We live in a precarious time. Unprecedented some might say, where every day we have no idea which way our government is moving. Even the lifelong politicians (as well as the newbies) are confused by this uncertainty and lack of direction. I can’t recall a time where there was such uneasiness with our policies, funding, and dysfunction of both major political parties. All three branches of our government are in disarray, and who knows when chaos is going to erupt.
I’m a baby boomer. That of a generation following World War II, with immigrant parents that came to this country for education and found themselves exiled here as China turned into a Communist country in 1949. There was no going back for them. I grew up with my formative years seeing our cities burn, and the white flight to the suburbs became commonplace. I saw the protests and polarization of our nation – the worst since the Civil War – envelop our country. I’ve also seen the re-birth and healing for three or four generations, from yippie to yuppie to a new generation of hipsters moving back to our cities without cars, touting ideas of apps ruling the world, and organic, local food filling our plates. Yet the same issues of race, immigration, global warming, and social justice continues to repeat itself.
Wong Family, circa 1961. Ernest Wong, front left.
As a nation, however, we are following the trend of nationalism that is flourishing around the globe. This nationalism is based on identity, which since WWII, has continued to change. Globalization has integrated us all, mixing cultures and ideas, foods, and religious practices. And we haven’t quite learned how to cope with this change. So what does this all have to do with Landscape Architecture?
Landscape Architects have an obligation to view the world in a holistic manner. When we deal with stormwater and flooding, that water doesn’t have borders. When we design infrastructure projects that impact wetlands and how pedestrians intertwine with vehicles, the challenges require thoughtful and effective solutions. Additionally, Landscape Architects need to embrace Civic Engagement as part of our practice. We provide professional services when we testify at Plan Commissions or lead community meetings, many times acting like psychologists to the public. It is exactly these moments that the general public realizes what we do and the value of our work. Beyond climate change and sustainability, ecological restoration, and public education, perhaps we can start to solve some of the social issues that are causing so much unrest. Can we address issues of polarization, joblessness, equity, and education? We certainly can serve as the catalyst to provide solutions, much of it focused on how we design communities. In my travels to Capetown and Shanghai, I’ve seen how urban planning historically has separated people by race and economic status, controlling how people move from one place to another. The same thing occurs in Palestine and Bogota. Not that we can solve the world’s problems (or can we?) at once, but the skill set of Landscape Architects and Planners is pretty powerful.
The work that we engage in is important. We design outdoor spaces. Public spaces, private spaces, places for playing, places for healing, spaces that capture the essence of who we are as human beings. Water, air, trees, and even animals are elements that we all celebrate by using them in deliberate design solutions. The commonality of outdoor space helps us interact with each other, touch the natural world and understand that we share these elements. Thus, we impact the quality of lives regardless of race, economic status, and culture. It is exactly this story that needs to be told to those who define policy, determine our funding, and keep our existence as professionals alive. So above serving ourselves and just our profession, we need to look beyond the small microcosm of our design world. We need to position ourselves to serve in the public realm, where our voices can be heard and our decisions can impact communities beyond just design. The leverage of Public Engagement is tremendous as it translates back to our struggling profession. It gives us power, responsibility, and most importantly, civility.
Ribbon cutting at Chicago Park District Park 574 by site, Chicago, IL (Image: Rose Yuen Photography)
Jonathon Geels’ moving article “The Necessity of Advocacy: Discussing the Politics of Landscape Architects” said a lot about the need to have politicians hear our story. Folks like William Pauley, FASLA, the civic leader in Atlanta was instrumental in having the voice of a Landscape Architect lead that city. Ed Garza, ASLA served as the Mayor of San Antonio, as did Michael Dul, ASLA, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Mia Lehrer, FASLA serves on the US Commission on Fine Arts and the Hollywood Design Review Committee, and Terry Guen, FASLA, serves on the US Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. While numerous Landscape Architects have and continue to serve on public and governmental committees and commissions, it is the exposure to the general public that enhances our status as professionals. Even when you stand up in a community meeting with a knowledge base that exceeds others in the room, it speaks volumes about our profession. When you vote and immerse yourself in local and national politics, you empower yourself and the profession by default. We continue to talk the talk amongst ourselves and our allied professions, but it’s time to walk the walk in the general public. It is this effort and commitment that will establish policy for Landscape Architecture, create funding for our projects and develop a long sustainable market for our profession. And maybe we can change the world in the meantime.
Ernest C. Wong, FASLA is a founding Principal of site design group, ltd. (site), a landscape architecture and urban design firm based in Chicago. He serves on the Chicago Commission of Cultural Affairs and Chairs the Permit Review Committee of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.