Cinda Gilliland

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”  – The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

A new generation of young adults would agree, according to the NPR’s series on the changing American Dream. A recent piece by Sam Sanders called “Globals’ Generation Focuses on Experience” suggesting that the American Dream of many people in their twenties is not about accumulating things: houses, families, cars, etc.; but rather about gathering experiences.  The piece further suggests that these ‘globals’ recognize themselves as world citizens and interested in being agents of change. “They understand this idea of a shared fate, or a linked fate. That somehow, what happens to someone in Mumbai may have an effect on me West Los Angeles,” says Franklin Gilliam, Dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

When Tulane University was looking to increase enrollment after Hurricane Katrina they decided, among other things, to add community service as a requirement for graduation.  Applications in 2010 were double what they were in 2004, and attracted ‘a cadre of superbly responsive students”. According to Tulane’s president, Scott Cowen, Today’s student wants an education that makes a difference.”

If landscape architecture wants to remain relevant and to attract the best and brightest, this trend begs the question: what extent can those of us in the practice of landscape architecture facilitate change things ourselves, for the public good?  In addition, as discussed in a previous blog, the social impact design model is often different from standard operating practice in most established landscape architectural firms.  Identifying a potential project and developing that into a paying project is an entrepreneurial challenge. Understanding how to create societal change may start with learning how to create change within an organization, one’s own firm.  Building on the existing company culture, evolving an established business model requires seeing, and learning to communicate, how the design process can be applied to a variety of problems.

When talking about change one can quickly become overwhelmed.  The established order has so much inertia. The complexity of our world is daunting.  Where does one start to unravel the mess?  What will really make a difference?  If we look at the question more generally by focusing on goals: “what changes are needed to move us to a more just, equitable, sustainable, peaceful world?” it becomes more manageable in a right brain kind of way. It is more manageable in that one can start anywhere.  I would argue that a healthier and happier society, is made up of a more resilient, less frightened populace.  A more resilient less frightened populace is one more ready to make intelligent choices and embrace beneficial change.

For the landscape architecture profession the question then is: what goals and what changes can the landscape reasonably expect to facilitate?  And what tools do we have that can be applied to task of achieving those societal goals?

Creating opportunities for health and happiness are naturally the realm of landscape and the garden, but we can do much more by making these conscious goals, and by applying the lessons of biophilia, attention restoration theory, many public health professionals, nature deficit disorder theory, to name a few, to our designs and master plans.

The sustainability tent is getting bigger and the discussion is broadening beyond issues of resource conservation to include goals of equity, inclusivity, and habitat creation, as well as health and happiness. Landscape architects can welcome this evolution of the field by increasing our understanding of issues usually outside of pure landscape architecture.  This is not the time to keep tilling the well-tilled furrow that is our comfort zone.  We need to be curious and look well beyond our field, extending the  inclusivity of our design vocabulary.

As landscape architects we can facilitate a greater sense of rootedness and resilience in the communities we work through preservation and/or imaginative reuse of existing conditions.  This is more obvious if there is some evident historical significance to interpret, but is equally if not more important if the existing elements simply suggest a historic pattern of use in a particular landscape. Rather than wipe the slate clean, what happens if we acknowledge and give a nod to the use patterns, wisdom, and embedded creativity of what came before.

Jonah Lehrer in his book ‘Imagine’ argues that we all have the potential to be creative. (The recent revelations that he was a bit too creative with supposed Bob Dylan quotes do not diminish the relevance of the book.) I would argue that manifesting creativity is a deeply satisfying human experience, and one that is catching.  Any of us that can put design ingenuity to work in the public realm not only improves the quality of public space, but beyond that shows that more is possible, anywhere and everywhere.

Finally and most importantly, by being the change we want to see in the world we can lead the way.  By being curious, by designing revelatory, resilient and evolutionary landscapes our clients and the end users will benefit.

Below is my list of goals and tools found in the landscape architect’s repertoire:


  • Greater rootedness/resilience –– Preservation, imaginative reuse;
  • Creativity/inspiration –– Design ingenuity;
  • Health –– biking, greenery, liveliness, rejuvenation;
  • Happiness –– biophilia, connections to nature, etc.;
  • Inclusion/diversity –– inclusive design vocabulary;
  • Sustainability –– habitat preservation and creation, sustainable materials, responsible energy and water use, energy generation, reductions in chemical reliance;
  • Comfort with change and risk –– Preservation, imaginative reuse, adaptation.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead.

So tell me: How can the profession of landscape architecture be more responsive to the challenge raised by the ‘global generation’?  What change do you want to see?  How can you do more? What have I goals or tools have I missed?


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Cinda Gilliland

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One Response to “Being the Change”

  1. Jeremy Wolf


    Terrific essay/blog post. I believe the social impact element you describe is all in the eye of the beholder. Earth’s citizens need to become earth’s fiduciaries. The habitat, humanity, health and happiness (H^4) plus inclusive facets are part of what makes each of us unique but integral. We should all strive to do more for our community and our planet in our own ways. I hope our investments can deliver in this way.

    Keep writing!


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