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The Greenest Green: A Student Review Of The ASLA 2006 Conference

Coverage of the American Society of Landscape Architects 2006 conference and the International Federation of Landscape Architects world congress, held October 6-10 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
October 16, 2006, 7am PDT | Patrick L. Peterson
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For several decades American landscape architecture has been obsessed with the role of ecology in design. Additionally, over the last several years the concept of "sustainability" has come to the forefront of discussions related to ecology and has helped expand the role of the landscape architect in applying both ecological principles and sustainable design strategies into projects of all scales. What was most intriguing about this conference to me was how it both reinforced and challenged accepted ideas of ecology and sustainable design within contemporary practice, indicative of the global exchange of ideas represented by combining the ASLA and IFLA memberships this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Green Solutions for a Blue Planet in many ways is a seminal event that allowed for practitioners from all over the world to come together and discuss the state of landscape architecture from an international perspective. What was most common throughout the conference was the idea that landscape architecture has grown into a profession that has achieved equal standing compared to its sister disciplines of architecture and urban planning. Landscape architects worldwide have established themselves as not only essential partners in all aspects of environmental design projects but have increasingly taken the project lead on a growing basis. Although the conference assured its attendees that things are well and getting better within the profession, it wasn't without cause for concern as several speakers indicated the poor quality of environmental and cultural health the world over.

Global problems

The conference opened with a global perspective on the state of the world's oceans, providing a context in which subsequent sessions supplemented. Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau (the renowned underwater explorer), gave a somewhat horrifying account of the sorry state of these waters. His presentation gave many in the audience a clear realization that what happens across our landscapes eventually influences the health of our oceans, supporting the conference's theme and international perspective. It also reinforced the idea that we are all connected and that everything we do within the scale of the landscape eventually influences the world.

 Building Sustainable Sites from the Ground Up-Water educational session on Saturday. From left to right.  Andy Smith, Smith Irrigation; Neil Weinstein, Low Impact Development Center; Jennifer Appel, ASLA, Landsculpture & Design, Inc.
Presenters respond to questions during the EPA Greenscape: Building Sustainable Sites from the Ground Up-Water educational session on Saturday. From left to right. Andy Smith, Smith Irrigation; Neil Weinstein, Low Impact Development Center; Jennifer Appel, ASLA, Landsculpture & Design, Inc. (Photo by Patrick L. Peterson)

Speakers following Cousteau reinforced the theme that landscape architects need to do more in the defense of the natural and man-made world. Kongjian Yu, owner and president of the award winning Chinese landscape architecture firm Turenscape gave a startling account of the population and resource crisis currently taking place in China. He points out that China currently contains 22% of the world's population but only 7% of its resources. This disparity has caused an enormous amount of resources having to be imported into China to support the giant waves of people leaving their rural homes seeking a better life in the city. Yu also points out that the Chinese are destroying as many residential units as they are creating and can do more to recycle materials as well as create more ecological and sustainable urban forms and landscapes while doing away with frivolous projects that do not contribute to the quality of the environment or the cultural character of the Chinese landscape. In its pursuit of "westernization", China is replicating many western ideals instead of reinforcing its own cultural and environmental character. This is a problem that will inevitably destroy Chinese culture Yu proclaims. Yu also identified China as being at the front line in the conflict over global environmental quality, saying that "if we can solve China we can solve the world."

China in many ways is a microcosm of the world at large. It is just one of the countries consumed in a population crisis and forced to deal with a variety of environmental and cultural problems. Mario Schjetnan, of Grupo Designo Urbano a landscape architecture firm located in Mexico City, identifies the growing population and environmental crises in the world's mega-cities. With populations reaching into the multiple millions in these locations, Schjetnan points out that there is a diminishing amount of access to public spaces like urban parklands as these mega-cities grow. Using Mexico City as an example, he points out that all of the existing major parks within the city are located in the historical center, and, until recently, no effort has been made to expand services to the newly populated areas. His firm's work in advocating additional park space is exemplified in a proposal to add 110 new parks throughout the city that will serve its burgeoning population while increasing the overall quality of life. His current projects show that new urban parkland can be more than just a place to gather and relax; these places can also work to restore environmental quality by treating and cleansing water on-site while the site itself acts as an economic armature for potential development around its perimeter. His projects also show the enormous impact the work of one design firm can make. However, one criticism of what some have defined as a purely ecological approach (exemplified by on-site water treatment) is that landscape architecture has become too technical in its applications related to environmental problems. We are indeed designers but we are not engineers, nor is it our task to displace the cultural importance of the landscape for purely environmental reasons. In fact, landscape architectural design is a delicate balance of the two and this was demonstrated so by many of the other conference speakers.

Professional challenges

What was revealed in several of the presentations is that landscape architecture is becoming consumed with this purely technical approach to ecological problems and forgetting that landscape architecture is also an art. One of the most influential comments for me was made by Thorbjorn Andersson of the Swedish firm SWECO FFNS. Andersson relates telling a landscape architect to embrace ecology and sustainable design is like "telling a German to drink beer" or "telling a Swede to be quiet"; that's just how things are. What these comments reveal is that landscape architects should not have to be told or lectured about the fact that we all should be integrating ecology and sustainability into our daily practice. Aren't most practitioners doing this already? Aren't graduates from American programs learning about ecology? Isn't it a common topic in trade magazines and on the web? I doubt that there is an excuse out there that practitioners can use for not knowing about the environmental problems that surround us. I do wonder if we are balancing both environmental and cultural sustainability just as Andersson points out. One thing that was evident in this presentation was that projects can be "sustainable" in ways that are not specifically technical and that works of landscape architecture can exude ecology and sustainability while still exemplifying a high degree of craft and creativity. In many ways, Andersson's presentation reveals the fact that American design may be lagging behind design in Europe, and perhaps the rest of the world.

A similar but much more direct challenge came from renowned landscape architect and educator Martha Schwartz. Known for her vanguard landscapes and artistic approach to landscape architecture, Schwartz practically pleaded with the audience that landscape architecture not revert to everything she hated while beginning her own professional career. One thing she referred to was that as a young designer she viewed landscape architecture as a boring profession; its practitioners did not take risks and it was not responding to or influencing culture in her opinion. Her challenge to the profession is that landscape architecture should be a practice of creative risk taking as well as a profession devoted to the stewardship of the environment. In other words, it needs to be both environmentally and culturally responsive while also promoting creativity and exploration of what landscape architecture really means and can contribute to the world.

The future of the practice

In terms of the American perspective post conference there is one glaring area of concern. ASLA president Dennis Carmichael's closing remarks echoed the fact that the profession is alive and well with an excellent job outlook (including an almost over-abundance of unfilled positions), increasing earnings, and the exposure of the profession at an all-time high. But the leadership of ASLA, and its practitioners, educators, and students need to take a cue from the environmental sustainability that has been a large part of this conference and start to confront the fact that we also need to sustain the profession itself.

Carmichael points out that even with the existing state of the profession, one thing that needs to be addressed is the fact that the number of graduating students from American universities is not keeping up with the national population. In fact, Carmichael notes that universities are producing the same number of graduates on-par with historical numbers, indicating that something drastic needs to happen to increase the number of graduates in order to meet the demand in the marketplace for our services. If landscape architecture is to build and maintain its effectiveness in producing environmentally and culturally sustainable projects, it needs an increased workforce to do so. President Carmichael has proposed the establishment of new departments of landscape architecture within the denser urban areas of the country along with increasing enrollment in existing programs. These new departments will hopefully not only attract increased numbers of students but also increase the diversity of the profession as well. Perhaps the increasing exposure of the profession (especially through projects like the ASLA green roof which was extensively covered by the media) will influence more students to pursue landscape architecture.

After all the education sessions were over and after peeking inside the studios of the profession's top designers, I returned home more informed and inspired by what I had experienced. I also returned with an increased perspective of our global environment and a motivation to take on the environmental and cultural challenges that confront our global community. Now more then ever, working together as a profession remains a necessity, as is collaborating with other practitioners in our allied design professions. Working collaboratively will allow us to achieve the greenest green; design solutions that balance both environmental and cultural issues at every scale of design while also maximizing our collective creativity. Green solutions, blue planet indeed.

Patrick L. Peterson is a graduate student in Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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