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Land Matters: One World That Looks Like Two

A friend recently sent me an article from Devex, an online source of international development news, about a supposedly new way of thinking about global aid and sustainable development. It’s called “the landscape approach.” It purports to steer development investment toward projects based on their grasp of landscapes as systems. The reporter, Michael Igoe, writes in a piece titled “The Rise of the ‘Landscapes’ Agenda” that advocates of a “landscapes” approach are looking for ways to integrate historically disparate expert communities, particularly forestry and agriculture. By orienting strategies and programs around the landscape as a whole—rather than around certain individual features such as forests, farms, or carbon sinks—practitioners hope they can arrive at some clearer descriptions and indicators for what “sustainable development” looks like at a larger scale.

The World Bank’s head of environment and natural resources global practice, Bilal Rahill, said, “Investing in landscapes feels like the next big thing to us.” He said this in June at a gathering of something called the Global Landscapes Forum in London, where the opening session was titled “Building the Investment Case for Landscapes.” The Global Landscapes Forum is run by the Center for International Forestry Research, based in Indonesia. Its meeting next month in Paris will have dozens of development officials on deck—several resource ministers, the head of Oxfam International, leaders in tropical biology, indigenous peoples’ rights, anthropology, agroforestry, and food security, among others. The program covers deforestation challenges, restoration, water management, and climate change from numerous angles. You can’t help but be drawn in by the scope of the conversation.

But there isn’t a landscape architect in sight. Not at this gathering or any of the other recent symposia held by the Global Landscapes Forum. The absence is so complete I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. The development experts claim to be seeking greater integration of ecological systems and knowledge on a large scale as a strategy for supporting populations and conserving land—particularly as an alternative to piecemeal approaches that have failed to produce successful results in the past. But they have yet to integrate landscape architecture proper. They are parallel worlds. This is the problem.

The forestry research center sponsors a couple of intriguing programs. It is said to be starting a fund for landscapes favoring “small loans to farm and forestry projects that meet some common land-use improvement criteria,” Igoe reported. The center also has a “50 Young Innovators” challenge mentioned on its website to develop viable answers to real-world environmental problems. The word “landscape” is peppered through this group’s site material so frequently that it’s almost unsettling. Are we talking about the same landscape? Does landscape in the global aid sphere imply what it implies in landscape architecture, which is stewardship?

Do our movements belong closer together, to the extent they are acquainted at all? How can that happen? Much of the literature of these specialists focuses on crises—crop wipeouts, disasters, migrations, and other calamities, especially as communities globally confront war and climate change. How this differs from what we hear in the halls of landscape architecture is a matter of degree (and less war), though landscape architecture in no way shies from great scale.

At any rate, the issues in focus among these development actors clearly matter to landscape architecture. You can see the concern coming particularly from students, who are recombining their lineage in Olmsted, McHarg, Martin Luther King Jr., and even, let’s venture, Pope Francis, to pose a thriving source of future expertise in holistic thinking about land, communities, and the planet. The technocratic world of international development tends to have a humancentric set of priorities but seems to be embracing, even as a novelty, the conservation of natural systems as its own benefit—rain forests as lungs rather than as stores of raw material—and the interconnectedness of all landscapes. It is a lost opportunity, given the shocking upheavals and displacements we are seeing today, to keep critical design thinking out of that global equation. 

Bradford McKee
Editor in Chief
Landscape Architecture Magazine

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