Earth in the Balance | The Nation


Earth in the Balance

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Finally, and still more hopefully, the anniversary year marked a looking backward to their heritage. "Go with the FLO"--Frederick Law Olmsted--buttons sprinkled lapels at the Boston conference. Treading the catwalk to tomorrow by turning to this tradition, landscape architects and activists could cite repairs to historic sites and rally to fight threats to Beatrix Jones Farrand's 1921 milestone landscape at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, menaced by alterations to house a new underground library. The Cultural Landscape Foundation has reminded a broader audience that both old and not-so-old designs by the likes of landscape architect Paul Friedberg need to be recognized and preserved. The survey of 500 spaces in New York being done by Jerold Kayden, the city's Municipal Art Society and Department of City Planning, is a first step to the notion that even these weary residues of the tower-in-the-park and the asphalting of urban America might be invigorated--and intimates an urban greening.

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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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Celebrations can be self-congratulatory and perfunctory. But this probing of a brilliant past should provide the model to reclaim America and turn landscape architects from lackeys to custodians of the larger environment and the public responsibility in their tradition. "The soul of the future depends both on informing and inspiring, and the best landscape architects are the ones who speak from an informed debate," observes Charles Birnbaum, landscape architect with the Heritage Preservation Services Program of the National Park Service. Their volume of Pioneers of American Landscape Design, due out from McGraw Hill in June, joins with the reissued biography of Charles Eliot to add names and faces heretofore unknown to the landscape architects' prototypes of public work.

Olmsted is the exemplar of these designers, and his work forms the literary and historic core of this commemorative season as well, from the paperback edition of Charles Beveridge and Paul Rocheleau's Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape to the readable biography by Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance. Olmsted's Writings on Public Parks, Parkways and Park Systems is the recently published seventh volume in the invaluable series of the premier landscape architect's projects. The series is not only a historic accounting but a futurist primer to carry on and replicate the work of the park-maker and planner who used his aesthetic and political tools to build Emerald Necklace accouterments for America.

A profession ready to recollect this proud past promises more in the future to renew an environment on the wane. "Nostalgia runs all through this society--fortunately, for it may be our hope of salvation," historian Donald Worster puts it in his perceptive essay on nature's decline in Unmanaged Landscapes: Voices for Untamed Nature. "We are moving at long last, even on this uniquely favored continent, toward an awareness of universal resource scarcity and limits," he notes.

Saving that nature is no act of God, landscape architects know. As they celebrate their associational centenary, they are beginning to ask the right questions. Can their knowledge of hydrology, biology, topography and climate, and their capacity to monitor technology, turn Leopold's twentieth-century call-to-wildness to the service of the twenty-first century's wastelands? Today, the mediators and remediators are rising. Can landscape architects blend Leopold's "Thinking Like a Mountain" with the urban notion of "thinking like a sidewalk," or the environmental one of "thinking like a greenbelt"? Can we? It is no easy task to tilt the war between ecosystems and private property. Can landscape architects shape a "movement to make our whole country a park," as Warren Manning, another landscape architect from their memorable past, put it? Can we craft a revived landscape on their tradition of harmonizing and humanizing the built and natural environment?

"Fertile soil washes and blows away before our eyes. Biodiversity plummets, stream corridors are bathed with nutrients from adjacent lands. Food and wood production provides less and less to rural families. Houses sprout on the best agricultural soils. And humanity is increasingly divorced from nature," writes ecologist Richard Forman. Yet, as this scholar of natural systems observes, "Nothing is immutable and little is irreversible."

No unlivable places, only ones in need of remediation. What better slogan to employ as a means to salvage and enhance these unreclaimed places? And what better profession than landscape architecture to lead a citizenry concerned for the future and crusading for its last-chance landscape? The most celebratory thought may be that we still possess the opportunity to do so. It is to be hoped that this next century of landscape architecture will mark the end of anonymity and the beginning of visibility for the profession's diminished urban art and ecology; we can hope, too, that an enlightened public will recognize that the landscape-shaping, earth-tending profession is the best promise to restore the health and beauty of this exhausted earth.

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