During an open house event for a park this weekend, I noticed a gentleman grew disinterested speaking to me while I was responding to his questions when he realized I was “just the landscaper”. Despite AHBE Landscape Architects being the lead firm responsible for designing the park, the man wanted to talk with an architect. The interaction made me realize any talk about the future of the profession of landscape architecture seems premature today, considering how little the general public or even our peers in the A/E industry, know about our profession.
However, all things evolve, even landscape architecture. When landscape architects talk about the future of the profession, we are talking about how landscape architecture has been practiced and perceived over the last 150 years versus how we believe it should be practiced over the next 150 years.
Traditional landscape architecture primarily concentrates on aesthetics – more specifically, the idealized English country garden aesthetic our “Father”, Frederick Law Olmsted, imported to the United States through his design of Central Park in New York City. This pastoral aesthetic has since dominated how Americans build parks, cities, and our own residences across the country. Unfortunately, in our effort to achieve this idealized vision, landscape architects have forced the aesthetic into environmentally incompatible locations. For example, in Southern California we expend a vast amount of resources to maintain a northern European-style landscape comprised of lawn grasses, herbaceous shrubs, flowering northern latitude woody plants, annuals, and bulbs. This type of landscaping requires a great deal of water, fertilizer, specialized equipment, specialized irrigation equipment and a myriad of soil amendments to install and maintain.
Fast forward to 2018 and landscape architectural design has slowly evolved to take into account the amount of effort and resources necessary to maintain our landscapes. We have become more sustainable, and consequently, more deliberate and scientific in our approach to design.
The future of landscape architecture will demand we use our knowledge of living systems to create environments that reduce or eliminate the use of natural resources, while still creating places of value and beauty for humankind. For example, planting a native California landscape locally naturalizes to our climate, expending a fraction of the resources required to maintain the landscape. Native plants would also be regenerative to the local environment by creating habitat for local wildlife. The challenge is getting native plants to survive in our urbanized environments, while also imagining aesthetic value for the public.
For decades, landscape architects have been regarded by the A/E community as a second-tier profession that did not provide essential services for humanity (as my friend likes to say, we are “hair and makeup”). Even though we have always fought for relevancy using ideas of “nature” and “beauty” as essential elements to design, Americans in particular have always thought of buildings, bridges, and roads as more essential. In a way, the criticism carries some truth, noting landscape architects have tended to only represent nature and beauty in an idealized form, regardless of the impact to the surrounding environment. As we run out of resources and push our planet to the edges of human habitation, landscape architects must change to incorporate the natural sciences into our designs. Designing natural/living systems become an essential requirement of our profession. Of course the irony here is the dire circumstances of climate change will push landscape architects to the forefront of the design world, delivering us the legitimacy we have always craved.