In 1984, toward the end of a long career studying relations between landscape and culture, the historian and critic J.B. Jackson alighted on a new definition for his subject. Landscape, he argued, is “space deliberately created to speed up or slow down the process of nature.” He pointed to examples of dramatically reclaimed lands — the Netherlands, the Fens, the Po Valley — but gestured toward something more common. In Jackson’s study of the vernacular landscape, anyone who paves a road or plows a field is engaged in a kind of temporal sorcery. Intervening within the environment, “reorganizing space for human needs,” we take upon ourselves “the role of time.” 1
Such space now encompasses the world. In the span of a few human generations, the rapid combustion of our planet’s subterranean biological ancestry (its so-called fossil fuels) has instigated a mass migration of carbon into the atmosphere that radically affects living conditions everywhere. The Climate Crisis. The Great Acceleration. The Sixth Mass Extinction. These are names for landscape change of unbelievable speed and complexity, entwined with myriad assemblies: biological, geological, material, social, technological, and political. Humans intervene in landscape processes at all scales, intentionally and inadvertently, skillfully and thoughtlessly, speeding things up and slowing them down, generating cascading effects far beyond our control.
In a sense we have refashioned time itself, making it a function of our spatial infrastructural practices. If we cannot literally play “the role of time,” we try to trick time, altering environmental rhythms and cycles, choreographing material flows. 2 But the trick is on us: the world is filled with protagonists, known and unknown, who are not subject to design intent.
If speeding up and slowing down landscape processes is the design challenge of the times, I believe we need better conceptual tools and practices. I know I need them for myself. Following Jackson, I have been thinking about how designers can work sensitively within time-altered terrains, or accelerated and decelerated landscapes. To understand these terms it helps to see them in action, so let me take you first to a particular creek and its watershed in northern California.
Lower Alameda Creek — or rather, the Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel — runs twelve miles from Niles Canyon in the Diablo mountain range, through suburban communities, then derelict salt production ponds, before emptying into San Francisco Bay. Like many creeks in the region, Alameda was reorganized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s to prevent flooding in the residential suburbs being developed throughout the East Bay. Here the creek was confined within a trapezoidal trench, up to 520 feet wide and 26 feet deep, and lined on either side by earthen levees, designed to meet specs for “standard project flood” capacity. Yet almost as soon as it was constructed, the Alameda channel proved inadequate — too wide and too shallow to transport the creek’s sediments to the Bay. 3
If speeding up and slowing down landscape processes is the design challenge of the times, I believe we need better conceptual tools and practices.
This miscalculation was not merely a matter of sediment volume. The more profound problem was conceptual, proceeding from a colonial ideology. A floodplain is inherently dynamic. Left alone, Alameda Creek would deposit sediments along the alluvial fan of the Niles Cone, and when floodwaters pulsed through, the creek would migrate, finding a new course to the Bay. But the Corps sought to eliminate flood from the plain so the land could be colonized for building, and it did so relying on abstract analyses rooted in assumptions of stasis, predictability, control. Cut off from its surroundings, the creek now dumps its sediments in the channel, and since it can’t carve a new outflow, humans and their machines have to do the work. An average of 75,000 cubic yards of material are dredged here annually, just to keep the passage clear. 4 What seemed an efficient way of arranging the landscape turns out to be costly indeed.
Arguably, none of the channels like this in the Bay Area, and across the United States, ever delivered on their techno-imaginary promise. Planning agencies throughout the 20th century authorized flood control projects that enabled extensive development in poorly suited places, with little accounting for ecological effects, or for the future risks they were making. 5 Today there are nearly 25,000 miles of levees in the United States, which are on average more than half a century old. Their condition is graded D by civil engineers. 6 By any calculation this infrastructure represents an enormous amount of compounded risk. The false logic of flood control has created a paradox, the so-called “levee effect.” To continue inhabiting these engineered zones will require yet more engineering — aggressive dredging, higher levees — that often intensifies problems.
What does this have to do with time? Landscape architecture and engineering are typically understood as spatial practices. Raise this, lower that; dig here, reinforce there; replace this surface with another. But at Alameda Creek we see how these spatial acts alter temporal conditions. Humans have sped up certain landscape processes (i.e. the conveyance of water from the hills to the bay) and slowed down others (i.e. erosion along the creek’s banks). They have halted (for a time) the creek’s migrations. Meanwhile, surrounding landscape processes accelerate with urbanization and climate change. As sea levels rise and storms intensify, the channel’s ability to manage acceptable levels of risk (let alone to control floods) will be further compromised, as the residential hold on this place grows ever more tenuous. 7
Place and Pluralizing Time
Imagine a jet stream that rapidly conveys water vapor from the tropics to the Northern California coast. The meteorological term for this acceleration — an “atmospheric river” — has entered Bay Area parlance as these events intensify with climate change. Now imagine that this storm stalls as it arrives onshore, dropping five inches of rain in coastal areas, and more in the hills and mountains. This rain falls on an alluvial plain covered in asphalt and runs off into a channelized creek clogged with sediment. Should the channel fail anywhere along its length, the resulting flood will seem a sudden rupture, an anomaly, a temporal break. But the possibility of such a “natural” disaster is already inscribed within the landscape as configured by engineers.
A flood may seem a sudden rupture, an anomaly, a temporal break. But the possibility is already inscribed within the landscape as configured by engineers.
What I mean to show is that Alameda Creek’s evolution has been accelerated and decelerated in concurrent, nonlinear ways, which are representative of Anthropocene landscapes generally. There is no objective or external standard against which to measure such changes; there is no “control Earth.” 8 So how can landscape designers operate within these conditions? Stochastic change compels us to escape a colonial understanding of time — singular, continuous — that has organized and governed the modern era. What if we shattered this ideology and replaced it with something more pluralistic? Can we learn to see landscapes through and across time? Can we embrace the phenomena of multiple, shifting temporalities, overlapping in the present? If we are able to perceive the Alameda Creek watershed in this fuller sense, how might that change our activities as designers?
In her influential book Timescapes of Modernity (1998), sociologist Barbara Adam examines relationships between time, space, and environmental hazards. “A landscape,” she writes, “is a record of reality-generating activity. … It is a chronicle of life and dwelling. That is to say, the visible phenomena making up the landscapes have the invisible constitutive activities inescapably embedded within them.” Focused on the stealthy, persistent effects of industrial pollution, Adam explores the many temporalities — geologic, biologic, technological, ecologic, climatic, social, political, and innumerable hybrids — that are inscribed in this chronicle. Landscape “tells a story of immanent forces, of interdependent, contingent interactions that have given rise to its existence.” 9
Here we can distinguish time, an abstract measure of duration, from temporalities, or physical, embodied experiences of duration, as expressed in rhythms and cadences and actualized through specific, place-based actions. (As an example, compare the time of a soccer match to the temporality of a baseball game. Whereas a soccer period is fixed by rule at 45 minutes, the length of a baseball inning depends on the unfolding of unique events. Every game is performed and ends on its own unrepeatable time, subject to the ritualized, temporal making of its players.) 10
Can we learn to see landscapes through and across time? Can we embrace the phenomena of multiple, shifting temporalities, overlapping in the present?
In modern industrial landscapes, the temporalities are complex and the actants incredibly diverse. Along the tidal portion of the Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel, the interplay of storms, tides, and sediments has created a dynamic, topo-bathymetric terrain that runs contrary to the intent of the human designers. As sediments accumulate, they form wetland “benches” at mean high tide elevation, many vertical feet above the channel floor specified by engineers. Reeds, pickleweed, pacific chord grass, and other plants colonize these benches, making them more stable and less likely to erode. Over longer durations, they become habitat for endangered wildlife: red-legged frogs, the California Clapper rail, the saltmarsh harvest mouse. Then a backhoe dredger suddenly enters the scene. In an effort to restore the channel’s flood capacity, the dredger removes hundreds of cubic yards of sediment in a relative blink of an eye. This destroys (nascent, unplanned) wetland habitat, so the people in charge of the operation will be required to “mitigate” the harm, remaking this same landscape assembly somewhere else. In the process, sediments laden with mercury (a durable legacy of gold mining), previously entombed beneath cleaner sediments, are remobilized. Harmful materials transfer into plants and other organisms. And within the excavated void, storms and sediments quickly work to re-establish their own design, a miniature floodplain, a new channel-within-a-channel. This is only a quick and incomplete sketch of the many temporalities at play.
In design intent, the Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel represents the abstract, hegemonic time that Adam calls Newtonian or Clock time. Under techno-capitalism, Newtonian time is deployed by powerful actors to deny and externalize contextual processes and temporalities, producing ecological crisis. As she puts it:
Newtonian time is invoked whenever technology is designed atemporally for specific functions only, that is interaction with the environment, without recognition that the created artifact forms an integral part of the world-wide-web of interconnected processes. That is to say, technological products are premised on the Newtonian principles of decontexualization, isolation, fragmentation, reversible motion, abstract time and space, predictability, and objectivity, on maxims that stand opposed to organic principles such as embedded contextuality, networked interconnectedness, irreversible change and contingency. 11
The Clock, de-coupled from embodied spatial experience, “de-temporalizes time” itself. Adam traces the risks and irreversible consequences of this abstraction across various environmental contexts, including bioengineering, industrial food production, and resource extraction. Rebelling against Newtonian time, she proposes that we learn to see the world through timescapes, observing the site-specific “rythmicities, timings, and tempos” that characterize the complexity and indeterminacy of changing landscapes. For Adam, timescapes are “the embodiment of practiced approaches to time,” grounded in place and diverse rhythms of being, becoming, and dwelling. 12
The pluralizing of time — in conception, experience, political construction, and material processes — has been explored by scholars in many disciplines, reaching back at least to the philosophies of Kant and Heidegger. 13 More recently, a temporal turn in empirical and ethnographic studies has “undermined claims that capitalist modernity is characterized solely by a linear, homogeneous, abstract time” and “challenged the existence of a single chronopolitics of speed.” 14 Anthropologist Laura Bear draws on the book Timespace (2001), by geographers Jon May and Nigel Thrift, which defines timescapes as “networks of representations, technologies, disciplines, and rhythms in time.” 15
Laura Bear’s work is especially useful in its attention to design and making…. Why and how should a landscape’s evolutionary path be shaped? For whom, and by whom?
For our purposes, Bear’s work is especially useful in its attention to design and making, to the creative acts and imaginaries through which socio-material worlds come into existence. She argues that through the “heuristic of timescapes” we can “trace how human practices of time intersect and affect social and nonhuman rhythms.” We see then that “all our various kinds of action on and with time have the quality of poeisis or skillful making.” Bear discusses three domains of skillful making, or creative labor on and with time. The first domain, technique, entails deliberate action that creates “a gap between the world as it was before the action, and the new world it calls into being.” The second, knowledge, consists of epistemes “associated with bureaucratic, scientific, and corporate institutions” which “layer time with resonances.” These are “technologies of imagination,” chronotopes formed through narrative and given body in documents and visual representations. The third, ethics, comprises the moral principles and debates that critique and inform techniques and knowledges of time, accounting for “what time is and what it should be used for.” 16
Together these concepts provide a working model for thinking about the design of accelerated and decelerated landscapes. We can attend to technique, i.e. methods for sensing landscape’s temporalities (technologies used, field methods, etc.) and the design and management strategies developed from that sensing, which are then deployed to affect processes of becoming within them. We can probe knowledge, i.e. how time and scale are implicitly and explicitly conceived, and how these understandings are represented and communicated. And we can discuss ethics, i.e. the rationale for temporal manipulations of a place and associated justice issues. Why and how should a landscape’s evolutionary path be shaped? For whom, and by whom? Are the knowledges and techniques derived from and applied within this landscape equitable, representative, and participatory?
So let’s now consider Alameda Creek from another vantage. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Europeans who settled the Bay Area channelized tributary streams, dug artesian wells, and installed pumping wells, causing groundwater levels to decline at a faster and faster rate. This is a classic environmental problem, typically framed as a result of overdevelopment or drought. It can also be understood as a landscape moving at different speeds, out of sync with its former assembly. By the 1960s, increased pumping had created a vacuum that drew salty groundwater from the Bay into the freshwater aquifers, thus contaminating them. Using Bear’s framework, we can examine the design techniques, knowledges, and ethics that contributed to this situation and that follow from it, attending to many overlapping, interacting temporalities.
Historically, Alameda Creek deposited its coarse-grained sediments (gravel and cobble) at the top of the Niles Cone, just after emerging from the Diablo hills. As settlers mined the gravel to construct new ground for roadways and buildings, they left large open pits on either side of the creek. And today, the Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel runs right through these artifacts. When the channel was built, those old quarries presented a convenient solution to the problem of groundwater salinity. Engineers installed inflatable rubber dams spanning the width of the channel, diverting the waters into the quarry pits to create reservoirs. With the creek thus decelerated, freshwater could percolate down through the porous geology into the aquifers, and salinity was pushed back to the Bay edge, where it could be further managed through extraction wells. 17
These operations are modeled, parametrized, and monitored in real-time by the Alameda County Water District. But this techne comes with tradeoffs. Water used to push back salinity intrusion does not flow down the creek, which means there is less water to sustain aquatic organisms and riparian habitat and to convey sediment down the channel to the Bay. To remedy this, the local district purchases additional supply from the California State Water Project, an extraordinary conveyance infrastructure that spans the entire Central Valley and up into the high reaches of the Sierra Nevada. Through the highly abstract mechanism of a water market, supply is added to upland tributaries of Alameda Creek.
Complexity grows as we follow these interactions through plural time. As sea levels rise, the Alameda County Water District will need more freshwater to keep salinity “at Bay.” But drought worsened by climate change will likely mean less supply for the state water project and higher demand for what is available. Current use allocations across the state are already five times higher than average annual precipitation, and no one can accurately predict future conditions here, in the most wide-ranging climate in the United States. 18 And so skillful making meets the domain of ethics. Scientists, farmers, designers, regulators, planners, and engineers try to determine the right action for time, space, and water — while working with dated infrastructure, massive growth, a globalized export economy, and quickly changing landscapes.
Bending and Tricking Time
Thus, people who study, design, or care for places like Alameda Creek need to become experts at the techniques, knowledges, and ethics of bending time. Intentionally speeding or slowing down a landscape involves designing temporal pathways for its evolution and dwelling in their effects. Transforming the landscape, or parts of it, into a more desired state, we select and produce differences between what was, what is, and will be. These differences take many forms: the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the surface elevation of the ocean, the choreography of sediments, changes in species composition, wildfire patterns, urbanization, rewilding, and so on. In all cases we must attend to the complexities of relational agency across human and non-human entities within the landscape medium; to take on the politics of who or what speeds up or slows down what landscapes for whom; and at what costs and benefits.
Intentionally speeding or slowing down a landscape involves designing temporal pathways for its evolution and dwelling in their effects.
Let’s travel now a hundred miles upstream through the Bay-Delta watershed to the state capital, Sacramento. Here, at a series of bends along the west bank of the Sacramento River, engineers and construction crews have arduously recreated a lost floodplain, building a new levee set further back from the river and excavating holes in the existing levee so that floodwaters can fill the pocket between the two. The goal of this design is to reduce flood risk while creating off-channel habitat for migratory fish. In this newly constructed terrain, thousands of nursery-raised native plants grow in parallel rows, protected by milk carton cages, surrounded by seeded mulch. An array of irrigation pipes is fed by a robust 8-inch main line to help the young plants survive the hot, dry summers. 19
All this temporary infrastructure, inserted into the surface of the massive earthworks, is meant to jump-start growth, putting the landscape on a new evolutionary trajectory towards native, vegetated, riparian floodplain that sustains itself. The accelerated terrain morphs from one condition to another, colonizing space through a particular material and spatial scheme, influenced (but not determined) by the selective actions of human designers: to nurture some plants while eliminating others, to invite seasonal floodwaters and the accompanying phytoplankton and fish. Elsewhere, techniques of deceleration are used to minimize change or transformation. In areas of the same earthworks that are exposed to main stem river flows, engineers have stabilized eroding slopes with jute fabrics to prevent topsoil loss and gully erosion.
In design intent, the acceleration and deceleration of landscapes are forms of “time tricking,” as defined by anthropologists Roxana Moroşanu and Felix Ringel:
Time tricking refers to the many different ways in which people individually and collectively attempt to modify, manage, bend, distort, speed up, slow down or structure the times they are living in … to the development of individual, intersubjective and collective strategies for stretching and bending time in relation to one’s needs, preoccupations and “deadlines”; for making sense of both unexpected changes in well-established temporal frameworks and conflicts between contradicting time-frames and temporal orders; and for creating and maintaining alternative ideas about time. 20
But it’s not only humans who attempt to trick time. Think of the incredible landscape works made by beavers. Their dams slow the flow of water, creating deeper reservoirs for safety while increasing groundwater infiltration. Their tree-cutting accelerates vegetative succession on uplands and creates new habitats. Where beaver populations scale to the watershed, as in North America prior to colonial fur trapping, their tricks radically affect the temporalities experienced by many species. In an article for Places, Stacy Passmore shows how humans and beavers have worked together and against each other to shape environments in specific ways, often with effects that extend beyond their own motives. 21 Today, humans encourage beaver activity to suppress wildfire, increase agricultural productivity, improve fish habitat, and remediate toxic mining landscapes. They have even invented “beaver deceivers” to trick the tricksters. Thus, time tricking extends beyond human agency. Determining who tricked what and when is an exceedingly complex question, impossible to resolve within the open, deeply relational web of landscape.
As background infrastructure, accelerated and decelerated landscapes occur essentially everywhere. J. B. Jackson emphasized “deliberate” modifications of time, but in fact much of this change is unintentional. The Great Acceleration, characterized by technologies such as industrial-scale fertilizer, fossil fuel energy production, dam building, mining, and global telecommunications, has led to the unplanned, accelerated change and destabilization of the climate and biosphere. 22 As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes of the Anthropocene, “Human beings have tumbled into being a geological agent through our own decisions.” 23 Since the real impact of any one action, at any one point, cannot be known, there is a gap between design intentions and worldly outcomes. When the visible effects are undesirable, we seek to reverse or revise our actions, generating yet more novel effects. 24
In California, these effects include catastrophic wildfire. We can follow the Bay-Delta watershed further upstream to the woodlands and montane forests of the Sierra Nevada. For thousands of years, these forests were designed and managed by Native Americans, mainly through the skillful application of fire. 25 Then, through genocide and expulsion, European colonizers destroyed Indigenous lifeways and their embodied landscape technologies. In the 20th century, the U.S. public agencies charged with resource extraction and management of these lands adopted a strategy of deceleration, paradoxically suppressing wildfire to maintain the status quo forest. This seemed to work for decades, until suppression became impossible, due to the buildup of biomass (e.g. dead wood and underbrush), the emergence of denser stands of less healthy trees, and the spread of forests into meadows and other habitats. Now wildfires burn with far more intensity and heat. 26 Of the twenty largest California wildfires since 1932, half have occurred in just the past four seasons. 27 These conditions — an unplanned, highly accelerated material cycling of the landscape — are a direct reaction to earlier attempts at deceleration. The longer fire suppression is maintained, the greater the intensity of the landscape’s explosive response.
Global warming compounds this acceleration. Higher air temperatures and drought create warmer and drier soils, leading to tree disease and mortality. Uncontrollable fires rage through vast expanses of land, releasing smoke that blankets the state for weeks or months, carrying toxic particulates from human structures built in and around forests during the decades when suppression reigned. Fire risk that used to be seasonal in California now extends to most of the year. (The Camp fire, which tragically burned through the town of Paradise with extreme intensity and speed, happened in November 2018.) Such fires burn so hot they can make their own weather patterns. Even trees adapted to fire, like oaks and Ponderosa pines, are killed en masse, sending forests back to a peculiar state of primary succession. Then, when it rains and storms, the charred lands erode at much greater rate, sending accelerated flows of sediments into rivers and creeks, carrying nutrients and toxins, with attendant downstream effects. 28 Reading forward, we might imagine a large fire in the oak chaparral uplands of Alameda Creek sending even more sediments into the flood control channel, eventually to be dredged and emplaced somewhere else.
Re-establishing a symbiotic and restorative relationship with wildfire is one of the most daunting issues facing California. Meeting the challenge will require new political coalitions and policy tools, not to mention prodigious funding. And we may find that past management practices have changed the evolutionary pathways of these forests to such a degree that there is no safe return. We may already be beyond the envelope of resiliency, riding an entropic cascade to a new evolutionary outcome determined by forces greater than ourselves. It may indeed be “only hubris” to think that humans can return or reclaim all the landscapes and atmospheres we have polluted, changed, or destroyed. 29 Still, there are Indigenous and multi-disciplinary efforts to bring fire back into California’s landscapes, as a restorative form of care and regeneration. 30 Such efforts involve remaking our temporal relations with fire — changing the rhythms, choreography, and intensity of its presence on land and place through new forms of stewardship.
Landscape architecture has many established methods for fostering biological and cultural diversity. We must now develop tools for pluralizing, spatializing, and contextualizing time.
In the example of forest fire management and mismanagement, we see again a layering of temporal strategies and effects: the intentional deceleration of landscape processes; the explosive, accelerated, unwanted landscape response; and, now, the desperate scramble to find a workable co-evolutionary pace. Reading through the mismeasures of settler colonialism and the Anthropocene, we can discern a more humble sense of what it means to play the “role of time.” Humans are not only altering the speed of geospatial phenomena at the grandest scales (“nature” if you still find efficacy in that term), they are also altering co-evolutionary configurations of landscape that were assumed to be stable, or subject to human direction and control, within our individual lifetimes. Against the background of climate change, “the accelerated reshuffling of just about everything,” Jackson’s formulation of landscape — space reorganized for human needs — loses descriptive power. 31
At the surface, many anthropogenic landscapes seem inclined toward acceleration or deceleration, like the plant growth and soil stabilization schemes we saw in the Sacramento River levee setback. But when we look closer, we see acceleration and deceleration tactics deployed simultaneously within a single design strategy and landscape medium. The story of California’s forests is characterized by conflicting trajectories, alternating from inadvertent effect to intentional corrective and back again; it is a story of landscapes shaped by countless human and more-than-human actions all mixed up and expressing different creational rhythms. Designers working within this time-space — whether they are building a new development near the Bay edge or revising forest management policy — are acting on and within multiple temporalities.
As conceptual tools for praxis, the terms accelerated and decelerated express time relatively. When we alter landscape temporalities, we produce or experience change or difference in a specific situation and context, without respect to abstract measures of time. 32 The discipline of landscape architecture has many established methods for fostering and designing for biological and cultural diversity. We must now develop tools for pluralizing, spatializing, and contextualizing time, and engaging with the multiple temporalities that exist concurrently within landscapes.
Duration, Matter, and Evolution
As we have seen, landscapes are complexly authored, indeterminate, and mutable. Their temporal sensitivity means that they are always evolving, always becoming something else, even if that becoming is subtle or invisible to human perception. They are moving, migrating assemblies that exhibit powerful collective agency and responsiveness. As I argued in an earlier article for Places, “A landscape migrates when its unique assembly of components — the materials, entities, and actors that define it — shifts such that, over time, a new assembly forms.” Therefore, “qualitatively different landscapes can and do manifest upon a single geographic terrain.” 33
Here we can draw on Charles Darwin’s ideas about biological evolution and the emergence of new lifeforms and landscapes, as developed over 150 years by theorists like Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Elizabeth Grosz. 34 From an evolutionary perspective, duration (or continuance in time) is the force that drives relentless change and the emergence of novelty. As expressed by the feminist philosopher Grosz:
Duration is difference, the inevitable force of differentiation and elaboration, which is also another name for becoming. Becoming is the operation of self-differentiation, the elaboration of a difference within a thing, a quality or a system that emerges or actualizes only in duration. Duration is the “field” in which difference lives and plays itself out, the “domain” of becoming; duration is that which undoes as well as makes. To the extent that duration entails an open future, it involves the fracturing and opening up of the past and present to what is virtual in them, to what in them differs from the actual, to what in them can bring forth the new. This unbecoming is the very motor of becoming, thus making the past and present not given but fundamentally ever-altering. 35
The acceleration or deceleration of any material or socio-political process in landscape produces difference, which opens new evolutionary pathways. And this does not occur in isolation. The mode of becoming differentially changes for every part of the landscape assembly. As Grosz writes, “Everything, every process, every event or encounter is itself a mode of becoming that has its own time, its own movements, its own force.” 36 Through duration, the past and present are fractured, opened up, revealing difference between “what is virtual in them” and what is “actual.” The virtual Grosz describes is, for me, the realm of design and design capacity. It includes those traits of the living — memory (history), concepts, intuition — that lead us to change the ever-moving present, to act on and collaborate with other biotic and mineral entities to bring forth something new, something different than what is and was. And, of course, this new assembly is itself indeterminate, subject to the action of physical forces and ongoing differentiation.
How time and agency are conceptualized in landscape is pivotal, since these conceptions influence how we design and act politically within it.
This may all seem far removed from the mud at Alameda Creek, but how time and agency are conceptualized in landscape is pivotal, since these conceptions influence how we design and act politically within it. 37 Abstract and decontextualized understandings of landscape temporalities can lead to thinly conceived design strategies, and thus to a gap between intentions and outcomes that is often dysfunctional or harmful. 38 We see this in many 20th-century landscape works in North America, and especially in the visions, policies, politics, and built works of “reclamation” and “flood control.” Imposed colonial practices have attempted to reterritorialize landscapes while eliminating long-term, intimate, embodied knowledge of them. Lacking an awareness of the temporalities and processes at play within landscape, designers have failed to foresee the effects of their schemes — enabling a pervasive and consequential care-lessness. Of course, this is more or less the basis of the entire United States, via manifest destiny and the expulsion of traditional ecological knowledge.
More specific to contemporary design, Julian Raxworthy has critiqued landscape architecture’s “process discourse,” which represents time and landscape change in abstract ways disconnected from actual experience, materiality, and embodied knowledge:
By appropriating and valorizing processes, both architecture and landscape architecture seek to rid the architectural object of its static properties and calibrate it to the world. Denatured and accelerated by computers with advanced modeling and simulating capabilities, the flux and indeterminacy of the world seems within reach, ready to be seized and mobilized. However. I would argue that this is a vainglorious illusion that mistakes simulation for the real. 39
This process discourse often assumes an abstract ontology of “time as flux,” borrowing concepts from landscape ecology and turning them into loose, neoliberal metaphors for design and design indeterminacy, such as in landscape urbanism. 40 An example is Tree City, the much-heralded design for Downsview Park in Toronto, which was deliberately temporally and spatially vague and successfully marketed on those qualities. 41
My invitation to think in terms of accelerated and decelerated landscapes is an explicit rejection of “flux” and chance operations. I am interested in a more specific, rigorous, grounded sense of landscape temporalities that helps designers (i.e. makers and stewards) skillfully and equitably affect landscape’s evolution. This is especially important now, at a time when so many infrastructures and built works are ready to be undone. How we configure landscape (i.e. how we intervene in time and process) will determine the survival and quality of life for humans and so many other species and things, including those generations yet to be.
No landscape design is ever determinate. The gap between intention and outcome — the movement from virtual to real — will always be part of our co-evolution with others in the landscape assembly, and, hopefully, the source of our learned humility. But we can attempt to design trajectories of evolutionary change with forethought, using a combination of temporal techniques, knowledges, and ethics to set directions that may be guided with care, attunement, and further adaptations. In other words, we can try to be better ancestors. 42
Experiencing and Interpreting Time
Where the Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel empties into the Bay, it is surrounded by another network of earthen levees containing polygonal bodies of water, each a different striking color, according to the particular algae and microorganisms found there. These are former salt production ponds, which are sinking as the soil subsides. 43 This area, known as Eden Landing, is part of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which aims to re-establish more than 15,000 acres of tidal marsh on former industrial lands. Such wetlands are critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, and they are one of the most adaptable landscape defenses to sea-level rise.
A functioning tidal marsh is a sustainable land-generating machine. Sediment gets trapped in the vegetation, and peat soils accumulate as its plants decay, allowing the marsh to rise in tandem with sea levels, buffering onshore communities, absorbing tides and attenuating waves. But when sea-level rise surpasses this building capacity, a marsh “drowns.” The plants die, and the marsh becomes mudflat, before disappearing beneath the water of an expanding Bay. With wetland defenses gone, urbanized areas are at greater risk. In the South Bay, that includes airports, housing developments, rail lines, water treatment plants, and tech campuses like Facebook’s headquarters.
So how should designers intervene in the evolution of this landscape? For a marsh to take hold at Eden Landing, the bottom of the ponds must be brought back up to tidal elevation, which means placing 2 to 5 vertical feet of fill material, or over 6 million cubic yards in total. If the salt pond levees were simply breached, allowing Bay tides to bring in whatever silty sediment they carry, the slow rate of deposition would likely be outpaced by rapid sea-level rise, and the marsh would never get above water. For that reason, there is broad consensus among regional scientists, regulators, and planners that Bayland marshes should be restored as soon as possible. The longer we wait, the harder it gets. 44 Securing political support (and funding) for such an effort involves educating the public to see two diverging trajectories of landscape change at once: the accelerated sinking of the Baylands, due to a lack of sediment supply, and accelerated sea-level rise, due to global warming. And, as we’ve seen, these trajectories are only part of a greater polyphony of material and socio-political phenomena happening across different scales and speeds, all making something bigger and more complex than themselves.
As Barbara Adam observes, landscapes do not conform to Newtonian time. We can index particular aspects to an imposed chronology, but in doing so we will miss the overlapping, interacting rhythms and material processes that constitute landscape at any moment, such as when high tides meet atmospheric rivers, upstream dam releases, and the flow and deposition of sediments at the mouth of a creek. To see how a landscape changes and novelty emerges, we have to probe the gap between when and how an engineering scheme is conceived and when and how it is constructed, and trace the many changes that emerge differentially from that spatial act. Instead of timelines, we must learn to create (or read, interpret, experience) timescapes that encompass an entire field of relations, understanding how actors like willows, gravel, maintenance crews, thunderstorms, and backhoe dredgers act on and beside one another through duration, forming relationships that are spatially and temporally interdependent.
Adam writes, “It is the connection to how we live that turns spaces into timescapes of mutual influence and construction.” 45 Time does not have to be an abstraction. Through being, working, and dwelling in a landscape, temporalities are sensed and aesthetically known. 46 As she puts it:
From the point of view of the observer, of course, a landscape can never be an objective absolute, since what observers can see depends on their prior knowledge, their power of deduction, and their imagination. The scape — be this a landscape, seascape, or cityscape — arises from the interactive unity of observer and observed, of material phenomena and forces inaccessible to the senses, of visible and invisible influences. 47
From a design perspective, this subjectivity raises questions about how phenomena are sensed within landscape, and how temporalities are made sensible to future occupants. 48 Which processes, actors, and materialities are deemed important? What scales of time and space are sensed or observed? How do designers engage, map, model, and interpret the existing evolutionary pathways of a given site — how do they survey and make sense of a place — as the basis for design research and intervention? Do they use GIS-based remote sensing and aerial imagery? Digital or scaled physical models? Cost-benefit equations? Embodied labor and experience within the actual medium? Is their engagement quick and superficial, or deep and sustained over time through intimate relationships? In what ways is this knowledge translated and mediated? The methods and technologies applied to this task — the media ecology — strongly influence designers’ knowledge of what a landscape was, is, and might be. 49
How do designers engage, map, model, and interpret the existing evolutionary pathways of a given site? How is this knowledge translated and mediated?
The challenge grows as we approach a landscape across great spatial distances or through geological time. Alameda Creek is one of many tidal creeks that drain into San Francisco Bay that have been transformed by urbanization, channelization, and flood control efforts. 50 If we aim to “restore” the ecological function of these creeks, we can skip across time, trying to understand how they worked before their modification, but what would we use as a baseline? Humans were here 10,000 years ago, when none of those creeks were tidally influenced because the Bay as we know it did not exist. The coastline was located some 30 miles west of the Golden Gate, all the way out to the Farallon Islands, and the Bay was a terrestrial alluvial plain. Other humans were here 5,000 years ago, when the rapid sea-level rise that inundated the lower reaches of the Sacramento River watershed began to slow, creating a vast drowned valley that was the general shape and extent of the Bay we know today. 51
Within this stabilized climate, vegetation colonized the shallow edges of the Bay, forming tidal wetlands which expanded steadily until the era of European colonization, when that trajectory was accelerated. Upland land uses such as grazing, agriculture, and land clearing caused soil erosion that sent larger flows of sediment down the creeks and into the Bay, leading to more shallowing and marsh expansion. And then, in the late 19th century, the Sierra Nevada foothills were blasted with high-pressure water cannons to extract gold, which produced a tenfold increase in sediment coursing through the estuary, wildly changing its bathymetry and expanding the wetlands, beaches, and mudflats. 52 This pulse of sediment provided the raw material settlers used to “reclaim” (i.e. destroy) the Bay’s marshes, through diking, draining, and landfilling.
We might imagine that such sediments could be used today to “restore” (i.e. recreate) marshes like Eden Landing and to shore up residential lands that are vulnerable to subsidence and sea-level rise, but the Bay no longer has a rich supply. The reason for this is that as Californians were filling in wetlands and blasting away foothills, they were also building lots of dams, first to contain gold mining debris and then to store water and snowmelt and manage its distribution throughout the state for the expanding agricultural economy. There are now approximately 1,400 dammed reservoirs in California, built by private entities as well as state and federal agencies, and they have dramatically reduced the supply of material carried by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers through the Bay-Delta watershed. The Bay now receives most of its sediments from small, local tributaries, like Alameda Creek, rather than from that mighty watershed that covers half the state. 53 Thus, in a relatively short span of time, from the Gold Rush to the present, the Bay has experienced extreme changes in the flow and distribution of basic land-making material, from novel surplus to novel deficit. 54
Wetlands today are valued far more than they were in the 19th century. They are known to provide dynamically rich habitats and nursery grounds for various species; to absorb and cleanse water; and to protect and stabilize coastlines, adapting readily to changes in environmental conditions. Many people also appreciate their recreational affordances. In the Bay Area, this translates to political support for major efforts to restore marshes such as Hamilton Wetlands, Sears Point, Montezuma Wetlands, and the lower Napa River. But the regional, science-based planning process behind these efforts, the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project, is guided by a map of the early 1800s — a snapshot of that very brief paleogeographic moment, just after the calming of a long duration of accelerated sea-level rise, when humans were busily mobilizing all kinds of materials, labor, technologies, bodies, and desires into collective action that would send increased quantities of sediment into the Bay. The temporal collision of hydrogeological, cultural, and climatic forces that led to the conditions surveyed at that moment are absent from the map’s abstraction. And without them, the map’s representation reads as a much more stable, naturalized condition.
We might have about 30 more years of a relatively stable climate before things really start to move out of sync at high speed. The time to prepare for that acceleration is now.
Why did the Bayland Goals fix the optimal baseline there? Returning to a time before reclamation fits the vogueish political maxim to “follow the science,” looking empirically to the past to make sense of and plan for the future. 55 But as evolutionary theory makes clear, time is not reversible. We have now entered another era of rapid climate change, this one caused by human actions and likely to exceed the speed and pace of all others before it. Every year brings new and more sophisticated visualizations of sea-level rise, mapped by climate scientists, physical geographers, and public agencies, which help more people understand the coastal edge as a dynamic gradient rather than a line. Accelerated change is becoming physically and aesthetically tangible, for example, at king tide events, when hundreds of self-selected citizen volunteers venture out to the edges of the Bay, photographing inundations and peak water levels for the California King Tides Project. These images are uploaded to an online map maintained by the California Coastal Commission, providing a crowd-sourced projection of what will come. As they say, “Snap the shore, see the future.” 56 In this rapidly changing context, cultural chronotopes like stability and stationarity read like fiction, and static representations of the Bay lose their credibility.
Scenarios for sea-level rise in the Bay vary, but differences between projections are relatively small until around 2050, when they diverge depending on greenhouse gas emission rates. Under more extreme scenarios, California’s coastal waters are projected to rise 2 inches per year by the end of the century, with the total rise exceeding 10 feet. 57 Atmospheric rivers, droughts, and forest fires will affect coastal flooding and erosion and sediment transport throughout the surrounding watersheds. In other words, we might have about 30 more years of a relatively stable climate before things really start to move out of sync at high speed. The time to prepare for that acceleration is now. How can designers interpret this time (for themselves and others) in ways that are likely to make those preparations useful?
According to the Bayland Goals, planners aim to restore 100,000 acres of wetlands to buffer the effects of climate change, including the 15,000 acres in the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. Under prevailing political conditions (in this relatively progressive region of a relatively progressive state), such plans pass for climate “adaptation.” But meeting that restoration target is overwhelmingly improbable. Even if all the sediment routinely dredged in the Bay were beneficially used for this purpose, and even if sea-level rise could be slowed to let the wetlands keep pace, there wouldn’t be enough sediment to meet demand. 58 The former Bay, as it emerged prior to colonial contact, cannot be recreated. Whatever the future holds for the humans and other species who occupy this region, it will be very different from the past.
My colleagues and I have tried to convey that reality. As a member of the Dredge Research Collaborative and of Public Sediment, a design team which participated in the Bay Area’s Resilient By Design challenge, I have been involved in efforts to shape knowledge and ethics through maps and diagrams that show the relationships between sediment supply and sea-level rise. Observing that the prevailing chronotopes (constructed space-time narratives) for the Bay did not accurately reflect landscape conditions and evolutionary trajectories of change, we have presented new ones. This is an activist attempt to show the radical change that will come to the Bay Area in the second half of the century, and to raise public awareness about the fact that there is no real plan for dealing with likely future conditions.
In the absence of foresight and political consensus, various actors in the Bay will pursue conflicting strategies. Some will advocate retreat. Others will pursue die-hard armoring along the Bay edge. In densely urbanized lands below sea level, such as in the heavily subsided South Bay, we may see an attempt to build a metropolis like New Orleans, sustained by a costly life support system of levees and water pumps. Elsewhere, as in the city of San Francisco, we will likely see the repair and augmentation of sea walls. These strategies create dependence on infrastructure whose costs and risks escalate over time under a false pretense of safety, with no easy way to switch out. And wherever levees or walls are installed, they push water and waves toward other, more vulnerable communities, leading to problems of equity and environmental justice. 59 Probably the most adaptive temporal strategy is managed retreat, or making room for the Bay, an idea now politically taboo that may rise in favor as other approaches fail. 60
One role for designers is to help the public interpret and respond to climate change by reframing what is considered coastal. The coastline drawn on maps is a highly relative construction, an index at a particular scale of observation and experience. 61 We should instead conceive the coast as a constantly changing zone that moves and varies across the quick temporalities of lunar, solar, and storm cycles, as well as slower but more consequential geologic and climatic rhythms. And, materially, the coast is much more than a thin strip of land that meets the waves. It should be understood to include sedimentsheds extending far inland, which supply the earthen material that sustains bays, deltas, estuaries, and beaches. In design and planning, the physiographic units of watersheds and subwatersheds help structure efforts according to hydrological patterns and processes. We need to do the same for sediment, recognizing that dams, infrastructures, and other landscape works shape the accumulations, erosion, and flows of sediments within a watershed, and that these relationships change over time. 62
We cannot undo our collective legacy of climate destabilization. If we strip away the modernist propaganda, the Anthropocene is about loss.
Designers can also acknowledge that time’s structure of enmeshed temporalities is not reversible. We cannot rewind or reverse landscape evolution and return to some previous condition. Full fidelity to a conceived past is unachievable. We cannot restore former material conditions and compositions, nor undo our collective legacy of climate destabilization. If we strip away the modernist propaganda, the Anthropocene is about loss. It is about experiencing violently fast change that cannot be undone: the mass wasting of the Louisiana River Delta; the melting of the ice caps; longer and hotter droughts; cooked, acidified coral reefs; the eminent release of methane in thawing tundra; the plight of climate refugees. Rather than deny or repress these altered times, we can mourn and bear witness to what is being irrevocably changed, and creatively and skillfully adapt to novel realities as best we can. The emotive and affective dimensions of this work cannot be separated from the technical and the ethical. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht uses the term solastagia to describe “the homesickness you have when you are still at home,” the existential distress caused by the loss of place and landscapes due to rapid environmental change. 63 Reckoning with the future, more and more people are losing sleep and finding it difficult to concentrate on their work or everyday lives, due to eco-anxiety. These are syndromes caused by the experience of radically altered temporalities.
Futuring and Acting on Time
This returns us to the question of how designers can intervene in time and process to affect a landscape’s evolution. Public Sediment’s proposal for Eden Landing calls for sediments dredged from around the Bay (typically from shipping channel maintenance and deepening), to be brought by barge to a deepwater hydraulic offloading facility three miles offshore, then pumped as slurry through 47,000 feet of pipeline into the subsided salt ponds, at a rate of 1 to 2 million cubic yards per year, in order to actualize an anthro-geologically accelerated remaking of Bayland marsh. To help nourish those marshes, the Alameda Flood Control Channel would be cut open, allowing the creek’s water, fish, and sediments to flow freely between the marshes, the Bay, and back up the creek. The Public Sediment team also worked with the local flood control district to propose changes along the length of the channel, from Bay to foothills. Within the current profile, a narrower, deeper channel would be carved, creating more flood capacity while providing deeper and cooler water for migratory fish. Shaded and held in place by native vegetation, this meandering channel would push more sediment downstream to the Bay by accelerating water velocity during storms. Newly designed floodrooms, mudrooms, and terrace trails along the creek would provide public spaces that connect rather than divide communities.
At larger scales, the Public Sediment team proposed a re-evaluation of Alameda Creek’s watershed to consider how earthen material might migrate from hillsides to mudflats over coming decades, due to wildfires, drought, development, and erosion. Currently, much environmental policy regards sediment as a contaminant, a definition which overly restricts and decelerates what can be a regenerative landscape process. In Plan and Pilot for a Future Bay, we proposed a design-science consortium to envision scenarios for proactive sediment management, within and across the Bay’s sedimentsheds. We imagined pilot projects throughout the Bay that would study emerging techniques for applying and using dredged sediments, accelerating learning and landscape adaptation within a context of rapid environmental and climatic change. 64
Whether and how these design interventions are made depends on a meshwork of temporal design decisions. Breaching and decommissioning a large part of a federal flood control channel is, under the ideology of 20th century engineering, complete blasphemy. Treason. It is a radical departure from past ways of doing and working with time, flow, and water, which will require big changes in institutional and cultural habits. Changing those habits is also the work of design. Too often, people assume that the act of design ends with the creation of a plan or rendering. What comes next is left to policymakers, public agencies, builders, voters. But design isn’t just about the move. Design is ontological. Which is to say: design designs. Every step in the chain of events that leads from idea to outcome is part of design and the making of worlds.
Time is not a given in the Anthropocene. Rather, it is designed, intentionally or accidentally. We cannot control the future, but we can participate in its choreography.
Here we might look for motivation within transitional design theory, which observes a distinction between defuturing and futuring. As described by anthropologist Arturo Escobar (interpreting the work of designer Tony Fry), defuturing is “the systemic destruction of possible futures by the structured unsustainability of modernity.” Futuring is the opposite, the creation of “a future with futures,” through designing alternative ways of being, beyond the confines of global capitalism. 65 From this perspective, design isn’t something to be siloed in a separate realm. Again, design designs. It creates and de-creates the times and landscapes we inhabit. The activist call of transitional design is to create new evolutionary pathways that transition defuturings into futurings. This is to insist on design’s central role and responsibility in the making of futures yet to be experienced. Rather than the hegemonic, “one world” of modernism (Escobar’s target of criticism), transitional design theory envisions a plurality of worlds customized and co-created with the places where they occur.
In inviting readers to think through and work within accelerated and decelerated landscapes, I am invoking a similar role for design, with an emphasis on the plurality of temporalities that constitute landscape, which can be encountered and altered through knowledges, techniques, and ethics of bending time. These concepts guide us toward the design of temporal infrastructures, those techniques and relational assemblies that affect and refashion how time happens. We try to discern the cadences and rhythms of how things unfold and differentiate over duration, at this uncanny moment when the climates and landscapes we depend on are destabilizing, changing at rates so fast, that they are tangibly felt. We encounter these phenomena through our limited senses, as stronger heat waves, species extinctions, and worsening air quality; as intense storms and frequent droughts and flooding; as wars over resources and displacements of communities, both human and more than human. And as this slow violence builds over the next few decades, it will evolve into a new, undeniable condition, the acute perception of landscape asynchronies and their effects. 66 Time is not a given in the Anthropocene. Rather, it is designed, intentionally or accidentally. And so much of what has been designed for the industrial, colonial, capitalist legacies we inherit needs refuturing. We cannot control the future, but we can participate in its choreography, intervening in the many rhythms and formative processes that constitute the temporal medium of landscape.