Posts by clarencelacy

All photos by Clarence E Lacy Jr.

There are three questions that can never be answered:

What is the meaning of life?
What is love?
What is nature?

I don’t dare attempt answering the first two, but I will take a shot at answering the third.

Landscape architects and hipsters alike occasionally take a pilgrimage in search of the #authentic. Defining nature is like finding an authentic taco truck: it’s authenticity is solely within the parameters in which you examine it.

Looking to Merriam-Webster, “nature” is defined as inherent character or basic constitution, also as the external world in its entirety.

So, nature is everything outside? This makes it seem as if nature includes plants and animals in all exterior spaces; parks, conservation areas, recreation areas, plazas, any exterior space.

Let’s dive deeper.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives us a more interesting definition:

“All of the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all of the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.”

That’s a mouthful. Even offers a definition that refers to nature as a phenomena of the physical world void of the human impact or hand. That is one heck of a lens in order for us to focus upon the  authenticity of nature.

According to this definition, nature is a state of untouched beauty. Although there are still places on Earth that have not been touched by humans directly, it is important to note the impacts upon the planet are never localized to our physical footprint. Thus we must consider that our impact upon these “natural” processes is felt well beyond where we live. Small things done locally have impacts on a global scale, and can alter the future.

In 2016, the Washington Post published an article about “untouched nature”. The article notes the impact humans have had upon the earth, and also how untouched landscapes haven’t really existed for thousands of years. Of course the validity of this perspective depends on your definition of human impact and how you judge the human footprint, but the discussion brings other questions to light.

If we are all part of nature, what is the tipping point where technological advancements and the accompanying wastes related to these systems warrant the label of “unnatural”? Is it mass farming? Species extinction? Animal husbandry and domestication? Hybridization and species introduction? The Industrial Revolution and fossil fuel usage? What were the anthropological moves that started this deterioration of the pristine landscape?

I propose instead of searching for an authentic, pristine nature of yesterday, designers should adopt the responsibility to protect the clean air, water, land, and species still existing today. We should take the opportunity to understand what works in these new environments we have created, specifically what is adaptable and what is resilient.

I did not answer the question, did I? Truthfully, I never really wanted to. My goal was to offer a departure point for the reader to discover their own definition. Like life and love, it is more important for each of us to develop our own definition and meaning, back it up, and finally believe in it. It’s in our best interest and nature.

Village Of Yorkville Park; Photo by Duncan Rawlinson (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Situated in one of the wealthiest retail districts in Toronto is Village of Yorkville Park, an urban open space just over an acre in size. This small neighbourhood park lends itself as the front door plaza to high-end retail, capping the Bloor Subway line, and directly abutting a parking garage. Because of its location, Yorkville Park experiences a high volume of traffic. This park brings up questions about the role of landscape architects in making nature more accessible for urban environments, the impact of post-modernism and contemporary design ideals in landscape design, and the need of a designer ecology.

“Designer ecology, while valid and desirable in urban contexts for many reasons, is not operational ecology; it does not program, facilitate, or ultimately permit the emergence and evolution of self-organizing, resilient ecological systems—a basic requirement for long-term sustainability.” – Nina-Marie Lister


The design we see today is the result of a 1994 Design Competition won by a team of Landscape Architecture Stars. Conceptually, the park is a Victorian keepsake box of Canada’s pristine nature. This nature reserve is realized with a highly designed selection of some of Canada’s natural features: a birch grove, a pine forest, a wild meadow, and of course, a massive rock plucked from the Canadian shield.

Photos by Clarence Lacy

Yorkville Park’s designer ecology, 2006; “Sustainable Large Parks: Ecological Design or Designer Ecology?” by Nina-Marie Lister

To find some answers I turned to Nina-Marie Lister – graduate program director and associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning. Lister’s academic piece, “Sustainable Large Parks : Ecological Design or Designer Ecology?” examines designing natural systems and landscape around existing ecologies in large park design. Lister also explains how a highly designed “clean” version of natural ecology – “designer ecology” – may be more appropriate for smaller and more fragmented landscapes.

Lister’s wrote that piece back in 2006, the height of the landscape urbanism movement. Landscape architects were searching for ways to validate designs extending ecologies into cities. Assisted by very sexy and evocative images, ranging from the infamous minimal lone coyote collage, to illegible “complexity” diagrams, the landscape architect took more time explaining and researching ecology than actually designing them.

Small spaces do not have the capacity to host 180 species of migratory birds, 3 wolf species, and 18 threatened plant species, so maybe Yorkville Park makes sense. I don’t have the answers, and I’m sure Kanye would reiterate that point if I ever got the chance to interview him. (I hope you all got that reference).

My personal critique of Yorkville Park and this era of early contemporary landscape design is how clean and selective it is. I really would have loved if the birch grove had a supporting understory, and if the wildflower meadow actually appeared more than a collection of urban weeds (maybe some small woody species interspersed?).

I was charged as a student to create a critique video formulating a critical look of designer ecology intended as a melange of components intended to form something larger, but a solution missing a few key ingredients – and a proper reparation in response. The video uses jump cuts and free associative symbolism, reinforcing the discontinuous and referential nature of this type of design within the urban landscape.

Warning the video is slightly gross and mildy graphic.

I hope no one is offended. Yorkville Park is a great space, a great example of this notion of designer ecology.

If you’re like me – and I figure most people in 2017 are – you listen to music while walking, running, ride sharing, or driving through the landscape. Music has the power to express complex emotional and spiritual concepts, teleporting the mind to a certain time and place, or even bring about an altered state.

Beyond its role in audio-visual bias in spatial perception, your earbuds and track 13 on Anderson .Paak’s Malibu album can heavily influence experience and emotions, or even spiritually connect to your surroundings.
This augmented experience becomes landscape around you.

When I think of the tie between music and landscape, or music and nature, I think of a few examples of music augmenting the landscape. An artist can teleport you to a certain setting. An artist can reify a natural landscape’s unpredictability or ominous scale. Music can explain concepts within nature that are too broad for our consumption. Music can mimic nature. An artist can capture and isolate parts of nature.

That is a lot to think about!

Before we get into it let’s get some definitions out of the way:

  • Landscape n. – in a broad sense, the features of an area of land and its landforms; how these features interact with the broader nature and man-made features. This includes features both physical and cultural, natural and anthropological. Landscape can also be described as setting, a geographical location at a moment of time.
  • Music n. – sounds combined to produce a beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.
  • Nature n. – the physical world and its organisms; features and products of the earth as opposed to humans and human creations.



Psychogeographic Map of Paris by Guy Debord; “The Naked City” (1955)

Today, February 2nd, is Groundhog Day. In the spirit of the holiday (and Bill Murray), I want to revisit/relive a topic that really moved me some years back.

A few years ago, while working on my thesis, I fell in love with cheap Bordeaux, making xerox prints of modern art, and 60’s French political philosophy. I became consumed with the ideals of the organization “Situationist International“.

Situationiste Internationale was a Leftist French intellectual publication and organization started in 1957. Its ideals, similarly aligned with other Neo-Marxists, served as an inspiration for the ‘68ers and other social and political movements within the country. The organization was around until around 1972, when divisions in thought and internal criticism of DeBord and the adopted slogan, “Ne Travaille jamais” (“Never work) ruptured the movement.