Although I filled a new legal pad with notes at the LAF Summit last June, I wasn’t exactly reporting. I attended as a designer seeking inspiration. Perhaps some of the highlights I recorded will resonate with you too.
The first LAF Declaration of Concern targeted how landscape architecture could help solve environmental issues. The ‘60s was the decade when the Cuyahoga River’s surface caught fire and Carson’s Silent Spring was published. While we’ve improved the air, land, and water quality in the U.S. over the past 50 years, the only planet we have is now home to 7.4 billion people and we are currently using the resources of 1.5 planets. It’s a matter of global urgency, to say the least.
The two-day Summit celebrating the LAF’s 50th Anniversary was attended by 700 people and convened 70 landscape architects to chart a viable, desirable future.
An excellent TED talk I watched on the flight to the conference happily foreshadowed my Summit experience: Carl Safina’s “What are Animals Thinking and Feeling?” underscored the messages Grant Jones, of Seattle’s Jones + Jones, summed up during the awards reception: “The Earth is our client” and “Be a steward for all living things.” After all, we are but one of 8.7 million species on this planet by latest estimates.
Some key points and common threads of the global focus on Day One:
Climate change was perhaps the hottest topic (forgive me), followed by the problems facing emerging economies.
Urbanism – We are becoming an urban species: from informal settlements to revitalizing cores, landscape architects can improve the function and beauty of cities. Cities help us utilize resources more efficiently.
Nature – We can’t continue thinking that we are outside of, or separate from, nature. Environments that have not been impacted to some extent by humans no longer exist.
Wild – At the same time, we are not “the wild.” We have a responsibility to maintain environments that other species need for survival. “So that every child has an equal opportunity to be eaten by a mountain lion,” explained Project for Public Spaces’ Randy Hester.
Collaboration – We can’t be experts in everything, but need to be able to understand what other disciplines are talking about. We can lead by asking the right questions and by listening, and we play an important role in synthesizing the various disciplines and communicating clearly to the public. Collaboration extends to the community.
Community – Involve the local community, respect their values, and design for their needs and desires using our expertise. Recognize the importance of building community – not just physical design.
Beauty & Performance – Berkeley Professor Marc Treib’s priceless wisdom – “if the food tastes like crap, we don’t care if it’s organic.” Landscapes should be both sustainable and beautiful.
Multiple Scales – Landscape architects can design both a site element and a city, and develop a vision for a region. We need to continue to be educated, and prepared to work at, all scales.
The second day featured panel discussions addressing Friday’s presentations.
Aesthetics – The importance of intuition, experimentation, and cultural relevance.
Ecology – The need for scientific rigor in our profession; the difficulty of separating ecological issues from socio-cultural, political, and economic systems; and the importance of being able to accommodate change in our designs.
Society – Diversity in the profession by race, ethnicity, and educational backgrounds will lead to innovation; we need diverse minds to take on diverse problems. If you don’t understand the nuances of your projects’ contexts, landscape architecture becomes a form of Colonialism that assumes uniform solutions. Get out of your comfort zone, interact with the community, be self-critical.
Innovation – Experimentation can be difficult because it’s rare to be commissioned to fail. New forms of economy will trigger new design practices. Keep communication simple and clear, avoiding jargon, to bring our way of thinking into other fields.
Academic Practice – Universities serve as idea incubators, and can pursue difficult or controversial topics that we can’t professionally; fostering academic collaboration can expand what we do. There is also a need to train more landscape architects from under-represented countries.
Private Practice – Leading a multi-disciplinary team, and building stewardship to increase resiliency.
Public Practice – Landscape architects who move into public service often become clients and help to create new projects for landscape architects; they can also shape the values of the broader public. Metrics are important in persuasion, but storytelling is what resonates most with politicians and the public. Advocacy – we have to join the conversation and effect policy to realize the landscape architecture we envision.
The Summit was just the first step in drafting a new Declaration. In addition to producing an informative documentary, “The New Landscape Declaration,” the LAF has been seeking public comments and plans to present the new declaration at the ASLA Meeting & Expo in New Orleans. Stay tuned…
One of my co-workers asked me why I would spend money and vacation hours to listen to people pat themselves on the back. Honestly, I was seeking to expand my vision and reconnect with the reasons I went into landscape architecture. While there was no shortage of challenges discussed at the Summit, the big picture message was this: It’s up to each of us to set our priorities, find our inspiration, and get involved to be part of the solution.
Jana Wehby is a designer in the Los Angeles studio. Since returning from the Summit she is frequently struck by how small our profession is.