Landscape Beyond the Biotic: In Advocacy of a Revised Litany
June 10, 2016
Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, University of Pennsylvania
Founding Director, PORT
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.
Landscape Beyond the Biotic: In Advocacy of a Revised Litany
Ian McHarg often wrote and spoke of what he termed his “litany”, the various subject matter and concerns he believed every landscape architect should actively engage in their work. This litany forms a central tenant of the 1966 Declaration of Concern, with McHarg and his colleagues arguing that students and practitioners, “must know geology, physiography, climatology, [and] ecology to know why the world’s physical features are where they are; and why plants, animals and man flourish in some places and not in others.” The declaration continues, asserting that only once designers are able to “interpret” a landscape through these lenses are they properly prepared to plan and design the environment. The 1966 declaration, in essence, advocates that landscape architecture be understood as an applied arm of the natural sciences, ostensibly fixing the intellectual orientation and interests of the discipline for the last half-century.
While the logic behind this declaration is understandable given the discipline’s widely accepted origin story, not to mention the particular cultural moment in which it was written, I choose to reject it as far too narrow in scope to continue to serve as a useful disciplinary apparatus. For example, rather than what McHarg suggested would be the “emancipation” of landscape architecture, I contend that the discipline’s strident subscription to biotic ecology above all else has unnecessarily foreclosed discussion of other essential landscape concerns. This foreclosure has served to limit the discipline, preventing it from achieving a much greater and more significant cultural agency over the last half-century.[i] As such, I suggest now is an ideal time to establish a revised litany for the 21st century landscape architect, one that is far more multivalent than the original Declaration of Concern.
To begin, I would advocate a revision that centered less on purely environmental interests and more on developing a deeper awareness and understanding of those political, economic, and socio-cultural machinations that motivate the urbanization activities at the center of the discipline’s current and future work. Active engagement with the underlying drivers and impulses of urbanization is as important as endeavoring to limit, soften, or undo their effect. Such an approach serves to extend the discipline’s field of engagement while simultaneously expanding its rhetorical kit and its means of evaluation.
I make this assertion as someone who is not formally trained as a landscape architect, but rather as someone who came to the discipline because of what I saw as its potential capacity for dealing with urban issues. Particularly compelling is landscape architecture’s latent facility to negotiate and synthesize a variety of competing and often contradictory concerns — economic, social, cultural, and yes, environmental — into actionable strategies and solutions, both physical and procedural. In this regard, landscape as a disciplinary apparatus offers a powerful set of instruments for navigating the myriad challenges related to the future urban condition if, and only if, it escapes the burden of advocating and evaluating its work solely through environmental, or the now more de rigueur ecological, terms.
While such a contention may be viewed as heresy within this setting, I believe it is a necessary truth that the discipline must confront to preclude the reduction of landscape architecture to a mere technical vocation, rather than elevating it to an essential cultural project.
To substantiate this argument, I’d like to quickly sketch out three tenets upon which it is predicated.
1) To begin, we must accept that the conceptual binary of urban and non-urban that the original Declaration of Concern relied upon is no longer valid. To paraphrase Lefebvre, all that is affected by anthropogenic concerns is made urban and, as such, the entire landscape of the earth as we know it today, both physically and conceptually, must be understood as an urbanized condition of varying intensities.
As a result, the fundamental question confronting planners and designers is no longer a matter of where, but rather, a question of how. That is, how does one go about influencing, managing, or negotiating the intensity, formats, and consequences of the innumerable anthropogenic regimes that are continuously remaking the landscape of the earth?
Such questions simply cannot be answered by relying solely on the natural sciences as our guide. Rather, we must look to the broader motivations and drivers of these regimes to uncover how landscape architecture might actively engage, infiltrate, inflect, and influence them.
2) Urbanization activities, particularly the construction of new settlement and infrastructure, have long been understood as the physical manifestation of economic growth. However, this correlation can no longer be accepted as valid. Urbanization activities are increasingly the result of speculative motivations, deployed as catalysts in pursuit of uncommon economic gain and righteous projections of political power. The result is a rapid and radical remaking of the earth’s physical landscape, particularly in those polities deemed “emerging.”[ii]
Demographic and market realities have given way to highly speculative pursuits focused almost exclusively on the physical products of urbanization, treating them as transactional instruments necessary to elevate global status. Given the artificiality of their demand, these speculative activities have a high propensity for failure via incompletion, abandonment, inaccessibility, or pervasive vacancy and in turn, result in both severe near-term and long-term consequences.
The implication is that planners and designers can no longer train their attention solely on the preferred outcome of their work, given the increasingly low likelihood of these pursuits coming to fruition. Rather, the work must pursue active mechanisms of adjustment, modulation, and contingency, as well as the potential for abandonment or repurposing. In order for design and planning to produce these more dynamic formats of urbanization, they must be cognizant of and actively engaged with the systems and agendas motivating these urbanization activities in the first place.
3) While it is encouraging to see an increasing number of schools and practitioners looking to expand the discipline’s topics of concern beyond the traditional scope of the landscape architect, far too much of this recent work has been centered on the wholesale replacement of existing formats of settlement and infrastructure in pursuit of novel systems conceived of almost exclusively from self-described ecological concerns. While the ambition is commendable, the potential erosion of cultural credibility the discipline risks in promoting these kinds of projects is not.
Instead of advocating naïve totalizing visions, I encourage the pursuit of strategies of inflection, appropriation, and subversion. While slower and perhaps rhetorically less dramatic, such an approach has a far greater capacity to produce real, fundamental, and established influence.
To discover these moments of potential operation, locations of loose fit or slippage or surplus, it is essential to again understand the fundamental principles that have motivated the construction of these extant systems of urbanization. While the natural sciences do provide one lens, searching for potential means of intervention under these terms alone is unnecessarily reductive. However, if the field of disciplinary operation is expanded beyond its preoccupation with biotic ecology to include political, economic and socio-cultural concerns, significantly more opportunities for potential action quickly come into focus.
I do not make these assertions to diminish the environmental concerns that have typified the work of landscape architecture over the past half-century. Rather, my interest is in elevating other fundamental urban concerns to a commensurate status in order to move landscape architecture beyond its unnecessarily limited focus, to a more multivalent, actionable, and efficacious orientation.
If landscape concerns are to have a truly central role in the ongoing processes of urbanization being seen globally — for them to function as physical structuring devices, conceptual organizing logics, or actionable policy instruments, and not simply as tidy little neoliberal ornaments of green — they must be argued for and explained in the socio-cultural, economic, and political terms of global urbanization. Only then will landscape architecture begin to approach its potential as a truly essential cultural project.