Sharing the Poetics of Sustainable Landscapes

by Dr. Carl A. Smith, Int. ASLA

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Natural History Museum of Utah: A Museum Without Walls. Salt Lake City, Utah. Design Workshop, Inc. / image: Brandon Huttenlocher/Design Workshop, Inc.

As well as sharing your experiences and expertise in the professional and technical aspects of sustainable and resilient landscapes, The Field can also be a place to share your interpretive and personal reflections on the environment at large, and on the shared challenges we are facing to reconcile the optimistic practice of design with the uncertainties inherent in the climate crisis.

Through photography, drawings, paintings, poems, as well as more-linear text, ASLA’s Sustainable Design & Development Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team encourages you to think about landscapes that have provoked a wonder of nature and an ecological conscience within you. Through practice, what places have you had a hand in creating that provide an immersive, aesthetic experience for users and, through that, might inculcate a sense of environmental wonder and responsibility? The PPN welcomes ASLA members to consider submissions for The Field that are your personal, forthright reflections on the challenges of navigating through the implementation of sustainable landscapes, as well as unapologetically aesthetically-biased and/or personal documentation of built works.

This new, broadened approach was highlighted in January’s wonderful post by Alli Wilson, Earth’s Due, which included her poem “This Earth is Due Diligence.” The post concluded with hints and tips for improving the environmental performance of projects, as well as lifting practice modes and behaviors. In that sense, Alli’s post offers both a rational and actionable focus common to most Professional Practice Network (PPN) posts, as well as something more creative and reflective. I suspect that this dual approach will chime with many of the readership whose environmental sensibilities, concerns, and aspirations cannot be fully captured by the technical and professional realm, nor perhaps with reflections on a single project.

As a little further context (and encouragement) to this new approach, I offer here a few thoughts on landscape-sustainability and place-aesthetics, and how the creative impulse might weave through sustainability thinking which, as I argued in a previous post, Sustainability, Urban Resilience, and False Resilience, remains a relevant aspirational concept.

A year ago, I wrote in the Field article Drawing the Green New Deal and Humanizing the Design Process about the “the emotional claiming of geography” and its association with ecological thought. I briefly highlighted the work of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson as exemplifying a deeply personal approach that transcends an intellectual, and ultimately abstract, conception of the environment.

With A Sand County Almanac (And Sketches Here and There) (1949) and Silent Spring (1962), Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, respectively, arguably did more than anyone to establish environmental conservation within the public consciousness. What is notable is how two ostensibly natural-science scholars wrote with such approachable passion about the child-like wonder of nature and the vital role of emotional attachment, love, and loyalty in the inculcation of an ecological conscience, with Leopold stating that:

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and the land. Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace… The usual answer to this dilemma is more conservation education. No one will debate this, but is it certain that only the volume of education needs stepping up? Is something lacking in the content as well?… No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949, p 207-210).

Leopold’s ideas on the inculcation of ecological conscience, resonates with late 20th Century and early 21st Century writing on the potential agency of landscape design in shifting the public’s ecological conscience, by providing places of aesthetic appeal that make plain the narrative of the natural systems at play. Writing on the conveyance of landscape narrative more generally, Sonja K. Foss posits that rhetorical themes only emerge if people are encouraged to dwell, return and invest in a space, form memories and intertwine their internal-self with the external environment to form a place. In short, aesthetics and experience cannot possibly be removed from the equation of sustainable landscapes.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve: A Showcase of Eleuthera’s History, Native Plants, and their Medicinal Uses. Eleuthera, The Bahamas. Raymond Jungles, Inc. / image: Stephen Dunn Photography

In Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader (a book celebrating its twentieth birthday this year) Simon Swaffield casts the need to integrate ecology and aesthetics as a keynote theme of contemporary landscape architecture. Within the book’s fifth section, “Ecological Design and the Aesthetics of Sustainability,” Swaffield includes an excerpt from Robert L. Thayer’s 1994 book Gray World, Green Heart that again highlights the criticality of, when and where apropos, lifting ecological function into the observable realm of landscape experience. In short, Thayer argues, seeing landscape sustainability in action will translate into a broadening of aesthetic norms, appreciation, and acceptance of sustainable places.

However, earlier in the reader, the 1997 essay “The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture” by Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA (included in Part IV, “Society, Language and the Representation of Landscape”) posits that landscape understanding is derived from the whole somatic world of the senses—not just the visual. This point is reiterated in Meyer’s 2008 manifesto “Sustaining Beauty: The Performance of Appearance” when she states “immersive, aesthetic experience can lead to recognition, empathy, love, respect and care for the environment.” (Meyer, 2008, p 7). Furthermore, she then goes on to provide practice-ready and tested tactics for integrating aesthetic sensory appeal with environmental performance, and calls for the inclusion of aesthetics as a key performance indicator of landscape sustainability, with aesthetic experience since acknowledged in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization metrics for Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity.

In the 21st century then, Elizabeth Meyer and others have provided substantive and instrumental commentary on the alliance of values, form, sensorial aesthetics, and ecology in the holistic practice of placemaking. The broader scope of Field posts is intended to encourage our community to reflect on this entwining of aesthetics, poetics, and technical performance; to think about the landscape-root of ecological experience and engagement; and to provide an enjoyable and engaging forum for a breadth of creative expression.

Dr. Carl A. Smith, FRSA, FRGS, CMLI, CGEOG, APLD, Int. ASLA, Assoc. AIA, is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture & Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. His work focuses on the intersection between anthropogenic landscape and urban change, and the values and beliefs of those affected. Carl is also a member of ASLA’s Sustainable Design & Development Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team.

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