PHILOSOPHY OF PRACTICE AND PERFORMANCE IN LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: Stewardship, Restoration, & Resilience
“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits.”Wendell Berry, Recollected Essays, 1987
“No creature, not even swine, befouls its nest with such abandon as does homo sapiens, poisoning his habitat with fiendishly concocted chemicals and their deadly toxic waste… this eminent French scientist warned that since soil is the basis for all human life, our only hope for a healthy world rests on reestablishing the harmony in the soil we have disrupted by our modern methods agronomy.”Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird on 1912 Nobel Prize winner Dr. Alexis Carrel, Secrets of the Soil, 2002 p. xi.
In the early days of the Theories of Landscape Architecture course, I was asked to complete this sentence: “My work is about…”. And this is what I wrote: “My work is about putting something good in the world that leaves a legacy which helps others enjoy a better quality of life and illuminates the ecological and cultural factors that underpin a place.” I have been asking myself a lot lately who it is that I am and who I want to be as a person, a researcher, and a designer.
I will spend my entire life working towards ecological restoration and bringing people and nature together. The problem is that much of our landscape today is designed for high-speed travel, front door parking, and sprawl. We have overwhelmingly designed our landscapes with the mindset that we are masters of nature; yet our cities and communities are dysfunctional, and every natural disaster reminds us we truly are at nature’s mercy. Our lack of stewardship and reckless development has created an environment that is slowly killing us. I believe most people are searching for the good life—whateverthatis to them. In spite of this, there are fundamental truths about humans: our dependency on nature, our instincts to create art, and our ability to learn. I believe that we can learn to be better stewards of the land. I believe that if everyone practiced ecological stewardship, the result would be a lot of positive change and a healthier planet. My position is to work towards a healthful and resilient future. This means supporting design and philosophies that approach interventions with a gentle touch, with intent to restore and heal the landscape. Design should be about creating spaces that honor stories and inspire people to adopt restorative and regenerative practices.
This next section consists of three case studies. Two are about designers who inspire me and a landscape from each that is illustrative of my stance. The third case was selected using the opposite approach. From the site I discovered the designer. This is because the site is one that truly speaks to the kind of spaces I want to see more of in the world and I wanted to learn more about the minds who created it. The two designers/firms and associated landscapes are: Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl and Tanner Springs Park in Portland, Oregon and Anne Whiston Spirn and The West Philadelphia Project in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The third case study was selected for because I think it is excellent: Landscape Park Duisburg Nord, designed by Latz+Partner. It is located in Duisburg, Germany.
Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl
I have followed Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl since I was an early MLA student at Mississippi State University and my studio professor (Cory Gallo) at the time pressed a copy of Recent Waterscapes (Dreiseitl and Grau 2009) into my hands and told me we were about to talk about water. He described Herbert Dreiseitl and his work to me and then explained that the studio was known as “the water people,” a descriptor that captured my curiosity. It was true. As I leafed through the different projects, I found instance after instance of water used in ways that excited me and stirred awake memories from my childhood of time spent in public places with joyful, accessible water (thinking specifically about Mud Island Park in Memphis, TN and walking barefoot the length of the scale model of the Lower Mississippi River (Figure 1)).
But Dreiseitl’s work was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Cory flipped through the book really fast, landed on a page, spun it around and showed me a project that looked like a depression in the middle of a neighborhood and said “I designed this walk. Well, I helped.” He was showing me Tanner Springs Park (2010) in the Pearl District of Portland. I was confused. I recall thinking that it looked nice, but I was too terrified to admit that I had never seen anything like this before and I didn’t understand or appreciate what I was looking at. Cory explained that it was an urban park designed to manage stormwater by collecting and cleaning it in a biotope. It was some time later as I was looking through details that I realized the biotope functioned like a constructed wetland and rain garden and that stormwater could percolate into the soil via a permeable membrane. This park has stuck with me all these years for several reasons. The most obvious is that it was the first example of functional urban ecology that a teacher went out of their way to show me. Secondly, I was fascinated by all the different spatial experiences one could have in this park: looking down into the space from buildings above, street-level looking across and down into the space, or being in any one of the designed experiences—the terrace, the walks, the wetland, the lawn, and so on. Of Tanner Springs Park, Dreiseitl and Grau write it
“is a space for contemplation. An authentic and artistic ecology, it is a place which celebrates flora and fauna. The park is an energy source for people. They come to enjoy its inherent and a natural vitality, and restore within themselves a place for nature.”(Dreiseitl and Grau 2009, p. 52) (Figure 2)
What I love about this park is that it demonstrates how designers can truly pack a city block with intentional choices and concepts that connect history with ecological function and creates a contemporary urban space. For me, this park is illustrative of how “ecological design is simply the effective adaptation to and integration with nature’s processes” authors of Ecological Design, (Van der Ryn and Cowan 2007a, p.34) write in the introduction of their manuscript. This park is ecological design because it allows for a biophilic experience for people while simultaneously returning the functionality of a wetland back to a formerly degraded urban city block.
Measuring at just barely bigger than a postage stamp, the park also illustrates the potential and power of a single urban block. Additionally, I think it demonstrates that good design provides diversity in the kinds of physical experiences a person can have on a site, regardless of scale. Tanner Springs offers choice to the casual visitor: visually, there are hundreds of windows that look down into the space; users can approach from all sides and spend time in the park in whatever place draws them: above or below the walk, through the wetland, around the perimeter, and so on.
On their company website, the studio claims to proceed under a four-part vision: “to lead Integration in planning and design to improve quality of life, to value precious Water as a source of life in planning and design, to use Landscape Architecture to connect People to urban nature,” and “to use Art to enhance the experience of people” (“Studio – Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl” 2020). This project illustrates those tenants to me. Dreiseitl centers water through stormwater management and through design, restores some of the ecological functions of the original wetlands. Art is found in every detail on site, from the hand-painted critters embedded in the glass/railroad tie art wall to the floating walk and in the mixed native grasses adjacent to cobblestones and small boulders lining the walk. Dreiseitl merges the two: art and ecology to create space for the people of the Pearl District to connect with and enjoy.
Anne Whiston Spirn
C.L. Bohannon and I had been in an advising session discussing urban ecology. I had questions about community perceptions of nature and our role as designers to maintain some experience of nature and ecological processes in our work. I wanted to know more about how to create good green infrastructure. He told me to go read Anne Whiston Spirn in Fall 2016 and he was right. When I think about how I want to approach community engagement, there are two very important pieces to me. First, I think there is a place for the designer to be the discipline expert and the facilitator, but they must be grounded with their ego in check, which brings me to the second piece: the community knows the place where they live and they know what they need. Sustainability and resilience are not achieved without community buy-in. And so, the words of Van der Ryn and Cowan come to mind, they say:
“listen to every voice in the design process. No one is participant only or designer only: Everyone is a participant-designer. Honor the special knowledge that each person brings. As people work together to heal their places, they also heal themselves.”(Van der Ryn and Cowan 2007, p. 169)
It is from this mindset that I take my position on community engagement.
In Spirn’s 1985 essay “Urban Nature and Human Design: Renewing the Great Tradition” she writes about how the city is not separate from nature, but part of it. She goes on to describe the literature about humanity’s understanding of landscape and landscape architecture from the perspective of scholars like Hippocrates who in the 5th century BC, “described the effects of ‘airs, waters, and laces’ upon human society, including the health of both individuals and the community at large” (Spirn 1985). Or, Alberti in 1485 who warned of “the disasters incurred by cities that had disregarded the power of nature” (Spirn 1985, p. 40). Her writing resonates with me. She follows a temporal narrative on human development and nature all the way to her own contributions in the form of recommendations for what to do with vacant lands in cities (Figure 3): water storage and storm-/waste water treatment, flood protection, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, new public spaces for the community. She talks about vacant land in a way that is hopeful and inspiring:
“[v]acant lands are extraordinarily diverse in their physical character and social context as well as in the constellations that they form collectively. Perceived as part of the city’s greater land and open space resource, and viewed together with the social and economic needs of the neighborhoods in which they occur, vacant lands represent an opportunity to integrate nature and city in new ways. In the process they can transform the city and the way people live within it.”(Spirn 1985, p. 47)
Spirn cares about ecology and community. It is apparent in all her work. Specifically, The West Philadelphia Landscape Project (established 1987), is a thirty-three-year relationship between Spirn and communities within the Mill Creek Watershed, where the work is more than just installing community gardens, the “mission is to restore nature and rebuild community through strategic design, planning and education” where “landscape literacy [is] a cornerstone of community development” (Spirn 2020). And what I like about Spirn is that she brings a quality of realism to the work that a lot of big names just can’t because they are out of touch. Spirn studies urban landscapes and works with the communities for achievable improvements (Figure 4). I believe many of us are in this discipline to make the world a better place, but Spirn is out there actually doing it.
So for decades, Spirn has been in Philadelphia working on community level projects to improve quality of life for the residents across West Philadelphia. She has been analyzing the vacant land, completing studies on the watershed and bit by bit mapping the social structure and function of her watershed and more. With every community garden installed, with every completed project, she is contributing to weaving a dense fabric of culture, landscape, and place.
What she is creating across this watershed is green infrastructure. Spirn’s projects are nodes green infrastructure that support human health and wellbeing. Christopher Coutts writes on green infrastructure and health, saying: “ecosystem services are the benefits that humans obtain from the ecosystems that green infrastructure supports, and the focus here is on the ecosystem services that green infrastructure provides to humans to sustain and enhance their health, well-being, and survival” (Coutts 2016, p. 22). With the community supporting these efforts, she has made an impact on Philadelphia. No doubt she has touched the lives of thousands of people in her career.
My early years in Jackson, MS were spent in a little low-income urban neighborhood of single-family homes that were built in the 1920’s. We were located on the wrong side of Fortification St. and so I recall vividly how distinct our streets looked than the streets on the other side where the houses were bigger and the neighborhood was actually a historic district. I remember mom taking us to neighborhood events on our side where we would clear vacant lots of trash and overgrown plants, making the spaces more neighborly. These neighborhood efforts never went as far as what Spirn is doing, obviously, but that experience as a child made a huge impact on me. As my career progresses, it will be important to me to develop relationships in the community so that I can leverage my knowledge and experiences for the good of people and nature.
This firm surprised me. From the Theories course, I remembered Duisburg Nord, but I didn’t remember discussing anything about them. This German firm, established in 1968, is big. A couple of landscape architects started the firm, their son and his wife are now the principles, and they operate an office of over 20 designers and associates. While I did not find a mission statement on their website, they do have philosophical stances for each of the typologies of work that they are doing: postindustrial, classical, gardens, and so on. For postindustrial, they write, in part:
“Specific architecture for specific uses does not need to be built. The imagination lets the existing ones be re-interpreted and used in new ways. That can mean uncovering old rules and combining them with new elements and new goals. Artefacts can develop that pursue natural processes in derelict surroundings according to ecological rules initiated and maintained by technological processes. These artefacts symbolise ecology, of both natural and technical systems.”From ‘The idea of making time visible’, Topos 33. (Latz+Partner 2020)
This resonates with me. I find there is a struggle between the kinds of minds who look at a site and say “what can I make here?” and the kinds of minds who look at a site and ask “what is already here?” At Duisburg Nord, what I see in the landscape park is the result of a team of minds who created a roadmap for what a redeveloped post-industrial site might be. Studying landscape has really taught me the lesson that nature is not always what it seems and sometimes it is more. Studying landscape has taught me that art in nature is not always about what objects or materials we might put into spaces, but to see there is art in natural materials and visceral feelings in space.
I think Duisburg Nord does this very well. Throughout the landscape park are these various moments, related once to it being an old blast furnace. Simultaneously, there are these newly designed moments: planting designs, walks, furniture, and views that make it an interesting and dynamic public space. Where I come from, an old industrial site like this would be fenced off and forgotten, a blight on the landscape. Duisburg Nord illustrates how the physicality of industrial ruins becomes a structure off which to design: moments for the casual park-goer, large events like concerts, or part of other artist’s design exhibitions. As with Dreiseitl’s remediation work at Tanner Springs, Latz+Partners did the same thing at Duisburg Nord by cleaning pollutants on site and storing contaminated soils on site when remediation was not possible. They literally draped a natural mantle over the abandoned industrial site and made I sing (Figure 5). This is a great urban space and I want to live in a world with more like this in it.
A Deeper Dive
I know I need to better understand history and the policies which influenced the landscape to be what we know it to be today. For instance, spending time and energy listening to minority voices so that I can better understand the lived experiences of the community around me. Jeannette Armstrong, an indigenous Canadian author, educator, artist, and activist, is one person whose work I have been exploring lately. She writes on listening to the minority voice in indigenous traditions:
“To my understanding, democracy in its current form, “majority rule,” has embedded in it an adversarial approach. It sets up an oppression of the minority, a construct in which there is always going to be conflict. But in our tradition the minority voice is the most important voice to consider, because it is most likely to tell us what is going wrong, what we are not looking after, doing, or acting responsibly towards.”Jeanette Armstrong on “En’owkin”
I think that it is human nature to want to focus on ourselves, to get our needs met and all try and live a good life. I believe as a society we must strive to do better by the most vulnerable among us. Armstrong was the beginning of me really exploring these ideas. The LAF fellows were impressive this past summer: Pierre Bélanger, co-founder of OPEN SYSTEMS, and writer on settler colonialism, power, and the responsibility of designers has been front and center in my mind for months now. His firm sets out a 38-point manifesto centered around acknowledging the traditional peoples whose lands were stolen in colonial conflicts and through generations of systemic injustice (OPEN SYSTEMS et al. 2020).
Healing systemic injustice is another place where I will continue to dive. I think this arrives at the intersection of racial injustice in our country and how that has continued to play out in the landscape for different groups. Exploring this has come largely through the research project on Black recreation landscapes and the work between the Katen research team and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and National Park Service (NPS). I have spent time reflecting on my own Whiteness and the privilege that I have benefitted from. I have thought a lot about the subjects of my research and how they were subjected to racist policies, violence, and murder—and that these atrocities were all carried out somewhere. I believe we will never heal our landscapes ecologically until we heal the wounds and generational trauma of the people who live there. Since, I have been exploring the intersection of marginalized communities and access to justice. A book by that very name, edited by Yash Ghai and Jill Cottrell (2010) sits on my desk next to another The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in Marginalized Communities edited by Sharon Sutton and Susan Kemp. This is a very clear direction in my work right now because I don’t see a future where I’m not working with communities on green infrastructure. I believe I must know the people I am seeking to serve, there is no public service without that knowledge. Part of gaining that knowledge is educating myself on the systemic injustice that created the landscapes these communities find themselves.
Other works that I am currently studying includes research and writing on wetlands and coastal ecosystems because I am trying to understand how constructing wetlands generates ecosystem services in lands that are experiencing hazards related to sea level rise, subsidence, and tidal flooding. Some of the most built-up places on this planet lie on the coast. The best way to increase resilience is to restore the native ecologies that have been crowded out due to development. Therefore, I have been studying managed retreat, specifically green infrastructure strategies and the ecosystems they aim to support until they are established and stable. I have been reading books on salt marshes, living coastlines, oyster reefs, inverted levees, and so on. I have been reading about how communities around the world have been coping with flooding (Rush 2018). I learned long ago that the more I read the more questions I have and I see more gaps in my knowledge, so I have settled into the notion that education is a lifetime journey.
In Thesis and Practice
Kathryn Moore writes in The Value of Values that it is impossible to not have an environmental impact because we are dependent on it for survival, but that it’s about how we choose to interact with nature that defines our relationship with it, and in doing so: the trajectory of our collective future. She writes:
“Instead of seeing nature as something separate from culture, from ourselves, we must recognize that in the way we live our lives, with every intervention we make, we are expressing (consciously or not) an attitude toward the physical world. The choice is not whether we work with art or ecology, with nature or culture, but now considerately, imaginatively, and responsibly we go about our business, because for every one of our actions, there is a reaction in the physical world. We make an impact on the world every minute of every day of our lives. Working with natural processes, given the global challenges we face, is an ecological imperative.”(Moore 2015, p. 67)
For me, the word imperative is the most important in this statement because I believe that our best shot at a healthy, livable world for ourselves and future generations is a more intentional ecological mindset and approach to living—although there are many different environmental discourses being argued today (Dryzek 2013). My work will reflect that in both study and practice. I will study topics that help increase the welfare of individuals while healing the environment, I’m not sure there’s anything else that could give my life true meaning.
Coutts, Christopher. 2016. “Green Infrastructure, Ecosystem Services, and the Study of Their Contribution to Health.” In Green Infrastructure and Health. New York: Rutledge.
Dreiseitl, Herbert, and Dieter Grau, eds. 2009. Recent Waterscapes: Planning, Building and Designing with Water. Basel: Birkhäuser.
Dryzek, John S. 2013. The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Latz+Partner. 2020. “Postindustrial Landscapes.” 2020. https://www.latzundpartner.de/en/projekte/postindustrielle-landschaften/.
Moore, Kathryn. 2015. “The Value of Values.” In Values in Landscape Architecture: Finding Center in Theory and Practice and Environmental Design, edited by M. Elen Deming. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
OPEN SYSTEMS, Alexander Arroyo, Ghazal Jafari, Hernán L. Bianchi-Benguria, Tiffany Kaewen Dang, Pablo E. Escudero, and Pierre Bélanger. 2020. “A 38-Point Design Manifesto.” 2020. https://nodesignonstolen.land/media.
Rush, Elizabeth. 2018. Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Canada: Milkweed Editions.
Spirn, Anne Whiston. 1985. “Urban Nature and Human Design: Renewing the Great Tradition.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 5 (1): 39–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739456X8500500106.
———. 1990. “Vacant Land: A Resource for Reshaping Urban Neighborhoods.” Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning: University of Pennsylvania. http://web.mit.edu/spirn/www/newfront/book/pdf/vacant_land.pdf.
———. 2020. “West Philadelphia Landscape Project.” 2020. https://wplp.net/about/.
“Studio – Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl.” 2020. 2020. http://www.dreiseitl.com/en/studio.
Studio Gang. 2017. “Memphis Riverfront Concept.” 2017. https://www.dropbox.com/s/foduziypughs52d/Memphis%20Riverfront%20Concept%20%28c%29%20Studio%20Gang.pdf?dl=0.
Tompkins, Peter, and Christopher Bird. 2002. Secrets of the Soil: New Solutions for Restoring Our Planet. 3rd. Anchorage: Earthpulse Press.
Van der Ryn, Sim, and Stuart Cowan. 2007a. “An Introduction to Ecological Design.” In Ecological Design, 32–48. Washington: Island Press.
———. 2007b. “Fourth Principle: Make Nature Visible.” In Ecological Design, 168–168. Washington: Island Press.
 Cited in William Cathcart and Pete Melby, Sustainable Site Design (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002), page 3.
 Unfortunately, I am unsure of where I first came across this Jeanette Armstrong quote. At the time, I was inspired by her words and I had no idea I would ever write this paper and want to use that quote in it. I am still searching for a citation, but I can at least attribute the ideas to the original author.