Can a landscape architect go through the motions of their practice without knowing what it means to practice? Can they make a significant impact—either positive or negative—on the places they design without understanding what that impact is. Can they take on the role of John Searle in his proverbial Chinese Thought Experiment and simulate the language of design without truly knowing the language of design? For the authors of the book Values in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design: Finding Center in Theory and Practice, not only is the answer to these questions a resounding YES!, it is one which concerns them deeply and should be discussed by design practitioners and academics alike as they face coming years of economic, environmental, and professional uncertainty. As a landscape architecture student and hopeful emerging professional, I found the book to be both insightful and provocative; to me, it acts as a much-needed catalyst for new conversations about the nature of environmental design.
While Values seems to be the type of book one can read repeatedly and most likely draw varying conclusions each time through, there are at least two things I believe will ring true no matter when or how I read it: the need for landscape architects—and other design practitioners, or even people in general—to establish a core set of values that guide their practice and the need for them to compare, contrast, and reconcile those values in the intellectual commons.
Everyone has a belief system whether or not we profess one, and that belief system informs (both consciously and subconsciously) what we choose to value in life, as well as the subsequent actions that reflect those values. For those whose job it is to shape the land and build structures in it, such reflections are often tangible—a structural siting that attempted to disturb the land as little as possible, implementing recycled materials for sustainability’s sake, placement of iconography that points to religious devotion, or the use of ornamental plants to see the garden as a painting. On the surface, most landscape architects seem to know this—in fact, they have a certification exam that requires them to. However, the Values writers posit that despite the ability to regurgitate the objectively true BMPs of sustainability or point out the clear width of an ADA accessible ramp, there are many practitioners that go about casually shaping the land without understanding the socio-cultural, economic, or even environmental implications of their actions. Their land projects engender or perpetuate certain assertions, possibly without them noticing.
The editor of the book, M. Elen Deming, believes this is often due to a lack of critical thinking about the landscape. To her, designers miss the mark if they do not recognize that “both the ordinary and designed landscapes hide the values of their makers in plain sight,” and that, “through interpretation, aspects of landscape form can be transmuted back into the social values that guided their construction, thus illuminating the context of past and present societies and perhaps anticipating future landscapes.” She then divulges the central goal of the book, which is “to awaken for readers a broad capacity for landscape literacy and to suggest how that capacity might be exercised in their lives personally, professionally, and politically.” In other words, she hopes to help readers understand that landscape architectural practice is inevitably laden with values, and that its agents should take the time to identify what those values are and which ones they adhere to.
After a design practitioner identifies their values, it is imperative to put their validity and compatibility to the test in interactions with stakeholders, other designers, policymakers, and clients. As many of the authors attest throughout the book, this is easier said than done. Much of the path to equitable reconciliation of environmental values is riddled with divergent viewpoints of the meaning of a memorial (as London and Holland point out in their essays) or heated conflicts of interest in public space design (Sinha and Kant’s observations about political monuments in India), and should therefore be treaded lightly. As Kathryn Moore astutely observes in her essay, “the challenge of negotiating the territory between the subjective and objective is to work without holding real, unchanging truth to be the ultimate end point of inquiry while, at the same time, to avoid being sucked into the argument that the only alternative to objectivity is to believe everything is relative and dependent on a point of view.” To successfully do so is a tall order, but not an impossible one, and fulfilling it will bring about a bright future in the profession.
I am completely sold on what Values in Landscape Architecture stands for, and support Deming in the notion that “the most important thing that all of us can do is to help make personal landscape values publicly visible, especially in the context of shared decision-making about the world’s resources. If our own values remain opaque to us, then at best we can only serve as instruments of an invisible agenda.” To any potential readers, I say this book is a must for anyone who wants to be engaged in civil discourse about our common places, landscape architect or not.