The struggle between landscape architects and the general public’s perception of their profession is global and with plenty of historical precedent. It has long been a question of identity and agency. Therefore, I grab every opportunity possible – whether it be an Uber ride, a casual conversation, or bar talk – to project my understanding of and interest in the field, steering the conversation away from architecture or from gardening and into more amorphous territory. My elevator pitch is as vague and scalable as the field itself. After all, there is not one definition or one interpretation of landscape architecture among practitioners and theorists, even those coming from the same cultural context.
Most of the time the reaction is, “I have never heard someone explain landscape architecture as such”. Truth is, I leave it up to the listener to interpret, question, and formulate their own conclusions and reflections.
I like to think of myself as a generalist. Our field is the only medium in which the science of living systems (botany, horticulture, agriculture, floriculture, ecology, geology, hydrology, and forestry), infrastructure, engineering and construction, art, expression, and experience all overlap with social sciences (social studies, economy, history, culture). Add to that the broader themes of equality, connection, nostalgia, with scales of space and time, perspective open to interpretation and analyzation reduced down to the rhizome level (to show the impact of radishes on soil quality) or up to a city-wide transformational impact of a project like the High Line on the city scale.
I like to think of myself as a landscape urbanist, maybe a landscape arch-urbanist. The simple reason behind this is detaching the connotation associated with architecture from landscape, breaking the prejudiced idea of this historically-tense binary relationship. “Urbanist” on the other hand opens up to a spectrum of scales, blurring this tiring perception of landscape as being bound to, or evolving around a piece of architecture. It is true that the profession has learned and borrowed a lot from architecture, especially in the modernist era, forging a new architecture to the landscape. Nevertheless, it is important to note that landscape architecture as a profession traces back to the visionary foresight of Olmsted, who recognized the inevitability of urbanization, and importance of planning resilient grounds for long-term balanced living environments. This agency is crucial, approaching landscape as the ecological framework for the design of the urban, rather than a corrective afterthought.
And so my elevator pitch comes down to: “I design cities to be more resilient”.
What the listener defines as a city – their city – is up for grabs, and always subjective and relevant: a street, a housing compound, a rural site, an oil extraction town, or even a refugee camp. How the listener interprets resilience is also flexible and contextual. In a place like the Middle East, one could think of resilience as political. In Los Angeles resilience can be defined as a fight against drought, while in Mexico City as the risk of land subsidence, or in Shanghai, related to water quality. In any context, a landscape architect is empowered by the tools and means at hand today to understand the complexity of the layers – collecting and connecting, drawing relations, defining problems, then building on the power of science and art to design solutions across timeframes and scales. The eventual result are landscapes with performative systems – socially inclusive, environmentally responsive, cultivated, projected, and capable of being made, and then remade when required.