The International Landscape Convention Initiative

Mexico City streetscape image: Erik Mustonen
Mexico City streetscape
image: Erik Mustonen

From May 20-23, 2015, I attended the Annual Congress of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA). This in itself was not surprising, since in addition to being a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, I am also a member of CSLA. What was notable was that the Congress was in Mexico City. Every ten years or so, CSLA likes to add interest to their annual meeting by having it outside Canada (last time, in Cuba).

Mexico City is amazing! Estimates vary, but the metropolitan area—the largest, by population, in the Western Hemisphere and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world—has about 22 million people living in an area of 2,072 square kilometers. This compares to 20.1 million in the New York metropolitan area, which is 17,405 square kilometers in size. Mexico City’s density is nine times greater in spite of having very few tall buildings.

Avenida Francisco I. Madero, a pedestrian street in central Mexico City image: Erik Mustonen
Avenida Francisco I. Madero, a pedestrian street in central Mexico City
image: Erik Mustonen

In spite of the intense urban development, a great number of heritage buildings and significant park areas have survived. Most of the city has been built on what was at the time of initial settlement by the Aztecs a lake. A remnant of traditional Aztec agriculture is preserved in the cultural landscape of Xochimilco, where chinampas, rectangular earth terraces contained initially by logs and then by trees and shrubs, are built from nutrient-rich mud scooped out of adjacent canals. These terraces once fed the Aztec Empire and are still incredibly productive. Xochimilco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Chinampa image: Erik Mustonen
Chinampa
image: Erik Mustonen
Xochilmilco farmer image: Erik Mustonen
Xochilmilco farmer
image: Erik Mustonen
Maize image: Erik Mustonen
Maize
image: Erik Mustonen

The chinampas and canals also provide valuable wildlife habitat, which is scarce in Mexico City. It is perhaps the last remaining habitat for the axolotl, a unique, critically endangered amphibian.

Egret image: Erik Mustonen
Egret
image: Erik Mustonen

The canals, moreover, are a recreational resource. Boatmen with long poles push tourist barges along the shallow waters.

Pole barge image: Erik Mustonen
Pole barge
image: Erik Mustonen

Chapultepec Park, just west of the center of the city, has 1,696 acres—more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park (843 acres). It has been a retreat since pre-Columbian times when it served Aztec rulers. Chapultepec Park also acts as urban “lungs” for the modern city.

Chapultepec Park promenade image: Erik Mustonen
Chapultepec Park promenade
image: Erik Mustonen
Chapultepec Park urban lungs image: Erik Mustonen
Chapultepec Park urban lungs
image: Erik Mustonen

These valuable heritage landscapes have been endangered in recent years. Xochimilco had been neglected and there was pressure to fill in the remaining portion for development, and a major highway was constructed across part of Chapultepec Park. Mexico City was chosen for the meeting of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects to provide an opportunity to coordinate with the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) in their on-going initiative to advance the cause of the International Landscape Convention (or Charter). The city’s impressive cultural landscapes provided compelling examples of sites deserving of landscape conservation in a city where landscape is often threatened.

Urban tree, Avenida Juárez, central Mexico City image: Erik Mustonen
Urban tree, Avenida Juárez, central Mexico City
image: Erik Mustonen

The highlight of this CSLA Annual Meeting was the signing of the Canadian Landscape Charter. As defined in the Charter, “Landscape is an area, as perceived by people, whose character and expression are the result of the cumulative actions and interactions of natural and/or human factors. These areas may be urban, rural or natural, local or regional, common or exceptional, and they may reflect a diversity of culture or historic values.”

Chapultepec Park monument image: Erik Mustonen
Chapultepec Park monument
image: Erik Mustonen

The Canadian Landscape Charter is one component of a global initiative to create national and regional charters on the way towards an International Landscape Convention. According to the Latin American Landscape Initiative, “the International Landscape Convention would be an international treaty that will promote the role that the landscape carries out by its general interest in cultural, ecological, environmental and social fields. The goal is to stimulate a more integrated and democratic approach that establishes landscape like as a holistic tool for the planning, management, and creation of sustainable development.”

IFLA has been promoting the idea of an International Landscape Convention (ILC) since 2006. During the 2010 IFLA World Council in Suzhou, China, a resolution was passed requesting UNESCO’s Director General to review the feasibility of setting up standards, “to further enhance the recognition and conservation of landscape globally.”

More than 30 countries spoke in favor of the convention, but the Executive Board of UNESCO did not ultimately accept IFLA’s proposal due to opposition from the US on political grounds, and from France, which had concerns about the cost to UNESCO and the possibility of overlapping with other programs.

Instead of taking a global approach, since 2011 IFLA has been seeking to work within regions such as the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. This has been very successful, and the following Landscape Charters, Conventions, or Declarations are in now place:

Representatives of the nine different provincial and territorial associations that make up the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects signed the Canadian Landscape Charter at the meeting in Mexico City. As stated in the Charter:

“By signing the Canadian Landscape Charter, the signatories:

  • Acknowledge landscapes as essential components of people’s environment, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.
  • Acknowledge the special capacities, responsibilities and leadership possessed by Landscape Architects when intervening on landscapes.
  • Adopt the CLC core principles which are to Recognize landscapes as vital, Consider all people, Inspire stewardship, Expand knowledge and Show leadership, and thereby build a better practice of Landscape Architecture that contributes to the creation of an improved and sustainable living environment for all.
  • Support the elaboration, execution and promotion of the CLC Strategic Plan to better enhance, protect, restore, plan, develop and manage all landscapes.”

The Latin Americans pointed out that the major piece missing on the map—especially in the western hemisphere—is the United States. ASLA President K. Richard Zweifel, FASLA, was present at an IFLA meeting held concurrently with the CSLA Congress when this was pointed out. Sitting in a circle of about twenty people, including myself as Chair of the ASLA International Practice PPN, we were all asked to comment individually on the ILC initiative. President Zweifel offered some diplomatic words of encouragement, but he said that he was unable to commit on behalf of ASLA, which moreover had a number of programs with goals similar to those of the ILC.

The important aspect of an International Landscape Convention or Charter, or even a multi-national regional Convention, is that it has potential to unite people of the world in the common cause of valuing and defending landscapes’ important cultural and/or ecological attributes. Also, it can be used to support local groups seeking to preserve treasured landscapes by bringing international attention, and hopefully the weight of an international treaty, to bear. This would be particularly important in smaller nations and for under-represented communities such as indigenous aboriginal groups.

Canoe on canal in Xochimilco image: Erik Mustonen
Canoe on canal in Xochimilco
image: Erik Mustonen

The idea of an International Landscape Convention has a power, clarity, and universal appeal that a varied collection of programs and initiatives scattered across many nations and organizations cannot have. As Chair of the International Practice PPN, I am generally favorable to international initiatives, but I find the arguments for an International Landscape Convention especially compelling.

After the official representatives of the CSLA had signed the Canadian Landscape Charter, individuals attending the congress were invited to sign as well, in support. I signed as someone coming from a young country, inspired by a city that has managed to preserve cultural landscapes in spite of nearly 700 years of development.

Plaza de la Santa Veracruz image: Erik Mustonen
Plaza de la Santa Veracruz
image: Erik Mustonen

Upcoming IFLA Meetings:

IFLA Asia-Pacific Region Congress
September 7-9, 2015, Lombok, Indonesia

IFLA Americas Regional Conference
October 5-9, 2015, La Paz, Bolivia

IFLA Africa Symposium
October 14-16, 2015, Nairobi, Kenya

IFLA Europe General Assembly
October 16-18, 2015, Lisbon, Portugal

53rd IFLA World Congress
April 20-22, 2016, Torino, Italy

World Summit and Congress: Architecture + Design + Planning (including IFLA and CSLA)
October 5-21, 2017, Montréal, Quebec, Canada

by Erik S. Mustonen, ASLA, CSLA, RLA (CA + MN,) CLARB, LEED AP-ND, a dual US-Canadian Citizen currently based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, whose 40-year career has evolved in Canada, the United States, and overseas (Germany, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Tunisia)

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