Landscape Architecture Rising

Look out, planners. Landscape architects are out to eat your lunch. Managing Editor Tim Halbur reports from the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting and Expo in San Diego, where a movement towards better urbanism is hoping to balance a history of design-driven practice.

"We're getting a larger and larger voice, and we're beginning to take the lead on projects," says Shane Cohen, a landscape architect with coen + partners. Throughout my visit at the 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects' Annual Meeting and Expoin San Diego last week, I heard about the growing role of landscape architects in shaping the built environment. No longer satisfied to plant drought-resistant local fauna in the spaces between the buildings, landscape architects are blurring the lines and taking charge of teams of planners and architects on major projects around the world.

"Our voice is getting stronger and stronger," continued Cohen, "And we're being listened to. One of our responsibilities is to know the best team to put together to ensure projects are done with the most integrity."

ASLA Conference advertisement

Blame The High Line, the project driven by James Corner Field Operations, for presenting a vision of how an LA-led project can be successful. Today, even though construction is stalled across the country, landscape architects are finding work on smaller, in-between spaces and driving megaprojects in China and elsewhere. "Landscape Architecture Rising" was the slogan of the event, and with an impressive turnout and a massive exhibition floor, it certainly appears that landscape architects are growing in importance.

LAs are also stealing planners' thunder when it comes to the importance of public participation and community engagement. "I think we have a really valuable skill set," said Former Charlottesville mayor Maurice Cox, sitting on a panel of famed landscape architects. "But it does require you be incredibly close to decision makers, and you have to be at that community meeting."

Famed landscape architect Laurie Olin echoed the thought that community buy-in is essential, and added that landscape architecture as a field doesn't have a point of view. "We're agents of change, but we have to decide what kind of change we want," said Olin. "We give form to change, but we don't often drive it ourselves. We say, 'aha, here's an opportunity to give this idea form and expression,' but it's not our idea. For a long time, the problem in cities was that we would just solve one problem at a time, like moving cars faster. But every project has to do with wastewater management, and community engagement and children."

Mayor Cox and Laurie Olin at the 2011 ASLA Meeting and Expo. Photo: ASLA.

Perhaps the most outspoken member of the panel (given that Andrés Duany was a no-show), Martha Schwarz spoke adamantly about the power of design to do the heavy lifting when it comes to revitalizing cities. "I don't think there are enough big ideas," she said, pushing back on moderator John King's question about the danger of thinking big. "Cities need iconic sites, because they are in direct competition with each other. The problem is that people are not educated more fully about what design can do."

I left the panel energized, ready to believe that landscape architecture is indeed a partner of planning, and the lines drawn over the past century between the fields after are destined to fade. But the next session I attended, presenting the work of the aforementioned firm cohen + partners, created serious doubts in my mind. Slide after slide showed stark minimalist plazas, beautiful but baldly anti-urban. One slide showed part of the firm's work on the adjacent streets around Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. It showed a woman posed as if walking down a narrow, block-long passageway framed by white stone walls: an alley that directly violates the planning standard of "eyes on the street" and therefore one which few women (and men, for that matter) are likely to deem safe in the midst of an urban downtown neighborhood. Another project in small-town Minnesota showed two detached garages side-by-side at the end of two parallel driveways. "Here, the only entrance into the house is through the detached garages," explained firm owner Shane Cohen. My heart sank.

Leaving the session, I wandered through the extensive Expo hall, surrounded by sprinkler systems, park benches and sparkly glass gravel alternatives. Landscape architects may be ascendant when it comes to the built environment, but it will have to contend with a field that is split between artistic expression and practical, engaging environments for human beings.

Tim Halbur is managing editor of Planetizen.



Wright was right

Frank Lloyd Wright.


Blend low density urban form with nature, don't compress it and squeeze nature out of where humanity exists daily. I thought Landscape Urbanism had this potential, but perhaps I misunderstand it.

Tom Lane of "SmartGrowthUSA.Wordpress" has discovered Frank Lloyd Wright lately, and is a big booster of his ideals.

Tactical Urbanism


I don't know if you were also at this session, but it was very inspiring to hear ReBar (a San Francisco-based firm) talk about "tactical urbanism." I completely agree with how so many firms say one thing, and design another. What is intriguing/promising about tactical urbanism is that it advocates a temporary, designer-like mindset to solving large, strategic problems rather than actual design solutions. For example, so many cities are afraid of say ... closing down a street. But by having a quick, temporary attempt to do so, getting feedback, tweaking, getting support, and then making it permanent - it offers a way for cities to embrace a more creative, involved, community. Other examples include having a temporary community garden, a temporary urban plaza...just to show people what is possible, and to show them that they can make a difference. Even though you were a bit skeptical if "landscape architecture is indeed a partner of planning, and the lines drawn over the past century between the fields after are destined to fade"...the reason that the 1893 Chicago's World Fair kicked off "City Beautiful" and a craze for urban planning, was that a temporary set of buildings and landscapes showed people what was possible and inspired them to reach for it.

Janet Lee

Shane's firm is

Shane's firm is "Coen+Partners", not Cohen, and it is NOT San Francisco based. You need to get these facts straight first.
You grossly trivialize what landscape architecture has done in the public realm and it's embarrassing. Landscape architecture is so vested in the practical; it's design and not fine art and always bound by guidelines and codes. It just has more of an artistic spin than the area of planning you are probably constrained in. More readings of published projects are certainly your assignment before you take cheap shots at a profession and according to a single designer's meeting presentation.

You missed the point

You grossly mis-characterize what Tim's message was in the article. It was not one-sided in the least. He dedicated more than half the article to the relevance and potential of landscape architecture -- far from trivializing the profession. And his parting thought was that the profession is SPLIT between artistic expression and practicality -- a fair description consistent with most planners' experience, I would guess -- and it was based on his full conference experience, not just one presentation.

In fact, your response, if anything, reflects more poorly on your profession than Tim's article. Surely you don't respond this way to community feedback! (or do you?) This is constructive criticism, not a wholesale dismissal. Think of it as the red ink on your proverbial drawing, if that's what it takes to gain your respectful consideration.

The profession is NOT split

The profession is NOT split as you said. There is no way a public open space can be only about artistic expression. More than usual, landscape design is about meeting the lowest practical needs because of low budget and "value engineering." So your guessing is very very wrong. Public participation and community feed back are among the most common practices and processes in public landscape design.
Community feed back this is, and you don't represent "The" community feed back. This is what I meant a trivialization of a profession. The "constructive" criticism you call is very dated and misused. Now, consider this is the respectful consideration of the landscape architectural profession.

What is the pattern?

I really should graph the timing of the rise and fall of the op-eds and articles that worry about the topic. What is the pattern? Is the rise coincident with ASLA National? A big city planning dept layoff?



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