Just south of one of the oldest districts in the city of St. Louis – cobble streets and all – is a gem of a bridge. Even if you’re not aware that it was the first to be constructed using only cantilever support methods, you can’t help but feel like you’re walking through history as you pass under its seven-story-tall arches. On the other side, east of the lawn where you sometimes bring your lunch, is a garden packed with native plants that Lewis and Clark wrote of discovering in their now famous journals. That’s where you’re headed today. To get there you walk along the edge of a mound, from which, through a curtain of trees and understory plantings, you can see the Gateway Arch.
Or, at least you will be able to, when the construction of the CityArchRiver 2015 project is complete.
Despite this vision, the new design has not come without opposition. That explorer’s garden we can’t wait to poke around in? It used to be a parking garage. And while some patrons are concerned about parking, others are in firm disagreement with the alleé tree replacement. The implementation of a second generation monoculture alleé was a decision that weighed the historic significance of Dan Kiley’s original design with the potential ecological consequences of single species planting. To residents and local professionals, the decision was personal. But it’s important for us to take a step back and realize that the central questions at play were not unique. As more of our nation’s cultural landscapes require renovation, landscape architects will continue to ask: “Which wins here: culture or nature? Aesthetics or performance?” To these questions we add another, and we answer it with this:
“If no one hears the tree fall, it still makes a sound,
but it doesn’t make a feeling.”
Landscape architecture has historically been described as an invisible hand: if done right, the design of a space escapes notice. This is a practice that our profession has prided itself on. So why have landscape architects, championed state-side by ASLA, embarked on a global public awareness effort? As part of a social media campaign that began as “World Landscape Architecture Month” (#WLMA2015), colleagues from 26 different countries have shared photographs of sites designed by landscape architects. Each photo even contains an orange card alerting the viewer of that fact. But why take off the invisibility glove now?
Simply because, in urban designs especially, the glove no longer fits.
The motives for the campaign reach beyond professional advocacy, beyond the very real notion that it’s important for the general public to be aware of the work being done by landscape architects. The (in)visibility of the profession certainly plays a role in the ongoing fight for public funding, but the orange cards represent a grassroots effort to change more than the public’s perception of our field. In calling out the designed nature of these spaces, we’re working to change the public’s relationship to the sites around them. When we as designers operate unseen, especially in urban environments that require community participation to make them great, we’re knocking down trees next to a heavy metal concert. There are people around, but no one hears, or feels, a change.
The invisible hand no longer serves the users of many contemporary urban sites. Unlike perhaps at the birth of the profession when pioneers like Olmsted sought to “recreate nature” in large urban parks today, designers often operate in interstitial spaces, and the undesirable locations that have, by being so undesirable, escaped development. In these sites, any sort of intentional planting is glaringly obvious; spaces that downplay natural elements, such as turf strips in streetscapes, are often overlooked. Their care quite literally falls through the cracks; and consequently, the ecosystem services these features would have provided are lost. The concept of hypernature – a hyperbolic expression of constructed nature – asks designers to acknowledge that such spaces are often experienced by distracted urban users, and therefore must cut through noise (iPhones, headphones, and compulsive Fitbit checking) to impact its inhabitants. Not only is a space which may be experienced as “natural” nearly impossible to achieve immediately surrounded by post-industrial lots and freeways, the attempt may also be counterproductive to ecological performance of the site. Perhaps most importantly: it may fail to capture the attention of its users.
Ecosystems are networks. Nodes, patches, corridors: no matter how many retweets our orange cards get, they won’t all be designed by landscape architects. The shared backyard of an apartment building, the right-of-way of an active train line, and the sandbars in our river are all part of the larger, urban ecological network. So too are commuting patterns and the choices we make as consumers. If landscape architecture can produce legible designs from which the public can read performance, function, and beauty, the pieces of the network not designed by landscape architects may still be informed by the same belief which drives so many of us: that, as Elizabeth Meyer writes, “designed landscapes need to be constructed human experiences as much as ecosystems.”[i] When these two experiences are presented, spatially, as interconnected as they truly are, we have a better chance of seeing our place in the network and the responsibility each one of us has towards the whole. And so, hypernature is the orange card we stamp many of our designs with, calling out to users to say, if not, “Designed by a Landscape Architect,” at least:
“I am designed. I am intentional. I am working.”
More than landscape architects, SWT is a group of planners, urban designers, strategists, and system thinkers. Our work is not only informed by research and analysis, but also by our decisions as artists to design site elements which, in Elizabeth Meyer’s words, “…raise awareness of rhythms and cycles necessary to sustain and regenerate life.” [i] When we help an innovative work space put a rain garden at its front door—the site earns more than LEED credits. Everyone who enters the building is told, daily, the living story of water in our region. When we collaborate with clients to develop maintenance guidelines, we’re not just planning for efficient use of resources. We’re planning for a future in which the functions of the landscape can be supported; a future in which the site experience continues to perform on, and inspire, its users. Although, in many instances, we may choose to drop the invisibility glove, the spaces we touch are still not designed by our hand alone. Our intention is always to give voice to the site that existed before the design, and the natural and human processes that will perform, planned or not, within the space.