Landscape Architecture: a people thing?

by Kevin Thwaites

A recurrent theme of discussion and debate that has featured at intervals throughout most of my working life as a landscape architecture academic lies with the question, “what actually is landscape architecture?” Although broad agreement can be found to the extent that it has to do with ‘outsides’, attempts to nail down more specific answers seem to be as variable today as they were when I was a student and even a fairly cursory survey of the literature testifies to the fact that it is a question that has been exercising the minds of practitioners and academics more or less ever since the term was created. Perhaps a degree of ‘definitive looseness’ lends landscape architecture a convenient resilience enabling it to continuously adapt and evolve in response to the ever changing nature of human-environment relations in today’s complicated world. Nevertheless, at the point of educational development, some level of consensus must be reached in order to determine what should constitute the content of courses aimed at delivering competent landscape architecture professionals into society.

It was in this context, around 1991 at the then Leeds Polytechnic, which brought out my first clear-ish articulation of what landscape architecture was for me. The team of academic staff that I was a relatively recent addition to were in the process of trying to determine the direction of a significant programme of course changes in response to the imminent transformation of the ‘Poly’ into a University. To try to inform our thinking we were all asked to come up with a personal idea of what was most important about the concept of landscape architecture as an academic discipline and professional practice. My contribution began with a slide that said ‘Landscape Architecture is a People Thing’. What I meant by this was simply that, whatever else it might be, there seemed to me little point in doing it if people didn’t benefit from it. This has remained a consistent cornerstone of my stance within whatever landscape architecture actually is ever since.

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Winding back a few years before that there are some formative influences that probably had quite a big part to play in the development of this perspective, not least among which was my first encounter with a distinctive educational experience called the ‘Landscape Design and Community’ project. As far as I know this was unique to the landscape architecture undergraduate degree course at Leeds Polytechnic and was undertaken by third year students. The landscape department staff had always maintained a keen interest in a ‘hands-on’ approach to exploring how landscape architectural knowledge and skills could be brought to the benefit of the community. I seem to remember at the time, this ethos being captured in a kind of mythologised journeyman type of professional called the ‘bare foot landscape architect. Over time this had developed into a sustaining relationship between the department and various community organisations of one kind or another, often local primary schools. It provided opportunities for students to work in small groups with ‘live’ communities helping them to realise environmental improvements through developing new designs and in many cases fabricating them on site over the course of the third year. In many instances, projects continued over a number of years with successive groups of students adding their own inputs through new phases of work in response to the client communities wishes.

From a participating student’s perspective, there were many and varied benefits derived from access to this programme not least in the way it gave exposure to the realities involved in turning imaginative design into practically deliverable new environments. Not surprisingly, this kind of landscape oriented baptism by fire proved to be very popular with prospective employers of Leeds students because they had at least some insight into the relationship between ‘the design’ and ‘the build’. What I took from this experience, although I doubt if I was conscious of it at the time, was an awareness of the potential of a kind of landscape architecture as primarily a catalyst for social activity. What seemed to be at least as important, if not in fact more so, in the experience of these design and community projects was the social capital that was gained through the coming together in common purpose of students, community group organisers, members of the public, and often school teachers and children.

In these contexts, then, landscape architecture was nothing less than an agent of social relationships through fostering a sense of belonging in a shared endeavour. The actual physical product in terms of environmental change was important, but not in every case necessarily the most important outcome. Another version of this explicitly social orientation of landscape architectural activity would surface again many years later in funded research carried out with my Experiential Landscape colleagues Alice Mathers and Ian Simkins. Working with Sheffield’s learning disability communities underpinned that the biggest gains were in fact the empowerment and environmental competencies developed by the learning disability partners and not necessarily the material outcome of their activities. An account of this can be found in section three of our book Socially Restorative Urbanism (Thwaites, Mathers, Simkins, 2013).

More by accident than design, the social side of landscape architecture continued to develop during my year out in practice, which unfolded in two related parts. It began with a few months at Landscape Design Associates where the main task involved helping with the design of two children’s adventure playgrounds in the Chapeltown and Seacroft areas of Leeds. Funded by the Manpower Services Commission, essentially a Government run job creation initiative, the construction of the playgrounds provided employment opportunities for local people. A key characteristic of this experience was that it enabled me to see the evolution of the Chapeltown playground from both the perspective of the landscape architecture practice in the development of the design and subsequently, after my short stint with LDA came to an end, as the on-site supervisor of the construction. In many ways the process replicated the ethos of the Design and Community project in that decision making about what was built and how became more of an outcome of social negotiation than prescriptive design specification. Design work was certainly done in advance of site activity, but this served more a function of community consultation than the determination of technical specification, emphasising that a priority was community motivation and participation as well as delivery of a material product.

The main design development and representation device for both playgrounds was a scale model, much more accessible to community members and a semi-skilled workforce than conventional technical drawings. Construction details were also developed, but these were usually very basic and happened mainly as the work progressed to help address build related issues as they arose and provide some guidance about what materials were needed. My memory of this period is one where the design and construction of the Chapeltown playground in particular blended seamlessly into one evolutionary, adaptive and progressive activity. Everyone involved with the site work seemed to become naturally involved in the decision making processes and were therefore active participants in what was actually made, rather than simply following a predetermined set of instructions. Partly this was pragmatic in that what was done had to fit in with the skills of those working on the site, which including mine were at best fairly modest. Nevertheless, some extraordinary structures were gradually crafted and realised, involving a mostly untrained workforce carrying out activities that today would make the most broad minded of health and safety inspectors wince.

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Of the many things that can be said about the development of these playgrounds, the stand out experience for me was the growing understanding of landscape design, construction and the building of social capital as an entirely integrated and mutually reciprocal whole. Years later I would realise that this resonates with many built environment scholars and practitioners, not least architectural theorist Christopher Alexander Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, a huge influence on my later thinking and work and who I have had the good fortune to meet twice: back then I’d never heard of him. I made the experiences of working on these playgrounds the topic of my Graduate Diploma dissertation and subsequently got a first taste of publication with an article from it which appeared in Landscape Design, the then journal of the Landscape Institute (ref).

After graduating my encounters with the social orientation of landscape architecture took something of a back seat whilst I returned to LDA for a period, set about trying to develop a small business and undertook some part-time teaching on the landscape course at Leeds. This combination of experience rapidly revealed that I was rather more successful at talking about landscape architecture than actually doing any, a realisation which eventually led me into full time teaching in the early 1990s. Probably the first reunion with the social side of landscape architecture arrived with my taking on responsibility for the organisation and running of the department’s Design and Community project along with my colleague and friend Trudi Entwistle. Trudi and I gradually expanded the scope of the programme with more community groups and exploited its potential as a modest departmental income generator as well as a student learning experience.

At around about the same time, stimulated in part by ongoing relationships the Design and Community programme had with several community organisations that provided support for people with disabilities and the then newly completed accessible sculpture trail at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I set about developing what I then thought would become an MA dissertation. This also produced a paper for the Landscape Journal. Far more significant, however, was that it led me into totally unexpected intellectual territory, initially via a book about the experiences of disabled people in America called, Design for Independent Living, by Lifchez and Winslow (1979), but through this to the Archetypal Place paper published in 1973 by American psychologist Meyer Spivak (1973). Lifchez and Winslow were using Spivak’s concept as a means to explain, first that people needed to routinely experience certain fundamental things in order to live fulfilled lives, and following on from this, that if people with mobility restricting disabilities were to have equivalent opportunities, then this range of experience needed to be available closer to where they were. Their assertion was that there are environmental design implications involved in making sure that these opportunities were effectively compressed into the often significantly narrowed mobility range that many people with disabilities could access independently.

For me at the time, there were several revelatory aspects about this, mainly arising from the way that Spivak defined an archetypal place. As a trained landscape architect I was accustomed to thinking about the external environment as a series of settings which had spatial and material dimensions that could be manipulated by design. Possibly subliminally influenced by my previous experiences which had shown me that there was also somehow an active social dimension that had also to be considered, I became fascinated by Spivak’s definition of an archetypal place as some sort of holistic integration of different behaviours and the settings where they took place. It wasn’t possible to fully understand an archetypal place as an entirely spatial concept, nor was it possible to understand one entirely behaviourally. Like the two sides of a coin you couldn’t conceive of one without the other: social functioning (in this case focused on behaviours) and spatial organisation had become conjoined in a unified conceptual structure.

At the time I had no idea what to do with this discovery, but one thing stood out as being especially problematic. As a landscape architect I thought I knew about how to deal with the spatial part, but since the behavioural part was intrinsically tied up with an almost infinite range of human subjective variability, what sort of design problem was that exactly? In other words, if archetypal places are so fundamental to human well-being we should be making environments that have them. But how do you ‘design’ archetypal places when much of what they are is human subjectivity? Nearly twenty five years on I still have no clue, but I think I’ve since realised that this was actually never the real point.

Spivak was to be my first real introduction into the fascinating, yet hard to pin down with anything approaching clarity (especially from a design perspective), intellectual realm of human-environment relations, an interest that persists through nearly all my academic work since. What it led to initially was a decision to try to transform my developing MA work into a PhD, the demands and implications of which at the time I knew precisely nothing. The motivation came essentially from two related issues that seemed to be arising from my work on landscape design for disability. The first of these was a growing awareness that pretty much all practice guidance in this area was exceptionally functional. Ramp gradients, step arrangements and railings, seating configurations and all sorts of other design and technical advice was available in comprehensive detail. Hardly any of it, however, seemed remotely concerned with whether the disabled recipients would have a fulfilling and rewarding experience beyond that of functional accessibility. The second was a hunch that maybe we could do better if we understood more about the nature of the human-environment relationship, what it was that informed how we understood it and whether there were concepts that could help with the delivery of landscape architectural solutions that were richer in experiential benefit.

It took the remainder of the 1990s to eventually deliver a thesis entitled, Expressivist Landscape Architecture: The Development of a New Conceptual Framework for Landscape Architecture. With the essential guidance of Dr Colin Treen, a colleague in the landscape department at Leeds, who was brave enough to take on the role of Director of Studies and Dr Ian Heywood, who introduced me to a philosophical minefield of dualistic and holistic concepts of human-environment relations, reaching across things like philosophical hermeneutics, phenomenology, early European Romanticism, environmental psychology and much else besides, including chaos theory, fractal geometry and even the thoroughly strange human-environment implications that some branches of quantum theory and high energy particle physics appear to suggest. For some time in fact this latter became something of an obsession, involving readings with titles that included The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Zukav), Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Bohm), The Emperor’s New Mind (Penrose), In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat (Gribbin) and quite a lot more along similar lines. Since maths and the sciences generally were the territory of my school years where I rapidly ran out of talent, much of this was as mind-spinning as it was fascinating.

Eventually it dawned on me from all this intellectual exploration that there was no point in trying to pin down once and for all a working understanding of human-environment relations that could inform the study and practice of landscape architecture. What determines such an understanding appeared to have more to do with the particular ontological position taken: in other words the human-environment relationship has more to do with philosophical preference than it does objective reality. Armed with that it then became possible to provide an explanation of what was influencing prevailing understandings of human-environment relations, explain the weaknesses this brought to the theoretical development and practice of landscape architecture, and finally conjure up an alternative conceptual structure in response.

Shortly before completing the thesis, Chris Royffe, another long term colleague at Leeds and third supervisor for the PhD work asked what was to be a pivotal question driven in large part by the fact that the PhD had taken on a distinctly philosophical character. He asked, “if I buy into the principles of this new concept, how do I practice it?” Some years passed before I hope that I managed to provide at least something of an answer to that with the publication of Experiential Landscape along with Ian Simkins. The Experiential Landscape project was meant to provide a blend of philosophy, theory and practice grounded in a holistic understanding of the human-environment relationship. Rather as Spivak had defined archetypal places as behaviour settings to try to take account of the mutual reciprocity that he saw in the relationship between what people do and where it occurs, Experiential Landscape tries to blend together fundamental experiences that relate to routine use of the outside environment with their spatial expression. In its most simple terms it is a socio-spatial concept of outdoor human experience that can be used in analysis and design practice to make places more experientially responsive.

The principles of Experiential Landscape have stood the test of time, at least to the extent that they remain a strong influence on the teaching of students, have successfully attracted funded research, and underpinned a wide range of publications and conference presentations. One of its strengths in this respect appears to lay with what seems to have been a cross-disciplinary appeal, derived from it being difficult to position within conventional disciplinary boundaries. Particularly through Ian and I’s long association with the IAPS organisation, this has helped develop and sustain formal and informal international collaborations which embrace environmental psychology, restorative and sensory environments research, human geography, inclusivity and disability studies, as well as architecture, landscape architecture and urban design.

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These cross-disciplinary roots remain very much alive and developed in the more recent formulation of Socially Restorative Urbanism. In essence this is an attempt to broaden the scope of Experiential Landscape with a conceptual structure and agenda for further exploration and research that can begin to address some of the more complex implications of rapidly expanding global urbanisation. Although there are notable exceptions, to date urban design has been heavily biased towards, and almost universally understood to be about, the built components of the urban environment. This is a view that is becoming increasingly outdated as issues of urban sustainable living have to involve at least a coexistence, if not a holistic integration, of natural and human processes. In order to do this urban design along with the sort of landscape architecture that is focused on urban settings has to become understood in much broader cross-disciplinary terms than at present, including at least a blend of the conventional built environment disciplines with sociological, psychological and ecological understandings. In fact, in relation to the question at the head of this piece and in the context of contemporary and future urban sustainability challenges, I’m no longer at all persuaded that there is enough intellectual distance between whatever urban design now is and what landscape architecture is to justify them as two separate disciplinary fields.

Socially Restorative Urbanism aspires to provide a step in this direction with an agenda setting conceptual framework for new ways of thinking about urban spatial structure and social processes to re-introduce more people-centred dimensions into urban place making and its adaptation. To this extent it retains the spirit of the early Leeds Design and Community experiences in arguing that landscape and urban design is as much social as spatial and that inclusive and participative action is needed wherever human settlement is being adapted and made. Steps are currently being taken to develop a framework for the establishment of an international Centre for Socially Restorative Urbanism. It is hoped that this will eventually provide the means to pursue its longer term agenda through international research collaborations focused on the mental re-orientation required to embrace the socio-spatial nature of urban environments, beginning with a re-focus on the components of urban form particularly associated with urban social life and psychological well-being.

kevin15  Kevin Thwaites

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