I became a Landscape Architect because I loved gardening. When I was living in Ithaca, New York, I owned a house on five acres above Trumansburg on the ridge between Lake Seneca and Lake Cayuga. It is breathtakingly beautiful in this part of upstate New York, with rolling green hills, forests, fertile farmlands, and deep, clear lakes.
I had a job working for a small publisher in Trumansburg, designing books part time. In my spare time I decided to build raised beds near the house and raise flowers and vegetables. I found this work made me happy. At the same time, I was introduced to a friend of a friend who had recently graduated with a degree in Landscape Architecture from Cornell. I had never heard of this profession, but I was intrigued. I imagined myself designing estates, creating refuges of lawn, flowers, and trees in the English tradition. I started reading Garden Design and buying lifestyle magazines if they featured gardens. So, I applied to Cornell’s Landscape Architecture program, and I was accepted.
When I started taking classes, I discovered that Landscape Architecture was far broader than I had imagined. The first year, in addition to courses on plants and construction techniques, there was a course on urban design. Urban design hooked me. While it included a small component of landscape design, it also included the interaction between people, place, nature, the economy, and politics that in the right circumstances created positive change in the life of communities. So, the garden gig was put aside without regrets.
Since Cornell, I have worked on some great projects in this country and abroad. I saw that the engineering approach to building cities and taming natural systems seemed to be going awry. Rivers in concrete channels and wetlands filled to make room for new development expressed the Manifest Destiny philosophy of 20th Century America. Commercial strip development sprang up everywhere, moving ever outwards to new suburbs, leaving many historic city centers empty and the middle ground between city and suburbs as barren and lifeless as the burned end of a match.
An appreciation for smart land use was becoming more prevalent here in the 70s, with new emphasis on restoring natural systems, rediscovering historic downtowns, and using native plants. Green Infrastructure became the coin of the realm for landscape architects and planners, even if the meaning was a little fuzzy and the urgency was not yet evident.
Now the rainforests are being cut down, forest fires rage across the globe, 25-year storms occur six times in 10 years, a third of the birds in the US have disappeared, and honeybees are dying. While we and our leaders metaphorically wring our hands and say we need to do something, little progress and plenty of backsliding is evident, not only here in the US but everywhere. Swedish teen environmental activist, Greta Thunberg says if we don’t wake up, there will be no future for people her age. She’s right. For their part, landscape architects could be, should be, and are trying to take the lead in finding solutions. Is anyone listening?
During the Trump administration, the US withdrew from the Climate Accords and regularly rescinded environmental protections, while Democrats began formulating a Green New Deal that intended to retool the economy and save the planet, but they can’t get it done. Judging by results, most elected officials lack the will, the votes, or the urgency required, and the few leaders who do understand still seem like voices in the wilderness. Only widespread civil action and/or the emergence of exceptional leaders in the next few years will bring us back from the brink of disaster.
While politicians and corporations stonewall and line their pockets, our coasts are being inundated, communities are being destroyed, weather events are becoming more frequent and violent, and the cost of rebuilding is fast becoming both astounding and futile. Restoring wetlands, building protective berms, reducing the amounts of impermeable pavement all help. Raising the foundations of endangered structures, moving them, or buying them out will help. But these efforts are meager in the face of the tsunami of global warming. Landscape architects, engineers, and planners can and do speak up for change and help educate the public. But our cogs in the machine are not big enough to change the rotation of the gears. The best hope is that citizens here and around the world act and demand change.
But soon it will be too late to effect change. Even some seemingly insignificant loss could topple the delicate environmental or geopolitical balance. Perhaps the endangered pollinators will suddenly become extinct and much of the world’s food supply will vanish virtually overnight.
The catastrophic event that killed the dinosaurs happened suddenly, too. It seems we are the latest version of the dinosaurs, only in our case we will know that we were responsible for our own extinction and for the disappearance of everything on this astonishingly beautiful planet. Or perhaps only we will become extinct, and earth will finally be able to heal itself without us.