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Has Landscape Architecture Failed? Reflections on the Occasion of LAF’s 50th Anniversary

By Richard Weller and Billy Fleming, University of Pennsylvania

In 1966, Campbell Miller, Grady Clay, Ian McHarg, Charles Hammond, George Patton and John Simonds marched to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and declared that an age of environmental crisis was upon us and that the profession of landscape architecture was a key to solving it. Their Declaration of Concern launched, and to this day underpins the workings of, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF).

To mark its 50th anniversary, LAF will hold a summit titled The New Landscape Declaration at the University of Pennsylvania involving over 65 leading landscape architects from around the world. Delegates are being asked to deliver new declarations (manifestos, if you will) about the profession’s future. Drawing upon these statements and the dialogue at the summit, LAF will then redraft the original 1966 Declaration of Concern so that it serves to guide the profession into the 21st century.

On one level, redrafting the declaration is relatively straightforward: it would simply need to stress the twinned global phenomena of climate change and global urbanization — issues that were less well understood in 1966. On another level however, the redrafting of the declaration is profoundly complicated because if it is to be taken seriously, then a prerequisite is to ask why, after 50 years of asserting landscape architecture as “a key” to “solving the environmental crisis” does that crisis continue largely unabated? Seen in this light the declaration can be read as an admission of failure. Consequently, we must ask:

If McHarg and his colleagues were justified in placing such a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of landscape architects, why have we failed so spectacularly to live up to their challenge?

In our defense, we might argue that landscape architecture is a very young and very small profession and an even smaller academy. We can also protest, as many do, that other more established disciplines — such as engineering and architecture — have restrained our rise to environmental leadership. We can argue that the status quo of political decision-making makes it impossible for us to meaningfully scale up our operations and work in the territory where our services are needed most. These justifications (or excuses) all contain aspects of the truth, but we argue that landscape architecture over the last 50 years is less a story of abject failure and more one of a discipline taking the time that has been needed to prepare for a more significant role in this, the 21st century.

From the last 50 years of landscape architecture we have three models of professional identity and scope: the landscape architect as artist (for example, Peter Walker), the landscape architect as regional planner (for example, Ian McHarg), and the landscape architect as urban designer (for example, Charles Waldheim). Rather than see these as competing models cancelling each other out, perhaps what we have really learned from the last 50 years is that each is somewhat incomplete without the other. If however we make a concerted effort to combine these three models, then perhaps we begin to really give credence to the notion of landscape architecture as a uniquely holistic discipline, one especially well-suited to engage with the contemporary landscape of planetary urbanization and climate change.

Considering our historical moment, one is reminded of the incredible optimism with which the moderns announced theirs. In 1920 the great architect Le Corbusier launched his journal L’Esprit Nouveau with the declaration: “There is a new spirit: it is a spirit of construction and synthesis guided by a clear conception … A great epoch has begun.” A mere 46 years later a small group of landscape architects would declare that epoch as one of environmental crisis. And now, precisely 50 years later as we acknowledge their original Declaration of Concern, the International Commission on Stratigraphy is expected to formally announce the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch: a new geological period defined by the fact that the earth’s systems are now fundamentally and irreversibly altered by human activity.

The philosophical and practical consequences couldn’t be greater: in short, Nature is no longer that ever-providing thing ‘out there’; it is, for better or worse, the world we have created and the world we are creating. The landscape of the Anthropocene is one of permanent ecological crisis. As such, the Anthropocene is overwhelming, but since it is by definition a human creation, the Anthropocene is something we must take responsibility for, something we can design. This doesn’t automatically mean the hyper modernity of geoengineering planetary systems, but it does return us, humbly and critically to McHarg’s concept of stewardship.

This is now landscape architecture’s century —  all the major issues of the times are at root about how we relate to land — and if by the end of it we are still small, weak and ineffectual, and if the world is a worse place than it is now, then we will only have ourselves to blame.

Richard Weller is the Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves on the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Board of Directors. Billy Fleming is a Doctoral Fellow in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

  1. Koichi KobayashiJun 18th, 2016 1:13pm
    Koichi Kobayashi said:

    I read your posting on dirt.asla.

    Are landscape architects in the world really ready, willing and capable to face these global challenges?

  2. Landscape Architecture FoundationJun 15th, 2016 11:22am
    Landscape Architecture Foundation said:

    L.Leonard Wolne -- you should have attended! The Summit Declarations and dialogue were all about galvanizing landscape architects to disperse and strategically engage in actual design solutions.

    In the next month or so, we'll be posting video footage of the presentations and panels. We hope that you will circle back and see some of the ideas and calls to action -- sounds like they are very much in line with your thinking!

  3. Kevin S. Holden, PLA, ASLAJun 9th, 2016 1:36pm
    Kevin S. Holden, PLA, ASLA said:

    If a Landscape Architect leads a horse to water and the horse refuses to drink, is the landscape architect to blame for the horse's continued state of thirst?

  4. L.Leonard WolnerJun 9th, 2016 12:45pm
    L.Leonard Wolner said:

    As a practicing Landscape Architect for over 38 years , mostly in the Federal and International sectors, I'm dubious about the upcoming Declaration Summit, which is exactly the type of event that has contributed to the weakness and perceived failures of the profession over the past 50 years! LA's convening to talk to themselves and obsess over vanity projects, engineer/architect envy and other trivial pursuits will not enhance the stature or value of the profession in an era of limitless opportunity for sustainable design solutions. Getting out of the cliques and comfort zones of the American LA subculture and actually engaging in environmental design solutions will require disruptive change and new career pathways for the incoming generation. The world awash in refugees, terrorism and environmental disruptions does not need more "UN" type declarations or trophy gardens for the 1 percentiles. It's long past time for Landscape Architects to disperse and strategically engage in actual design solutions - rather than huddle and dialogue!

  5. Koichi KobayashiJun 3rd, 2016 7:44pm
    Koichi Kobayashi said:

    It was for Tohoku region of Japan not Tokyo.

  6. Koichi KobayashiJun 3rd, 2016 5:12pm
    Koichi Kobayashi said:

    I am writing this message in an event that I will not have an opportunity to present or share with attendees for the Landscape Architecture Summit.

    Shortly after an earthquake and tsunami disaster in Tokyo Japan in 2011, members of the Japanese Institute of landscape architecture published a book “Image of recovery”. It covered many areas of ongoing involvements by the members of Japanese Institute of Landscape and also developed a diverse field of future recovery efforts and aspiration from initial rescue and support to planning and design. I also have started to write and present my own view on the recovery efforts and professional situation as seen from abroad since my basae is in USA. I have been urging Japanese Landscape Architects to develop more active and leading role in disaster recovery efforts through writing and presentations. However I have been observing passive and pessimistic mood felt by a large number of Japanese Institute of landscape architecture members on the subject of future of landscape architecture profession and their effectiveness in planning and design for recovery from present and future disaster. This may be a global phenomena as landscape architecture profession still lacks political, social and academic power base as commented by in the previous blog.
    I would recommend that fifth area of “Responding to Natural Disasters” be added to four plus one legs as described by Richard Weller and Mark Fransis. : the landscape architect as artist (for example, Peter Walker), the landscape architect as regional planner (for example, Ian McHarg), and the landscape architect as urban designer (for example, Charles Waldheim) and the social designer( Randy Hester, Claire Cooper etc.) .

    Koichi Kobayashi, ASLA, JILA
    Kobayashi Global
    Visiting Research Fellow, University of Hyogo

  7. Kristina HillMay 26th, 2016 2:35pm
    Kristina Hill said:

    I hope we won't confuse the aspirations of our profession with the context in which we operate.

    Is "success" a change in our behavior as designers, who aspire to affect the functions of the biophysical world by changing both places and human values? If so, we might be said to have succeeded.

    Or is "success" defined as ending the "environmental crisis," which we all can see has escaped the boundaries of the way LAF's founders drew their box. It was US consumption and emissions that changed global climate, while we were cleaning up rivers and designing for stormwater. The boundaries of the box have shifted from a US/national scale to a global/international scale. And the focus of our efforts to change places/values must turn to the economies of consumption and production, as a subset of ecology - not only to ecological design. If capitalism is crisis, as the saying goes, then there is no way of ending the "environmental crisis" without changing capitalism - and understanding economics as a subset of ecology.

    We can aspire to change the dynamics of our crisis, and that in itself is a form of success. But really ending that crisis requires us to look at root causes. Can our profession do that? Open question.

  8. LeightonApr 21st, 2016 10:03am
    Leighton said:

    Happy 50th Anniversary, LAF!

  9. Mark Francis, FASLAMar 24th, 2016 6:40pm
    Mark Francis, FASLA said:

    This essay fails to recognize the social designer (like “artist”, “regional planner” and “urbanist”) as the fourth leg of the profession. Professionals, researchers and theorists like Hester, Cooper-Marcus. Lynch, Jacobs and others have done as much to convince generations of landscape architects and their clients that the profession is foremost a culturally defined practice. They also point out the danger of landscape architects simply talking to each other to find truth and relevance.

  10. David Driapsa, FASLAMar 23rd, 2016 11:29am
    David Driapsa, FASLA said:

    Richard Weller and Billy Fleming stimulate thoughtful reflections on the past half century of landscape architecture and hopefully will lead to stimulating discussions of future prospects.

    The point of view to advance, I believe, is that landscape architecture in the past fifty years has shown us how to preserve refuges of the natural order within urban environments.

    John Simonds at Pelican Bay in Naples, Florida, for example, created a community framework for a residential resort community that has become an oft-cited model for sound ecological planning for people-nature compatibility and state of the art design. Ian McHarg in “Human Ecological Planning at Pennsylvania,” (Landscape Planning, Vol. 8 pp. 109-120) and perhaps more succinctly Jonathan Berger in, “Guidelines for Landscape Synthesis: Some Directions – Old and New,” (Landscape and Urban Planning, Vol. 4, 1987: pp. 24-30) outline a humanistic view in which people use, perceive and shape a man-nature relationship of development. Gary T. More in “Environment and Behavior Research in North America: History, Developments, and Unresolved Issues,” In Daniel Stokes and Irwin Altman, eds. Handbook of Environmental Psychology, John Wiley: 1987, explains that landscape is a complex web of interrelationships between cultural, society, nature, history, and economies. Each guides us to deal with large landscape issues holistically. If more convincing is needed, visit the border wilderness of Minnesota and Ontario. It is preserved much to the credit of landscape architect Ernest Oberholtzer.

    Sure, landscape architecture has not solved the global environmental crisis, but it accomplishes much at the large landscape scale.

  11. craig LimpachMar 22nd, 2016 12:28pm
    craig Limpach said:

    "Engineer envy" is a lame excuse for not being relevant to the ecological crisis we face. If the profession has failed, or is failing, it is because it's practitioners refuse to define it's proper role as ecological stewards. I entered the practice after a career in field biology and was shocked at the lack of knowledge and basic understanding of ecology in the classrooms of landscape architecture. LA's can't do the work if they aren't trained for it. This lack of understanding is so prevalent as to make the profession a part of the problem, let alone provide solutions that matter. Ecological design offers the answers if the profession would only embrace them.

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