Earth in the Balance | The Nation


Earth in the Balance

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Some contrast indeed from the turn of the century, when the brothers John C. and F.L. Olmsted Jr. came to town and the newspapers banner-headlined the planners' entrance. Leaders in creating the forebear of the American Planning Association in 1909, FLO Jr. and his peers spread their influence in the major works of the day. Landscape architects designed the sweeping parks and parkways, the residential communities and vast social, ecological and aesthetic undertakings that defined the nation.

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Jane Holtz Kay
Jane Holtz Kay (JHoltzKay@aol.com), The Nation's architecture critic and author of Asphalt Nation and Lost Boston, is...

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Walden Pond is America's environmental holy land, the naturalist's sacred site and Concord's local swimming pool.

This alliance dominated the early decades of the twentieth century, creating the better--and perhaps best--part of America's parks, parkways and public community spaces. The place- and parkmakers of the twenties, blending the landscape and planning professions, remain heroes of design today, their roots and skills happily blurred: John Nolen, idol of today's so-called New Urbanism; the Regional Planning Association, spirited by Lewis Mumford, its scribe, and shaped by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright at such sites as Sunnyside, Radburn and other residential communities; and Benton MacKaye, who planned and encouraged the Appalachian Trail, command respect and imitation. "By making nature urban, we naturalize the city," Lewis Mumford observed as their ideal. Together, such masterminds of the landscape wrote their signature across an all-too-brief period.

By the thirties, the Depression dominated. Though some projects and parkways still offered work to the profession on the public landscape, these marked a last flourishing. As the landscape profession became a gentlemanly one, given to adorning the estates of the wealthy, the engineers of the hour would come to overwhelm the built environment. Landscape architects would follow their hardscape highway and lose touch with the context and ecology of earlier days. Challenged by Modernism and engineering, deprived of public-project funds and powered by a growing enchantment to embellish the burgeoning corporate estates and residences in the suburbs, landscape architects saw their role in public service evaporate, their supremacy and public presence slide still further in the postwar years.

The loss of that public prominence and civic consciousness is the nation's loss. For at no time have these potential stewards and planners faced a nation in more desperate need of environmentally and aesthetically oriented guidance than in this hour. "We are today living in a machine age," landscape architect Jens Jensen observed in 1959, the year of the profession's sixtieth anniversary. "What is to follow no one knows, but there is one thing sure," he went on. "Nature will survive." Survive indeed, we wonder, in this era of vanishing greenness, in this year of the slipping definition of the seasons.

As "second nature," "toxic nature" and "threatened nature" slip off the tongue, the certainty of nature's resilience diminishes. Observing the erosion of our last-chance landscape, watching the rapacious geography of sprawl, losing habitat and species, citizens routinely indulge in what Harvard professor Lawrence Buell labels "toxic discourse." Rather than indulge or natter in their coffee cups, they act. The future-minded contemplate sea walls to secure New York from the rising tides of global warming, trash Monsanto's genetically altered "terminator" seeds to protect butterflies and landmark habitats for birds and bees; Americans are uneasy, and vocally so. As nature modified by humankind spits back floods and disasters resulting from climate change, and the planet's population of 6 billion stresses urban and wilderness habitats, the constituency grows. Witness the demonstrations in Seattle late last year, not to mention the 1999 elections, in which 72 percent of those voting favored some 240 local referendums to retain open space.

What "open" (versus designed and organized space) meant was unclear. And yet, though those hankering for greener space do not understand that landscape architects are space and placemakers, the literature of place is very much with us. "I have a dozen books with the word 'place,' on my shelf," Grady Clay, editor emeritus of Landscape Architecture magazine, remarks. Clay praises the new consciousness of his peers and notes the visibility of broader interests at the 100th-anniversary meeting, as well as the growth in the field. Landscape architect Peter Walker, founder of Spacemaker Press, describes the profession's posture as fortunate, lodged between two issues at the center of the nation's concerns: "preservation of agricultural and natural primordial land."

The rush to develop America's outback has indeed tied consciousness about farmland and wilderness to the wider issues of land use and land design that are the profession's mandate. Much as Olmsted (with Calvert Vaux) inspired the park movement with Central Park in 1857; much as Olmsted (with others) shaped the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that inaugurated the City Beautiful movement's far-reaching planning; and much as his disciple Charles Eliot expanded metropolitan considerations around the natural region, landscape architects should and could take on this mantle. They should and could grow beyond their constricted ambitions and modest reputations to replicate their ancestors' far-reaching stewardship.

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