In 1839, if you wanted to take a boat from coastal Matagorda, Texas, to the inland town of Wharton, you would have had a problem. A massive tangle of trunks, roots, and branches, colonized by silt and new live trees, jammed the river for miles. Such log rafts were common on rivers that crossed the alluvial plains, where the slackwater did not flow fast enough to sweep away the debris from floods on the upper stretches. And once a raft had grown to a certain size, it might stick around for decades, as new arrivals replaced the logs that rotted or fell off the fringe. 1 By 1852, the young state of Texas had had enough. Riverboats were then the most important transportation technology in the American West, and the Matagorda raft was choking the life out of upriver counties. So the state paid the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had been conscripted into infrastructure work by the General Survey Act, to cut a side channel around the raft. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to fund its maintenance, and soon the bypass was clogged, too. 2
By the 1920s, the raft had grown to over 40 miles long, causing destructive floods in riverside towns. Their desperate residents, banding together as the Matagorda and Wharton county reclamation districts, cut away a section of the east bank, dynamited the thickest part of the raft, and let floodwaters push the rest downstream, where the tangled trees promptly formed a new mass at the river’s mouth on shallow Matagorda Bay. Fed by a continual flow of sediment and debris, the delta grew by 500 acres a year, impeding navigation, until it stretched all the way to the barrier island that separated the bay from the Gulf, effectively closing off the port of Matagorda. 3
Determined to solve this landscape once and for all, the counties in 1934 dredged a straight line — 9 feet deep, 200 feet wide, 6 miles long — from the old river mouth, through the log delta, and across the barrier island, connecting the river directly to the Gulf for the first time. They placed the dredged spoils on either side of the channel and built levees to keep the passage clear, and in 1937 they turned over this infrastructure to the federal Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains it to this day as part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, a network of navigable bays and canals that stretches from Texas to Florida. 4
But, of course, that is not the end of the story. Channeling straight through the island interrupted the Gulf’s longshore transport of sand, which then began to accumulate at the new opening. Dredging and floods occasionally re-opened the cut, but navigation was unreliable, with the river often backed up behind the shoals. In some years, the passage was only a foot deep. 5 Federal legislation in 1968 authorized the Army Corps to build jetties to keep out the sand, and that project was completed two decades later. Still, the landscape was not solved. Routing the river directly to the Gulf in the 1930s had increased the salinity and altered the ecology of Matagorda Bay, and while a smaller side channel cut for recreational fishing access in the 1950s had unintentionally returned some measure of freshwater, that relief was lost after the jetties were constructed and the main channel flowed swiftly again. So now the Corps had to build a new diversion to resupply the bay with freshwater. 6
With the ecology finally “restored,” the delta began to grow again, and by 2006 sediment and organic debris had created over 300 acres of new marsh. Today, species like cordgrass, crabs, and shrimp are flourishing, and by some accounts Matagorda Bay is a richer fishing ground than it has ever been. But oyster harvesters, who benefitted during the high-salinity years, complain that the lack of outflow back to the Gulf has produced excessively fresh conditions. An accreting delta is good for some species, a declining delta good for others. What happens next depends as much on politics as on science or engineering. Dueling interest groups have continued to debate opening a new outflow to restore the conditions that existed before the diversion, which solved the problem caused by the jetties, which solved the problem caused by the channelization, which solved the blockage at the delta, caused by removing the log raft in the first place. 7
This tangled history mirrors that of many other landscape infrastructures. Some people will read it as a tale of unintended consequences, which might yet have a happy ending, if only the planners and engineers and land managers had access to bigger budgets, or better data, or more sensitive survey methods. Maybe so. Environmental design activities have improved many landscapes, for many species, and some days it seems those interventions are getting smarter over time. But let’s ask a heretical question: what if the river is a problem that will not be solved?
Patterns of Self-Defeat
Rather, many problems that will not be solved. Or no problem at all.
Landscapes everywhere are shaped by complex, asymmetric power relations at different densities and scales. 8 Everything about them is dynamic — forms, structures, cycles, trajectories —and all of it subject to natural and anthropogenic forces that frustrate human desires for stability and control. 9 What appears to be a problem from one angle may be desirable from another, and vice versa. Designers have always understood these truths, on some level, but that hasn’t stopped us from endeavoring to solve landscapes, over and over.
Designers have always understood these truths, but that hasn’t stopped us from endeavoring to solve landscapes, over and over.
Consider the Florida Everglades, whose vast tropical wetlands were diked, canalized, and drained for agriculture and flood control. From a certain point of view, that project seemed successful, until the peat soils burned in uncontrollable subterranean fires, the oxidizing farmland subsided, and saltwater intruded on coastal aquifers. The land had to be soaked during the dry season to prevent disaster. The wetlands, re-watered! Now the most expensive restoration effort in the United States haltingly attempts to replumb the Everglades for better ecosystem function, even as urban development encroaches. 10
Or consider the continent-spanning infrastructure that regulates the Mississippi River and its tributaries. From the seven great Missouri River dams high in the Midwest to the articulated concrete mattresses that line levees in South Louisiana, this system has been engineered to meet strict water conveyance performance criteria and avoid catastrophic floods. But those sediment-laden floods were vital to sustaining the substrate of the coastal Mississippi River Delta, which now loses about a football field of land every day. 11 Three successive Louisiana Coastal Master Plans (in 2007, 2012, and 2017) have structured an emergency response to this land loss, scaling up to massive “sediment diversions” that are designed to reconnect the river, floods, and delta. But even if this “restoration sedimentology” succeeds, the Mississippi River will not be solved. 12 Meanwhile, the flood control structures create an illusion of safety, encouraging urban patterns that put people at risk when the next levee fails. 13
West of the Rockies, the big “problem” is the interbasin transfer of water. The most famous example is the Colorado River, whose waters are legally divided between seven states. With its flow paced by the enormous Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, and diverted by the reservoirs, canals, pumping stations, and siphons of the Colorado River Aqueduct and Central Arizona Project, this river system supports urban growth in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California. These infrastructures are impressive, but they cannot be called solutions. One early attempt to draw irrigation water failed so spectacularly that the river’s entire course was diverted for more than a year, creating the Salton Sea. 14 Building yet another dam sent the river flowing westward again, but that didn’t solve the problem of a land-locked sea that soaks up toxic agricultural runoff, or the fact that the Colorado River runs out of water long before it reaches the Gulf of California. 15
How should we describe this methodological tendency? Landscape solutionism.
And we needn’t dwell on the famously flawed infrastructures of the 20th century. 16 A similar mindset prevails today. When beachfront property is threatened by storms or littoral drift, the shifting sands are held in place by groynes, bulkheads, seawalls, and tetrapods. Never mind that efforts to armor one stretch of shoreline accelerate losses elsewhere. Meanwhile, specialized offshore dredging ships mine sand from seafloor deposits so that it can be pumped back onto the beach — a process called “nourishment,” although it is hardly that. Such beaches tend to be structurally unstable, since they are part of a larger submerged mass, and mining at the base of that mass destabilizes the whole. 17
How should we describe the tendency that leads to these patterns of self-defeat? In The Control of Nature, John McPhee chronicled three epic battles between human engineers and landscapes in Louisiana (river floods), Iceland (lava), and Los Angeles (rocky debris flows), ultimately locating the source of these conflicts in human nature itself. Environmental historians Karen O’Neill and Todd Shallat have shown how institutions, economic agents, and political forces shape American infrastructures by creating social preferences for flood control over ecological health. Anthropologist James C. Scott has controversially tied such infrastructures of control to a “high modernist” ideology, while landscape theorist Pierre Bélanger links efforts to rationalize landscapes with Taylorism, the theory of scientific management that began with the desire to efficiently order the factories of the industrial revolution. 18
These explanations name ideological tendencies that have driven the development of modern landscape infrastructure networks. 19 In this essay, though, I would like to explore the possibility that there is also a methodological tendency, a way of doing the work of making landscapes and infrastructure, that contributes to this cycle of self-defeat. We might call it solutionism, a term popularized by Evgeny Morozov to describe “an intellectual pathology” that defines problems on the basis of one’s capacity for solving them. Morozov argued that Silicon Valley’s software engineers recast “all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized — if only the right algorithms are in place!” For Morozov, solutionist thinking has displaced a central category of social concerns, like public health and education, which may have problematic facets, but which are not fundamentally definable as problems. 20
In landscape solutionism, this pathology manifests in three interlocking ways. First, solutionists ignore the many aspects of landscapes that are ecologically or socially important but are not problems. Second, when they find something that looks like a problem, they reach for known solutions, which may not fit the context. (When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) And third, they avoid engaging with unsolvable problems, or, worse, mis-categorize them as solvable, producing cascades of unintended consequences. Hence, Matagorda.
Today we are (hopefully, certainly) on the cusp of a new wave of landscape-making. And though current conditions make it hard to see the shape of that wave, they have not dissipated the forces that will shape it: climate change, which demands both adaptation and mitigation; contamination of soil and water systems; a biodiversity crisis characterized by mass extinction; spatial inequities produced by colonialist and extractivist operations; and the need to decarbonize energy, food, housing, and transportation systems. Initiatives like the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal, and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation corridor suggest hopeful contours for this work, but far more lies ahead than behind. 21
In discussing a politics adequate to this moment, Jedediah Purdy writes:
The Anthropocene finds its most radical expression in our acknowledgment that the familiar divide between people and the natural world is no longer useful or accurate. Because we shape everything, from the upper atmosphere to the deep seas, there is no more nature that stands apart from human beings. There is no place or living thing that we haven’t changed. Our mark is on the cycles of weather and seasons, the global map of bioregions, and the DNA that organizes matter into life… in a world we can’t help shaping, the question is what we will shape. … We shape the world by living. Our lives knit into a kind of collective landscape architecture. 22
A collective landscape architecture! This might seem an unexpected interjection. Those of us credentialed to do this work are painfully aware of the limits of our small and relatively powerless field. Yet here is Purdy (a law professor) drawing all of humanity into our fold, and putting our work at the center of the Anthropocene. 23 Let’s assume he’s right, that a collective landscape architecture defines our present and future. What special responsibilities does that impose on our field?
Let’s assume Purdy is right, that a collective landscape architecture defines our present and future. What special responsibilities does that impose on our field?
In 1991, landscape theorist Elizabeth Meyer argued that “landscape architecture is not synonymous with problem solving, or even creative problem solving.” She similarly rejected what was then the standard definition of the field: “the art — or the science, if preferred — of arranging land, together with the spaces and objects upon it, for safe, efficient, healthful, pleasant use.” 24 In negating those positions, Meyer framed landscape architecture as a “critical practice” concerned with understanding the meaning of works of landscape architecture in relation to one another and to culture.
And yet the Mississippi Delta and the Everglades and the Salton Sea are gripped by actual problems. An alkaline lake that is growing ever more toxic demands — well, if not a solution, then at least an instrumental response. 25 If landscape architecture is to play its role in shaping environmental futures, we cannot turn away from the acute problems of the world.
Wicked Problems Are Still Our Problems
In the past half century, there has been a paradigm shift in the field of ecology. Where ecologists once saw the world as a collection of self-regulating systems oriented toward “equilibrium and stability,” they now see “nonequilibrium, heterogeneity, stochasticity, and hierarch[y].” 26 This indeterminacy extends across scales, from local ecosystems to broader processes like global biogeochemical cycles, erosion and sediment transport, and weather and climate. 27 Influenced by this new ecological thinking, many designers have retooled their practices to acknowledge the dynamism of landscapes. 28 Yet, as a whole, the fields that organize urbanization — including real estate, urban planning, logistics, infrastructure engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, and politics — are set up to reward stability. 29 This creates conflict: between stabilizing structures and environmental forces; between economies that seek continuity and landscapes that are constantly migrating; between people affected unequally by change.
Indeed, the problems identified by solutionist thinkers are often just normal landscape processes. Erosion imperils beachfront property, but the movement of sand has always been part of the behavior of beaches and barrier islands. Flooding threatens farms and cities, but it is also a vital link between rivers, floodplains, and deltas, and the species that inhabit them. The idea of fixing a landscape by making it permanently stable may be wholly incompatible with a healthy planet. 30
The idea of fixing a landscape by making it permanently stable may be wholly incompatible with a healthy planet.
Consider the delta formed by the convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers in Northern California. Rather unusually, the California Delta fans inward, so that its most narrow point is the termination on Suisun Bay. In the not too-distant past, this landscape hosted extraordinary biodiversity, including salmon, sturgeon, tule elk, grizzly bears, and vast clouds of waterfowl, sustained by marshes characterized by tule, a type of giant bulrush. Miwok and Maidu peoples lived in villages throughout the delta. When Europeans arrived in the 1840s, they found that the soft marsh “islands” interlaced by small channels running between the two major rivers had rich, peaty soils that were ideal for settler agriculture. By deepening channels and building dikes, the settlers converted almost half a million acres of freshwater marsh into farmland, transforming the delta into a patchwork of polder islands, more reminiscent of the Netherlands than any other North American landscape. 31
This precipitated ecological crisis, as many native species lost most of their habitat. And in attempting to stabilize their farms, the settlers actually destabilized the marsh system, disrupting the floods that brought new sediments and the marsh plants which had been converted over generations into organic soil. Isolated by dikes, and with their topsoils broken by plowing, the polder islands rapidly subsided; today many lie 10 to 25 feet below sea level. 32 The construction of the California Aqueduct, beginning in 1963, further altered the landscape. Waters from the Sierra Nevada range that historically drained westward to Suisun Bay are now pulled by the Banks Pumping Plant into the aqueduct, which supplies farms and cities as far south as Los Angeles. 33
The result of those technological interventions is a fundamentally unsolvable landscape. Local farmers need freshwater to maintain agriculture on the polderized islands. Distant cities and farmers, represented through state government, prioritize the transfer of water to their own locales. Environmentalists (and native fish) want to see water regimes altered to resemble historic flows and minimize saltwater intrusion. These desires cannot all be equally satisfied. 34 And so the California Delta presents a “wicked problem,” as famously theorized by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. The formulation of a wicked problem is inherently political, because of its pluralistic social context; and since there is no one formulation, there is no one solution. Wicked problems are never solved, according to Rittel and Webber: “at best they are only re-solved — over and over again.” 35
We are ethically responsible not just for preserving nature in these places, but for constructing it.
Solutionism doesn’t know what to do with landscapes like this, and it leaves us in the unsatisfactory bind of either reducing landscape complexities to solvable problems, or avoiding altogether the problems that are now most pressing. We cannot talk about climate change without talking about the highly dynamic, ecologically diverse systems like the California Delta (or the Everglades or great estuaries like New York’s harbor) which are most sensitive to it, where small climatic shifts can cascade into large or sudden landscape transformation. 36 These sites are thoroughly interwoven within human society — often adjacent to large cities and always tied to them by networks of exchange, extraction, and use. Wicked problems are still our problems. We are ethically responsible not just for preserving nature in these places, but for constructing it. 37 So what is the next move in our collective landscape architecture?
Solutions and Solutionism
To be clear, I am not arguing against solutions, but solutionism, the recurring temptation to see landscape design through the prism of known solutions.
On its own terms, the Netherlands’ Delta Works — a system of dikes, dams, and gates protecting low-lying farms and villages where three major rivers meet the North Sea — has been a successful solution to the problem of people dying in coastal floods. In 1953, less than three weeks after a catastrophic flood killed nearly 2,000 people, the Dutch government formed a commission to evaluate and strengthen coastal storm defenses. They devised a new system for assessing flood risk and built new structures to control water levels in the polderized Delta. No one has been killed by flooding in the seven decades since. 38 The last major addition to this network of infrastructures was the Maeslantkering, a storm surge barrier whose two massive arms, each as long as the Eiffel Tower, can be closed to seal off Rotterdam’s harbor in the event of a severe storm. It was completed in 1997.
Since then, however, the Dutch have decided that hard barriers are not always the best way to manage flood risk. On inland waterways, they have followed a strategy of making “Room for the River.” Instead of relying solely on dikes to protect property, they are moving buildings and structures to higher elevations, opening polders to turn farmland into floodplains, and designing urban “water squares” which double as public spaces in dry times and as water retention basins during periodic floods. 39
In ideological terms, these two programs, the Delta Works and Room for the River, belong to opposite poles — 20th vs. 21st century; control of nature vs. living with water; static engineering vs. dynamic landscape. But solutionism is ideologically flexible, and its temptations are greatest precisely when a solution is successful. Both programs have been neatly packaged and strategically exported through a public-private partnership between the Dutch government and leading engineering and construction companies. 40 In coastal regions around the world, Dutch consultants are hired to plan and execute flood control infrastructures. Para-governmental organizations like Deltares provide research expertise based on studies conducted in the Netherlands, and multinational consultancies like Arcadis bring proven quality in engineering and construction management.
In the United States, politicians and planners have turned to these Dutch models for answers in the wake of devastating hurricanes. Estuaries like the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Texas’s Galveston Bay are home to millions of people, trillions of dollars of property, and nationally significant industrial infrastructures, like Galveston’s petroleum refineries, which are vulnerable to severe storms and sea-level rise. One idea is to build gates across Galveston Bay that would be more than twice as large as the Maeslantkering. 41 I don’t intend to argue here against the proposal. 42 The threat of hurricanes is real, and a storm surge barrier is a demonstrably effective means of protecting a large region from flooding. My concern, rather, is the solutionist framing, whereby the existence of a solution determines the way in which the problem is understood.
When the solution (big Dutch gate!) defines the problem, the multi-dimensional risks of a hurricane are reduced to water entering the bay.
When the solution (big Dutch gate!) defines the problem, the multidimensional risks of a hurricane are reduced to water entering the bay. Other possible responses to the situation — selective retreat; or ecological infrastructure like dunes, marshes, and mudflats; or the (re)adoption of strategies for living with water — are excluded by their failure to perform in the same way. A marsh has certain advantages over a storm surge barrier: it gains elevation as it accretes sediment over time; it has ecological, economic, and recreational benefits; its construction and management are cheaper and less disruptive. But it will never keep water out in the same way that a wall of concrete and steel does, and if that is the primary criterion of success, the storm surge barrier will always appear superior. 43 Before landscape problems can be analyzed and solved, they must be framed. Solutionism short-circuits this crucial step in the design process.
In a 2018 article for Places, Lizzie Yarina examined Dutch models of water management that have informed climate resilience projects in southeast Asian megacities. The global export of a “softer,” ecologically sensitive approach like “Room for the River” seems like a good thing. Insofar as ecological infrastructure deserves more consideration, it is. But Yarina shows us that climate resilience is “not fundamentally a technical question. It is social and political.” Dutch models are not simply “‘portable solutions’ that can be applied in any context around the world.” 44 In the Netherlands, where there is a long history of cooperative water governance, the conversion of farms to floodplains is managed by regional water boards that date back to the 13th century. But in Jakarta, the 200,000 people forcibly evicted from flood zones are informal settlers who were already marginalized and disadvantaged before the campaign for “river normalization” began. Yarina finds a similar story in Manila. Framing the problem (flood risk) in terms of an imported solution (evacuation) precludes local responses which might be more appropriate, like the Filipino architecture of the bahay kubo, a house raised on stilts. Solutionism takes a response that may be innovative and valuable in one context and applies it everywhere, without regard for cultural, political, socioeconomic, and geographic circumstances. 45
Now let’s look at a counterexample. How can designers engage a problematic landscape without presuming to solve it?
Like many rivers around the world, the Aire in Switzerland was channelized to control flooding starting in the late 19th century. In 2001, the landscape architecture firm Atelier Descombes Rampini, working with a team of engineers and biologists, won a competition to redesign roughly three miles of this small river in the plains south of Geneva. 46 The brief was conventional: the river should be freed from the canal, the mistakes of history undone, and “nature” restored. But Descombes Rampini’s proposal questioned the assumption that a restoration would be desirable. They offered instead a superimposition: the canal would remain, transformed into a linear public space, and alongside it the designers would construct an “erodible corridor,” a 300-foot wide swath of farmland excavated as a flat bed, so that the river could select its own course over time. 47 History and future would mingle, overlapping and acknowledging one another.
On the River Aire, Descombes Rampini constructed an ‘erodible corridor,’ a 300-foot-wide swath of farmland excavated as a flat bed, so that the river could select its own course.
This proposal exposed a tension between different ways of valuing the past. The sponsors of the competition had declared that “natural form” — the behavior and structure of a past river supposedly uninfluenced by human activity — should determine the river’s future. In many other venues, though, we assume the cultural history of a landscape — the way human inhabitants have modified it over time — is worth preserving and even defending against forces of economic growth or technological development. River restoration, as a field, almost exclusively favors the former value system, whereas historic preservation favors the latter. Most people hold some mixture of these values. Rather than accept a starting point of “How can the river best be returned to its historic condition?,” Atelier Descombes Rampini reframed the question: “What should the condition of the river be?”
This is the first principle of non-solutionist design: the framing of a problem must be a conscious activity that precedes solving.
As the designers worked on the project, they were asked to carve an initial channel within the erodible corridor, to increase visual appeal and provide some deeper water for fish habitat. They responded by proposing not a single designed channel, which would have moved the project back toward the aesthetics of traditional restoration, but rather a field of evenly braided excavations forming a “launching pattern” of diamond-shaped plateaus. 48 In the five years since this “Renaturation” was completed, successive floods have passed through, distributing sand, silt, and gravel. In places where vegetation has taken hold, the diamonds remain relatively distinct; elsewhere, the diamonds have been washed away entirely, replaced by the runs, riffles, and pools of an unbound river.
River restoration projects often associate hydrological performance with the forms of “natural” river systems — sweeping curves, point bars, incised banks, and so on. The diamond grid severs that link, imposing a deliberate topography without sacrificing performance. The dimensions of that grid were based on historical records of the river’s meanders, on the assumption that those parameters reflected flow, slope, and soil conditions which continued to hold in the valley. The excavation depth was precisely controlled to maintain the longitudinal profile that had been set for the new river course. These decisions imbued the launching pattern with intelligence drawn from the study of landscape processes. 49
On the reconstructed Aire, form and process are merged into a single phenomenon, a consequential trajectory that both shapes and is shaped by environmental forces over time. 50 This is what landscape architecture must be today, at a much greater scale. We need designs that not only make space for the landscape to change, but that also actively and intelligently participate in shaping that change.
Methods and Procedures
So now we have articulated two principles of non-solutionist design: frame a problem before attempting to solve it, and design with change. Here we can make a brief survey of the methods and procedures available to landscape architects who wish to pursue those principles. 51
Fieldwork involves direct, embodied landscape encounters that can influence the framing of a problem, as designers listen intently for signals that contradict or undermine their starting assumptions. 52 Fieldwork also helps us see landscapes as dynamic; we might register the epiphenomena of change on first landing, or perceive patterns and trajectories of change through return visits.
Meyer has shown convincingly that site has been a starting point for landscape architecture since the 19th century, 53 and we could also say that site investigations have been revived by the postmodern turn toward particularity, trace, and history. 54 However, not all site engagement can be called fieldwork. Rote and remote methods, such as those promoted in James LaGro’s textbook Site Analysis, contribute directly to the ossification of solutionist framings. It is also possible to walk a site without allowing it to alter your understanding.
Genuine fieldwork requires rigor and openness: trace a line across any decently-sized landscape, for example, and you will encounter the unexpected. 55 In “Curious Methods,” Karen Lutsky and Sean Burkholder advocate for maintaining a posture of curiosity by attending to how questions about the site are derived and asked. “Probing” a landscape in this way, designers gather feedback that can be translated into documents, records, or artifacts, and contribute to the framing of a landscape problem or situation. 56
In Distance and Engagement, Alice Foxley tracks the purposive wanderings of the Swiss landscape architecture firm Vogt Landschaftsarchitekten. “Our work begins not with a hypothesis to prove, but with a search for relevant questions,” writes Günther Vogt, in a foreword. “We of course expect to find answers and information from our field investigations, but we first develop and formulate what we regard as the relevant questions on site and compare them with the knowledge we have at our disposal.” This activity involves curious movement, both physically and conceptually. As Foxley puts it: “We look outwards, with our minds open; we look inwards, thoughts wandering in time with the rhythm of a walking pace.” 57
For projects on the Novartis corporate campus in Basel, the Vogt team took excursions to the karst landscapes of the alpine Glarnerland, returning with rock samples, photos of limestone pavements, and sketches of terraces, alluvial fans, and dendritic drainage patterns. With their proposal now structured as a microcosm of the regional geology, they walked the Allschwil woodlands to identify more detailed material phenomena and spatial patterns, such as the hohlwege, deep lanes formed in the soft clay by the erosion of farm cart paths, and the species composition, scale, and spacing of the region’s deciduous forests. These field notes became points of reference for design decisions: gravel gradations, composed woods, and embankments of clay and gravel that shaped path systems on the campus.
In Foxley’s book, we see how designers can engage social issues such as the perceptual distance between city dwellers and nature; a nostalgia for the passing of time; and the role of public space in pluralistic culture. The landscapes Vogt is working with are quite different from the rapidly-shifting deltas, estuaries, and rivers that have dominated my earlier examples. Here we are dealing with social and cultural uncertainty, rather than fluvial or biological indeterminacy. But these are all dynamic territories, and they must be approached through sensitive framing, with deep respect for time as the medium of landscape architecture. In The Spoils of Dust — a study of how the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has managed the desiccated Owens Lake — Alexander Robinson shows that embodiment is crucial to how even the most seemingly objective, technical “managerial surfaces” develop. Surely, then, methods like Vogt’s could be deployed at greater scales and in more physically indeterminate terrains. 58
Landscape architecture and planning have a long tradition of instrumentalized mapping, from Benton MacKaye’s regional geotechnics in the 1920s to Ian McHarg’s work in the 1970s, which led to contemporary geographic information systems. 59 But mapping need not be so instrumental. Landscape architects like James Corner, Anu Mathur, and Dilip da Cunha have used cartographic representation to undermine conventional assumptions about landscape and instigate creativity in the design process. 60 Both of those traditions have informed the more recent practice of synthetic cartography, which involves mapping information not previously understood as spatial to create new knowledge that is irreducibly so. 61 LOLA Landscape Architects’ Dutch Dikes, for instance, synthesizes cultural, historical, programmatic, and technical information about the Netherlands’ dikes, and re-presents it in the form of an atlas.
Like fieldwork, synthetic cartography can guide a non-solutionist framing, or help us conceive a problem differently. To comprehend the working of sediment systems, the Dredge Research Collaborative produced a map of dredged navigational channels, material placement sites, and coastal restoration projects in the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, revealing material flows previously hidden in spreadsheet cells. Similarly, workshop drawings at DredgeFest Louisiana demonstrated a potential role for sediment trapped behind Midwestern dams in responding to land loss hundreds of miles south, in the Mississippi River Delta. 62 Such mapping is particularly valuable in locating appropriate geographic and spatial frames. For the Resilient By Design competition in the San Francisco Bay, maps of sediment flows, dredging operations, and conditions in upland “sedimentsheds” helped the Public Sediment team narrow in on a pilot site, Alameda Creek, which was representative of regional challenges (creek channelization and floodplain development) and opportunities (adjacency to diked and subsided salt ponds with potential to be reconstituted as marshland). 63 Synthetic cartography can also help designers grasp temporal change. 64 The same team of designers developed projective maps of the whole Bay Area that spatialized sediment need over time, under various sea-level rise scenarios.
Unlike fieldwork and synthetic cartography, “scenario planning” in landscape architecture is relatively unusual. 65 But the framing of a problem can be usefully informed by the construction of scenario narratives that explore probabilistic futures for a landscape, identifying forces that shape its trajectory and exposing their potential interactions over time. 66 Scenarios do not predict the future, but they can illuminate pathways by which divergent futures might come into being.
One key distinction is between normative and exploratory scenarios. In normative scenario planning, plausible futures are identified, criteria for preferable futures are developed, and then planners backcast pathways for guiding the current situation toward the desired state. 67 Exploratory scenario planning, on the other hand, focuses on what might be. Here the final narratives are less important than the process of working through possibilities and drivers of change, which lets planners probe the future change of volatile, complex systems, often exposing blind spots in their thinking. 68 As Christian Salewski writes in Dutch New Worlds, a history of scenario planning in the Netherlands:
Scenarios are most effective as tools inside a design, planning, or decision-making team rather than as communicative devices to the outside [where they are] vulnerable to unintentional misunderstanding and intentional misinterpretations. Inside the scenario team, by contrast, scenarios serve as a disciplined way of thinking, as a base for discussion, and as a cognitive tool to discover relations, threats, and potentials. 69
The multidisciplinary consultancy Arup houses an internal think tank, “Foresight,” that works in this vein. For example, its white paper 2050 Scenarios presents four visions of the future, representing the quadrants of a 2×2 grid with “planetary health” and “societal conditions” either improving or declining. 70 Such exercises needn’t be planetary in scale, but unfortunately much of the regional scenario planning conducted by public agencies is quantitative, spatially abstract, and narrowly defines the cone of change only along political, economic, and social lines. Even this planning can be quite useful, but designers who want to move away from solutionism should trace more dimensions of landscape change. 71
As the collective nature of scenario-making indicates, social activities — particularly work done with others — can transform the way that problems are framed. Within landscape architecture, an established tradition of participatory design can be traced back to the 1960s and ’70s, influenced by the political demands of marginalized groups for full participation in society, as well as by participatory art movements that turned audiences into collaborators. Designers like Ant Farm and Buckminster Fuller conceived radically participatory “soft architecture” that would “enable individualism, responsiveness, nomadism, and anarchy,” while planners, disillusioned by the apparent failure of systems approaches to urban crises and sensitive to the revolt against top-down technocracy, began advocating for and working with marginalized communities more intentionally than they had before. 72 The landscape architecture firm Lawrence Halprin Associates, heavily influenced by Halprin’s partner, participatory choreographer Anna Halprin, led experimental workshops for cities including Fort Worth, Texas; Everett, Washington; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Cleveland, Ohio. Though the balance between participation and orchestration achieved in those workshops has been rightly critiqued, the firm’s work helped to legitimate participatory methods within the profession. 73
Landscape architects like Karl Linn, Randy Hester, and Marcia McNally were also early to develop, test, and deploy participatory design methods, and contemporary leaders like Kofi Boone, Diane Jones Allen, Jeff Hou, and David de la Peña have picked up where they left off. 74 Groups like the Pacific Rim Community Design Network study participatory design practices and share best practices, and firms like Agency Landscape+Planning and SCAPE Landscape Architecture specialize in creative forms of community engagement. 75 Tools of representation traditionally found within a landscape architecture office, like large-scale models and drawings, are now the focus of public meetings that engage broader and more diverse publics. 76 And the embodied, direct engagement of fieldwork is folded into activities like SCAPE’s “Fuzzy Rope Weaving Evening,” which brought together volunteers to weave blue mussel-hosting panels for a pilot installation in New York’s Inner Harbor, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy’s volunteer cultivation of canal, streets, and swales. 77
Participatory design processes, when they engage a diverse and truly representative public, can reveal blind spots within a field that lacks cultural diversity and is structured by racism, neoliberalism, and colonialism. 78 An instructive example is Anne Whiston Spirn’s work in the neighborhood of Mill Creek, Philadelphia. Built atop a creek that was encased long ago in a clay sewer, the neighborhood’s physical fabric has been damaged not just by poverty, white flight, and top-down planning, but also by flooding, sinkholes, and eroded foundations. In the late 1980s, Spirn’s West Philadelphia Landscape Project mapped the relationship between vacancy on the surface and water below, and began working with community gardens, including the block-sized Aspen Farms, led by Hayward Ford. Later, WPLP collaborated with residents to develop curricula for “landscape literacy” at a neighborhood middle school, while continuing to design and build projects like an outdoor classroom investigating stormwater management. 79
Reflecting on this work three decades later, Spirn wrote persuasively about the capacity for deep, sustained engagement between designers and communities to challenge assumptions, reframe problems, and expose facile solutions:
To be [landscape] literate is to recognize both the problems in a place and its resources, to understand how they came about, by what means they are sustained, and how they are related… To plan prudently is to transform problems into opportunities and liabilities into resources, and to intervene at an appropriate scale. To design wisely is to read ongoing dialogue in a place, to distinguish enduring stories from ephemeral ones, and to imagine how to join the conversation. 80
And still she finds that her perception of problems is reframed by listening to people in the neighborhood. In 2018, she reported that her focus was shifting from the flow of water to the flow of capital, spurred by conversations about gentrification with local activist Frances Walker.
Another important form of collaboration is transdisciplinary design, which seeks to engage other fields of knowledge and practice, learning from their values and methods. Not to be confused with multi- or interdisciplinary practices, transdisciplinary design fuses varied approaches into a new whole, which may be project-specific and particular to a single situation. The complexity and novelty of the challenges in dynamic landscapes frequently calls for such hybridized specificity.
Earlier, I noted the problem of land loss in the Mississippi River Delta, where communities are caught precariously between subsidence and sea-level rise. The state has responded with a broad range of actions to stabilize the disappearing marshes, from airlifting discarded Christmas trees to piping in mud and sand dredged from the river’s main navigation channel. 81 The most ambitious strategy is sediment diversion. Enormous gated valves are emplaced at strategic points in the levee system to channel flood sediments back into the delta, re-engaging the river in land-building. The state’s many efforts are collated in the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, an evolving document that is continually under revision — like the coast itself — and reissued every five or so years.
This plan, which structures the ongoing transformation of North America’s largest river delta, is the most important and potentially transformative landscape design project in the United States today, and it is shameful that it is not taught widely in landscape architecture curricula. It is also an intensely transdisciplinary effort, coordinated by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a state agency that employs hydrologists, biologists, and ecologists; civil, structural, and environmental engineers; environmental and urban planners; attorneys; project managers; and landscape architects. The agency is advised by The Water Institute of the Gulf, a nonprofit applied research organization modeled after the Netherlands’ Deltares, and has worked with Louisiana State University’s Coastal Sustainability Studio on a program of visual communication linking CPRA’s technical efforts to the diverse communities they serve. Each of these institutions is organized around a geography and a set of situations, rather than a traditional disciplinary orientation. Their expertise is transdisciplinary, specific, and particular.
One challenge facing transdisciplinary teams is that the models of landscape change utilized by scientists and engineers, such as numerical and physical hydrodynamic models, are typically resource-intensive, and thus able to study only a few design options. If landscape architects want to improve the way their proposals interact with future change, they need to develop native modes of modeling that can handle dense and rapid iteration. They also need models that consider form not as a static configuration but as a consequential trajectory; that is, models that show the propensities of a form over time, as well its interactions with other forms and external forces.
Recent work by designers such as Karen M’Closkey, Keith VanDerSys, Alexander Robinson, Bradley Cantrell, Justine Holzman, Alan Berger, Philip Belesky, and Catherine Seavitt Nordenson points the way toward such modeling. 82 One especially promising example is the Port Futures project, where designers Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis are working with a team of modelers and engineers to test passive approaches to sediment management at four sites, mostly small ports, in the Great Lakes. 83 The first stage was physical modeling led by designers, who were able to select the formal starting points and get feedback about consequential trajectories, thus positioning themselves to integrate traditional landscape architectural concerns, like program, material, and space, with concerns that are pressing in dynamic landscapes, like the movement of water, the accumulation of sediment, and the behavior of plant species. While we should not pretend that landscape models can fully capture the nonlinear complexity of earth systems or ecological change, design-led modeling can help designers check their assumptions and reframe problems. 84 It can also produce evidence that satisfies decision-makers in contested landscapes, who are often legally bound to quantitative metrics.
In North America, landscape architects tend to follow a model of professional practice established by architects. 85 They are hired by the client to provide design services in a standardized series of phases, from conceptual design to construction administration, before handing over the project and walking away, perhaps leaving instructions for ongoing maintenance, which may or may not be followed. But landscape architecture practice could instead be modeled after the ways that gardeners and restoration ecologists work. 86 Gardeners make landscapes scaled to the physical limitations of the human body: clipping, shearing, pruning, digging, and planting with their hands. Restoration ecologists, meanwhile, have based their applied science on an explicit statement of value: they seek to restore ecosystems degraded by human action. This gives them the freedom to move across registers, from landscape assessment to structure removal, remediation, and rehabilitation, and then ongoing monitoring and maintenance. 87 Nina-Marie Lister and others have urged landscape architects to learn these techniques of adaptive management, engaging landscape directly and continuously, with the understanding that landscape change is to be cultivated, not just instigated. 88
Such continual, direct involvement is relatively rare in professional landscape architecture, but there are precedents, like Parc du Sausset, a 200-acre public park in the Parisian suburbs, which melds the French tradition of formal garden design with vernacular forms from the French countryside, such as the haies bocagères. Supervised for over 25 years by the designers Michel and Claire Corajoud, the park includes an active tree nursery as well as dense woods cultivated from large block plantings of ‘whips.’ A more recent example is the ambitious network of paths, overlooks, and gathering spaces along wooded ravines and riverbanks in Girona, Spain. Since 2014, the design firm Estudi Martí Franch has worked with municipal “maintenance brigades” to shape these interstitial landscapes through practices like mowing, pruning, and clearing. Decisions about where to mow, what to prune, and how to open clearings are made on site, recorded in simple sketches handed over to the maintenance brigades, and only later translated into more sophisticated drawings in the office. 89
The procedures discussed above are among the many ways that landscape architects can cultivate new (and latent) practices of landscape-making. But to fully escape solutionism, we must also develop and work within a posture of epistemic humility. 90 To frame a landscape situation well, we have to see beyond our instincts and assumptions and think outside our training. Designing with change means that our framings must change, too, as landscapes shift and confound our expectations. It is neither necessary nor possible to definitively frame a dynamic situation. When we pretend that we can, we are continually frustrated and thwarted. As Jean-Pierre Protzen and David J. Harris observe of Rittel’s design theories:
Taming a problem by treating it as tame does not remove its inherent wickedness; the description of the problem that is used is not, as Rittel argued, a definitive formulation, but rather simply one possible formulation among many. 91
How do we design with epistemic humility? By being curious in our fieldwork. By drawing out the spatial implications of information with synthetic cartography. By testing assumptions and intuitions through exploratory scenario planning and landscape modeling. By experimenting in landscape itself, like gardeners and restoration ecologists. By engaging in collaborations that open us to other value structures. These procedures for non-solutionist design are already encoded within landscape architecture, and we can build our practices around them.
Models of Practice
But, you say: structural conditions push practice in a different direction. In the United States and many other countries, the profession is bound to the “capital project,” with design services financed at the outset. Once a project is complete, it is supposed to be generating returns, not requiring further investment in design. This financing model has constrained landscape architects to certain types of work: suburban developments and corporate office campuses, urban redevelopments and brownfield public spaces. (Almost) nobody is funding landscape architects to work with vacant and disused urban spaces, or maintain existing landscape infrastructures, or engage in exploratory planning for rangelands, managed forests, and constructed wetlands. Clients (developers) come to landscape architects with bounded problems that are meant to be solved. At times, designers may cleverly reframe a problem to reveal new facets, but we are hired as service providers, not problem-finders. Most of us probably like it that way more than we are willing to admit; we get to pretend that we are not ethically responsible for the way that problems are framed. And the first, most unquestionable givens are the boundaries of the sites we are working on. 92
In the U.S. and other countries, the profession is bound to the ‘capital project.’ And once complete, the project is supposed to be generating returns, not requiring further investment in design.
These structural conditions reinforce the vast gulf between designers and the institutions that are actually engaged with re-making dynamic and contested landscapes. Large bureaucracies and planning agencies are oriented toward repeatable, quantifiable, technocratic solutions, and thus hostile toward non-solutionist procedures, if only because they lack mechanisms for comprehending their value. 93 Further, the professional networks for landscape architecture rarely overlap with the scientists, engineers, planners, and regulators that staff public agencies and NGOs. And our work within those institutions is limited by our field’s metrics for success. We focus on the designed object that can be photographed, documented in portfolios, and awarded by professional societies, rather than on what Dan Hill calls “dark matter,” a metaphor he uses to suggest the thickness, weight, and imperceptibility of “organizational cultures … regulatory or policy environments … business models … [and] ideologies”; or on what Keller Easterling calls protocols, those actions or recipes which repeatedly format terrain. 94
So how do we escape these structural conditions? We’ve already considered examples of non-solutionist procedures. Let’s now look at models of practice that help us imagine what landscape architecture might look like after solutionism.
Landscape partnerships can coalesce around expertise in a topic, region, or approach, rather than disciplinary identity. The firm Biohabitats, for instance, employs landscape architects, ecologists, engineers, biologists, and construction managers, drawn together by a mission of ecological restoration. With an expanded portfolio of projects, from specialized design-build work to large-scale planning, the firm has carved out a market niche that incorporates but is not limited to traditional landscape architectural services. Likewise, many individual designers, like Kristina Hill, Nina-Marie Lister, and Alexander Felson, have dual training in ecological science and landscape architecture or planning, which enables them to translate principles, concepts, and approaches between fields. The Rhode Island School of Design recently partnered with the University of Rhode Island to launch a dual master’s degree in landscape architecture and “marine affairs,” educating designers in the “coastal and marine social science, economics, policy, planning and law” that forms a broader context for design operations on coasts. 95
Another successful model is the Dutch firm H+N+S Landscape Architects, which employs only landscape architects, but collaborates intensively with other consultants, such as ecologists, engineers, and planners, to engage complex landscape infrastructures. At Nijmegen, their work on a Room for the River Initiative included “water management measures such as the creation of a bypass channel with inlets, dike lengthening and nature development … the construction of three new bridges … and [the creation of] an inhabited island” in the middle of the Waal River, in a genuine engagement with this dynamic, fluctuating landscape system. H+N+S was also part of the teams that worked on the Zandmotor (or “sand engine,” a constructed reservoir of sand gradually carried up the Delfland coastline by currents) and the “outer contour” of Maasvlatke 2, an expansion of the artificial peninsula that hosts Rotterdam’s container port. 96 Their work suggests that one strategy for introducing non-solutionist procedures within hostile or ambivalent bureaucracies is working in small, “monodisciplinary” offices that internally prioritize such procedures while externally prioritizing collaboration. 97
Design research initiatives can engage topics or landscapes that lie beyond the typical bounds of professional practice. 98 A few large firms divert a percentage of fees they receive on capital projects toward self-directed research divisions, like SWA’s XL Lab and Olin Labs. These labs are exceptions, however, and their research is often aimed toward improving work on the capital projects that constitute the rest of their portfolios. Academia is more proven ground for issue-driven design laboratories, funded by grants and industry partnerships, like LSU’s Coastal Sustainability Studio, the Urban Risk Lab and P-REX at MIT, the Coastal Adaptation Lab at the University of British Columbia, the Great Lakes Design Lab at the University of Minnesota, the Arctic Design Group at the University of Virginia, and the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania. 99
Small-scale, independent practices can pursue clients that value a systemic approach to design that focuses on problem-setting rather than problem-solving. 100 There are successful examples in adjacent design fields, such as London-based 00, which is the core of a small network of studios, tech platforms, and institutional experiments that practice “design beyond its traditional borders,” from open-source construction (WikiHouse) to institutional frameworks (Dark Matter Laboratories). According to co-founder Indy Johar, 00’s unusual structure derives from a desire to focus on the “performative impact” and “institutional behavior” of architectural environments, rather than the building as iconic object or tectonic craft. 101 Another London studio, Superflux, “navigates the entangled wilderness of our technology, politics, culture, and environment” for corporate, institutional, and governmental clients. Their speculative works often merge industrial design with methods from the field of futures studies: a London flat circa 2050 bears the marks of living with permanent food scarcity; simulated air samples demonstrate the polluted quality of Emirati air in 2020, 2028, and 2034, if no action is taken to reduce carbon dependence; a radio is powered by “microbial fuel cells,” drawing energy by processing organic matter. Dash Marshall, based in Brooklyn and Detroit, moves between traditional architectural practice (primarily interior renovations and small residential buildings) and what it calls “Civic Futures practice,” engaging issues like the role of autonomous vehicles in urban space, the future of New York City branch libraries, and how to improve relations between citizens and public assets. Models like these, however, are not yet common in landscape architecture — perhaps because the larger fields of architecture, graphic design, and industrial design have been more successful in pitching clients on unorthodox services like strategic design and speculative futures. 102
Research initiatives can also be structured as singular projects within an office that does more traditional work. In Baltimore, Mahan Rykiel Associates has been investigating the potential to rethink dredged material management landscapes around Baltimore Harbor. Similarly, the Rebuild by Design (NYC) and Resilient by Design (SF) competitions were defined by the length of their research phases, in which an issue was permitted to define the geography of a problem, rather than vice-versa. 103
A reinvigorated federal land planning bureaucracy, like the one Billy Fleming has proposed in this journal in “Design and the Green New Deal,” could be home to a more instrumental form of non-solutionist practice. This might look something like the Helsinki Design Lab (2008-2013), a “strategic design” studio that operated within the independent public foundation Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. Small, project-oriented, and collaborative, the HDL hired designers like Dan Hill (of “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses”) and Bryan Boyer (of Dash Marshall) to structure projects and design processes rather than to do what is normally recognized as design work. 104 Similar initiatives, organized around specific themes or geographies, could be housed within U.S. state and federal agencies, as, for example, the Engineering With Nature initiative is currently housed within the Army Corps of Engineers.
The best speculative work seeks not to release landscape design from practical constraints, but to influence land management practices. Sometimes this is done through critique: Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha’s speculative work, for instance, has consistently undermined solutionist framings for living in wet places, in Norfolk, Virginia; along the Mississippi River; in Mumbai. Rather than assume water’s presence as a problem, they first critically attend to the representational and linguistic choices that frame coastal situations. Their proposal for Norfolk began with a spatial metaphor of “turning the coast,” conceptualizing it not as a dividing line between land and water, but as “a dynamic and porous coast of gradients in space and time” where “the sea extends deep into the continent.” They asked us to look at “fingers of high ground,” landforms that shape the water’s extension into the continent, as the morphological material for proposed urban earthworks, inventing an alternative to levees, walls, and barriers. Here, the designers do not claim to “solve” flooding, but to consider how Norfolk residents might live differently with water.
I once heard hydrologist Philip Orton, a frequent SCAPE collaborator, argue that we should make speculative plans even when there is no clear path to implementation, so that we have ideas ready when conditions change. Soon after he made that comment, Hurricane Sandy landed in New York, providing the impetus that facilitated the transformation of Oyster-tecture, SCAPE’s speculative proposal for MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition, into the Living Breakwaters project which today is nearing construction off the coast of Staten Island. 105
Firms that learn how to stay involved with a landscape over time will be able to practice differently than those bound to capital projects. Michael Van Valkenburgh and William Saunders have argued that slow design practices like the Corajouds’ 25 years of active engagement at Parc du Sausset were once more common in landscape architecture. They note the example of Beatrix Farrand, who in the early 20th century signed up her clients for ongoing maintenance. 106 Landscape architects can also look to forestry, agriculture, and gardening for contemporary models of how to structure contracts, clients, and budgets.
Some firms have found work by positioning themselves as advocates for underappreciated landscapes. 107 Julie Bargmann and D.I.R.T. Studio have championed the aesthetic qualities and cultural potential of contaminated sites, and their systemic interactions with waterways, people, and nonhuman communities. Kongjian Yu and Turenscape have similarly advocated for sites like urban wetlands, and for a way of making landscapes that draws on marginalized vernacular practices in Chinese culture, rather than fetishizing manicured, pristine, “urbane” landscapes disconnected from active landscape processes. (See, for instance, the messy, raw, but performative “Big Feet” landscape of Qiaoyuan Wetland Park in Tianjin.) 108 Others, like Quilian Riano’s DSGN AGNC, Walter Hood, TractionDAR, Agency Landscape+Planning, and Interboro, have specialized in landscape advocacy that centers human communities. This work orients design away from developers and wealthy clients, and toward underserved, marginalized, and disadvantaged populations who tend to lose out when landscapes are “solved.” 109
Work that takes place over long time frames, and with marginalized landscapes and communities, can be financially precarious and difficult to scale. But designers can also generate protocols and intervene in the dark matter of bureaucracy, regulation, policy, and politics. For the Resilient by Design challenge, the Public Sediment team (led by SCAPE) spent much of its time researching the dark matter that shapes the physical implementation of projects on the shores of San Francisco Bay. A holistic proposal about how to reshape landscape infrastructures like the flood channel of Alameda Creek was divided into a series of negotiated pilot projects and specific landscape features — like the “gravel beach and berm” pilot project now under design for Eden Landing — that push beyond what is possible in the current regulatory environment. The planning, design, implementation, and monitoring of these pilot projects then becomes an opportunity to alter regulation and pave the way for future work. 110
Design and Politics
How landscape architecture intersects with structural conditions of practice is a real and important question. But those conditions are still less important than the structure of political systems. A great deal has been written, from both the left and right, about the end of liberalism as a political culture. 111 We live amidst epistemic ambiguity and are swept along by environmental indeterminacy. We can’t agree on shared values or narratives, let alone how to respond to the climate change that we are accelerating. Should we fortify coasts? Invest in living systems as infrastructure? Orchestrate a mass retreat?
We should recognize that design’s developed procedures of non-solutionism are uniquely useful in this moment.
Forming consensus around those options is the work of political movements and coalitions. Landscape architects can do our part in that work by framing situations and designing with change. The implementation of any large-scale scheme of climate mitigation and adaptation will require substantial networks of knowledge and practice that are nascent today. 112 As designers we have to get comfortable working with engineers, scientists, planners, and policymakers, and demonstrate our value to them. Transdisciplinary collaborations are happening sporadically now, but they must be systemic.
We should recognize that design’s developed procedures of non-solutionism are uniquely useful in this moment. These procedures can be scaled, and scalability is crucial to the ambition of a continental project, like the Green New Deal, or a planetary project, like mitigating climate change. And even beyond that: it will be crucial to the ongoing project of designing a livable world, a project that we humans have unwittingly embarked on and become collectively responsible for. 113
Their scalability is crucial to the ambition of a continental project, like the Green New Deal, or a planetary project, like mitigating climate change.
This responsibility will manifest in a great deal of work. Historical work: Mining restoration ecology for lessons in large-scale landscape-making and adaptive management. Unpacking the solutionist tendencies of mainstream landscape infrastructure design, in detail, for particular cases. Tracing the contours of effective counterexamples. Built work: Testing and refining procedures. Practicing non-solutionist design, and translating it into constructed landscape. Designing with change despite the myriad barriers. Battling for expanded understandings of the nature and scope of landscape practice. Social, collaborative work: Creating new networks of non-solutionist practice. Demonstrating value to skeptical institutions and puzzled, or even hostile, disciplines. Aligning with those who are forming political movements. Teaching a new generation of designers to value problems without defaulting to solutionism.
Fixing problems is satisfying; no one can deny that. It can be dispiriting to argue that some problems cannot — should not — be solved. Yet what would be even more dispiriting would be to complete a huge new program of landscape making — call it the Green New Deal — only to find that we, like the engineers at Matagorda Bay, have unwittingly ruined what we sought to fix.