Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 30, 2010

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As evidenced in your Fall 2010 “Turf” issue, truly transformative changes are occurring in landscape architecture, from provocative theories, like landscape urbanism, to significant projects, like the High Line in Lower Manhattan.

For further evidence that we landscape architects are claiming anything that’s not a building as ours, see the Sustainable Sites Initiative. The Sustainable Sites Initiative (or SITES) is an interdisciplinary effort led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden to create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction, and maintenance practices. Essentially, SITES is LEED for the outdoors. SITES was designed by a diverse, interdisciplinary team working closely with the US Green Building Council and others. SITES is currently in a two-year pilot stage with 164 projects from 34 states as well as Canada, Iceland, and Spain. These landscape projects represent a diverse cross-section of project types, sizes, and geographic locations in various stages of development from design to construction and maintenance. SITES has the potential to make major changes in the practice of landscape architecture.

The future prospects for landscape architecture are indeed bright.

Landscape architecture has long been a profession with an identity crisis. It inhabits a nebulous space at the intersection of art and science, with overlaps in ecological studies, agriculture, urban design, engineering, social sciences, architecture, and planning, to name a few. Part of the problem has been education: a review of academic landscape architecture offerings at American colleges reveals the profession has found a home in departments as varied as horticulture, architecture, environmental studies, engineering, and fine arts. Nobody seems to know quite where it belongs.

In many ways, this ambiguity is responsible for the profession’s recent rise to prominence. Less restrained by well-defined boundaries than many other disciplines, landscape architects have been unafraid to venture across boundaries, incorporating others’ expertise as necessary. The “Tectonic Shift” [Fall 2010] roundtable participants touched on this aspect of contemporary practice in discussing the complex and diverse interdisciplinary teams being assembled for many of these projects, with landscape architects at the helm. Such teams are becoming the new norm for this mode of thinking and designing.

In the new urban frontier, we find the opportunity for combining the many facets of the profession toward a common goal. This is a promising and hopeful trend for a profession that has too often been split into camps of “high design,” land use planning, and environmental management, among others. This shift is in evidence in academia as well. Today’s landscape architecture students increasingly understand their role not as masters of a particular aspect of practice but rather as innovators who are adept at synthesizing disparate information into coherent, compelling, responsible, and adaptive designs.

Your recent “Turf” issue [Fall 2010] raises questions about how a single model of professional practice might adequately translate the social, environmental, political, and economic complexities inherent to landscape urbanism.

A professional model addressing common landscape-urbanism issues is not easily achievable given the timescales of traditional built development. These types of projects must be considered in timescales of decades, rather than years. Likewise, decentralized service provision and fractured decision-making bodies challenge conventional models of practice. Often they struggle with numerous conflicting stakeholders and the constant shift of resources and priorities. Perhaps this is one reason why landscape urbanism (as a field) has developed only a small identifiable body of built work?

Blurring the distinctions between traditional fields of practice enables alternative design approaches that can lead to very different considerations of largescale public work and even the development of new project typologies.

In our experience, the practice of landscape urbanism is becoming further entwined with the future of public space. New models of practice can navigate the complicated relationships of partnerships and players who formulate, develop, stall, and/or redirect the course of projects. Often, the greatest hurdle is to develop the flexibility to operate under the challenges of political and administrative changes, public need, and shifting economic priorities.

The various perspectives offered in your “Turf” issue [Fall 2010] provide some thought-provoking and occasionally entertaining reading, but the overall impression unnecessarily diminishes the continuing relevance of architecture and, particularly, urban design in the shaping of our cities, the public realm, and the broader environment.

Times are tough for many architects, and presumably for many landscape architects. As Tim Love pointed out in his essay “Paper Architecture, Emerging Urbanism” (Places, April 13, 2010), when the work slows down, the theorizing increases. In part, this is justifiable, as the design professions look for ways to keep themselves relevant in a changing economic, cultural, and environmental milieu. On the other hand, this dialogue often results in a battle of labels and definitions that tend to suggest hierarchies and divide our professions. For example, Charles Waldheim, in the roundtable discussion “Tectonic Shift,” is credited with coining the term “landscape urbanism,” a notion that is reinforced by Jeff Stein in his discussion with Waldheim himself. Yet later in this same discussion, Waldheim notes that “now we are seeing an interest in ecological urbanism, which represents … a critique of the failings of landscape urbanism.”

Although it’s hard to disagree with the notion that landscape (or, now, ecological) urbanism has created a larger and more systems-based context for the planning and design of large sites, neighborhoods, and even regions, the focus remains largely on the ground plane.

Meanwhile, practicing architects and urban designers, working with landscape architects in the real-world environment of mission-driven architecture, engaged communities, and local regulatory agencies, are continuing to focus on the threedimensional environment, as the economics of even responsible development push densities to a point where conflict over the right to light and air — and not just the ground — is becoming our major battleground.

Labels and relationships can shift quickly, and our awareness of how the design professions can affect the global environment has grown significantly, but let’s not write off the relevance, or the responsibilities, of architects and urban designers just yet.

I was amused to read references to “burying Olmsted” in the “Tectonic Shift” roundtable [Fall 2010]. Here in Boston, Olmsted’s work has already been buried repeatedly: by fill from digging up what are now the Red Line tunnels under Boston Common (dumped on the Back Bay Fens to make the land under the Victory Gardens); by the Bowker Overpass (destroying the Charlesgate entrance to the Fens); by selling land for a Sears parking lot (Fens again!); and by Logan Airport (the 46-acre Wood Island Park, destroyed in 1966). I won’t even begin to describe how far Franklin Park has departed from Olmsted’s original vision.

Those aren’t the only parks that have been intentionally destroyed. In Massachusetts as a whole, there are frequent “Article 97 land transfers,” in which the legislature grants permission for communities to strip public parkland of its protections and transfer it to other uses — including giving the land to private owners. In 2008 alone, there were 44 of these “transfers.” In 2009, the most notorious recent Article 97 transfer swapped three wooded, unspoiled acres of the Blue Hills Reservation to the owners of the Lantana function hall to build a parking lot in exchange for an unbuildable two-acre landlocked wetland.

I admire the landscape-urbanist approach to the Rose Kennedy Greenway discussed in “Shift,” but I am very nervous about the overwhelming economic agenda of the parks’ abutters. Laura Solano states that “it’s going to be redone,” but will it be redone with any consultation with landscape architects? Or will developers call the shots and gradually transform the Greenway into just another overshadowed, built-out street? How can we ensure the integration of landscape and urban infrastructure when builders are ready to pounce on any open land — just as they did on the Blue Hills Reservation?

Money talks, and money may not be terribly interested in “a larger vision of connectivity and continuity,” as David Gamble put it. Unless we can defend the inherent human and economic value of parkland in the urban landscape, it’s not just Olmsted that we’ll be burying; it will be the entire Greenway.

And heck, Olmsted did have some good ideas. No one calls the Riverway “a giant median strip.”

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