News & Events | New Landscape Declaration

The Reparation of our Epistemic Rift and a Return to Values

June 11, 2016

Scott Irvine
Masters of Landscape Architecture Student, University of Manitoba

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. Emerging leaders from LAF’s Olmsted Scholars Program were 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. Select Declarations were then presented at the Summit during the Emerging Leaders panel.


The Reparation of our Epistemic Rift and a Return to Values

By Scott Irvine

Landscape architecture has become an urban discipline. The profession is being focused on the social and hence in socially dense places, prioritizing direct daily experience with design interventions that see immediate benefits and impacts.

Non-urban landscapes and places of wildness are becoming detached from landscape architecture amid intensifying urbanism, and projects that directly implicate few, if any, people are increasingly difficult to justify. However, these places have a disproportionate importance to us. Despite being outside of our daily experience and often being places that require a concerted effort to immerse ourselves in, many of our personal, collective, and national values lie outside of cities and are predicate upon the existence of wilderness.

With 80% of Canadians and Americans living in urban areas it is clear why landscape architecture has shifted its focus. However, with urban land coverages of just 0.25% and 3% respectively, each country has over 9.5 million square kilometers of non-urban land that has been losing focus in the discipline.

This urban shift is about much more than the projects that are undertaken; contemporary landscape architecture has now developed primarily through the lens of cities. Knowledge, ethics, and modes of operating are now reified in an urban environment.

The unprecedented nature of urban environments has continually narrowed the scope of regionalism to the borders of cities themselves. There is now a push to solve all of the problems caused by large-scale urbanization within the cities themselves, rather than considering a broader array of strategies, and better understanding how cities are situated, as places and as Earth systems, in a much broader regional context.

Amid the shift toward social stewardship, I believe that landscape architecture needs to reinstigate landscape stewardship. Although ecological work has indeed been undertaken by landscape architecture in urban environments, I think it is primarily socially driven. We ought to be able to take the position that wilderness has a right unto itself to exist and consider that we might have ethical responsibilities to landscape processes and Earth systems themselves.

Many concepts fundamental to how we have situated ourselves with respect to wilderness and the non-urban are now understood to be false. Ecological models often actively exclude human influence or attempt to measure it with the aim of reversing it or offsetting it in equal measure. Much has come to light that strongly suggests that the landscapes, the wildernesses, of North America were actually highly-managed systems before European modes of operating in the land became predominant. We are at a crux, I believe, because our knowledge base is being developed specifically in response to urban environments. The discipline has not been working towards driving new knowledge, ethics, and modes of operating in wilderness and non-urban environments.

Jeremy Vetter uses the term an ‘epistemic rift’ to describe the divide we place between humans and nature. Although there is no actual separation between ourselves and nature, we have developed fundamentally different ways of understanding each. The reparation of this is as much about resituating ourselves in wilderness and in non-urban landscapes as it is about reconceptualizing urban environments themselves. The latter is what has been driving contemporary landscape architecture, however I think the former has been left behind.

As much as the anthropocene is conceived by the spatial scale of our actions in the land, it is more so a profound subversion of the temporal scale of a given process. The spatial consequences are evident, but more dramatic is the way we now drive the time scales of Earth systems. Coming to terms with the anthropocene offers an opportunity to consider not only how we situate ourselves in the world, but how we situate ourselves in time. We might shift towards establishing values that respond to the immediate human time scale, but also transcend generations — to create what J.B. Jackson calls “a sense of place, a sense of time.”

Landscape architecture needs to actualize itself within this ongoing epoch; the anthropocene is not a condition we should simply respond to, it is something that we continually create. Further, it is not an epoch that we can design ourselves out of. This is an opportunity to make a fundamental shift from landscape architecture as reparation to a discipline taking active agency in creating places we aspire to.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s approach to landscape architecture was very much about the creation of values. Although his work is now understood primarily within urban environments, it was not created through the lens of the city. I think that the discipline might reprise itself as a fundamental generator of values in the landscape, especially outside of the urban environment, in the kinds of places where some of our most important personal and collective values are held.

The discipline of landscape architecture ought to maintain its breadth across the spectrum of environments — from wilderness to the rural and to the urban. This spectrum of environments is actually highly connected, both in terms of Earth systems and in the way our individual and collective identities are formed. In the rush to positively affect many people directly, the opportunity to affect many more in much more profound and elemental ways has languished.

I think that a continual re-evaluation of the values that underpin any given project is fundamentally a good thing, and that this could be done mindfully with an eye towards better understanding the potential of the discipline. Landscape architecture ought to operate more holistically in terms of what it accomplishes as a discipline and leave room for the exploration of what it is we can accomplish. I think that the presence of outliers, operating at the fringes of landscape architecture, will always be a good thing.