The Art and Science of Urban Landscapes—One Performance Study at a Time
As urban areas continue to densify—cities now house more than 50% of the population in the United States—open green space has become a much desired but scarce commodity. The meaning attached to urban landscapes is now much more than its mere aesthetic value. It is the combination of economic, environmental, social and aesthetic implications of landscape projects that creates synergy around landscape architecture as part of urban form and function.
The global ‘environmental awakening,’ especially in the early 2000s, and growing awareness of sustainable and green design practices across design and planning fields made us more cognizant of issues such as rapid urbanization, uneven natural and human resource allocation, extraneous consumption behaviors, climate change and rapid ecological and environmental degradation. Such developments reminded both academia and practitioners that there are two sides (“the art” and “the science”) to understanding, designing, constructing and managing landscapes, and landscape architecture professionals have the opportunity to be in the forefront of this discussion with well-established, knowledge-based practices, especially in complex urban settings.
Investigating landscape performance and learning from past lessons has become a necessary dimension of landscape architecture, not only to reduce the gap between academia and practitioners, but also to promote the impact of the field as part of urban design. It is critical to subscribe to the phrase “the art and science” more than ever to elevate our roles and to better understand and shape the built environment.
Although landscape performance is a relatively new phenomenon for many, the project evaluation is not so new to the broader design and planning fields. Some of the theoretical underpinnings of these studies go back to behavioral studies in architectural literature from the late 1960s (Hall, 1966; Sommer, 1966). Project evaluation and performance have appeared in selective studies in design literature in the 1970s, and allied design fields increasingly began to subscribe to the idea in the 1980s under the Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) framework. POE is defined simply as the assessment of the performance of physical design elements in a given, in-use facility (Preiser et al., 1988). The project evaluation studies are primarily conducted to assess the utility and ‘success’ of a given design project to inform future practices.
Project evaluation and performance studies, influenced by the POE framework, began to appear in landscape architecture literature later than in architectural literature. Although landscape architecture recognized research as a means to address the knowledge gap between academia and practice (see LAF’s founders’ mission from 1966), studying projects and their performance as a necessary dimension of communicating landscape architecture’s value received more recognition in the 1990s (Whyte, 1980, 1990; Bookout et.al., 1994; Woodfin & Ozdil, 1998). Specifically, seminal works such as People Places and A Case Study Method for Landscape Architecture elevated the value of the systematic documentation and evaluation of landscape projects (Marcus & Francis, 1998; Francis, 1999).
Increasing awareness concerning sustainability and the green movement and greater access to data in the early 2000s encouraged more comprehensive studies, which took into account environmental, social, economic, physiological and aesthetic factors. The beginning of the 21st century brought a new outlook on project performance and evaluation in landscape architecture. In addition to the continuing refinement of design evaluation and performance research among scholars (such as Crompton, 2001; Francis, 2003; Ozdil, 2008; Lovel and Johnson, 2009) and the primarily entrepreneurial efforts by organizations (ULI Case Studies, 2014; USGBC-LEED, 2014), the self-review, documentation and publication of completed landscape projects become a practice of landscape design firms (see Olin Partners, 2008; SWA, 2010; Sasaki, 2012). In more recent years, for the first time in the history of landscape architecture, systematic documentation, evaluation, rating and/or value inquiry become an institutionalized effort by organized collaborations between practice and academia (such as LAF’s CSI, 2014; SSI, 2014; TCLF, 2014; EPA, 2014).
While some of these efforts focus on systematic documentation of post-project performance (economic, environmental and/or social conditions), such as Landscape Architecture Foundation’s (LAF) Case Study Investigation (CSI) program, others, like the Sustainable Site Initiative’s (SSI) Pilot Program, focus on pre-development site conditions and environmental factors. Others, such as The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s (TCLF) What’s Out There database, identify and briefly document landscapes’ cultural and historic significance (see also USGBC’s and EPA’s efforts to document case studies).
By the end of this year, it is expected that LAF’s CSI program will reach over 100 case studies; SSI’s Pilot Program now includes 34 projects and TCLF’s What’s Out There program includes over 1,700 landscape project briefs. It seems that documenting and evaluating various qualities of landscape architecture one project at a time is increasingly becoming more of a daily exercise for both practitioners and researchers in recent years. These developments are encouraging, and one should not be prematurely overwhelmed by the recent focus on landscape performance, metrics, ratings, numbers, etc. The “art” of landscape practice is still the heart of what landscape architects do, but both academics and practitioners are still behind the curve on supporting the scientific side of the practice with evidence and knowledge.
The demands of the public and the cities we serve are increasing in complexity, and there is a greater call for landscape architects to influence urban ecology, environment and form. Many urban landscape project footprints are relatively small when compared with their counterparts in the urban periphery, so illustrating their impact, value and performance becomes essential in order to demonstrate why urban landscapes matter. For these sites to be able to compete with profitable real estate ventures in urban areas, their competitive advantages in creating livable urban environments must be demonstrated with evidence. Performance research becomes a necessary dimension of urban landscape projects to provide more robust and generalizable knowledge and to communicate landscape architecture’s impact among allied professionals, the greater scientific community and, most importantly, with the residents of urban areas.
Demonstrating the value and benefits of landscape architectural projects with empirical data is still a challenge to document and communicate, especially for projects in urban contexts. The core of the argument lies not only in ‘what urban landscapes have’ but also in ‘what it does’ with its presence and the activity it creates in adjacent properties and the surrounding urban context. If we do not systematically document and communicate economic, social, environmental and aesthetic benefits of signature and impactful projects shaping urban form—like Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, Chicago’s Millennium Park, Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, or New York’s High Line–how can we prepare our cities as people places for the next century? Not to mention raising awareness about the impact of urban landscapes on urban ecology, environment and form.
Landscape architecture practice and scholarship is evolving, and evaluation and performance research should be an essential dimension of landscape architecture, informing future designs with lessons from the past. This line of inquiry is important not just because the knowledge created will surely help educate future practitioners, but also because it will advance the scope and the science of landscape architecture in the future as a knowledge-based activity. The aim of such studies should reach beyond the self-fulfilling prophecy among landscape architecture academics and practitioners about who we are. The value of assessing the performance of landscape architecture with empirical methods and systematic research lies in communicating the importance of the profession to other “non-landscape architects” with valid language and reliable and robust data and methods. Ultimately, this focus area will be a critical part of performance research and landscape architecture in the future to communicate the greater impact and value to the public.
One final question that still remains in the greater scheme of things: what is the performance and/or value implications of creating environments to promote a healthy and fulfilling life, sequester carbon dioxide for clean air, produce energy and/or food for human consumption or treat water through landscapes as part of urban form? The answer is yet to be determined. Such difficult questions should serve as the topic for future urban landscape research to further validate “the art and science” of landscape architecture as a scholarly field and professional practice.
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by Taner R. Ozdil, Ph.D., ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture & Associate Director for Research for the Center for Metropolitan Density (CfMD), School of Architecture, The University of Texas at Arlington. He is also a Landscape Architecture Foundation CSI Research Fellow for both 2013 and 2014. Taner can be contacted at email@example.com for questions, comments and inquiries.