News & Events | Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future

Landscape Architecture: New Adventures Ahead!

June 10, 2016

Dirk Sijmons
Co-founder,  H+N+S Landscape Architects

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 Architecture: New Adventures Ahead!

By Dirk Sijmons

From my European perspective, the last 50 years have been marked by the growth and emancipation of our discipline. Landscape architecture been freed from being the broccoli around the steak to become a discipline with its own agenda. The profession broadened its working field and its scope in that half century. It diversified. The traditional core of the discipline, making gardens and parks, expanded into public space design and the new field of retrofitting derelict industrial areas. The most talked about parks, like Parc de la Vilette, Duisburg Nord, and the Highline, are all brownfield parks. These parks are pivotal in urban renewal processes and spurred real estate development. But for the discipline itself, probably the most important innovations were new ways of representing nature. Having been absent for most of the modernist period, where nature was reduced to a backdrop for leisure programs, representing nature made a comeback in these recent parks. Formal architectonic representation in Parc de la Villete, free range for spontaneous urban nature in Duisburg-Nord, where time itself seems to have become the main park theme, and the staged wild nature represented by configurations of Oudolf’s perennials on the High Line as inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks, all show a distinct, more and more architectonic idiom being developed, even completed by the ‘starchitects’ of the profession.

Among the more anonymous professionals at the other end of the disciplinary spectrum, the expansion was almost as impressive. The traditional role of designing the landscape of infrastructure and for agricultural development was steadily built out to become designing new forests, water infrastructure, nature development, leisure projects, glass warehouse districts, airfields, in short, all the agents of change identifiable in the landscape that can be invited to make an expressive contribution to the landscape. In this century, urbanization itself was identified and addressed as a landscape architectural issue. Thomas Sieverts laid the analytical basis in his ‘Zwischenstadt’ (2004) and that basis was instrumentalized in Landscape Urbanism (Waldheim 2006).

The 2014 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR-2014) Urban by Nature took stock of the consequences. It positioned the viral growth of urban landscapes, especially the urban carpets in the large deltas of the world, in the wider context of the Anthropocene, the age of mankind.

The concept of the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2000) produces some interesting side effects for our discipline. The once-thought strict boundary between nature and human society is crumbling. Human interventions can be seen as, and compared with, forces of nature. We become aware that anthropogenic processes do not just influence geo-chemical cycles, bio-diversity, sediment flows, ocean acidity, land-use, sea-use, and the climate, but that all these processes produce hybrids.

Anthropocene suggests that human and natural processes are linked in a complex whole. There is no initial situation or natural equilibrium to fall back on, just as we cannot go back to last week’s weather. We can only go forward, and we must find the best ways of making progress and learning to ride this tiger.

The urban landscape is one of the largest of these hybrids. This artifact, formally known as the city, is our habitat. Most of the world’s environmental problems have their roots in the urban landscape. To solve the current environmental crisis, we must retrofit our urban landscapes by patiently reweaving the extensive urban carpets into more sustainable configurations. We must improve the poorly functioning metabolism of these urban regions. This will involve projects focused on urban microclimate, sweet water supply, energy (transition), urban biogeography, disaster resilience, defragmenting the ecology, changing flows of sediments and building material.

If we want to propel LAF’s Declaration of Concern another half century into the future and claim that our discipline is pivotal to solving these environmental problems, urban landscapes must be both the subject and the backdrop of our work. Landscape architecture is positioned well for the task. First of all, we might be one of the few disciplines able to construct a link between construction science and the life sciences. In this context, cultural representation of nature changes into mediating between nature and society. To my mind, without this vital mediation, we will find no lasting solutions for the problems of urban landscapes. Without it, the toolbox of the engineers and urbanists will be limited to half-baked, partial, technical solutions.

Furthermore, landscape architecture has a good track record in research-through-design with problems at the regional scale and at a landscape scale. In these (future) research trajectories, we learn to work in trans-disciplinary teams where we will blossom as synthesizers, as generalists with a specific skill: (spatial) design. In addition to the natural sciences and the humanities, design is a third, separate domain of knowledge, in which research uses modeling, pattern recognition, and synthesis. An appealing and unique element of research by design is that it can elegantly include the concept of free will. It concerns a future that is neither completely determined nor entirely unpredictable, but rather one that has, to some extent, a malleable character. Questions like ‘What can we want?’ come with that territory. These plans have a new public. They are not aimed directly at execution but at influencing public opinion. Design can mediate between politics, other actors, and citizens. Design could even be instrumental to the design of the political will.

This type of work will require a stronger focus on understanding natural and social processes and designing using their relationship with the spatial. Sometimes the scale will be geographic and raise questions: Is this still landscape architecture? Will landscape architecture preserve its disciplinary coherence with this broad scope and at these high levels of scale? Will the absence of real clients in these research-through-design trajectories loosen the ties with the programmatic precision? Is the connection with the genius of the place lost in a focus on processes? Or is the cultural element so homoeopathically diluted that the lifeline to aesthetics, or even the discipline itself, snaps?

I would say that the overarching characteristic of all these scales and working fields is that specific link between program, place, and process. If this triad is present, we can still call it landscape architecture. I would say that a link with the spatial could function as a litmus test. Thus, projects in geo-engineering or the acidity of the oceans would fail such a test.

But maybe we just have to stop worrying about these definition questions and restrict ourselves to the open ended conclusion that landscape architecture is what landscape architects do.