The Softer Side of Sustainability and the Hard Working Urban Landscape

When it comes to environmental concerns, there has been altogether too much fragmented talk of buildings. 

We have consistently failed to recognise that buildings are situated in wider landscapes that desperately need greater attention.

As I go about my work as a landscape architect, I regularly deal with our profession’s role within the green agenda.

Unfortunately, I have found that we lag behind architects when it comes to participating in the conversation around sustainability; in fact, we are often relegated to presiding over green roof technology.

This is most ironic, because landscape architecture is, in fact, the profession that deals with the “green” part of the agenda.

The reason for the focus on buildings, as opposed to that of the surrounding landscape, is down to the fact that the uses of resources and energy can be addressed with a degree of simplicity and directness.

Meanwhile, landscape architects are left outside looking in on the discussion because our professional remit rests outside these technologically oriented and building-focused discussions.

This is problematic because the nature of our profession is to focus on pressing environmental issues in a holistic fashion, in what I call the Softer Side of Sustainability.

This approach involves creating a sense of place, identity, and belonging, in order to develop sustainable communities and — I hope — improve the environment.

Living landscape

We seem to have forgotten that sustainability itself is a cultural notion, and that a building or a place must have value to people if it is to be used sustainably.

It is therefore vital that landscape architects assert this both in our advocacy and in our actual work; for so long as we trail behind the architects by topping their buildings with green roofs, we are simply fiddling while Rome burns. 

The landscape is the canvas upon which we live our lives, join together as communities, and build our cities. 

Embedded and integral to the landscape are the ecological systems that must be understood and respected, as well as the infrastructural systems connecting us all together.

I am not simply referring to gardens and majestic wildernesses; in fact, the most sustainable form of human habitation is the city.

This is where we collectively need to focus our activities, and this is also where landscape architects can be of real use.

Encouraging people to live side by side more closely will help the local ecology to flourish, because the community can utilise superior water stations and sewage treatment plants, as well as improving electricity consumption patterns.

Cities also inspire a collectivisation of wealth, allowing local governments to better build and equip schools, libraries, and performing arts buildings.

So the reward of collectivisation can be true sustainability. City inhabitants, from a variety of backgrounds, can be quickly made aware of environmentally friendly ways to live.

This, in turn, can result in people influencing one another as they incorporate progressive lifestyle changes into the fabric of their diverse daily lives.

Landscape architects ought to help to make cities better places for all who live within them through the establishment of good connectivity and open spaces, the promotion of public transportation and, very importantly, ensuring water is used responsibly, with run-off being managed and put back into the ground.

In addition, landscape architects ought to ensure developers plant as much as possible so that we have an abundance of trees and permeable surfaces.

Careful and inspired design can make all the difference between a place that is viewed as no real significance to anyone, and a place that attracts people, creates vitality, and is cherished by its inhabitants.

The design of Exchange Square in Manchester, UK is a good example of how careful attention to a community’s history and a site’s geology can foster the sort of intellectual and emotional investment in a place that leads to real sustainability.

Exchange Square is a wonderful outdoor living room created from a space that was formerly an ignored and ugly traffic interdiv, bombed by the IRA in 1996.

The revamped square is now hugely successful – a vibrant and well-used space for everything from watching soap operas during the lunch hour to greeting the Queen.
10-minute rule

Currently, some urban authorities, such as New York, fall short of implementing the issues around the Softer Side of Sustainability, but they are heading in the right direction.

For example, PLAN NYC, the sustainability agenda for the eastern US concrete jungle, includes a proposal to ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

But this reference to parks is the only mention of the landscape in the NYC sustainability agenda.

PLAN NYC is certainly a marvelous commitment to improving the lives of citizens by giving them access to fresh, green, open spaces. But it does not push the envelope quite far enough.

It does not advocate the vital commitment to landscapes that reflects the most forward visual thinking, through dynamic, inspirational design, and structured attentiveness to community histories.

The role of landscape architecture is once again one of green embellishment, adding parks here and there, rather than sustainability agenda-setting through thought-provoking design.

Although NYC embraces its image as the center of the global contemporary art scene, it has supported neither adventurous architecture nor landscape architecture.

For the best examples of this, we have to look to areas like Germany’s Duisberg Nord Parc in the Ruhr Valley, or the beautiful green spaces of the Park Andre Citroen in Paris.

So how are we to implement The Softer Side of Sustainability?

First, we should incorporate the expertise of landscape architects into the planning process leading up to the establishment of sustainability agendas such as PLAN NYC.

This planning process should include measures to encourage compaction of the urban landscape, along with more efficient public transportation.

Second, we should increase sustainability education for students of landscape architecture, architecture, and urban development.

Finally, American builders should learn from the design overviews used in much European urban planning, but extend their minds to reflect the sophistication of landscape thinking.

Three straightforward steps – but they are key to deciding whether cities can develop effectively for the 21st Century, or remain mired in yesterday’s thinking.

Martha Schwartz

City Green, 03/2011