New Terms of Engagement: Defining Sustainability for Landscape Architecture

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com

The planet is really on the move.

– James Lovelock in lecture to the Royal Society, London 2007


There is not one precise definition of sustainability for landscape architecture. In the architectural field the concept of sustainability has moved from the fringes of the profession to become a standard element of practice. In landscape architecture, a similar transition has not been as clear. However, landscape architecture is poised to deal with a range of environmental issues including climate change, biodiversity, and alternative energy and land use in extremely relevant ways. How is the concept of sustainability currently being defined in the profession? One side of sustainability focuses on quantitative analysis and measurement systems, while the other side favors a holistic approach. In order for landscape architecture to engage with the challenges of the coming century, it must clearly define sustainability strategies. This essay presents a critical view of a selection of positions and in conclusion suggests new directions.

Table of Contents

I. Challenges on the horizon

II. A scan of urgent issues

III. Defining sustainability for landscape architecture: quantitative versus holistic

IV. The changing role of the landscape architect

V. New terms of engagement

I. Introduction: challenges on the horizon

Looking forward into the next century, many of the world’s scientists and leaders are convinced that we will be faced with environmental challenges unprecedented in scale and scope. Landscape architecture has a unique position among the three fields of the “building arts” (the Dutch definition of bouwkunst groups architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture together). A simple definition of landscape in this context is the living surface of the planet. This is the layer from which human civilization draws the materials and energy that are the basis for not only architectural and urban production, but ultimately for survival in general.

Three main current environmental concerns are climate change and its repercussions, rapid urbanization, and changing land use. These all fall within the purview of landscape architecture.

These questions demand an investigation into large scale living systems and how human civilization is integrated with those systems. But it would appear that landscape architecture is not always doing a particularly good job of addressing the task at hand. Perhaps, as landscape architect and MIT researcher Alan Berger says, landscape architecture has been traditionally more concerned with discrete places and locations, making parks and other designed spaces, rather than truly large scale systemic processes.

‘The main issue for me is that landscape architecture is not doing a great job addressing the larger-scale environmental issues that are currently affecting urbanized regions in the world. Rather, landscape architecture tends to still be focused on discrete locations and places and unfortunately too often on superficial cosmetics… Given the scales of my research and projects, I feel that the core interests of today’s landscape architecture profession are actually quite distant from my own. What has become painfully clear to me over the last few years is that, for multiple reasons, landscape architecture has not been able to keep ahead of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.[1]

Berger’s assessment, although critical of the profession, highlights landscape architecture’s relevance as the ground from which to engage environmental concerns. Other currents within the profession argue that not only is landscape architecture the correct profession for dealing with the large scale environmental and spatial issues, but that landscape architects, as thinkers who must regularly jump between scales as well as disciplines, are the right people to do the job because they have a wider view than the specialist.

Landscape architecture has the potential to engage environmental concerns in ways that differ from architectural and urban practice. The issue is at hand is to work towards a definition of sustainability for landscape architecture that is currently lacking. It is perhaps most fruitful to approach this task as a process of questioning. What are current definitions of sustainable practice? What is the real agency of landscape architecture, and what is its potential to embody sustainability in the world? This paper does not argue that landscape architecture is the best or only way to achieve sustainable environments. Rather, landscape architecture clearly has the potential to work on large-scale questions of environmental concern, and the premise of this essay is that it must do so, with a clarified definition of sustainability, in order to engage its true potential as a profession.

II. Context: a scan of current issues

In his most recent book, Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand cites climate change, rapid urbanization in the developing world, and food and energy production as the most important issues currently facing the planet. An ardent environmentalist, writer, and activist, he describes some of the consequences related to the global changes we are now seeing, and argues at length for action.

The following three centers of concern quickly set the context for the urgent need for clearly defined sustainable practice within landscape architecture.

Rising Sea Level — The question of rising sea levels is no longer considered to simply be alarmism from the environmentalist camp. The work of the International Panel on Climate Change has brought together large amounts of scientific research to produce the best model we currently have for climate change. Current scenarios for a 2100 estimate of sea level indicate a potential two-meter rise. This means that most coastal cities are in extreme danger from flooding. From New York City to Venice, and from London to Bangladesh, water protection will have to be created or reinforced to protect urban areas housing millions of people.

Urbanization— At current rates, the global population will be 80% urban by 2050. Every week around the world there are 1.3 million new people in cities. The slums of the world’s major urban areas house over a billion people, and this figure will rise to two billion by the end of the century (Brand, p.26).

According to urban researchers, squatters, or slum dwellers are the predominant builders of cities in the world (Brand, p.42). These are “spontaneous” cities that benefit from very little to no design input from either architects or urbanists, often with little or no infrastructure being provided by city services. Electricity and water are pirated or salvaged, and waste goes untreated into the streets or canals. Sanitation, water, energy, and access to transportation are the most urgent needs in these relentlessly growing areas. This can only happen sustainably if urban development is linked to the larger ecological structures surrounding the city.

Energy and land use— The current energy consumption of the world can be measured in watts, 16 terawatts more or less, which is the equivalent of 160 billion 100 watt light bulbs burning continuously (Brand, p.13). In order to shift away from fossil fuel use to alternative energies, we will have to dramatically change land use over the face of the planet if we want to replace fossil fuels with renewables such as wind, solar, or biofuel crops such as sugarcane or palm oil. In fact, we would need the equivalent of an area the size of the United States to reach sixteen terawatts of energetic production just for wind or solar energy. In Brazil, a country no longer dependent on fossil fuels, vast swaths of rainforest have been transformed into sugarcane monoculture, to the degree that important natural ecosystems have been completely replaced by artificial ones. Therefore the development of new energy sources is inextricably linked to landscape concerns.

The complexity of the current situation mounts if we consider that the subjects outlined above cannot be taken in isolation. The stage is set for a challenging unfurling of these questions in parallel, and in interaction with each other. We can safely say that these questions will be dealt with on a larger scale than an individual building, a city block, or even an entire urban ensemble. It is precisely the scale level involved that makes landscape architecture relevant to dealing with these issues now and in coming years.

III. Defining sustainability: quantitative versus holistic

Within the last twenty years, environmentalism and sustainability have moved from the fringes of the architectural world to center stage. Specific questions within architecture, such as the energy use of buildings and the life cycles of building materials, have allowed architecture to develop clear strategies for addressing these topics. Recycled and sustainable materials, lower energy use, and carbon neutral buildings are some of the outcomes of these strategies. Accounting systems such as LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in the USA and BREEAM® (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) in the UK allow architects to tally where their buildings stand in terms of sustainability within well developed rating systems. “Green” architecture is clearly defined and quite visible in terms of building and construction, to the extent that it is now mainstream practice. At the same time, sustainability also addresses a more complex level of global interactions, and for this way of thinking, a holistic approach has been proposed since the beginning of the environmental movement. The holistic approach looks at large integrated natural and artificial systems, and sees processes rather than separate objects or contexts.

What is the current situation in landscape architecture? On one hand, the concept of landscape is simply assumed to be literally green, and somehow therefore environmentally sustainable. But this is simply not the case. Landscape architects do deal with plants and soil and water, and therefore the living environment, but there is nothing inherently ecologically intelligent about standard landscape architecture. I propose to examine and compare these two poles of sustainable thought, the quantitative and the holistic, in landscape architecture. By doing so, I intend to bring sustainability principles for landscape architecture into clearer focus.

The quantitative approach: SITES

Modelled after LEED®, the SITES system for landscape architecture is a 250-point-scale rating system. Projects earn points for meeting different criteria of sustainability. Sustainability in the SITES system is defined as “design, construction, operations, and maintenance practices that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[2]

Per phase of project, from site selection through to maintenance of a realized design, guidelines are proposed for making design choices. For each sustainable choice that is made for subjects ranging from plant selection to rainwater management, a certain number of points are awarded. The more points accumulated, the more sustainable the project. In the rating system a project can be advertised as sustainable on a silver, gold, or platinum level. The system also proposes guiding principles for landscape design. These include “Support a living processes,” “Use a systems thinking approach,” and “Design with nature and culture.” However, for these principles, no boxes can be ticked off or points awarded. Can a checklist of project features that designers can cross off as they go along really embody the complexity of sustainable design that must connect a project to much larger, even global context? Regenerative design presents a different approach.

The holistic approach: regenerative design

William McDonough and Michael Braungart, an architect and a chemist who have copyrighted their approach to sustainable design, published the book “Cradle to Cradle” in 2002. Much has been made of “Cradle to Cradle” in the design fields, especially in architecture. Before coming out with the C2C concept, however, McDonough worked with a landscape architect named John T. Lyle who had been active for several years developing a methodology called regenerative design.

Originating in landscape architectural practice and in research of organic farming techniques, the ideas of regenerative design represent a step past the aims and scope of quantitative sustainability. The bottom line of sustainability is to be able to continue growth without harm, to continue harvesting our energy, food, and materials from natural systems in a way that does not destroy them in the long term. The goal of regenerative design is a step beyond this goal: it seeks to create systems so efficient, and modeled on processes of nature and evolution, that a net gain is created. Simply put, we give more than we take from the world. Its ideal is the re-integration of human systems within natural ones, and therefore beyond the goal of maintaining current modes of consumption.

A holistic approach to design is based on seeing the whole picture. This means not only focusing on the elements of a design and the characteristics of a site, but rather the relationships between them and how these change and evolve over time. This can also be referred to as systemic thinking, or finding the different systems at work in a specific place, on as many different levels as possible.

On the one hand systemic design requires complex schematics and diagrams to quantify energy flows and material flows (what is being produced and destroyed) in a system. On the other hand, understanding the relationships involved in a system, especially the relationships between individuals, communities, and places, requires the use of dialogue, narrative, and even metaphor to come into form. Although designers need tools to measure and quantify, designing spaces for nature and people— for life to occur— require qualitative thinking and sensitivity. One of the main tools of regenerative design is called “story of place.” This form of narrative seeks to describe how a place has functioned throughout history, in terms of plants, humans, animals, geology, hydrology, et cetera. It asks, why did life express itself here more fully at some times than at other times? What is the potential for the whole system to move in new directions? What appropriate to this system and the present needs of people in this place? Are the systems of the place healthy? Are they evolving towards a new stable state? Are they disrupted or damaged? What important connections and dynamics exist in the system? And where are the leverage points? Does the whole system have the potential to be richer, more diverse, or fuller of energy?

Regenerative and systemic thinking offer a way of thinking that is integrative, dynamic, and connective. Here we finally glimpse “the big picture.” If regenerative design represents the next step past sustainability in re-imagining the relationship between human needs and the landscape, then it becomes absolutely relevant to allowing landscape architecture find new terms of engagement.

IV. The changing role of the landscape architect

As awareness of the environment continues to grow alongside the complexity of current issues, the field in which the landscape architect acts has become larger and more complicated. The profession is steadily evolving away from garden or park design to large scale urban, infrastructural, and regional issues. I had an opportunity to ask leading practitioners their opinions on this matter during the fall 2010 Capita Selecta lecture series “Living Landscape” at the Academie van Bouwkunst, Amsterdam.

While interviewing Chris Reed, he explained:

‘I think there is a transformation taking place [in landscape architectural practice]. We talked about the resurgence of landscape. That’s not just something that landscape architects made. There are other circumstances, not least of which is an interest in sustainability. What you have seen over the last twenty years is a rise to prominence of landscape architects who are leading very large teams on very complex projects, in the city. There is something about the way we are able to deal with very large scales, and also zoom in to both detail and dynamic. We are able to toggle between multiple scales, and then move across disciplines quite easily. When we are wrestling with a challenge, we ask each of our consultants what are the performance criteria for the system or strategy that we are trying to get at. We ask what we need to understand to make this system work. We don’t look for the design solution or the configuration. I want to know the criteria for putting together a system that works. You take this approach with all the different disciplines, and your role is to figure out a design strategy that may satisfy or push some of the design criteria that they are giving you but take it a step or two beyond that, and reinvent it in a way that the economist or the hydrologist, for instance, never could have imagined. Because their training is such that do not necessarily see the relationship between those things. But I think that we can.’

The new role of the landscape architect is based on sustainability and thinking across scales, on the design level as well as the larger context of connected landscapes. This draws attention to the strengths of landscape architecture and underscores where the most development is needed in the coming years.

V. New terms of engagement

In order to face the challenges of large scale, multidisciplinary design problems dealing with environmental questions, landscape architecture needs to develop sharp tools. Defining sustainability for landscape architecture will clarify the position of the landscape architect on large-scale questions, creating a sharper role in multidisciplinary contexts. Landscape architecture should attempt to develop a workable definition of sustainability grounded in quantitative analysis, in combination with a concrete understanding of the complex systems that compose every site. At the same time, landscape architects must strive to see the bigger picture of what makes places qualitatively rich. The ‘’story of place” that is part of the holistic design process can be developed as a tool which describes relationships and qualities on many levels, reaching towards designs that make livable, durable, and nurturing places for humans as well as plants and animals.

The role of the landscape architect is rapidly shifting towards multi-disciplinary work across specializations. Complex design challenges weave fields together, requiring in-depth knowledge on a number of topics as well as an overview of how multiple ways of working will create a whole result. If we indeed face challenges unprecedented in scale and scope, an attainable vision of sustainability will guide our work. It is the possibility of answering these challenges that makes landscape architecture an exciting and rewarding profession, one that will continue to grow and engage with the coming challenges on renewed terms.


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[1] Berger, Alan interviewed by Gianmaria Sforza with Matteo Poli, in ABITARE, October 2009.

[2] and Performance Benchmarks_2009.pdf, p.5