Earth in the Balance

Earth in the Balance

Anonymous is a landscape architect. Not for these placemakers the recognition given to their peers in building. Planners may stand side by side with mayors boasting of some grand projet.


Anonymous is a landscape architect. Not for these placemakers the recognition given to their peers in building. Planners may stand side by side with mayors boasting of some grand projet. Architects may admire “designed by” signatures on their structures. But those who fashion rolling greenswards, transform wasted landscapes into common ground or turn sordid waterfronts into shared edges are unsung, if not unknown.

“Our contribution to the undertaking is that of the framing of the scheme rather than the disposition of flower beds,” Frederick Law Olmsted, the least anonymous of these landshapers, observed. The profession’s patron saint (and Nation co-founder), Olmsted invented the name if not the calling of “landscape architecture” in nineteenth-century America. A generation later, as the century turned, his stepson, John, and namesake son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., joined a small assembly to form the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). The centennial celebration of that event in the year now ended called forth a reassessment of the landscape architect’s role within the field–and in a larger universe in need of the profession’s conserving and redeeming powers.

Prepared by training and ancestry to tackle the everlasting and the ephemeral, to map natural systems and push politicians, plant trees and tend to the civic good, landscape architects are endowed with the skills to supervise our shopworn environs. Their dossiers are replete with work for “public improvement” as well as private pleasure, for shaping cities and chaining vast regions in tune to the genius loci–the more the frustration that these lead designers remain bit players compared with their colleagues in architecture and planning. “Landscape architecture has remained environmentally responsible, undervalued as an art form, and desperately needed as part of humanity’s survival kit in the face of an impending apocalypse,” James Wines, environmental designer and director of Penn State’s Department of Architecture, put it on the eve of the organization’s centennial conference in Boston in the fall.

So “undervalued” is this venerable profession, in fact, that its members turned giddy with the news that the Postal Service, which will blithely honor an Elvis or a cartoon character, had also allotted a stamp to Olmsted, the bearded sage nestled amid a collage of blooms and bridge. Thus inspired, celebrations were staged, panels were held, chronologies written, books published and introspective landscape architects turned inward and outward to analyze their status in this epoch of ecological challenge.

Inevitably, then, in this era of affluence and environmentalism, the potential for their vision is growing. The profession of 13,000 members (plus the same number, more or less, in unregistered ones) does coordinate many parcels into places, restoring parks and brownfields, managing ecological projects and community planning. For all their work in adorning America’s sprawling multimillion-dollar McMansions, planting lawns on the nation’s starter castles and decorating multidigit corporate rooftops–or greenwashing destructive projects–some have returned to the social and political ideals of their ancestors. The broader preachings of Ian McHarg’s 1969 classic, Design With Nature–to repair the “raddled landscape to create new public values,” to survey the bioregion, to argue for nature in the city and to advance the ecological transformation of larger systems–have currency. Environmental regulations have slowly begun to require the presence of those values at the developmental table.

And yet, notwithstanding this recent recognition, the slights endure. Find a massive public undertaking and you are more likely to find a civil engineer or an Army Corps of Engineers member bred on hardtop and right-angle edges than a landscape architect engaged in civic urbanity and guided by nature’s aesthetics. Notice the high-profile rejection of landscape architects in the project of the decade: the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The center’s $8 million construction project, the Central Garden, was diverted from the profession of landscape architecture to the misconstrued labors of artist Robert Irwin. Meanwhile the names of seven landscape architects, including those doing the main complex landscaping and shaping the slopes, were indiscernible in the stellar glow accorded architect Richard Meier.

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.

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.

Why does the link between the ecological awareness of the environmentalist and the graceful execution of the landscape architect so seldom generate an alliance of their causes? Why do the words du jour–“sustainability,” “livability,” “smart growth,” “open space”–issue from those who believe in exactly the opposite: the profit-minded builders whose enclosed space, dumb growth, unlivable and unsustainable ecologies have, by and large, excluded any mindful handling of the earth? Can it simply be the fact of landscape architects’ lesser numbers–13,000, compared with the architects’ 64,000 and the planners’ 30,000–that undermines their work? Is it their stars or their search for the stardom of their architect peers that makes them more likely to become lawn arrangers for the private affluents than lone rangers against the shrinking of habitats and piecemeal planning?

Perhaps their secondary place in the public discourse comes from the diversity of their work, which stretches beyond that of their building peers. Join the 5,500 attendees at the centennial conference in Boston and you see a range of landscape architects with projects that go all over the map, so to speak, in place and content, from Disney worlds to Canada’s capital, from designing cemeteries to plotting solar plans, from flood control to college campuses, from resorts to therapeutic gardens–enough to give anyone an identity problem. A profession of theoretical artists and land pragmatists, of “specialists and generalists,” some irrigate their résumés with high-flown high art; others struggle to supplant the engineers’ irrigation projects. There are creators of historic restorations and ecologically minded remediations as well as those who indulge in frivolous showboating or put a green patina on unsound and invasive projects.

“Today, much of our work deals with shopping centers, golf courses, corporate headquarters, large private gardens, and the edges of highways,” criticizes Lawrence Halprin in Melanie Simo’s 100 Years of Landscape Architecture: Some Patterns of a Century, a hefty tome which traces the ASLA’s institutional history. “Drainage guys and parking-lot guys,” as one landscape historian dismisses them. Starseekers and fashionmongers, others insist. For every do-gooder, there is at least one artiste-in-excess fantasizing about shaping topiaries touting Nike sneaks, pools modeled after George Soros’s profile or executing developer-driven dictates, no matter their aesthetic and environmental cost.

Scan the issue of the lively and informative ASLA magazine, Landscape Architecture, published before last fall’s centenary assembly. The title page of the first article shows a hard-surfaced terrace fronting a gridded, black-glass building. The image is softened by a few quivering aspens with white clouds drifting across a blue sky. Two-thirds of the picture consists of the boxy structure and its “corporate plaza” covering a parking garage that seems to have dictated the look of the barren surroundings. The landscape architect has planted those feathery trees above the garage. They are to serve as “a metaphor for the native landscape of Colorado,” says the article. “Tree-wash,” says the reader.

A second article shows a new project and the 1982 design it displaced–i.e., leveled. The original plaza, a black-and-white checkerboard done with Modernist pizzazz, was the work of landscape architect George Hargreaves. “It winks and talks tough,” his fellow landscape architect Laurie Olin observed. For all the winking, it couldn’t resist the owner’s wish for a makeover. Looking to provide a place for lunchgoers, the company decided to uproot the design, dig in a few feel-good plantings and eradicate a space barely in its adolescence. (Ephemeral is also a landscape architect.)

“What then are landscape architects to make of the circumstance that rooftops–even more than brownfields–are increasingly the locale of their creation?” asks the magazine Land Forum, a sumptuous, quirkily intellectual and inbred if promising new publication from Spacemaker. And what to make of the fact that this searing question is never answered by the author, who skips ahead to project design without probing the deeper question: Why are there so many more requests to fix up private, pricey space than space in the public realm of the street? And why so few who even care to notice? “A profession in peril?” asked an ASLA panel. Why not call us “land architects,” not landscape ones, one observer suggested, intimating a broader role.

Whatever name the profession goes by, some of its members do pursue large-scale environmental research or planning goals. Buck Abbey’s so-called Greenlaws, codes to zone for nature, shows promise in empowering landscape architects by creating “an environmental law that looks out for nature in the city,” in his words. Abbey’s survey of 500 communities substantiated his view that by zoning and other land-alteration ordinances, communities can guarantee greenery and ecological siting to stop erosion, improve drainage and protect or renew wetlands to heal communities. And in pockets like California and Florida, they do.

In other ways as well, the profession is returning to its social and political origins. As recently as two years ago, the ASLA singled out the work of two vanguard designers, Peter Walker and George Hargreaves, for the bulk of its annual awards. The criticism of this monopoly of highstyle, high-star strutting surely accounts for 1999’s multiple winners, praised under the banner heading “Year of Water.” Apparently, “the presence of this life-giving element in the landscape” was enough to sink the celebrity prizes and laud instead a wetlands project, a watershed plan and research on stream restoration. Ironically, the best projects may be the least arresting, a landscape photographer suggests, their subtle contouring of the landscape suggesting nature’s beauties and a healthy ecology, not a designer’s obvious hand. A “jerky progress toward a greater ecological emphasis,” the prize-givers commented in Landscape Architecture, itself now leaning more toward articles on public and environmentally attuned projects.

To be sure, ecologists as well as everyday citizens are equally at fault in ignoring those trained to treat their surroundings “holistically.” Those charting the fate of the earth largely ignore the professionals equipped to design their scenic corridors and greenways, to restore their habitats and toxic brownfields. Environmentalists celebrated their own anniversary this year. Fifty years ago Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac became the bible of the ecology movement, spelling out the iconic land ethic of ecology: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” And yet, as the century turned, Sierra magazine’s issue on “The Green Millennium,” summoning ecologists to offer their planetary visions, skimped on nature in the city or greening settled areas. They and others recording such events singled out engineers, attorneys and environmentalists to set forth their views, with nary a mention of this profession trained to fuse, not to mention “beautify,” their wishes.

If the fault lies with both our landscape architects’ predilection for corporate cocoons and self-indulgent designs–and ourselves for not calling forth their public face and services–some notetakers managed to look ahead to a new frontier of larger landscapes, parks, university campuses and more public tasks. Learning to love the unloved places, many are retrieving once-filled swamps in New Jersey, cleaning debris-laden lands and restoring indigenous plantings to revive smelly tidal bogs. Landscape architects list new de-paving designs, brownfields reclamations and regional projects à la McHarg, himself bemedaled by his profession last year.

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.

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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