Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Offer “Next Game-Changing Ideas” (Part II) – THE DIRT

Roadside wildflowers in Texas / Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

“Transformational leadership by landscape architects can help heal our post-traumatic world,” said Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s fifth class of Leadership and Innovation Fellows.

She told the person audience of hundreds in downtown Washington, DC that the foundations of the landscape architecture profession feel like they are now “shaking,” but a path to a more diverse, equitable, and sustainable profession is in development. This path will be forged by continuously “cultivating the next game-changing ideas” and “removing obstacles in order to design effectively.” Over the course of a year-long research project, the six fellows, which include both emerging and established professionals, were asked to “transform themselves in order to transform others.”

Landscape architects once led roadway design, argued Ellen Oettinger White, who is a PhD candidate at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux invented the concept of the parkway in the 1860s, and for decades landscape architects led interdisciplinary teams of engineers to construct roadways that prioritized landscape beauty. But with the rise of the Interstate Highway system in the Eisenhower era, “they lost their power.” Today, hundreds of landscape architects work in state departments of transportation and have “deep expertise” with road design, but they must now work collaboratively in teams led by engineers to exert their influence.

Timeline of landscape architecture and transportation / Ellen Oettinger White, image of Going-to-the-Sun Road, National Park Service

White said the 1930s were the height of landscape-architect led roadway design. In 1932, the Transportation Research Board’s Landscape and Environmental Design Committee was formed. The 1950s saw a loss of “positional power” for landscape architects with the rise of highways and freeways designed for high-speed travel. But with the Highway Beautiful Act of 1965, an effort led by Lady Bird Johnson, there was a greater focus on roadside native plants and wildflowers, increased flexibility in design, and a new, larger role for landscape architects (see image at top).

The more recent clear-cutting of trees along highways in many states provides an opportunity for landscape architecture to reclaim roadway design, White thinks. In Georgia, 13 percent of roadside acreage has been cleared. “Engineers see this as a safe landscape,” because fewer trees means fewer collisions with trees. But there has been a growing backlash in Georgia and other states where landscape beauty has been sacrificed in favor of notions about safety. “There are 5 million acres of public roadsides in the US There are 1.1 billion car trips taken each day. Driving is the only way for millions to interact with the landscape.” White thinks roadsides provide an incredible opportunity to not only offer the benefits of scenic beauty, but also sequester carbon, restore ecosystems, and create safe wildlife corridors.

Roadside pollinator habitat / Minnesota Department of Transportation

N. Claire Napawan, ASLA, associate professor at University of California Davis, said her landscape architecture students are “so creative, engaged, and diverse, but they are entering a profession that is not diverse.” As part of her fellowship, her goal was to diversify landscape architecture pedagogy, reassess syllabi, and realize diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments in order to better resonate with diverse students. This involved re-evaluating outdated textbooks that fail to put diverse landscapes at the center.

Through her process, Napawan discovered one important truth: “We love stories. We love stories with heroes and villains, origin stories, and stories of transformation.” Stories have a deep impact on how we frame our understanding of the world. But too often our important stories are incomplete or not inclusive. For example, she said she had been teaching about Frederick Law Olmsted and Central Park, and up until recently didn’t know the story of Seneca Village, the freed Black community of landowners that was displaced to make way for the park. This led her on a “search for stories that are missing in formal education.” But a challenge became apparent: “how do you know what is missing, if it was always missing?”

N. Claire Napawan

Looking outside the landscape architecture academic discipline for answers, Napawan explored history, feminism, and critical race theory, academic disciplines “asking different questions.” This led her to her next conclusion: “We live stories. We are the stories we tell ourselves.” That is why it’s so important to encourage personal storytelling among diverse landscape architecture students. She relayed growing up bi-culturally in Bangkok, Thailand, and Scott County, Iowa, with her experiences either centered or marginalized, depending on her context. Students need to be provided with more diverse landscapes as learning tools to find ones that resonate with their own complex histories. “Design is storytelling. Storytelling needs to make room for multiplicities and radically different precedents. We need new stories for diverse design. And we need to leave space for new stories.”

Diverse landscape architecture student stories / N. Clare Napawan

“We need to advance the science of landscape architecture,” said James A. LaGro Jr., a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and editor-in-chief of Landscape Journal, the academic journal of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA). With a masters of landscape architecture and PhD in natural resource policy and planning from Cornell University, LaGro called for improving the scientific evidence of the benefits of landscape architecture. He argued that is key to the growth of the profession and increasing its impact.

With a comprehensive vision for how landscape architecture profession can grow in the future, he issued multiple calls to action to ASLA, LAF, CELA, and Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB). He called for increased pathways to advanced research degrees, including fellowships and scholarships, and multiple career paths outside private practice. To build a greater evidence-based practice, he said the landscape architecture profession should model itself after medical fields, with a clinician and research-based approach. Key to achieving this will be increased partnerships between university landscape architecture programs, firms, non-profit organizations and foundations, and government agencies. “We must foster partnerships — this is where the real synergies come in. Academics need to learn what research issues are from practitioners.”

More PhDs in the field of landscape architecture can also help improve research methods. “PhDs can ask more sophisticated questions and get more sophisticated answers.” He sees the rise of firm-based research labs as an implicit criticism of academia. Landscape architecture firms want to find solutions to “complex social problems and advance the profession, but they are not getting what they need from academics.” But he also cautioned that the case studies and research often created by firms have limited research value. “We need more systematic reviews, meta-analysis, and randomized control trials to create convincing evidence for policymakers. We need better evidence.”

James LaGro Jr.

Read Part I in this series.

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