In recent years, landscape architects have seen their profile rise. The discipline has gained stature in the public’s imagination, as well as among the allied disciplines of architecture, planning, and even civil and transportation engineering. Some, like prominent New Urbanists, have tried to paint this growth as a threat to architects and town planners, couched in a reheated rad versus trad debate (don’t we have more pressing issues than endlessly rehashing the style wars?).
There are a number of reasons for landscape architecture’s prominence. Catalytic projects like the High Line, Chicago’s Millennium Park, and LA’s new Grand Park have certainly galvanized the public around the need for high quality parks and public space. New York is reclaiming its waterfront through projects large and small, and marquee parks like Governor’s Island and Fresh Kills promise to re-orient the city to embrace its identity as an archipelago.
Landscape architects have also been actively redefining what they do, reclaiming the profession’s civic role and layering on new environmental and infrastructural potentials. Landscape architects have also been effective in claiming urbanism as their purview. Changes in federal and city policy have reinforced that role through programs like “Greening America’s Capitals” and New York’s Clean Water Act consent agreement with the EPA. These developments are great for urban areas. As cities cope and adapt to climate change and rising sea levels, I expect the discipline’s role to continue to expand.
Landscape architecture’s dynamism, however, also points to certain weaknesses in contemporary architecture and planning. Architecture has been caught in a kind of hangover from the pre-crash years. Much of the profession, not to mention architectural education, is still too obsessed with architecture-as-object. The rise of tactical urbanism is a reaction to this, and also often involves landscape-based projects. Planning seems even more stuck. Too afraid to engage with design—following the failures of much of modernist planning—planners have either buried their noses in policy or retreated into colored-pencil-clichés of urbanism that seem dated. Landscape architects have stepped into that vacuum.
For the public, my hunch is that landscape architects offer something that architects typically do not. Parks and gardens have always engaged our Edenic fantasies. In a world under strain these places must also do considerable work, absorbing stormwater, filtering air pollution, and providing refuge in an increasingly urbanized world. Landscape architects are offering redemptive visions for neglected, damaged, and underutilized places. Environmental problems may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But landscape architects offer solutions to improve our roofs, our blocks, our neighborhoods, a nearby waterway, or the city at large. If that sounds patronizing, it’s not meant to be. In the absence of aggressive federal (let alone global) environmental action to address the myriad of challenges we face, these interventions take on a critical, if piecemeal, significance.