Landscape Architects, Environmental Advocates
By Dan Morrell
As a graduate student in the early 1990s, Charles Waldheim noticed a clear divide among some of his peers in the field of architecture. His North American colleagues were studying European cities to better understand the form and history of the American city. “But the Europeans looking at American cities were very different. Almost all of them said that to understand the American city, you really had to understand landscape.”
The idea of treating landscape as a medium for understanding and designing cities intrigued Waldheim, the Irving professor of landscape architecture and chair of the department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “Most of our models in the field and most of our theories in the literature assumed that you get a city by piling up buildings next to each other,” he says. But Waldheim found this building-first mindset to be no longer culturally relevant, and instead concluded that landscape considerations should be given more prominence in city-building.
In recent years, he has noticed an increase in projects that begin not with the traditional planning and urban design phases, but with the hiring of a landscape architect. In this new approach—termed “landscape urbanism”—the landscape architect “is really shaping what the city will look like.”
Waldheim says one of the reasons that landscape architects have become so essential is their unique toolkit. A design professional who is comfortable working with complex, non-linear problems in a high-pressure design culture and who also possesses a background in ecological and environmental science is increasingly relevant to market needs. Architects also occupy a privileged position in the design process that allows them to actively address environmental concerns. “The field of landscape architecture trained a generation to really be environmental advocates, and that was a great success. But even if we know all the science, if we don’t have the ability to intervene or have an economy that wants to apply that knowledge, then the natural science advocate is at a loss. Whereas the design professional has access to these problems, because they are invited into situations that they can help to address or ameliorate.”
While Waldheim notes that this scientific understanding of environmental impacts is essential, he also sees important lessons in the systems at work in the natural world. “The study of nature provides a cultural model or a metaphor. It’s not simply ensuring that buildings will emit less carbon or use less energy, it’s the idea that the natural world provides this complex self-regulating and responsive model. And increasingly, there is a cohort within architecture that imagines that architecture can be responsive in the way that natural environments are responsive.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Environment@Harvard.