Sustainable landscape architecture

Robert Holden Vision for Sustainable Landscape Architecture Profession

A sense of crisis has brought us together. What is merely offensive or disturbing today threatens life itself tomorrow. We are concerned over misuse of the environment and development, which has lost all contact with the basic processes of nature. Lake Erie is becoming septic, New York City is short of water, the Delaware River is infused with salt, the Potomac River with sewage and silt. Air is polluted in major cities and their citizens breathe and see with difficulty. Most urban Americans are being separated from visual and physical contact with nature in any form. All too soon life in such polluted environments will be the national human experience.” (Declaration of founding members of the US Landscape Architecture Foundation.1 and 2 June 1966, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Campbell Miller, 
Grady Clay
, Ian L. McHarg, 
Charles R. Hammond, 
George E. Patton, 
John O.Simonds)

2012 Jeju Declaration by the IUCN President (wordled)
2012 Jeju Declaration by the IUCN President (wordled)

Nearly fifty years after the Philadelphia Declaration above, the world economy is passing through what might euphemistically be called ‘interesting times’. There is expansion in Asia and South America and growth in China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Australasia. With demand for finite raw resources fed by growth rates of upto 10%, there is a worldwide increase in commodity prices and Africa is increasingly seen not only as a source of such materials but also as providing fresh land for agricultural production. Meanwhile much of the Western World – Europe and North America, but also Japan – is experiencing relatively little or no economic growth, and the future of the Eurozone remains precarious.

In the greater scheme of history, such relative economic downturn of the Western World can be viewed as a passing phase in the mid-term. Remember, Western economic dominance is recent, only three or four hundred years at most. For most of the past two thousand years the leading centres of sophisticated technology and cultural development were centred on China, India, the Middle East and Near East. However, the long-term trends are for a threefold increase – in world population, in demand for raw materials and in urban populations as a proportion of total population. In consequence Planet Earth is under pressure from a variety of factors, including:

  • loss of biodiversity;
  • net increase in the human ecological footprint; and
  • climate change and in consequence fluctuations in extreme weather conditions as well as sea level rise and flooding, and drought;

Landscape architects have a contribution to make in tackling all of these issues.

Let us recapitulate briefly the development of landscape architecture. Its precursor, landscape gardening, was a visual and scenic profession, primarily serving a private market of kings and landed gentry. Landscape architecture thus began in the nineteenth century as a visual profession, based on an inheritance from garden and park design but now re-orientated to serve the communities in the new industrial towns, to make town parks, and to realize ideas of wilderness protection and agricultural development for society as a whole.

In the twentieth century this mission was overlain by an interest in nature conservation and ecology in particular in Germany and Holland. Following this, the Americans pursued ideas of wildlife conservation, such as Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature and initiatives such as the Philadelphia Declaration above, for the whole landscape, (given status by the European Landscape Convention) and to a focus on sustainability. In the future landscape architects’ primary task promises to be related to finding ways of sustainable living for a predominantly urbanized world population.

In the twenty-first century anxieties about ecological health have given rise to concerns which can be summarized as:

  • breathable air,
  • drinkable water,
  • food security,
  • embodied carbon and embodied energy,
  • soil fertility, and
  • sustainable use of raw materials

These concerns should extend to the whole landscape, town and country, wilderness and despoiled land, and the seas around our coast.

Robert Holden 24 July 2015

1 Comment on “Sustainable landscape architecture

  1. Corrections to make to the above which was originally written in 2012 are that economic growth has stalled in Brazil; that growth rates in China have reduced somewhat to 7% but that the overall analysis appears correct. Indeed, the severity of the pollution and other environmental problems consequent on high economic growth may mean that one should look to China and India for ways out of the environmental and resource mess they are getting into. And the emergent landscape architecture professions in those countries should play a part in leading the way.
    Wishful thinking? Watch this space.

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