Political Landscapes

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

Theory and practice in landscape architecture are moving faster than the public can keep up with. While contemporary work is largely focused on the capacity of landscape to reclaim and remediate post-industrial sites in urban centers, I contend that public perception of the field's rich body of post-war projects continues to be read by the ideological lenses developed in the pre-war era of Industrialization. This gap between perception and reality can be attributed in part to the successful translation of public values into physical space during that movement; indeed, much can be learned from the cultural agency promulgated by the Picturesque. It could also be the case that the way we understand the world has not kept pace with the developments we have imposed on it[1]. Evolutionary psychology would argue that our collective memory of landscape has not evolved at that same rate as our ability to induce technological innovation.

In either case, it is this condition that diminishes the capacity of landscape to fulfill larger, more productive societal roles in shaping our beliefs about nature, consumption and ecology today. Environmental scientist Joan Iverson Nassauer agrees that "Picturesque conventions have become so integral to landscape perception that we no longer are able to accept their origin in culture. Picturesque conventions seem so intrinsic to nature that they are mistaken for ecological quality" (197)[2]. The challenge, then, is developing a landscape theory that uses its corpus of work to shift cognition patterns from landscape-as-image to landscape-as-process, ultimately shaping cultural recognition of and demand for productive landscapes. The success of this project would privilege the working landscape to the ornamental landscape and offer landscape architecture a critical role in shifting attitudes about the integration of ecology, society and economics. Simply put, landscape architecture must become metaphysical--a psychology and philosophy--if it is to successfully translate our cultural norms and anticipated futures into constructed patterns that reflect our decisions as a collective. In the words of philosopher Bernard Lamy, landscape will thus have the agency to "feed them the cure for which they desire."

Given the pitfalls of the process of behavioral change; that is, a dissonance with the acceptance of a need for change when confronted with problems that do not pose an immediate risk,[3]landscape architects could manipulate a behaviorist approach and rig social and economic choices so that the public finds being unsustainable irrational.[4]This maneuver could be used to leverage new cultural sensibilities fit for ecologically viable, contemporary living.

The term metaphysical can be understood here as the collusion of a natural philosophy and empirical investigation. This collaboration allows for a vision of landscape architecture that is simultaneously ontological: offering an understanding of our relationship with other living and constructed systems; and, scientific: capable of being understood methodologically and quantitatively. To be sure, this theoretical standpoint is not new. This convergence of philosophy and science, politics and culture has been supported by thinkers such as Bruno Latour who speculate on a system of thought that blurs boundaries between seemingly isolated disciplines[5]. James Corner, in his own speculations on the crisis in landscape architecture, suggests that Ancient Greek architecture provides a precedent for a method of building that was inherently technical and symbolic. Corner points out that techneand poesiesblended the practical craft of building with the creative and symbolic, respectively, in an architecture that provided humans with a way of placing themselves in the universe.[6] Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has written elegantly and extensively on this same relationship, attempting to assess how our understanding of security and place, or home, is related to the construction of and involvement with our built environments.[7] A landscape discipline focused on changing behaviors would capitalize on these tenets.

These interpretations become a good starting point for prescribing a new mental model of landscape architecture today. I argue for a more universally understood cultural landscape project that is capable of addressing not only designers but also appeal to mass culture. The main ambition is to carve out a role for landscape projects to become the physical manifestation of and designed impetus for cultural change.

In order to elaborate on the potential of this goal, I will use the theoretical framework established by Arne Naess's "Deep Ecology" movement as a point of departure for a discussion that highlights how the metaphysical is capable of transforming ideologies and perceptions in the forthcoming case studies. The philosophy is uniquely positioned to offer landscape a leading role as a vehicle for demonstrative change.

Naess's philosophy followed in the footprints of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring with his first publication, "Nature Ebbing Out" (1965) successfully defending the conservation of Innerdalea, a Norwegian mountain valley that would soon become the country's first reserve. At the core of Neiss's philosophy lay an ecological agenda spurred by the work of ecologist E.O. Wilson. Relating the achievement of self-actualization with the extent to which one understood his or her role within the environment, the philosophical agenda is one primarily focused on personal change and altruism. Naess rejected Enlightenment ideals and opted to promote a post-humanist strategy whereby his notion of "Ecocultural Sustainability" could surpass the potential of acting with reason alone by adding emotion into a legitimate system of thinking; that is to say, "the highest form of rationality involves the seamless integration of reason and emotion"[8]. E.O. Wilson expressed similar sentiments in Biophiliasuggesting that:


"Modern biology has produced a genuinely new way of looking at the world that is incidentally congenial to the inner direction of biophilia. In other words, instinct is in this rare instance aligned with reason." (2)[9]

Through his Normative Theory, Naess developed a series of semantic premise-conclusion strings that offer the logical implications of decisions before they were acted upon. The idea is that through the selection of a widespread norm (or definitive belief) and then gauging one's decision in relationship to that norm, a better impact analysis could be completed prior to decision-making. The theory is centered on the belief that individual behaviors and group-decision making can be developed through "thoroughly reasoned and ecologically inspired total views." [10] To be sure, the Deep Ecology movement, while steeped in the belief that nature could provide powerful forms of learning and species connection, should not be reduced to a radical environmentalist movement. On the contrary, it is an adaptive model capable of reflecting shifts in attitudes about open-ended, ecological systems.

At the core of Naess's philosophy is a trenchant belief that learning, communication, ecology and culture are intertwined; they form the blurred boundaries suggested by Latour. Naess's pluralist underpinnings presuppose a structuralist reading of reality whereby the individual must create his or her own widespread norms and judge standards for him or herself in order to fit into a collective. Meaning is therefore substituted at each level of cognitive reasoning and comprised of contributions from all agents in a scenario. Furthermore, the philosophy uniquely conflates Behaviorism, the psychology of stimuli and response, with Psychoanalytical approaches to psychology. In practice, this simultaneously recognizes the mind and body. The theory is nimble, situational, pragmatic and psychological, making it a strong companion to a contemporary landscape architecture (read: landscape urbanism) in need of a rhetorical method that matches its performative nature and interdisciplinary future.

The leitmotif of contemporary landscape architecture as theorized by landscape urbanism is particularly suited to adapting a deep ecological viewpoint to aid in its capacity to reshape the cultural demand for landscape architecture as a primary agent in the development of a new land ethic. In terms of maintaining new "open, self-organizing, holistic, dynamic, complex, and uncertain"[11](45) designs, Nina-Marie Lister has pointed out that the idea of "environmental management" must undergo a shift in heuristics and organizational arrangements. The deep ecology movement, with its persistent and inherent emphasis on change and renewal through individualistic, yet collective, communication can be seen as an adaptive psychology capable of promoting learning through its decision-making tools, nurturing an intersection between psychology and design across disciplines.

By examining how deep ecology can be understood through a conservation project replete with topics relevant to current practice, a more specific understanding of the aforementioned tenets can be demonstrated.

The 13,100 ha Nature Reserve in Camargue, France was designated as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization) Biosphere Reserve site in 1977 (Figure 1), one benchmark in the site's long and resilient history. The designation came as a result of the 1970 Man and the Biosphere program where "the scientific basis for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere"[12]was formulated, an organizational result of the then nascent and vigorous, international environmental movement.

This Reserve is critical to the discussion of Deep Ecology because in its organizational framework and mission statement many of the same goals are apparent. Take for instance the three aims of the organization as prioritized at the Seville International Conference on Biosphere Reserves in March of 1995; they are as follow: (1) To conserve biological and cultural diversity; (2) To create models for innovative land management and sustainability; and (3) To instill a research agenda aimed at distributing information to the public. The emphasis on "open, evolving, adaptive" management strategies and the creation of a "pact" between "local community and societyas a whole" [italics my own][13]resonate with the scalar flexibility of the deep ecology movement; in particular, the notion that local ideas affect global outcomes. Likewise, site's that are designated in this program publicize their lack of legal power, claiming that it is in fact this condition that offers them greater flexibility in implementing "innovative and imaginative"[14]management regimes and courses of action within a constantly shifting local community. Compared to general notions of "conservation" landscapes, this platform seems to offer a more dynamic space for providing education, research and integration with local economies, without being overly stringent or confined by zoning laws.

The Camargue Reserve has a history as rich as the alluvial deposits from the Rhône that form its deltaic landscape of tidal marshes, wetlands, dunes and forests. Since Caesar established Arles in 46 BC, the advances of agricultural settlers have cultivated the wetlands in the Camargue. These patterns of resource exploitation necessitated the drainage of marshes, irrigation of fields, building of flood control systems and the deforestation of coastal groves. In total, 30,000 ha of reclaimed coast are signaled by the presence of dikes along the Rhône including sea walls and drainage ditches that positioned salt-steppes and lagoons on the lowest portions of the site.[15] Interestingly, a major landowner in the Camargue is Alais-Forges-Camargue, a powerful salt company that ironically had strong ties with members of the SociétéNationale d' Acclimimation de France (an environmentalist group concerned with the conservation of indigenous species throughout France). This unlikely pairing signals the potential for divergent agendas to unite spatially and for economics to support conservation goals.

The Camargue, then, could be considered a hybrid landscape that has been shaped by centuries of "interlocking human and natural histories." (481). Even though the Camargue was far from the "virgin and savage" natural landscape that conservation writers and traditionalists claimed it to be, it nevertheless was perceived by those entities as a landmark capable of resisting the ailments of modernization and urbanization by providing a place for "physical and moral" regeneration.[16] These arguments support the notion that both science (in this case, a constructed coastal system) and psychology (in many ways, a strong regionalist notion steeped in the retour a la terre movement) could interact, satisfying the goals of each.

The interwar years in France challenged traditional agrarian living with strong Regionalist rhetoric and a back to the land movement causing conflicts within the Vichy regime's treatment of the Camargue. On the one hand, the site was sacred ground; on the other, it was valuable soil to be cultivated. This same dilemma occurred elsewhere during the World War II, with Mussolini, Hitler and Roosevelt using projects of land reclamation to re-invigorate growth and stir a sense of nationalism to a beleaguered, war torn population. This appeal to nationalism through the landscape was a power ploy to show strength in conquering a "wild" or "wasteland" using the newest technology[17]. Today, this power-balance: technology and nature could be re-invented in a deep ecology supported by a government that supported, as a matter of national importance, the psychological and performative power of ecological systems as a hybrid technological advancement.

In the same way that the Camargue was seen as an "agent" not capable of being flooded by the German's during World War II in an effort to eliminate the potential for the site to be used as an airfield for Allied forces, the Camargue once again is being called upon to be an agent in the sea level rise issue. Perhaps the strongest element of this conservation site is the integration of various factions in the decision making process for actions that will affect its territory. The salt and automotive industries are responsible for the maintenance of the dikes adjacent their operations, reducing maintenance pressures from governmental sources[18]while simultaneously shaping the form of the delta. Scientific organizations are working with local farmers, members of national government, fisherman, and chemical industry representatives to attempt to gauge understanding of potential resistances to sea level rise.[19]

Changing attitudes about sea level rise in the Camargue correspond to contemporary issues related to consumption patterns and contamination in the United States and abroad. In the Camargue, much attention is being paid to how various stakeholders and interested parties conceptualize, in terms of their mental models, the sea level rise issue. Findings suggest that a process of individual and then group reflection is more likely to elicit converging mental models and make action plans more feasible and in the best interest of the group.[20] Perhaps similar approaches can be taken in Brownfield projects such that all actors involved understand a larger agenda. Lawrence Buell describes "collectivities," an organizational structure where individuals working together on a goal can maintain their individuality but also "recognize their interdependence through their environmental values and actions, through their patterns of consumption and production." [21] It is exactly this type of loose, yet focused dynamic that can respond to future problems effectively and adaptively in a landscape psychology.

While the Camargue is the antithesis of a reclaimed site, demonstrated interpersonal communicative ability, integration with the delta landscape, and inclusive power structures all make the case for a reciprocity between ecological systems and political systems; between vying interests and collective decision-making. Deep ecology as presented by Naess is at play in the Camargue Reserve and can serve as an excellent framework for future design projects that confront contamination, sea-level rise and urbanization.


[1]Glasser, Howard.

3Nausser, Joan Iverson. "Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames" in Swaffield, Simon. Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

[3]Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005.

[4]Glasser, Howard, 64.

[5] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

[6]Corner, James. "A Discourse on Theory I: "Sounding the Depths"--Origins, Theory, and Representation." Landscape Journal9.2 (Fall 2009): 61-78.

8Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

[8]Glasser, Howard, 54

[9]Wilson, E.O. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

[10]Glasser, Howard, 53

[11]Lister, Nina-Marie. "Sustainable Large Parks: Ecological Design or Designer Ecology?" in Czerniak, J and Hargreaves, G. Large Parks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.

[12]Bioret, F.; Cibien, C.; Genot, J.-C.; Lecomte, J. "Biosphere Reserve Management: A Methodology Applied to French Biosphere Reserves" in MAB Digest 19. Paris: UNESCO, 1998.

14Bioret, F.; Cibien, C.; Genot, J.-C.; Lecomte, J.

[14]Bioret, F.; Cibien, C.; Genot, J.-C.; Lecomte, J.

16Pearson, Chris. "A "Watery Desert" in Vichy France: The Environmental History of the Camargue Wetlands, 1940-1944." French Historical Studies32.3 (2009): 479-509.

[16]Pearson, Chris.

18Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. "Back to the Land" in Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939.New York: Picador, 2006.

[18]Suanez, Serge & Bruzzi, Carole. "Shoreline Management And Its Implications for Coastal Processes in the Eastern Part of the Rhône Delta." Journal of Coastal Conservation5 (1999): 1-12.

20Poumadere, Marc, C.Mays, G. Pfeifle, A. Vafeidis. "Worst Case Scenario As Stakeholder Decision Support: A 5-to 6-m Sea Level Rise in the Rhône Delta, France." Climatic Change 91 (2008): 123-143.

[20]Mathevet, R., M. Etienne, T. Lynam, and C. Calvet. "Water Management in the Camargue Biosphere Reserve: Insights from Comparative Mental Models Analysis." Ecology and Society16.1 (2011).

22Meyer, Elizabeth. "Uncertain Parks: Disturbed Sites, Citizens, and Risk Society" in Czerniak, J and Hargreaves, G. Large Parks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.