Green World, Gray Heart?: The Promise and the Reality of Landscape Architecture in Sustaining Nature

Robert France

Can a few conspicuous solar homes, constructed wetlands, bike paths, recycling industries, wildlife habitat corridors, organic agricultural plots, and wind farms really be the key to saving the world? Isn’t a much greater transformation needed in global economic, political, and social institutions?

—Robert Thayer, Gray World, Green Heart: Technology, Nature, and the Sustainable Landscape

We live in what the great American environmentalist Aldo Leopold referred to as a “world of wounds,” where there is irrefutable evidence that we are balancing precariously on the brink of natural disasters: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future we wish for human society.”1 This 1992 statement from a document called “Warning to Humanity,” is illuminating because it does not originate from tree-hugging “green-nicks,” but from more than half of living Nobel Prize winners.

The image of the Earth as the Titanic moving inexorably on its collision course, the band playing and people reveling ignorant of their imminent fate, is an often used but still compelling metaphor for our obliviousness to coming crises in nature (defined here as everything that humans have not made). It is also germane to the question: What are the realities, illusions, and efficacies of nature-sustaining design? Though champions of sustainable design may herald its role in keeping us away from icebergs like global climate change or enormous biodiversity loss, hard-headed realists have no such hope. In short, the key question is, can the designers who shape a small portion of our built environment offer anything more than better designed deck chairs more pleasingly arranged?

It is important to establish two caveats at the start. First, the following critique about landscape architecture pertains solely to its role, either implied or specifically stated, in fostering environmental sustainability through either realized or ostensive “green” designs. I of course recognize that this is but one of the many benefits accruing from the profession of landscape architecture. And second, the following discussion deals with only site-specific design and not regional land-use planning. In other words, although unequivocal evidence exists that land-use planning—such as watershed management or low impact development—makes substantive contributions to sustaining nature, the question examined here concerns the ability of landscape architects’ work on individual sites to affect nature-supporting alterations that make a significant difference. As will be seen, this is not to say, however, that such spatially restricted efforts are in any way insignificant in terms of promoting environmental sustainability through both direct means of ecological restoration and indirect means of experiential education.

The Promise of Sustainable Site Design

In August 2002, a special issue of Time—How to Save the Earth—came out during the Johannesburg World Environment Conference. Here for the first time in the American popular press—mixed with the usual doom-and-gloom and images of people begging for food, roads clogged with automobiles, wetlands shrinking from drought, and elephants marching to extinction—were essays dealing with the role of sustainable design in moving us back from the brink of natural catastrophe. The publication marks a coming of age for a movement that ironically, while enjoying increasing popularity among the lay public,2 remains marginal within the design professions.

But the design professions might be on the verge of a paradigm shift in their relationship to nature and sustainability. Long-time champions such as William McDonough, Amory Lovins, and 2002 Pritzker Prizewinner Glenn Murcutt have been joined by a cadre of what Time referred to as “some of the most prominent names in architecture [who] have turned green,” like, for example, Sir Norman Foster. The sentence continues, however, with the caveat that this greening by the architectural illuminati is “at least for selected projects” (my italics).

As long ago as 1988, the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture charted a course by defining sustainable landscapes as those that “contribute to human well-being and at the same time are in harmony with the natural environment. They do not deplete or damage other ecosystems. While human activity will have altered native patterns, a sustainable landscape will work with native conditions in its structure and functions. Valuable resources—water, nutrients, soil, et cetera—and energy will be conserved, diversity of species will be maintained or increased.”3 Now landscape architects seem to be scrambling to embrace both the concepts and the practices of sustainable design long after this definition appeared and after a period of near silence following the publication of two solid and important books—Design for Human Ecosystems: Landscape, Land Use, and Natural Resources (1985) by the late John T. Lyle, Professor of Landscape Architecture at California Polytechnic University, Pamona, and Gray World, Green Heart: Technology, Nature, and the Sustainable Landscape (1994), by Robert Thayer, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Davis.4 Two recent books offer evidence that the profession has taken a turn. Sustainable Landscape Construction: A Guide to Green Building Outdoors, by Landscape Architecture editor William Thompson, Professor of Architecture and Planning at the University of New Mexico Kim Sorvig, and illustrator Craig D. Farnsworth, represents a watershed in the evolution of the education of landscape designers in sustainability.Its guiding principles—keep healthy sites healthy; heal injured sites; favor living, adaptable materials; protect water; minimize paving; consider the origin and afterlife of materials; know the costs of energy over time; celebrate light, respect darkness; defend silence; and maintain to sustain—offer a set of practical alternatives to business-as-usual. And Constructed Wetlands in the Sustainable Landscape by Craig Campbell, Principal with Design Studios West, Denver, and Michael Ogden, President of Southwest Wetlands Group, Santa Fe, although narrower in scope, presents a unique blending of science, engineering, landscape architecture, and environmental art, together with regulatory planning and site development, to advance a vision for managing built wetlands.6

Academic programs are now being retooled to capitalize on the interest shown among students in sustainable design. The University of Michigan, for example, was recently seeking to hire “a designer and scholar who is knowledgeable and experienced in the application of ecological principles to the analysis and design of the landscape and built environment … [and who] will interact with students and faculty who have diverse interdisciplinary interests related to sustainability such as energy-and-resource-efficient building design, green structure and infrastructure, landscape ecology, healthy buildings, urban ecosystem management, and life cycle assessment.”7 And at the Harvard Design School, a new award—The Loeb Sustainability Prize—will soon be implemented. Available to students in all departments, the award will be given each semester for “the option studio project that most exemplifies principles of sustainability regardless of the topic of the studio.” The strategy is to “raise awareness of these principles and call attention to the importance of imbedding them in the design process rather than seeing them as ‘add-ons.’”8

The important question is, however, “How all this is being played out among practitioners, who may be out of touch with academia, with books like Thayer’s, and with trend-seeking reporters from international magazines?”

More than Greenwash?

The design professions are not immune to fads, and green design may become their new one. One can easily become cynical about the environmental realities beneath the verbal veneer of many would-be green designs. If you scratch their surfaces, you find only sustainable rhetoric. There is perhaps no more egregious example of this than “eco-revelatory design,” which, as I argued in the Winter/Spring 2000 issue of Harvard Design Magazine, just tips its hat to nature while making business-as-usual look nice. This begs the question, What exactly is the “business” of landscape architecture? And does adding green or sustainable before landscape architecture create a redundancy or an oxymoron?

Being a landscape architect, like being an ecologist, is certainly no guarantee of being an environmentalist. The desire of designers to make a personal mark on the landscape, and of ecologists to understand the workings of nature, can often be at odds with a desire to “preserve, protect, and restore environmental integrity”—the mandate of the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act. Even many of the subset of landscape architects who profess to engage in sustainable design, though they speak lofty, self-important words about making a “green world,” seem to possess gray hearts, or certainly hearts no greener than those of the environmental engineers they are quick to criticize. Motivated in 1993 by fear that “the future of the profession is at stake,” the trustees of American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) adopted a Declaration on Environment and Development, an attempt to encourage landscape architects to play a “key role in shaping an ecologically healthy and regenerative world in the 21st century,” rather to practice “little more than a minor decorative art.”9 Despite the frequent citing of Ian McHarg’s assertion that the study of environmental ethics, with its roots in ecology, is absolutely crucial to landscape architecture, very few design degree programs offer an environmental ethics course. A 1992 ASLA survey revealed that only three of forty-three degree programs had ever offered a full-credit course on environmental ethics. This was regarded as not only embarrassing, but also outright dangerous.10 Things have not improved in the interceding decade.

Landscape architecture is often said to advance wise stewardship of the land, yet its degree programs rarely prepare students to do this. James Patchett, chair of the ASLA Professional Interest Group on Water Conservation, has decried the frequent failure of the profession to live up to its ethical responsibility for “the stewardship and conservation of natural, constructed, and human resources.”11 This “failure of contemporary landscape architects to articulate their role satisfactorily as ‘stewards of the land’” is due, Professor Robert Scarfo (of Washington State University in Spokane) argues, to a delusion inspired by an antiquated romantic ideal of landscape husbandry completely out of touch with the technology-driven realities of the modern profession.12

The debate about the motivations and environmental efficacy of landscape architecture frequently takes place in the pages of the profession’s trade journal, Landscape Architecture, as do claims about the human and natural benefits of the attention-grabbing projects presented therein. In a recent article about the 2002 ASLA Awards, jurors referred to “the dearth of ecologically sensitive designs” from which to pick, the “flawed presence [of ecology] in so much of the work” submitted, and the overall impression that “the profession is only giving lip service” to sustainable design.13 It appears that little has changed in the decade since Thayer wrote that landscape architecture is “dominated by the creation of pleasant, illusory places which either give token service to environmental stewardship values, or ignore them altogether.”14

“Architecture,” says a prominent critic at the Harvard Design School, is “a destructive act,” with the phrase green architecture being as oxymoronic as green SUVs. The most serious question that can be asked about landscape architecture is whether it too is, overall, environmentally constructive or destructive. How effective the profession is in generating environmental benefits can be gauged by reviewing the projects covered in Landscape Architecture Magazine. Luckily, a convenient way to make such an appraisal exists. 

One of the most exciting and promising developments that is fostering sustainable design is the increasing use of the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which evaluates the environmental performance of buildings and sites.15 A subset of its criteria appropriate to water-sensitive design includes strategies such as minimizing parking spaces, reducing impervious surfaces, installing multiple source stormwater treatment technology such as bioretention swales,16 building green eco-roofs and rain gardens,17 and developing on-site water reuse systems.

A systematic review of the last decade of projects covered in the magazine shows a striking absence of water-sensitive design: less than a third explicitly managed water in ways that would give them moderate-to-high LEED water rating credits, and for the remaining two-thirds, the amount of LEED water credits that could be awarded was minimal—less than ten percent of the potential total.

Based on this sample, “standard” landscape architecture is not “green.” Yet many of the projects that earned few or no water-sensitive LEED credits may have offered some marginal water improvements over the previous site conditions, and thus it might be argued that they pose less of a threat to nature than a building—no matter how green its design—would. But, given that landscape architects pride themselves in being more environmentally sensitive than architects, it may be that such a self-righteous attitude needs to be tempered. In the end, perhaps the best that can be said is that, on average, the projects published in the profession’s primary magazine neither harm nor help nature.

Should such a conclusion surprise us? The most in the know would argue not. The one article in Landscape Architecture on the LEED credit system concluded by questioning why there has been so little involvement by landscape architects in developing and applying the system. The answer supports my belief that most landscape architects either ignore the issue of “greenness,” or of those that do refer to themselves as “green,” most are in reality gray at heart: “Many landscape architects feel that they design sustainable landscapes as a matter of course in their general practice and that they don’t need LEED to guide them. There is also a misguided assumption that all built landscapes are ‘green.’”18 Of course, as even my admittedly small sample showed, such arrogance is unwarranted and instead supports Thayer’s contention that “most products of landscape architecture are simply not sustainable by any definition.”19 In Thompson and Sorvig’s review of over a hundred sustainable landscape projects (selected based on their profession of “sustainability”), they grapple with the troubling reality that these landscapes sometimes harm the environment.20 Never, they note, should we forget that no matter how naturalistic or sustainable a created landscape appears or is touted to be, it is not a substitute for nature free from human meddling. An exception might be made, however, for landscape restoration projects such as storm­water wetlands designed to improve water quality, reduce floods, and enhance wildlife habitat.

“Functional Art”: The Key to Success in Sustainable Site Design?

Given that, in Thayer’s words, “the majority of the work done by [landscape architects] … could not possibly be justified under official ASLA rhetoric pertaining to environmental stewardship or sustainability,” and that perhaps the best that we can ask from any site design project is that it “tends” toward sustainability21 are there projects that transcend the norm? 

The single most effective action that can be accomplished for the future of nature is to motivate and inspire large numbers of people. If enough people cared enough, needed reforms would be put in place. (Carl Steinitz argues elsewhere in this magazine that only fear is an effective motivator. But there have been plenty of proposed alterations to environments halted because people loved what existed.) Motivation will come from people’s experiences of relatively undisturbed, protected green spaces far from cities, but also from educating and directly engaging people in the recognition and repair of damaged landscapes. Whereas the former is the purview of conservation biologists and nature writers, the latter is very much the business of restoration ecologists and landscape architects. Through melding engineering and aesthetics, developing what might be called “functional art,” landscape architects can contribute to sustaining nature. The reason for this is that neither art and design nor science and engineering alone have done much to instill love of and motivate action for the natural world. No one would be inspired by a sterile, engineered waterway (like the Los Angeles River) to protect other rivers, just as no one would become dedicated to preserving rainforests because they contemplated a tree clipped to look like a giant puppy.

The quotations posted on my office door have garnered coverage by Harvard Design Magazine. One is from Christopher Cauldwell and was cribbed from landscape architect Garret Eckbo’s once influential Landscape for Living. There may be no better challenge anywhere to C.P. Snow’s assertion that art and science inhabit different worlds: “Art is the science of feeling. Science is the art of knowing. We must know to be able to do. But we must feel to know what to do.”22 The pressing question becomes can the feeling of art and the knowing of science be married through landscape architecture as a means for sustaining nature? The answer is a qualified “yes,” as shown perhaps most clearly in the recent development of functional and beautiful stormwater wetland parks.

Wetlands combine beauty and ecological function in a way that few other landforms can. As such, they have been and will continue to be important elements in site design and landscape planning. There is a long tradition of scenic wetland gardens. Indeed, landscape design probably began with the publication of Toshitsuna Fujiwara’s 11th-century Sakuteiki, with its instructions about how to build Japanese water features.23 And modern landscape architecture is often thought to have started with Frederick Olmsted’s work on Boston’s Back Bay Fens wastewater treatment park system. Since then, wetlands have been constructed primarily by engineers and scientists for flood prevention and water quality improvement. Though these wetlands have functioned well, their generally square shapes have provided little benefit to wildlife and have been aesthetic ciphers. But the synthesis of art and science has nowhere been more successfully accomplished than in the creation, by landscape architects, of treatment wetland parks that, in acknowledgment of Olmsted’s previously neglected vision, combine environmental management and ecotourism.

The trend away from single-purpose treatment wetlands and toward multifunction designed wetland parks is the success story in nature-sustaining landscape architecture. No longer are ecological features like wildlife habitats or human amenities like education centers treated as ancillary; instead they are acknowledged to be as important as water management. The ten projects illustrated here, arranged in order from naturalness to artifice, have won numerous awards and are worth briefly introducing as examples of visionary built wetlands, strong in both function and form.24

All these projects improve the ecology of their immediate surroundings. And since both insults to and purifications of water are additive and transferable to the larger landscape, these site effects are felt downstream and help sustain the entire watershed. In their beauty, these created wetlands also inspire activism for the protection of natural wetlands elsewhere. 

Although what in sustainable ecological design constitutes the “right” balance between nature and artifice (function and form) is debated, these projects show that one needn’t dominate at the expense of the other, and that the extent of the designer’s imprint on the land can successfully vary. There is no real conflict between form and function. And as Thompson and Sorvig note, we usually find nature’s own functional forms to be supremely beautiful. 

Functional art lies at the success of ecologically sustainable designs that will inspire action beyond the bounds of the site. Louise Mozingo, Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, is right to argue that no matter how righteous ecological design projects make one feel, their frequent aesthetic insensitivity send viewers fleeing to the nearest Italian garden.25 It needn’t be this way. The moving poetry and haunting beauty of gardens like those of Kyoto or Suchzou can be inseparable from the engineering of modern water treatment and stormwater management. Thayer is on target again: “Sustainable landscapes need conspicuous expression and visible interpretation, and that is where the creative and artistic skills of the landscape architect are most critically needed.”

Continuing, Thayer succinctly concludes, “But the new institutions needed for a transition to a sustainable world must ultimately be based upon the perception and comprehension of the ordinary people who will create them. In turn, their ultimate reality is in the land and spaces around them. The small steps taken to build sustainability into the local landscape in discreet, manageable chunks which people can observe, try out, experience, and improve are actually large steps for humankind.”26 Amen.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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Issue No. 1