; this aesthetic must be high performance and productive, able to provide critical ecosystems services with little maintenance.
- Global Cooperation and Education: As professionals and academics, we must cooperate at the global scale, sharing knowledge and working together in a real battle against environmental challenges at any corner of this globe. We know that any change at one end of the globe will affect us at the other end; we must reform and restructure the education programs of landscape architecture to build and consolidate the bed rock of landscape architecture as an art of survival, through building and sharing the wisdom of survival skills and techniques in dealing with floods, drought, and food production, instead of teaching the ornamental art of gardening and pleasure-making of an elite culture. Let students learn from peasantry and sustainable vernacular landscape practices the knowledge and windows for survival in various climate and environment situations, and let them build a database to share among professionals the best practices for facing various environmental challenges. These will open up a wholly new horizon for the profession of landscape architecture.