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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

March 2008 Issue

URBAN LANDSCAPES IN A POST-CIVIC AGE
Prominent landscape architects consider the state of public design at the 2007 ASLA Annual Meeting.

URBAN LANDSCAPES IN A POST-CIVIC AGE

These are the best of times and the worst of times for public design. On one hand, cities across the country have realized that parks and other landscape projects are key components of a thriving metropolis. On the other hand, the real drivers of these projects are often private developers rather than municipal governments. How effectively can the private sector determine what’s in the public interest, and what are the implications for the designer?

Landscape architects are on the front lines of this phenomenon. At the 2007 ASLA Annual Meeting in San Francisco a group of high-profile practitioners—Walter Hood, principal of Hood Design in Oakland, California, and professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design; Laurie Olin, FASLA, founding partner of the Olin Partnership in Philadelphia; Martha Schwartz, ASLA, principal of Martha Schwartz Partners in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London; and Ken Smith, ASLA, principal of Ken Smith Landscape Architecture in New York—shared their experiences and observations.

Moderator Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, kicked off the discussion with a piquant assessment of what’s at stake for the profession. “I talked to a lot of you about the credit that landscape architects get or don’t get versus architects,” he said. “I wonder if really ambitious projects place an impossibly heavy burden on landscape architects.” Landscape architects are deeply involved in, even leading, a lot of significant projects these days. But the programs are daunting, and expectations couldn’t be higher.

“These are projects that seek in a single design to revivify the public square, to bring people out of their cars, to clean up environmental damage, to connect to forgotten stretches of waterfront, and to create iconic spaces all at the same time,” Hawthorne said. “If these trends continue, it’s possible that the current decade will put the same kind of spotlight on landscape architecture in this country that the past decade put on architecture, making stars of its leading designers, but also pointing out the pitfalls of celebrity and the limits of iconic design in confronting political problems, as opposed to marketing problems.”

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