Landscape architecture


Landscape architecture can be defined as the art of composing landform, vegetation, water, buildings and paving to create good public space. It is one of the world’s most important professions, involving everyone from timber merchants to heavy machinery operators.

Noel Farrer, President of the LI 2014-6 explains that defining either Architecture or Garden Design is easier than defining Landscape Architecture

A number of official definitions of landscape architecture, which tend to be longer, are analysed at the end of Tom Turner’s eBook (Landscape Design History & Theory Kindle Edition, 2014). The below text is from Appendix 2 of the eBook:

A 2.1 Dictionary and encyclopaedia definitions of landscape architecture:

Dictionaries and encyclopaedias tend to explain the use of words in everyday discourse.

(a) Oxford English Dictionary

(1) landscape architect n. a practitioner of landscape architecture. (2) landscape architecture n. the planning of parks or gardens to form an attractive landscape, often in association with the design of buildings, roads, etc.

Comment: ‘(1)’ is a tautology. This definition does not explain the profession’s focus on the public realm and blurs the distinction between public parks and private gardens. Working from this definition you could say companies that install garages or shed foundations within a private garden to be landscape architects.

(b) Merriam Webster

(1) : a person whose job is to plan and create large outdoor spaces such as gardens, parks, etc. (2) a person who develops land for human use and enjoyment through effective placement of structures, vehicular and pedestrian ways, and plantings

Comment ‘(1)’ suggests a narrow concentration on parks and gardens ‘(2)’ suggests plenipotentiary powers to control the layout of urban and rural areas

(c) American Heritage Dictionary

One whose profession is the decorative and functional alteration and planting of grounds, especially at or around a building site for prefabricated buildings or other kinds.

Comment: ‘Decorative’ is a bad word for an activity which, at its best, is a fine art. ‘Around a building site’ is an inadequate reference to public goods and the public realm

(d) Encyclopaedia Britannica

landscape architecture, the development and decorative planting of gardens, yards, grounds, parks, and other planned green outdoor spaces. Landscape gardening is used to enhance nature and to create a natural setting for buildings, towns, and cities, be it involving a she shed in a garden or a gazebo in a city park. It is one of the decorative arts and is allied to architecture, city planning, and horticulture.

Comment: the terms ‘decorative planting’, ‘enhance nature’ and ‘landscape gardening’ would be taken as insults by most landscape architects

(e) Wikipedia

A landscape architect is a person involved in the planning, design and sometimes direction of a landscape, garden, or distinct space.

Comment: ‘involved’ is vague terms but the reference to ‘planning and design’ is correct. ‘Landscape, garden, or distinct space’ is not a good description of a multi-faceted ‘public realm’

Summary comment: from a professional standpoint, the dictionary definitions do not say enough about the ‘what, why and how’ of landscape architecture

A 2.2 Definitions from international organisations

International organisations generate definitions from meetings of experts, which tend to be stronger on inclusiveness than logic. There is an obvious disconnect between the dictionary definitions, above, and the way the profession sees itself, below. The following definitions of landscape architecture remind one of the unfair joke that a camel is ‘a horse designed by committee’.

A2.2.1 IFLA International Federation of Landscape Architects

This definition was approved by IFLA in 2003 for the International Standard Classification of Occupations (International Labour Office, Geneva).

Landscape Architects conduct research and advise on planning, design and stewardship of the outdoor environment and spaces, both within and beyond the built environment, and its conservation and sustainability of development. For the profession of landscape architect, a degree in landscape architecture is required.

Tasks include:

  • developing new or improved theories, policy and methods for landscape planning, design and management at local, regional, national and multinational levels;
  • developing policy, plans, and implementing and monitoring proposals as well as developing new or improved theories and methods for national parks and other conservation and recreation areas;
  • developing new or improved theories and methods to promote environmental awareness, and undertaking planning, design, restoration, management and maintenance of cultural and/or historic landscapes, parks, sites and gardens;
  • planning, design, management, maintenance and monitoring functional and aesthetic layouts of built environment in urban, suburban, and rural areas including private and public open spaces, parks, gardens, streetscapes, plazas, housing developments, burial grounds, memorials; tourist, commercial, industrial and educational complexes; sports grounds, zoos, botanic gardens, recreation areas and farms;
  • contributing to the planning, aesthetic and functional design, location, management and maintenance of infrastructure such as roads, dams, energy and major development projects;
  • undertaking landscape assessments including environmental and visual impact assessments with view to developing policy or undertaking projects;
  • inspecting sites, analysing factors such as climate, soil, flora, fauna, surface and subsurface water and drainage; and consulting with clients and making recommendations regarding methods of work and sequences of operations for projects related to the landscape and built environment;
  • identifying and developing appropriate solutions regarding the quality and use of the built environment in urban, suburban and rural areas and making designs, plans and working drawings, specifications of work, cost estimates and time schedules;
  • monitoring the realisation and supervising the construction of proposals to ensure compliance with plans, specifications of work, cost estimates and time schedules;
  • conducting research, preparing scientific papers and technical reports, developing policy, teaching, and advising on aspects regarding landscape architecture such as the application of geographic information systems, remote sensing, law, landscape communication, interpretation and landscape ecology;
  • managing landscape planning and design projects;
  • performing related tasks;
  • supervising other workers

Comments: (1) there is too much here about researching, developing, advising, contributing, identifying, managing etc and not enough about the central activities of planning and design (2) ‘stewardship’ is not a helpful word in this context. The Oxford English Dictionary lists twelve meanings of ‘steward’ and all of them are related to medieval use of the word28 for people whose job was to manage land and property for the benefit of private owners (3) ‘within and beyond the built environment’ is more accurate than ‘parks and gardens’, as used in dictionaries but does not make the key point about landscape architecture’s concern with the public realm.

A2.2.2 ILO/ ISCO definition of landscape architecture

The ILO was founded in 1919 and became a specialized agency of the UN in 1946. It publishes the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO). The current version was adopted in 2008 [W: International Standard Classification of Occupations] [ISCO -08]

ISCO-08 Landscape architects plan and design landscapes and open spaces for projects such as, parks, schools, institutions, roads, external areas for commercial, industrial and residential sites, and plan and monitor their construction, maintenance and rehabilitation.

Comments The verbs ‘plan and design’ are well chosen but what follows them is muddled. What is the difference between a landscape, a park and an open space? What would designing an open space for a road mean? The ISCO definition does not mention the public realm. The weakness of this definition goes some way to explaining why landscape architecture is a poorly understood profession.

A2.3 Professional institute definitions

National definitions tend to represent the views of individuals who have achieved prominence within their organisations.

A2.3.1 ASLA definition

ASLA, the American Society of Landscape Architects states that:

Landscape architecture encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environments. Types of project include…. See ASLA website

Comments 1) the definition is very wide (2) it encompasses most of the built environment professions (3) it also encompasses the rural land managing professions (4) it does not mention a focus on the public realm

A2.3.2 CHSLA definition

CHSLA is the Chinese Society of Landscape Architects. Its website explains that:

The subject of the CHSLA includes traditional gardening, urban greening and landscaping, and natural landscape planning .The profession of subject has expanded to include history & theory of LA, preservation of historical garden, natural and cultural heritage, planning and design of LA, garden-buildings, landscape engineering garden plants, zoos, urban green space system planning, planning of famous scenic sites and recreation area, natural conserves planning, urban and rural ecosystem, human habitat environment, economy and management, etc See Chinese Society of Landscape Architects website

Comments This definition outlines the type of projects landscape architects are involved with – but does not explain the ‘what, why or how’ of their contribution to these the projects:

A2.3.3 UK LI definition

The Landscape Institute (LI) is the UK professional body for landscape architecture. The LI website About page (2013) has two accounts of the profession:

Landscape architecture is rooted in an understanding of how the environment works and what makes each place unique. It is a blend of science and art, vision and thought. It is a creative profession skilled in strategic planning, delivery and management. Landscape architects bring knowledge of natural sciences, environmental law and planning policy. They lead teams, engage stakeholders and manage conflicting demands. And they create delight with beautiful designs, protecting and enhancing our most cherished landscapes and townscapes. (from ‘Landscape architecture: a guide for clients’, 2012)

All aspects of the science, planning, design, implementation and management of landscapes and their environment in urban and rural areas and the assessment, conservation, development, creation and sustainability of landscapes with a view to promoting landscapes which are aesthetically pleasing, functional and ecologically and biologically healthy and which when required are able to accommodate the built environment in all its forms. (from the LI’s Royal Charter of Incorporation, 1997)

Comments These definitions are vague about the profession’s character and about the ‘what, why and how’ of its workload. Without the words ‘landscape’ and ‘architect’ it would probably be understood as a description of the planning profession as represented by the Royal Town Planning Institute in the UK.

Conclusion: Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s hope that landscape design may become ‘the most comprehensive of the arts’ will not be achieved until the profession does a better job of defining its aims, objectives and techniques.

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