The Problem with Solutions

We need to engage troubled landscapes without presuming to fix them. Notes toward a history of non-solutionist design.

A log raft on the Red River in Texas. [Noel Memorial Library, Louisiana State University in Shreveport]

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

Matagorda Ship Channel Entrance, aerial view
The entrance of the Matagorda Ship Channel, where it cuts through a barrier island, 2002. [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers]

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?

Satellite view of Matagorda, Texas
Landscape infrastructure of Matagorda Bay, 2020. [Bing Maps]

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

Levees and canals in the Florida Everglades, aerial view
Water control infrastructure in the Florida Everglades. [National Park Service/R. Cammauf]

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

Imperial Dam and the All-American Canal System
Imperial Dam and the All-American Canal System, on the Colorado River. [U.S. Bureau of Reclamation/Andy Pernick]

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.

1977 plan for the Matagorda Ship Channel. [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers]

The Challenge

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.

Salton Sea, red algae bloom
Salton Sea. [Kevin Key]

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

Snodgrass Slough, California Delta
Snodgrass Slough, California Delta. [Wayne Hsieh]

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.

Maeslantkering
Maeslantkering, on the Nieuwe Waterweg, Netherlands. [Drone Support nl]

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

Renaturation of the River Aire
Renaturation of the River Aire, by Atelier Descombes Rampini + Superpositions. [Fabio Chironi]

Consequential Trajectories

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.

Renaturation of the River Aire, by Atelier Descombes Rampini + Superpositions. [Easytomap]

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

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

Mud
Mud on Gunnison Bay, Great Salt Lake, Utah. [From Karen Lutsky and Sean Burkholder, “Curious Methods,” in Places]

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

Paths inspired by hohlwege at Novartis Campus Park, Basel, by Vogt Landschaftsarchitekten. [Vogt]

Synthetic cartography

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.

From Dutch Dikes, by LOLA Landscape Architects. [LOLA]

Exploratory 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

From 2050 Scenarios, by Arup Foresight. [Arup]

Collaborative processes

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

Overhead shot of community planting project
A community planting project on Jamaica Bay, New York, with dredged sand placed by the Army Corps and spartina plugs planted by the community. [Gena Wirth/Dredge Research Collaborative]

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.

West Philadelphia Landscape Project Map Explorer
Mapping the buried floodplain of Mill Creek against vacant lots in Philadelphia. [West Philadelphia Landscape Project]

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.

Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, page spread: "past, present, and future work"
From the 2017 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan. [Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority]

Landscape modeling

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.

Designed maintenance

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

Maintenance of the Can Colomer meadow, Girona. [Martí Franch]
Maintenance of the Can Colomer meadow, Girona. [Martí Franch]

Epistemic humility

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.

The Zandmotor
The Zandmotor, one year after construction. [Rijkswaterstaat/Joop van Houdt]

Disciplinary compositions

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

Research initiatives

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.

Fingers of High Ground: A Structure for Coastal Resilience
From Fingers of High Ground: A Structure for Coastal Resilience, by Anuradha Mathur, Dilip da Cunha, and colleagues. [Structures of Coastal Resilience]

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

Landscape orientations

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

Elwha River, Olympic National Park
Elwha River after removal of the Glines Canyon Dam, Olympic National Park, Washington. [Flickr/Commons]

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.

Editors’ Note

This article is a significantly expanded version of an argument the author first put forth in “Design with Change,” published in Design with Nature Now, edited by Frederick R. Steiner, Richard Weller, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming © 2019. Some paragraphs from that chapter are incorporated here by arrangement with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in association with the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design and The McHarg Center. All rights reserved.

Author’s Note

I would like to thank Josh Wallaert and the editors at Places Journal for refining this essay with me. I would also like to thank Brian Davis, for responding insightfully and at generous length to an early draft of this essay, and the students of my Fall 2019 History, Theory, and Practice I seminar, for reading a similarly rough draft and helping me to sharpen it with their questions.

Notes
  1. Or centuries. The 100-mile-long “Great Raft” on the Red River grew for nearly a millennium before it was cleared with snag boats in a six-year battle.
  2. I first learned about the infrastructural history of Matagorda from Rob Thomas, Chief of the Engineering and Construction Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Galveston District. The account here draws on primary and secondary sources, including Comer Clay, “The Colorado River Raft,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 52 (April 1949), 410-26; Comer Clay and Diana J. Kleiner, “Colorado River,” in Handbook of Texas Online; Wendee Holtcamp, “Delta Dawn,” Texas Parks & Wildlife (July 2006); Daniel Heilman and Billy Edge, “Interaction of the Colorado River Project, Texas, with Longshore Sediment Transport,” Coastal Engineering (1996), https://doi.org/10.1061/9780784402429.256; R.G. Barcak, N.C. Kraus, L. Lin, E.R. Smith, D.J. Heilman, and R.C. Thomas, “Navigation Improvements, Mouth of the Colorado River, Texas,” Proceedings of Coastal Sediments ’07 Conference (Reston, VA: ASCE Press), 1502-1514; USACE Galveston District, Mouth of Colorado River, Texas: Environmental Impact Statement (1977); and USACE Galveston District, Mouth of Colorado River, Texas: Phase I General Design Memorandum (1981).
  3. Comer, 425.
  4. Lynn M. Alperin, “History of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway” (National Waterways Study, U.S. Army Engineer Water Resources Support Center, Institute for Water Resources, 1983), 31.
  5. USACE Galveston District, Mouth of Colorado River, Texas: Phase I General Design Memorandum, 5.
  6. Holtcamp, “Delta Dawn.”
  7. Water flowing into Matagorda Bay is managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority, a state agency that provides water and power to over a million Texans. The politics of the Colorado River Delta therefore implicate not only oysters, seagrasses, crabs, shrimp, commercial fisheries, recreational hunters and fishers, and local environmentalists, but also the management of upstream dams and reservoirs, controversial aquifer pumping plans, and rice patties and coastal crawfish farms. These politics are, to the say the least, complex. Holtcamp provides the best overview, although her article dates to 2006.
  8. Landscape architect Brian Davis has recently begun to articulate a theory of landscape design that begins from this observation. See Brian Davis, “The Asymmetry of Landscape: Aesthetics, Agency, and Material Reuse in the Reserva Ecológica De Buenos Aires,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 13:3 (February 2018), 78–89, https://doi.org/10.1080/18626033.2018.1589145.
  9. See Brett Milligan, “Landscape Migration,” Places Journal (June 2015), https://doi.org/10.22269/150629: “Here the sublime comes to us as the experience of a lack of stability or unified form. New patterns of flux are all around us, and everything is more easily seen as part of the novel and emergent construction that it is. Within the accelerated reshuffling of just about everything, environmental baselines lose traction within an overriding condition of migration. This is the landscape medium in which we will design.”
  10. See David McCally, The Everglades: An Environmental History (University Press of Florida, 1999); National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Progress Toward Restoring the Everglades: The Seventh Biennial Review (The National Academies Press, 2018); Mary Doyle and Cynthia A. Drew, eds., Large-Scale Ecosystem Restoration (Island Press, 2008).
  11. Michael Blum and Harry Roberts, “Drowning of the Mississippi Delta Due to Insufficient Sediment Supply and Global Sea-Level Rise,” Nature Geoscience 2 (2009), 488-91, https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo553.
  12. This term was coined in Douglas Edmonds, “Restoration Sedimentology,” Nature Geoscience 5:11 (202), 758-59, https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1620. It’s important to note that the planners, scientists, and engineers working on these projects do not expect that sediment diversions would be capable of delta-building on the same scale as the river before development. Too much sediment is trapped behind upstream dams, the sea level is rising too fast, salt-water intrusion along shipping canals and cuts for petrochemical extraction has weakened marsh systems, and the delta is too developed to safely permit floods to spill as broadly as they once did.
  13. This general pattern was famously recognized in Gilbert White, “Human Adjustments to Floods,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago (1945). More recently, see Stephen Graham, Disrupted Cities (Routledge, 2009), which looks broadly at the effects of infrastructural failure. For detail regarding the past, present, and future Mississippi River Delta, see Bob Marshall, Brian Jacobs, and Al Shaw, “Losing Ground,” ProPublica (August 28, 2014); Kristi Cheramie, “The Scale of Nature: Modeling the Mississippi River,” Places Journal (March 2011), https://doi.org/10.22269/110321; Elizabeth Mossop and Jeffrey Carney, “In the Mississippi Delta: Building with Water,” Places Journal (September 2010), https://doi.org/10.22269/100909; and Richard Campanella, “Beneficial Use: Balancing America’s (Sediment) Budget,” Places Journal (January 2013), https://doi.org/10.22269/130128.
  14. Rob Holmes and Justine Holzman, “Material Failure and Entropy in the Salton Sink,” Landscape Research Record 4 (2016).
  15. See, for instance, Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (Viking, 1986) and Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire (Pantheon, 1985). On Places, see Austin Troy, “Thirsty City,” Places Journal (January 2012), https://doi.org/10.22269/120123; and Armando Carbonell, “Nowhere and Everywhere: The Colorado River Delta,” Places Journal (February 2013), https://doi.org/10.22269/130207.
  16. This pattern of conflict — human desire for stability vs. landscape’s tendency toward change and flux — can be seen not only in the construction of large-scale infrastructures, but also in land management practices. The fire cycles that renew ecosystems are suppressed; the large mammals that maintain grasses and forbs are hunted to extinction; forests that would historically migrate in response to climate shifts confound our desire for stable and predictable yields from silviculture. These conflicts are typical of a world that is thoroughly transformed by human action, especially intensively from the 20th century on. See J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (Norton, 2001); and Erle Ellis, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Stefan Siebert, Deborah Lightman, and Navin Ramankutty, “Anthropogenic Transformation of the Biomes, 1700 to 2000,” Global Ecology and Biogeography 19:5 (September 2010), 589-606, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00540.x. For a study of human influence on one particular earth system process, sediment transport, see Roger Hooke, “On the History of Humans as Geomorphic Agents,” Geology 28:9 (2000), 843-46, https://doi.org/10.1130/0091-7613(2000)28<843:OTHOHA>2.0.CO;2.
  17. On beach nourishment, see Orrin Pilkey and Katharine Dixon, The Corps and the Shore (Island Press, 1996).
  18. John McPhee, The Control of Nature (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989); Karen M. O’Neill, Rivers by Design: State Power and the Origins of U.S. Flood Control (Duke University Press, 2006); Todd Shallat, Structures in the Stream: Water, Science, and the Rise of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (University of Texas Press, 1994); James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (Yale University Press, 1999), and James C. Scott, “High Modernist Social Engineering: the Case of the Tennessee Valley Authority,” in Experiencing the State, eds. Lloyd Rudolph and John Kurt Jacobsen (Oxford University Press, 2006); Pierre Bélanger, Landscape as Infrastructure (Routledge, 2016).
  19. These are by no means universal practices of landscape management, but they have been dominant in colonial and post-colonial societies for the past 150 years, at least.
  20. Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (Public Affairs, 2013).
  21. I assume here that these challenges will necessitate reshaping American landscapes at a continental scale, so the question is not whether we will see this new wave, but what shape it takes. That depends on politics: who makes decisions about how we respond to challenges, who has a voice, whose interests are considered or excluded. Those political matters intersect with this essay — as solutionism makes it hard to adequately engage the politics of dynamic, contested landscapes — but they are not its central concern.
  22. Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015), 2-3, 22.
  23. It is important to note that Purdy is not ascribing this extraordinary influence to the professional field of landscape architecture. As Billy Fleming has argued, landscape architecture as such is only marginally important in responding to climate change; see Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal,” Places Journal (April 2019), https://doi.org/10.22269/190416. Rather, Purdy is saying that the work that is being done is like the work of landscape architecture: it is a hybrid belonging simultaneously to nature and culture, and so it is a form of design, whether or not it is executed by professional designers. I do not suggest that landscape architects should be professionally elevated to the responsibility for overseeing all of this “collective landscape architecture,” but, rather, that the ways that professional landscape designers work have important implications for how our collective human endeavor should proceed. Landscape architects owe this collective endeavor a sharpening and refining of the peculiar capacities that we, as a discipline, possess.
  24. Modern American landscape architecture — I refer here to the cultural period of modernism, not the modernist style of landscape architecture — is often understood as having been split between two major traditions, organized along dichotomies like art/science and design/planning. See for instance Richard Weller, “An Art of Instrumentality,” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader, ed. Charles Waldheim (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 69-85; and James Corner, “Ecology and Landscape as Agents of Creativity,” in Ecological Design and Planning, eds. George Thompson and Frederick Steiner (Wiley, 1997), 80-108. The influence of the site planning tradition links these two quotations from Meyer. While the quotation in the second sentence, from Norman Newton’s Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture (Harvard University Press, 1971), does not refer explicitly to problem-solving, it is the landscape architects who would conceive of these tasks of land arrangement as properly descriptive of the full domain of landscape architecture who would also describe it methodologically as “creative problem solving.” This tradition within landscape architecture reached peak influence within the field through the work of Ian McHarg and his students. Some McHarg students, like James Corner and Anne Whiston Spirn, have attempted to bridge the gap between these two traditions; however, a monolithic site planning tradition remains influential and, in places, dogmatically solutionist. As an example, see James LaGro, Site Analysis: A Contextual Approach to Sustainable Land Planning and Site Design (Wiley and Sons, 2011). Meyer’s essay is part of a discussion series that also featured James Corner, taking a broadly similar stance to Meyer, and Hamid Shirvani and Kenneth Helphand. Margaret McAvin wrote an introductory essay; Robert Riley and Robert Scarfo wrote responses to the four primary essays. See Margaret McAvin, Elizabeth K. Meyer, James Corner, Hamid Shirvani, Kenneth Helphand, Robert B. Riley, and Robert Scarfo, “Landscape Architecture and Critical Inquiry,” Landscape Journal 10:2 (1991), 155-72, https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.10.2.155.
  25. In later work, like “Sustaining Beauty,” Meyer seeks to rescue a landscape architecture structured around “critical practice” from the charge that it is irrelevant to the more pressing concerns of sustainability. Landscape aesthetics, Meyer argues, plays a crucial role in striving for societal sustainability, because aesthetic experience can shape cultural behaviors, attitudes, and orientations, and it is ultimately that culture which underlies any intentional reconfiguration of our environment. While this is an insightfully argued point (which resonated strongly with designers), it still does not, in my opinion, go far enough: we need not only landscape architectural theory that affords aesthetics an adequate hearing, but also theory that helps us understand how to accomplish more directly instrumental tasks well. See Elizabeth Meyer, “Sustaining Beauty: The Performance of Appearance,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 3:1 (2012), 6-23, https://doi.org/10.1080/18626033.2008.9723392.
  26. Jianguo Wu and Orie Loucks, “From Balance of Nature to Hierarchical Patch Dynamics: A Paradigm Shift in Ecology,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 70:4 (1995), 439-66. Similarly, scholarship in geography, urban studies, and urban ecology has born out the relevance of understanding urban systems in terms of change, while emphasizing the intertwinement of urban and natural systems in complex feedback relationships. For the former, see Cristina Ramalho and Richard Hobbs, “Time for a Change: Dynamic Urban Ecology,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 27:3 (2012), 179-88, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2011.10.008. For the latter, see Neil Brenner, Implosions/explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Jovis, 2012). Eds. Steward T.A. Pickett, Mary L. Cadenasso, and Brian McGrath, Resilience in Ecology and Urban Design (Springer, 2013) provides an integrated framework for conceptualizing ecological and urban processes that emphasizes change and flux.
  27. Steven Manson, “Simplifying Complexity: A Review of Complexity Theory,” Geoforum 32:3 (2001), 405-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0016-7185(00)00035-X; Timothy M. Lenton, and Hywel T.P. Williams, “On the Origin of Planetary-Scale Tipping Points,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 28:7 (2013), 380-82, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2013.06.001.
  28. From a theoretical perspective, some of this retooling has been largely a matter of translation; that is, the explication of ecological concepts to and for design audiences. Key examples in this vein include Kristina Hill, “Shifting Sites,” in Site Matters: Design Concepts, Histories, and Strategies, eds. Carol J. Burns and Andrea Kahn (Routledge, 2005); Nina-Marie Lister, “Resilience beyond Rhetoric in Urban Design,” in Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative in Urban Design and Planning, eds. Frederick R. Steiner, George F. Thompson, and Armando Carbonell, (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2016); Steward T.A. Pickett, Mary L. Cadenasso, and J.M. Grove, “Resilient Cities: Meaning, Models, and Metaphor for Integrating the Ecological, Socio-Economic, and Planning Realms,” Landscape and Urban Planning 69:4 (2004), 369-384, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2003.10.035; Robert E. Cook, “Do Landscapes Learn? Ecology’s ‘New Paradigm’ and Design in Landscape Architecture,” in Environmentalism in Landscape Architecture, ed. Michael Conan (Dumbarton Oaks, 2000). Another significant component has been the development of what landscape architect and gardener Julian Raxworthy refers to as the “process discourse,” an emphasis on process, openness, and change that emerged in landscape architecture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This discourse has been closely associated with landscape urbanism, which is best encapsulated by Charles Waldheim, ed., The Landscape Urbanism Reader (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), and is correspondingly heavily influenced by architectural theory. There is also a significant strand of the process discourse that was less directly tied to landscape urbanism; this strand is well-represented by the writings of Elizabeth Meyer from the same period, such as “Uncertain Parks: Disturbed Sites, Citizens and Risk Society,” in Julia Czerniak and George Hargreaves, eds., Large Parks (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 58-82. Anuradha Mathur’s and Dilip da Cunha’s early work, like Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (Yale University Press, 2001), fits chronologically with the process discourse, if imperfectly in theoretical content. A third component of the retooling has been the production of more recent landscape design theory, which tends to absorb and redeploy lessons from both these earlier components, while supplementing those lessons with additional theoretical sources in other fields like philosophy and geography. Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister, Projective Ecologies (Actar, 2014) compiles documents from both prior strains with more recent essays that are representative of this third component; see the excerpt, “Ecology and Design: Parallel Genealogies,” Places Journal (April 2014), https://doi.org/10.22269/140414. Also in this category are books like Margaret Grose, Constructed Ecologies (Routledge, 2017), and Rod Barnett, Emergence in Landscape Architecture (Routledge, 2013), and essays like Brian Davis, “Landscape and Instruments,” Landscape Journal 32:2 (2013), 293-308, and Brett Milligan, “Landscape Migration,” previously cited. Moreover, much recent work — for example, Landscript 5: Material Culture, ed. Jane Hutton (Jovis, 2017); and Scenario Journal 06: Migration, eds. Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pevzner — depends on an underlying foundation of concepts concerning landscape dynamism, material movements, and change. Examples of landscape design methods employed in practice that align with these theoretical developments are addressed later in this essay.
  29. Engineering practices and paradigms are shifting away from the static and toward the dynamic, led by progressive elements within the field, like the American Engineering With Nature program and the Dutch Building with Nature; but this remains an uphill battle.
  30. The scale and speed of change matters a lot, and so this tendency is stronger in some sorts of landscapes than in others. You’ll note that many of my examples refer to coastal areas and floodplains. This perhaps provides some significant clues as to how urban patterns ought to be organized (i.e. retreat).
  31. Peter B. Moyle, William A. Bennett, Cliff Dahm, John R. Durand, Christopher Enright, William E. Fleenor, Wim Kimmerer, and Jay R. Lund, “Changing Ecosystems: A Brief Ecological History of the Delta” (February 2010), report to the California State Water Resources Control Board [PDF]; Alison Whipple, Robin Grossinger, Daniel Rankin, Bronwen Stanford, and Ruth Askevold, “Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Historical Ecology Investigation: Exploring Pattern and Process,” SFEI Contribution No. 672. (San Francisco Estuary Institute, 2012) [PDF].
  32. Paul Shigley, “The Devil is in the Delta,” Planning (January 2012).
  33. Jay Lund, Ellen Hanak, William Fleenor, Richard Howitt, Jeffrey Mount, and Peter Moyle, “Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta” (Public Policy Institute of California, 2012) [PDF].
  34. Samuel Luoma, Clifford Dahm, Michael Healey, and Johnnie Moore, “Challenges Facing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Complex, Chaotic, or Simply Cantakerous?,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 13:3 (2015), https://doi.org/10.15447/sfews.2015v13iss3art7.
  35. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 160, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730.
  36. On the potential for small shifts to trigger sudden large-scale transformation of landscape systems, see Marten Scheffer, Steve Carpenter, Jonathan A. Floey, Carl Folke, and Brian Walker, “Catastrophic Shifts in Ecosystems,” Nature 413 (11 October 2001), 591-96, https://doi.org/10.1038/35098000. More broadly, on the implications of complex systems theory for understanding the behavior of landscape systems, see David Waltner-Toews, James J. Kay, and Nina-Marie E. Lister, eds., The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty, and Managing for Sustainability(Columbia University Press, 2008).
  37. Eric Higgs, Nature by Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration (MIT Press, 2003).
  38. Simon Kuper, “Can the Dutch Save the World from the Danger of Rising Sea Levels?,” FT Magazine (January 29, 2020).
  39. It should be noted that this kind of approach has been a feature of American flood management — on a greater order — since the inception of the federal Mississippi River system, whose initial design, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1928, incorporated floodways such as the Morganza Spillway, Bonnet Carre Spillway, and the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. These have repeatedly been used to provide ‘room for the river’ in major flood events.
  40. In addition to the examples presented here, Room for the River and associated Dutch expertise in infrastructure planning and design have informed the “Dutch Dialogues,” a series of planning studies in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina, which were first initiated by New Orleans-based design firm Waggonner & Ball in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
  41. Christine Dobbyn, “Largest Flood Barrier in the World Proposed to Protect Galveston Area Coast,” ABC13 News (October 26, 2018). Note that a similar proposal was studied by the USACE for the New York-New Jersey harbor estuary, but now appears stalled; see Anne Barnard, “After Trump Mocks a Sea Wall in New York, Plan is Abruptly Shelved,” The New York Times (February 25, 2020).
  42. For that, see Billy Fleming, “The Dutch Can’t Save Us From Rising Seas,” CityLab (October 17, 2018).
  43. At the same time, such framings will typically bracket and ignore the many shortcomings of hard infrastructure. Levees tend to promote development in areas that are historically in flood plains. (See Gilbert White, cited in note 13.) Hard infrastructure systems are also “fracture critical,” meaning that, when they fail, they are susceptible to catastrophic and total failure; see Thomas Fisher, “Fracture Critical,” Places Journal (October 2009), https://doi.org/10.22269/091019. Moreover, armoring one portion of a region’s coast displaces floodwaters, intensifying flood risk in other, unprotected areas, and ultimately contributing to spatial inequity. These issues, though, are often not incorporated into the cost-benefit analyses that guide coastal infrastructure decision-making. The causation in such solutionist framing is difficult to untangle because it is resolutely bidirectional and co-evolved. The desire for quantification both leads to the preference for storm-surge barriers and is produced by the capacity of the solutions we have in hand (i.e. storm-surge barriers) to provide it. Such inertia is difficult to overcome. Institutional procedures, political pressure, and regulatory requirements have colluded to exclude the consideration of alternative ways of approaching these problems. It should be noted, further, that it is not only solutionism, but also the ideological preference for quantitative, economic cost-benefit analysis that pushes institutions like the Army Corps toward such proposals. Such analysis is legally enshrined in the legislation that authorizes the Corps to undertake studies, and Corps decision-makers are hardly at liberty to test out alternative methods of decision-making, whether or not they are personally inclined to do so.
  44. Lizzie Yarina, “Your Sea Wall Won’t Save You,” Places Journal (March 2018), https://doi.org/10.22269/180327.
  45. That engineers are mainly responsible for the examples of solutionist framing presented here should not be surprising; engineers play a dominant role in large-scale landscape-making. But that fact does not absolve landscape architects, who have also often been gripped by solutionism. From the profession’s origins in response to the industrialization of 19th-century cities to the development of landscape urbanism in response to the post-Fordist city of the late 20th century, landscape architects have designed novel solutions to real problems that cities have faced. Yet these solutions have also easily become the raw material for solutionist framings — as, for example, an expensive park is prescribed to “revitalize” a neighborhood that may not need it.
  46. The full team, Groupement Superpositions, included Atelier Descombes Rampini, Georges Descombes, Léman-Eau, and Biotec Biologique.
  47. G. Mathias Kondolf, “The Aire’s Free Space: a Geomorphic Perspective,” in Aire: The River and its Double, eds. Superpositions (Park Books, 2019), 169.
  48. Georges Descombes, “Designing a Rivergarden,” in Aire: The River and its Double, 13
  49. For more on how the Renaturation exposes assumptions about identity, nature, and culture, see Elissa Rosenberg, “The Canal and the River,” in Aire.
  50. Here I am drawing on Catherine Dee’s description of form as trajectory in “Form, Utility, and the Aesthetics of Thrift in Design Education,” Landscape Journal 29:1 (2010), https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.29.1.21, and Brett Milligan’s description of trajectories in “Landscape Migration.” Landscape architecture theorists in the past few decades have often opposed form (or “objects”) and process. Initially, this distinction was made to up processes as a more sophisticated medium for landscape design. See Julia Czerniak, “Challenging the Pictorial: Recent Landscape Practice,” Assemblage 34 (Dec. 1997), 110-20, https://doi.org/10.2307/3171255; Julia Czerniak, “Appearance, Performance: Landscape at Downsview,” in CASE Downsview Park Toronto, ed. Julia Czerniak (Prestel, 2001); and Charles Waldheim, “Strategies of Indeterminacy in Recent Landscape Practice,” Public 33 (2006) [PDF]. More recently, Anita Berrizbeitia has offered a more subtle argument: that precise control of form and landscape processes might be put into a dialectical relationship, where “highly defined” form “enables.” This resuscitates the distinctive capacity of landscape architects to define form, which is not the main concern of other professionals, like restoration ecologists or civil engineers. In the Renaturation, though, an opposition between form and process drops out entirely, no longer appearing even as a thing to be undone, leveraged, or overcome.
  51. An outline of procedures for non-solutionist design, generally, would start with the core task of framing. While practitioners of any discipline are capable of framing, design has procedures such as reflective critique and dense iteration encoded into its most basic processes. This is clear, for instance, in Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity (MIT Press, 2015), in which Leski, who teaches architectural design, investigates the sources of creativity in terms of the procedures that spark or instigate creativity. The positivist fields, like engineering, that presently dominate the organization of complex landscape systems do not place nearly so much emphasis on procedures for framing. See Gary Downey and Juan Lucena, “When Students Resist: Ethnography of a Senior Design Experience in Engineering Education,” International Journal of Engineering Education 19:1 (2003), 168-76. However, to say that framing procedures are encoded into the processes of design is not to say that they are always deployed effectively, or that their value is well understood, even by designers.
  52. This is not to say that fieldwork cannot be technologically mediated. Brett Milligan, “Making Terrains: Surveying, Drones, and Media Ecology,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 14:2, 2019, 20-35, https://doi.org/10.1080/18626033.2019.1673565, discusses the possibility of cyborg fieldwork. In a broader fashion, so does Alexander Robinson, The Spoils of Dust: Reinventing the Lake that Made Los Angeles (Applied Research & Design, 2018).
  53. Elizabeth Meyer, “Site Citations: the Grounds of Modern Landscape Architecture,” in Site Matters, eds. Carol Burns and Andrea Kahn (Routledge, 2005).
  54. See Udo Weilacher, “Ten Theses on Landscape Architecture: A Trend-Setting Manifesto by Dieter Kienast,” Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians (April 2006), https://doi.org/10.13140/rg.2.1.3105.9045; Christophe Girot, “Four Trace Concepts in Landscape Architecture,” and George Descombes, “Shifting Sites: The Swiss Way, Geneva,” both in Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, ed. James Corner (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).
  55. See Laurel McSherry’s essay on fieldwork in Re-Envisioning Landscape/Architecture, ed. Catherine Spellman (Actar, 2003).
  56. Karen Lutsky and Sean Burkholder, “Curious Methods,” Places Journal (May 2017), https://doi.org/10.22269/170523. Note that the aim of such work is not to fetishize “data” or “methods” for their own sake, but to generate insights that are useful for framing. See Shannon Mattern, “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure,” Places Journal (November 2013), https://doi.org/10.22269/131105.
  57. Alice Foxley and Günther Vogt, Distance and Engagement: Walking, Thinking, and Making Landscape (Lars Muller, 2010), 22, 31.
  58. The term “managerial surfaces” is proposed by architect John May to emphasize the logics of management that govern large-scale, anthropogenic systems like Owens Lake; see Robinson, 186ff.
  59. As primary sources, see Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (Natural History Press, 1969), and Benton MacKaye, From Geography to Geotechnics (Harcourt Brace, 1928). Many different accounts have been written of the development of this tradition. For instance, Richard Weller, “Stewardship Now: Reflections on Landscape Architecture’s Raison d’être in the 21st Century,” Landscape Journal 33:2 (2014) briefly traces some of the growth of this tradition, in relation to other major traditions in landscape architecture; see pp. 91-92. Carl Steinitz, “Landscape Planning: A Brief History of Influential Ideas,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 3:1 (2008), https://doi.org/10.1080/18626033.2008.9723397, situates McHarg alongside other figures in this tradition like Patrick Geddes, Warren Manning, Philip Lewis, and Richard Forman.
  60. Charles Waldheim, “Provisional Notes on Landscape Representation and Digital Media,” in Landscape Vision Motion: Visual Thinking in Landscape Culture, eds. Christophe Girot and Fred Truniger (Jovis, 2012), 29-30.
  61. Disciplines as diverse as ecology, economics, and history have undergone “spatial turns,” in which scholars emphasize the importance of the spatial dimensions of the phenomena they study and, correspondingly, the role of techniques like mapping in producing knowledge with spatial dimensions. Somewhat oddly, landscape architects have not made a similar point in our own literature.
  62. The workshop that produced these drawings was led by Casey Lance Brown and Jeff Carney. For more on the DredgeFests, see the website of the Dredge Research Collaborative, of which I am a member.
  63. The Public Sediment team was led by SCAPE Landscape Architecture with engineering firm Arcadis, faculty from the UC Davis Departments of Human Ecology and Design, local landscape architects TS Studio, the Architectural Ecologies Lab at California College of the Arts, artist Cy Keener, and the Dredge Research Collaborative.
  64. For a deeper investigation into how designers should interrogate temporal change (including but not limited to cartographic methods), see Brett Milligan, “Accelerated and Decelerated Landscape,” in Designing Change: New Approaches to Coastal Adaptation in Landscape Architecture, ed. Kees Lokman (forthcoming).
  65. And unusual in design more generally. A recent special double-issue of the Journal of Futures Studies on “Design and Futures” offers some examples, but the editors acknowledge that the deployment of futures methods by designers is merely nascent. See Stuart Candy and Cher Potter, “Introduction to the Special Issue: Design and Futures (Vol. I),” Journal of Futures Studies 23:3 (March 2019), 1-2, https://doi.org/10.6531/JFS.201903_23(3).0001.
  66. See Rob Holmes, “Unknown Unknowns,” Volume 47 (2016).
  67. This distinction can be traced back to the 1975 DATAR-commissioned study of scenario methods by Julien, Lamonde, and Latouche, “La méthode des scénarios, une réflexion sur la démarche et la théorie de la prospective.” See Christian Salewski, Dutch New Worlds: Scenarios in Physical Planning and Design in the Netherlands, 1970-2000 (010 publishers, 2012), 45-49. Normative scenario planning has been the predominant mode among landscape architects in the United States, especially among academics. See for instance Joan Nassauer and Robert Corry, “Using Normative Scenarios in Landscape Ecology,” Landscape Ecology 19:4 (2004), https://doi.org/10.1023/B:LAND.0000030666.55372.ae; and Allan Shearer, “Scenario-Based Studies of Military Installations and Their Regions,” in Land Use Scenarios: Environmental Consequences of Development, eds. Allan Shearer et al (CRC Press, 2009). While useful within the context of the research goals of these projects, normative scenarios lend themselves more to problem-solving than framing.
  68. Kazys Varnelis and Robert Sumrell, “Personal Lubricants: Shell Oil and Scenario Planning,” in New Geographies 2: Landscapes of Energy, ed. Rania Ghosn (Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2010).
  69. Salewski, 309.
  70. See ARUP, “2050 Scenarios: Four Plausible Futures” (2019) [PDF]. ARUP’s four scenarios are explicitly constructed with uncertainty and complexity in mind. In the context of dynamic, contested landscapes, this is a strength of exploratory scenarios: because they are constructed to probe future change without pretending to predict the future, they are suited to use in volatile, complex systems where true prediction may not be possible. This point about the applicability of exploratory scenarios to wicked problems is frequently made in the literature on scenarios. See Angela Wilkinson and Esther Eidinow, “Evolving Practices in Environmental Scenarios: A New Scenario Typology,” Environmental Research Letters 3 (2008), 1-11, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/3/4/045017; and John Camillus, “Strategy as a Wicked Problem,” Harvard Business Review (May 2008), 1-9. Note, however, that this point has been well-made in theory, but rarely implemented in practice.
  71. In 2015 and 2016, my colleague Brett Milligan and I worked on a pair of exploratory scenario studies for the infrastructural earthworks of the California Delta and the Florida Everglades, funded by the Graham Foundation. The aim of our work was not only to investigate those two particular regions, but also to try out methods by which design might contribute usefully to larger, ongoing efforts to plan for dynamic landscapes dominated by uncertainty and political paralysis. Tracing a broad range of drivers of future change, from technological innovation in desalinization that might reduce southern California’s demand for Delta waters to economic booms that might cause urban development to spread into the Everglades from Miami, we developed scenario narratives that attempted to highlight some of the most impactful possible trajectories for future change. For instance, “Feral Bay,” one of the scenarios for the California Delta, imagined accelerated climate change, a new global recession, and large, levee-liquifying earthquakes coinciding to prompt de-infrastructuralization and re-wilding of the Delta. Like Salewski and ARUP, we concluded that the most valuable deployments of such scenarios would be in the context of particular decision-making processes, where spatially-modeled scenarios could alter the subtle, and ultimately social, perceptual dynamics of a decision-making team. See Brett Milligan and Rob Holmes, “Delta Earthworks, Wicked Problems, and Speculative Design Scenarios,” Landscape as Necessity conference proceedings (2016). The Delta scenarios were included in three sets of scenarios that informed the DredgeFest California workshops, as documented in the white paper “DredgeFest California Key Findings and Recommendations” (2016).
  72. Neeraj Bhatia, “Crazy-Radical Soft Architecture, from the 1950s to Today,” Architizer, 2013; Paul Davidoff, “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 31 (November 1965), https://doi.org/10.1080/01944366508978187; Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).
  73. For the critique, see in particular Alison Hirsch’s work, including her book City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), particularly chapter 5, “Facilitation and/or Manipulation.” On legitimization, see Randolph Hester, “Scoring Collective Creativity and Legitimizing Participatory Design,” Landscape Journal 31:1-2 (2012), 135-43.
  74. For Linn, see Alison B. Hirsch, “Urban Barnraising: Collective Rituals to Promote Communities,” Landscape Journal 34:2 (2015), 113-26, https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.34.2.113. For Hester and McNally, see Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006). For contemporary leaders, see Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity, eds. David de la Peña, Diane Jones Allen, Randolph T. Hester, Jeffrey Hou, Laura J. Lawson, and Marcia J. McNally (Island Press, 2017).
  75. See the Pacific Rim Community Design Network website.
  76. Sarah Cowles, “Crisis Actors,” Landscape Architecture Magazine (December 2018) discusses the public outreach efforts of three landscape firms, Field Operations, Bionic, and HASSELL, during the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge.
  77. See Kate Orff, “Lab Overboard!,” ARPA Journal 01 (June 2014); and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy website. For more on how direct community participation can transform landscape-making practices, see Kate Orff, “Cosmopolitan Ecologies: Jamaica Bay as Pilot Project,” in Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park, eds. Alexander Brash, Jamie Hand, and Kate Orff (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011); and Rob Holmes and Brett Milligan, “Labor, Landscape, and Colonnade Park,” La Tempestad 85 (July-August 2012). (English translation here.)
  78. Representation within the field of landscape architecture is obviously one important response to these conditions, but without a radical restructuring of work and class relations in the United States, a class barrier will continue to exist between landscape architects — who are members of the professional class by education, training, and definition — and many people we ostensibly serve. This makes participatory design an enduring concern.
  79. See Anne Raver, “Where the Water Was,” Landscape Architecture Magazine (October 2018); Paul Bennett, “Landscape Organism,” Landscape Architecture Magazine (March 2000); John L. Puckett, “The West Philadelphia Landscape Project,” West Philadelphia Collaborative History; and Anne Whiston Spirn, “Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape, Literacy, Environmental Justice and City Planning and Design,” Landscape Research 30:3 (2005), https://doi.org/10.1080/01426390500171193.
  80. Spirn, 410.
  81. Tim Maly and Rob Holmes, “The Mississippi River is a Land-Making Machine,” Gizmodo (January 9, 2014).
  82. Notable examples include the work of Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys (peg office of landscape + architecture), Alexander Robinson’s morphological tests of interventions within the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River (Landscape Morphologies Lab), Bradley Cantrell and Justine Holzman’s work with geomorphological tables (formerly REAL), Alan Berger’s modeling studies of hydrological performance for the Pontine Systemic Design (P-REX), and Phillip Belesky’s experiments with Grasshopper modeling of vegetative and hydrological processes (RMIT), as well as water table tests undertaken by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson’s teams for Palisade Bay and later Structures of Coastal Resilience.
  83. Passive sediment management relies on the force of moving water to shift bodies of sediment over time to desirable locations, in contrast to the standard paradigm for port sediment management, which relies on mechanical (and thus energy-intensive) dredging. These paragraphs rely on description of Davis’s and Burkholder’s process provided to the author in personal communication. Modeling collaborators for this project include faculty at the University of Minnesota’s Saint Anthony Falls Laboratory, which specializes in physical hydrological modeling; engineers from the private consulting firm Anchor QEA; and experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
  84. The aim of this work is not total prediction or complete control, but rather the intelligent development and selection of options. See Alexander Robinson and Brian Davis, “From Solution Space to Interface,” in Codify: Parametric and Computational Design in Landscape Architecture, eds. Bradley Cantrell and Adam Mekies (Routledge, 2018); Philip Belesky, Rosalea Monacella, Mark Burry, and Jane Burry, “A Field in Flux,” paper presented at ACADIA 2015: Computational Ecologies: Design in the Anthropocene, Cincinnati, OH (October 2015); and Rob Holmes, “Landscape Information Modeling,” mammoth (May 2014).
  85. On the conjoined history of architecture and landscape architecture, see Charles Waldheim, “Claiming Landscape as Architecture,” in his Landscape as Urbanism (Princeton University Press, 2016), which is quite sanguine about this history. For a more critical perspective, see Brian Davis and Thomas Oles, “From Architecture to Landscape,” Places Journal (October 2014), https://doi.org/10.22269/141013.
  86. On gardening and landscape architecture, see Julian Raxworthy, Overgrown: Practices between Landscape Architecture and Gardening (MIT Press, 2018); and Gilles Clément, “The Planetary Garden” and Other Writings, trans. Sandra Morris (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). A parallel exploration of restoration ecology’s import is yet to be written, though Robinson’s The Spoils of Dust hints at its shape via one particular case.
  87. K.J. Vaughn, L.M. Porensky, M.L. Wilkerson, J. Balachowski, E. Peffer, C. Riginos, and T.P. Young, “Restoration Ecology,” Nature Education Knowledge 3:10 (2010), 66.
  88. Nina-Marie Lister, “Sustainable Large Parks: Ecological Design or Designer Ecology” in Large Parks, eds. Julia Czerniak and George Hargreaves (Princeton Architecture Press, 2007), 31-51. Recent literature in other fields has also explored the transformative impact of focusing less on the discrete, novel object and more on practices with long durations, practices of maintenance and repair. This literature might serve as valuable structure for a more organized theory of landscape maintenance than has yet been produced. See in particular Steven Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot (MIT Press, 2014), 221-39; and Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care,” Places Journal (November 2018), https://doi.org/10.22269/181120.
  89. See Fabio Di Carlo, “Michel Corajoud and Parc Départemental du Sausset,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 10:3 (2015), 68-77, https://10.1080/18626033.2015.1094917; Tim Waterman, “It’s About Time,” Landscape Architecture Magazine (January 2017); and Martí Franch, “Drawing on Site: Girona’s Shores,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 13:2 (2018), 56-73, https://doi.org/10.1080/18626033.2018.1553396. While not always of such sustained duration, many landscape architectural projects and practices have drawn inspiration from fields that engage landscape directly. Teresa Galí-Izard’s The Same Landscapes (Gustavo Gili, 2005) is a catalog of such examples, and her work with Jordi Nebot, in their firm Arquitectura Agronomia, often draws from agriculture, gardening, and ecology. Their collaboration with Battle i Roig architects on the Vall d’en Joan landfill is a particularly notable project in this vein.
  90. There is a great deal of context around this term in the philosophy of science, and more recently in postcolonial and critical theory. My intention here is not to tie landscape architecture to any single theory of epistemic humility, but rather to allude to a general body of work, linking intellectual modesty, the virtue of humility, and various systems of ethics.
  91. Jean-Pierre Protzen and David J. Harris, The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010), 149.
  92. Kristina Hill, “Shifting Sites,” and Andrea Kahn, “Defining Urban Sites,” both in Sites Matters, eds. Carol Burns and Andrea Kahns (Routledge, 2005), show how harmful (and ultimately illusory) a bounded understanding of sites is for landscape practice.
  93. This presents difficulties for Billy Fleming’s (laudable) proposal in “Design and the Green New Deal,” that landscape architecture’s future should be tied to a reinvigorated and reorganized federal land planning bureaucracy. These difficulties are not insurmountable, but they ought to be recognized.
  94. Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary (Strelka Press, 2014); Keller Easterling, Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America (MIT Press, 1999); and Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014). And, of course, this point about internal culture leads us to the larger political and economic structures that any design practice is embedded within. Design can be a political tool (it is, as many designers have emphasized, always political, even when not intentionally so), but design is never the whole of politics. So there are real and significant limits to what design can do. This is not a problem, unless we expect to be able to unilaterally remake the world. (We designers, of course, have often imagined exactly that — but I would like to be clear that this essay is not a brief for such an excessive understanding of design’s remit.)
  95. The new MSc in LA at ETH-Zurich, led by Teresa Gali-Izard, Gunther Vogt, and Christophe Girot, seems to be initiated from a similar position on disciplinary identity. It does not abandon a core focus on landscape architectural design expertise, but it overlays that with both scientific and more broadly cultural studies.
  96. Though the Room for the River’s solutionist replication in Southeast Asian contexts has been critiqued earlier in this essay, the project itself — in its original Dutch context — has significant merit, and there is much that can be learned from its planning, design, and processes of implementation.
  97. Philadelphia’s Andropogon might be seen as another example of monodisciplinarity and collaboration, with a focus on urban biodiversity, habitat, and stormwater infrastructure rather than coastal infrastructure systems. And this is also the structure of the work that my colleagues and I in the Dredge Research Collaborative have been doing in our on-going partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers initiative Engineering With Nature.
  98. Academic conversations about landscape architectural research are dominated by research into design itself; see Elen Deming and Simon Swaffield, Landscape Architectural Research: Inquiry, Strategy, Design (Routledge, 2010). But here I am interested in design operationalized to conduct research about the world. (In academic terms, this might be called transdisciplinary action research.) Professional offices, and internal research labs like Olin Labs and SWA’s XL Lab, are often loose with these distinctions, perhaps appropriately so.
  99. Frances Westley and Katharine McGowan, in their chapter in Reed’s and Lister’s Projective Ecologies, make a link between research labs and the work of intervening in landscapes characterized by wicked problems. Landscape architecture can look to and learn from the rich history of “design labs” in other fields, as well. (And here we should note that it is important that such labs be transparent about funding and scrupulous in avoiding conflicts of interest; news about MIT Media Lab’s solicitation of funds from Jeffrey Epstein is an important cautionary tale in how these institutions can be corrupted.)
  100. The semi-interdisciplinary fields of design research, strategic design, and systems design, all of which are more closely tied to industrial design and graphic design (and building architecture) than landscape architecture, use the term “problem-setting” to describe a set of procedures much like the “framing” that I have referred to throughout this essay. I introduce it here as a nod to the influences of those fields on the practices described in this paragraph. For more on the term, see Donald Schon, The Reflective Practitioner (Basic Books, 1984), 40; and Annette Diefenthaler, “Problem Setting,” in Design Dictionary: Perspectives on Design Terminology, eds. Michael Erlhoff and Tim Marshall (Birkhauser, 2008).
  101. Rory Hyde, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture (Routledge, 2012), 46
  102. Strategic design is not a well-defined field. You cannot reliably obtain such a degree, and the programs that utilize this label tend to be business administration programs with a focus on so-called design-thinking. Still, it has become standard language for describing design that intentionally and systematically engages institutional structures. For one definition, see the Helsinki Design Lab, “What Is Strategic Design?
  103. The RBD competitions have been critiqued for their captivity to a neoliberal model of governance and innovation. See Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal,” and Kathleen Tierney, “Resilience and the Neoliberal Project: Discourses, Critiques, and Practices—and Katrina,” American Behavior Scientist 59:10 (2015), 1327-42, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764215591187. That critique and recognition of the virtuous elements of the competition structure can co-exist.
  104. Bryan Boyer, Justin W. Cook, and Marco Steinberg, In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change (Sitra, 2011).
  105. I don’t want to reproduce, though, a completely binary distinction between speculative and built work. That distinction derives from building architecture, and its standard project models, where a building is either constructed (built) or not (speculative). Landscape planning processes are protracted, and often change within them is more a matter of shifts in social structures than of earthmoving. A speculative proposal can be a useful instrument for achieving the former even if it never results in the latter. TLS/Common Ground’s work for Resilient by Design is a good example of a speculative proposal that is being effectively leveraged to engage, reframe, and insert a landscape architecture team into an “official” project. (Unlike Rebuild by Design in New York City, the RBD Bay Area Challenge did not offer funding for implementation.) A current public project, the State Route 37 (SR37) Public Access Study, is “an outgrowth of the Grand Bayway Concept developed by the Common Ground Team as part of Resilient by Design.”
  106. Michael Van Valkenburgh and William S. Saunders, “Landscapes Over Time,” Landscape Architecture Magazine (March 2013).
  107. Often, this involves cultural reclamation of landscapes that have been looked down upon or underappreciated; in centering such landscapes, landscape architects push back against the tendency to confine the profession to realizing the extant desires of clients (or dominant culture), without centering themselves: the landscape becomes the primary actor. This orientation is rightly embedded within the origin myth of the field itself, in Frederick Law Olmsted’s own work, which involved not only designing, but also writing, negotiating, and speaking for the value of landscape, the thing-itself. See Witold Rybczynski’s biography of Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (Scribner Book Company, 1999).
  108. Kongjian Yu, “Think Like a King, Act Like a Peasant,” in Thinking the Contemporary Landscape, eds. Christophe Girot and Dora Imhof (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016)
  109. Kate Orff and SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Toward an Urban Ecology (Monacelli Press, 2016) outlines the imperative for such advocacy much better than this brief sketch can.
  110. The best example of this within contemporary American landscape architecture is probably the role landscape architects have played, through both designing pilot projects and championing alternative regulations, in shifting the regulatory paradigms surrounding stormwater management, away from hard infrastructures aimed primarily at conveying runoff quickly and toward softer infrastructures that retain, treat, and infiltrate water.
  111. See, for example, Katrina Forrester, “The Crisis of Liberalism: Why Centrist Politics Can No Longer Explain the World,” The Guardian (November 18, 2019); Robert Kuttner, “Blaming Liberalism,” The New York Review of Books (November 21, 2019); and Zack Beauchamp, “The Anti-Liberal Moment,” Vox (September 9, 2019). Rather less has been said about what implications this shift in epistemic regimes might have for landscape architecture.
  112. On landscape architecture and the Green New Deal, see Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal”; Nicholas Pevzner, “The Green New Deal, Landscape, and Public Imagination,” Landscape Architecture Magazine (July 2019); and the video archive from Designing a Green New Deal, hosted in September 2019 by the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
  113. See Jedediah Purdy, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (Princeton University Press, 2019); and Richard Weller, “We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like It or Not,” The Dirt (September 3, 2019).
Cite
Rob Holmes, “The Problem with Solutions,” Places Journal, July 2020. Accessed 31 Oct 2020. https://doi.org/10.22269/200714

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