on landscape science – mammoth // building nothing out of something

on landscape science

Places Journal (newly independent of Design Observer) recently published an argument by Brian Davis and Thomas Oles that landscape architecture should be renamed landscape science:

“Slowly — fitfully — landscape architecture is remaking itself. Its adherents are venturing from the confines of garden, park, and plaza into strange and difficult territory, where they face challenges of a greater order. How will our cities adapt to rising seas? How do we respond to the mass extinction of our fellow species? How can we build places that are more just? Such questions mock the very notion of disciplinary boundaries…

Say it again: landscape architecture. The words roll off the tongue as if their union were inevitable. But this is an arranged marriage…

We need a term that updates Olmsted’s strategy of professionalization for the modern age. A term that is both broader and more specific, a term that can help simultaneously expand and focus the field. And for that there is only one real candidate. We therefore propose that landscape architecture become landscape science.”

This is ridiculously interesting and important.

I agree that there is a shift in both the scope and methodology of landscape research and practice underway. (That might actually be the central concern of this blog.) Consequently, I think it is valuable to attempt to recognize that shift by naming and defining it. (The need for this shift is probably evident to any landscape architect of this emerging sensibility who has tried to explain their work to friends, colleagues, and family members who are not familiar with current trends in the discipline.) In the spirit of contributing to the effort to concretize that shift, then, I’ve named below three primary concerns that I have with the selection of landscape science as worked out by Davis and Oles. Two of this concerns deal with the selection of the term science, while the third (the middle one, by order presented) questions what the relationship between landscape architecture and landscape science is in their proposal, and what it should be.

1 One of the most problematic components of the way that science is treated is its claim to objectivity; to be value-neutral. (We know from the philosophy of science that this is not entirely accurate; but it is perceived to be accurate.) Whereas one of the strengths of landscape architecture relative to other disciplines that make landscapes (logistics, engineering) is precisely that it has practices for making explicit, interrogating, and evaluating values.

I am wary of elevating science in this fashion. This is often a rhetorical move that serves to marginalize other ways of knowing. This is potentially particularly problematic because science often equals “Western science”, and is consequently accompanied by the marginalization of non-Western ways of knowing. (See: scientism, positivism1.)

I know that Davis and Oles have anticipated this objection: “Now we have opened a world of problems, not least that the word science brings its own conflicting associations… This has crowded out the original, more exciting definition.”

I’m not sure, though, that the likely effect of this (re)formulation of landscape science is to restore this earlier formulation of science, generally. It seems far more likely to me that the collective weight of the perception of “scientific inquiry as the cold pursuit of quantifiable phenomena and material effects” will define how landscape science is perceived than the opposite. (And, indeed, to some degree the argument hinges on this: that landscape will gain some of the prestige that is accorded to sciences, precisely because they are perceived in this fashion.)

It seems problematic that the argument hinges on shifting the understanding of a concept back to 19th century terms; how often does this happen? Moreover, how often does it happen when the lever is the self-conception of a relatively small discipline like landscape architecture?

Quoting Davis and Oles:

“Perhaps practitioners of a certain temperament will hold fast to the title of landscape architect, and that specific tradition might be understood as one important pillar in an expanding field of landscape science. People who study landscape science might be known as landscape architects, but also landscape geographers, landscape engineers, and landscape anthropologists (just as they have already started to claim titles such as landscape ecologist, landscape archaeologist, and landscape urbanist), or they might call themselves, more generally, landscape scientists.”

There’s something rhetorically problematic happening here. Should landscape ecology be seen as a subset of landscape architecture? I think not, though the fields are clearly related, both historically, methodologically, and topically; and I doubt that Davis and Oles think so, either. But if not, is the argument here perhaps really for a new umbrella that includes landscape architecture, but isn’t a renaming of it?

2 It seems worthwhile here to also say: I am strongly in favor of Alan Jacobs’ argument for (among other things) “self-consciously distinctive missions” and “pockets of resistance”, which seems potentially applicable to an effort the answer these questions. (Unfortunately, I think that an effort to claim science might radically undermine an effort to be such a pocket of resistance, because of the concerns I outlined in my first point.)

And if so: is that umbrella really a discipline? Or is a mode of operation? A shifting set of tactical alliances between fields that share interests, methodologies, and terrain? Something closer to transdisciplinarity than to a new discipline? If so, are we left in the same place that we started: needing a way to describe the operations (scope, methodology) of the set of researchers and practitioners that Davis and Oles mention (and others who have similar approaches)? Are we saying effectively that these people — as opposed to, say, the practitioners of landscape architecture who are primarily garden designers, or the plaza-makers who are outside architects — are the only ones who are landscape scientists? If so, why not generate another splinter discipline like landscape urbanism: between multiple disciplines, adopted by some practitioners, but not attempting to rename the whole discipline of landscape architecture? Isn’t this a more modest and practicable goal?2

3 Moreover: to return to my first contention, I think it is precisely the quality of landscape architecture as making that positions the discipline as a useful alternative and/or augment (depending on the specifics of place and situation) to more positivistic ways of constructing landscapes, including engineering and logistics.

I find myself continually returning to Dan Hill’s formulation about the value of design in Dark Matter and Trojan Horses:

“the idea that policy and governance can be convincing through mere presentation of fact supported by clear analysis is also being directly challenged. In-depth analytical approaches can no longer stretch across these interconnected and bound-less problems, where synthesis is perhaps more relevant than analysis.

‘The problem is that transparent, unmediated, undisputable facts have recently become rarer and rarer. To provide complete undisputable proof has become a rather messy, pesky, risky business.

Design produces proof, yet as ‘cultural invention’ it is also comfortable with ambiguity, subjectivity, and the qualitative as much as the quantitative. Design is also oriented towards a course of action — it researches and produces systems that can learn from failure, but always with intent. In strategic design, synthesis suggests resolving into a course of action, whereas analysis suggests a presentation of data. Analysis tells you how things are, at least in theory, whereas synthesis suggests how things could be.”

“[design’s] core value… is addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being”.

This also raises the point that “design” is perhaps being unhelpfully marginalized.

4 I think Davis and Oles acknowledge this, or at least are attempting to acknowledge it (I don’t think they explicitly say they are, so I may be misinterpreting), with the description of “what might its practitioners be called”? But the argument initially hinged on looking at the examples of radical practitioners, and whatever landscape architecture might be or might not be, certainly one of its strengths is that it is a practice. Renaming it in a way that requires a separate new term for the practice of it seems… inadequate. Which leads back to my second contention, about the proposed relationship between landscape architecture and landscape science.

5 This also refers to a point that geologist Brian Romans made in reply to Brian Davis on twitter: that geomorphology might be the most fundamental of all landscape sciences.

It seems there are three possibilities inherent in a formulation of a landscape science: first, that landscape architecture becomes landscape science; second, that landscape architecture (as a whole) becomes a component of a new, broader discipline known as landscape science; third, that some components of landscape architecture (and other disciplines!) enter into a new set of alliances and develop a new set of practices-between-disciplines that might collectively be referred to as landscape science. It seems to me that the first is what Davis and Oles claim to be arguing for (“we therefore propose that landscape architecture become landscape science”), but the last is what they are describing. (Not that I find that problematic! I actually find the last of these options most promising and most exciting.)

My final objection concerns the centrality of making to landscape architecture. Recall the definition of science that Davis and Oles claim:

“a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws; knowledge gained by systematic study.”

Science, even defined in this earlier way that does not make exclusive reference to the natural sciences or to the scientific method as a mode of knowledge production, is nonetheless an enterprise focused on knowing. By contrast, landscape architecture is, at least in my opinion, not only a profession of making, but also a discipline whose core depends on making. While making and knowing should not be perceived as being purely exclusive (in fact, I would argue that making can be a way of knowing — this is central to the notion of design as research), their overlap is far from entire. And the practitioners that landscape science would claim (Orff, Cowles, Bargmann, to use Davis and Oles three examples) are clearly makers.

In the middle of their argument, Davis and Oles recommend that:

“…we should establish our own integrated science, with its own specific methods, concepts, and techniques. We can adapt tools from the many fields that already work with landscape as a primary object of inquiry, including archaeology, ecology, environmental studies, history, planning, psychology and sociology.”

But which of those methods does landscape architecture contribute to landscape science? It seems to me that one of the most obvious answers is: landscape architecture, unlike archaeology, ecology, environmental studies, history, psychology and sociology (I leave out planning, whose operations are more ambiguous and variable), makes, builds, fights matter battles. If making is so essential to landscape architecture that it might be the discipline’s primary contribution to landscape science, then is it inadequate to choose a new name that does not acknowledge this3?

I’m not sure that Davis and Oles further definition of landscape science as a normative science (“[according to Peirce], normative science ‘distinguishes what ought to be from what ought not to be‘”) answers this objection. There’s a significant gap between ought and make4. (Do we really think that a maintenance worker is a landscape scientist? This seems to stretch the term terribly far.) Of course, we have a term for someone who applies science to make: a technician. Landscape technics is an interesting alternative, not far removed from Patrick Geddes and Benton MacKaye’s geotechnics5.

Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of technics is that the word is out of fashion, in much the same sense that science is in fashion.

Having detailed these three concerns, it would be right of me to also list the things that I appreciate, because there is a great deal that I appreciate in Davis and Oles’ argument. I don’t know that it is necessary for me to go on in such detail about them, though, so I will simply say: that the array of benefits listed under section III is extremely desirable; that I agree that there is a great deal to be gained by not “privileging… architectural terms and concepts over those of soil science, anthropology, and civil engineering”; and that I agree that there should be an increased focus on experimentation and testing within landscape architecture (I’ve been arguing that for years).

I hope this discussion continues.

7 Responses to “on landscape science”

  1. Alan Wiig says:

    For whatever reason, when reading this commentary I thought of John McPhee’s book The Pine Barrens, about the unique local culture and landscape of southern New Jersey. Chapter 4 begins with a digression into the vernacular description of the place:

    “When highway workers do anything to a road, they are said to be sciencing it. One day while I was driving along with Fred Brown, he said, ‘I didn’t know this road was oiled all the way to here.’ The road was covered with pavement.”

    New terms and new ways of seeing the need to break down disciplinary boundaries are certainly welcome when issues impacting common concerns, like sea-level rise, stretch across methods of interpretation and understanding. But science’s need to name, number, and define is perhaps antithetical fostering new methods of understanding and making. The turn to “science” is somewhat problematic even if the discussion, certainly, needs to continue.

  2. Ryan Lee Waldron, PE says:

    I don’t think Landscape Architecture should be renamed landscape science, just as I don’t think architecture is the same thing as science. These are related, but distinct things… different disciplines of the same study.

    I am an engineer that frequently deals on this scale; I call my self a Coastal Engineer, or a Water Resources Engineer (and sometimes just a Civil Engineer), but I suppose what I really am is a Landscape Engineer. I am neither scientist nor architect; I am most certainly an engineer. Nevertheless, what I end up designing — Marsh Creation Projects, River Diversions, and Barrier Islands — is probably best grouped on that landscape scale.

    …Landscape studies with multiple different disciples maybe?

  3. Brett says:

    So it seems it would be great if the new Places interface could include a comment forum to give the authors access to the worthy discussion they have provoked. Need identified.
    I arrived at generally the same place: I agree with the need to distinguish landscape and get out from under architecture, but also feel science isn’t quite the answer. By doing so we drop off one type of baggage only to pick up even more, as you’ve described here. I’m not sure what the added moniker is, but I’m personally most tempted to just go with ‘landscape’ and remake it as our own. That said, I’m intrigued by why landscape urbanism featured so prominently in the piece, yet geography was so lightly touched on. I don’t think it is accurate that contemporary geography is just a ‘descriptive science’. Maybe it once was, back when geographers were map makers, but geography is a bit like us: disappeared from prominence about 50-60 years ago and has come back with a vengeance. It’s now far more projective and instrumental in application and orientation – a spatial science in the most diverse sense. I think the argument can be made that geography has become far more design focused (witness what it is doing with infrastructure) while landscape architecture has simultaneously become far more geographic (by necessity) as it attempts to expand its scope. There’s something in that, I think.

  4. Brian says:

    well, there are few things more gratifying than producing something that people I admire and draw from engage with!

    regarding points 1 and 2, rob makes some great arguments that belie the trickiness of the task before us. Thomas and I don’t suppose that we have all of the answers to these things. I have thought about several of them however, and after I marinate on it a bit more I hope to write some lengthier thoughts down and share them somewhere. In short, I mostly agree with the points. However, the tendency toward more and further atomization (even if provocatively described as ‘pockets of resistance’ and ‘a shifting set of tactical alliances between fields that share interests, methodologies, and terrain’) may actually be a problem. At any rate these approaches also need not be mutually exclusive. We could probably use a bit more organization and systematic knowledge-building…

    However, regarding Rob’s third point (the centrality of making) and the hard line/fundamental difference between making and knowing, I am pretty opposed. I’ll try to do more work on this argument in some future piece, but a few assertions might do for the moment. The first and most fundamental point is that knowledge is produced, and it is a material practice. Being a material practice does not mean however, that it must be a matter battle (though that is one super interesting and relevant form). Knowledge processes are always located and contingent and its products are always made. Science understands this (at least if it is good science) and these arguments have been rediscovered and furthered in recent years.

    Relatedly, I think design needs to spend a lot more time excavating its instrumental roots (look at the relationship between Dewey, Black Mountain College- especially Albers and Gropius- and design education is an interesting place to start). Much contemporary design education is built on the instrumental theory of knowledge which according to John Dewey holds that “the activities of thinking and knowing occur when an organism experiences conflict within a specific situation.” Ideas are something of an action plan which function as instruments by seeking to resolve or negotiate contingencies.

    Similarly, the technology historian David Nye argues that using tools and composing a narrative are both instrumental processes. They are both normative. Whether or not you actually dig into the dirt (matter battle) or merely experience a place as you walk through it, leaving your own trace (Richard Long-style) or walk the perimeter of a terrain along the ancestral songlines (see David Turnbull’s discussion of Australian aboriginal songlines, or Wiley Ludeña Urquizo’s discussion of the Nazca lines in Peru), you are still actively making landscape (not just experiencing it). While the emphasis on matter battles is certainly important in contemporary landscape architecture, this has more to do with the architectural tendency toward capital projects (and our default position to rely on architectural practices, histories, and theories) and the european emphasis on garden-history-as-landscape-history than anything fundamental to landscape-making (they are important strains, but not fundamental).

    This emphasis on decentering architectural concerns is an important part of the article. Indeed it is the starting point, both because of the name of our discipline as well as our current situation, where architecture appears to be attempting to swallow landscape, as we noted. That was the reason for the more thorough discussion of landscape urbanism rather than some of the interesting, exciting disciplines that often get short shrift- and continued to in our piece- such as geography, geomorphology, anthropology. And while Brett, you definitely have an ally in me regarding your argument that a closer relationship with geography is needed (and that they are doing some amazing things) it is fundamentally a descriptive/positive science: geo (meaning ‘globe’ or ‘earth’) and graphy (meaning ‘description’). If the practice of some geographers is now normative then that only underscores the fact that a new normative landscape science which offers a space to that brand of geography is needed…

    All that said, i’m gaining a lot from this thinking. And the difficulties/possibilities of adopting the term ‘science’ are interesting to hash out further, especially while considering alternatives, such as ‘technics’ (love it, but whether something actually has cultural currency does matter. And would we then be ‘landscape technicians’?) and ‘studies’ (appreciated, but too ‘meh’, no?). Looking forward to hearing more over time…

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  6. Michael says:

    A little late to the party but here nonetheless. Needless to say I’m quite sympathetic to the pursuit of landscape science (which I see as an umbrella discipline which includes landscape architecture), but not simply because of the very generous shout-out by Brian and Thomas.

    Science is a philosophy, a way of understanding the material through repeated observation (the scientific method). While the natural sciences position humans apart from nature, forcing the scientific inquiry to always be about observing and never making, landscape is always constructed, strict observation only able to understand certain aspects of the material. A landscape science must also construct landscapes in order to understand them fully.

    There is already a very closely allied field that operates this way: agricultural sciences understand how to best cultivate crops by GROWING them, KNOWING what is true through by testing experiments using the scientific method. Research farms and experimental forests are only a couple products of this inquiry. There is no inherent dichotomy between knowing and making and landscape science must operate in the same way.

    Instead, I think the real wall that stands between knowing and making is the dichotomy between science and art. Architecture has obviously allied itself firmly with the latter (or the idea that there is such a thing as art that stands opposite science) causing the majority of landscape to be out of our professional realm. No matter how much we observe and report back on the vernacular landscape, the engineered landscape, the political landscape, the architectural model only allows landscape architects to make certain types of landscapes, designed landscapes. (preaching to the choir). Landscape science is not encumbered with this distinction, because it’s prerogative is knowing, which require making, which may not create landscape architecture but will definitely create new landscapes.

    To borrow from another allied discipline, we can see how the science of restoration ecology has required the act of restoration to understand “degraded” and “restored” ecologies. But instead of finding all these landscapes back to normal, we now also understand how restoration creates new ecologies. The critical basis for my experimental maintenance series was analogous to this: that in order to understand how maintenance constructs landscape, we must construct landscape through maintenance. And what came out these experiments (IMHO) was a peak at the novel landscapes that could be constructed through the maintenance model. Yes, I do believe maintenance workers can be scientists — T. Fleisher’s organic maintenance experiments at the Battery Park Conservancy and Harvard is a clear example — that’s whats partly so exiting about this idea. It requires the landscape scientists to get out of the simulation and back out into the field again.

  7. rholmes says:

    Thanks for your comments, all.

    I look forward to your further thoughts on my first two points. Where you say that “We could probably use a bit more organization and systematic knowledge-building…”, I’m not sure that those things are mutually exclusive (“pockets of resistance” and “systematic knowledge-building”), but, *if* they are — yeah, I probably lean towards the former.

    But, then, to your more developed objections to my objections (I guess this make these my objections to your objections to my objections to your proposal)…
    1. Unfortunately, I think you start off by mischaracterizing my position as describing a “hard line/fundamental difference between making and knowing” (to which you “could not be more opposed”). I think I explicitly stated the opposite, or at least a much more nuanced position than you are allowing me: “While making and knowing should not be perceived as being purely exclusive (in fact, I would argue that making can be a way of knowing — this is central to the notion of design as research), their overlap is far from entire.”
    2. Moreover, I didn’t say it, but, conversely, I don’t have any problem with acknowledging the converse: that knowing can be a form of making. (Without having carefully considered it, I think I’m also fine with the extreme version of this: all knowing is a form of making.)
    3. I also don’t think the two sides of this summary of my position — hard line/fundamental difference — are equivalent. I’ve asserted that there is a substantive difference between making and knowing, not that there is a hard line between them. Acknowledging that these are different things does not require maintaining that they cannot be aspects of the same action. Rather, I think it is helpful in permitting us to more finely characterize any given action, recognizing that an action may be composed variously of different amounts of making and knowing. My assertion about the Discipline Formerly Known As Landscape Architecture (DFKALA) was and is that it is oriented toward making in a way that science is not, particularly as science is currently construed (but, to a lesser degree, also as science has historically been construed, even under the Marxian use you are proposing a return to).
    4. I’m curious whether you have a problem with Dan Hill’s formulation of design’s core value: “[design’s] core value… is addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being”. (The part that I am worried about losing when I assert a substantive difference between knowing and making is the delivering.)
    5. I suppose I am also curious whether you see design as being at the core of the DFKALA. (I think so, from other conversations? I’ll leave aside the nasty problem of defining design.)
    6. There are a number of places in your article where you formulate a description of what you see landscape science as (or of what you are trying to bundle into landscape science), and most of those leave me much more comfortable with your proposal than the actual selection of science as a term does. For instance: “conceiving, experiencing, and making landscapes”.
    7. I do find this one objectionable, though: “landscape science is the organization of this work into a systematic study of landscapes themselves, and of processes of landscape-making, in an effort to discern the difference between surface and substance, appearance and essence.” It is objectionable to me because I can’t buy the idea — at least not without much further elaboration — that the aim of the DFKALA is to discern differences. To me, that sounds a lot like the making is slipping away in favor of the knowing, which was my original third objection…

    I think this leads me to Michael’s comments.

    1. It’s helpful, Michael, that you stake out a clear position for landscape science as an umbrella discipline which includes landscape architecture — I think Brian and Thomas went back and forth between doing that and not doing that in the proposal, and that makes their proposal a bit tough to evaluate precisely.
    2. You say “Science is a philosophy, a way of understanding the material through repeated observation (the scientific method).”
    Indeed, science is a philosophy, and that is precisely the problem: it is a philosophy with a great deal of baggage (like Brett says).
    This is super unfair of me (although it is one of many things that makes me think that we’re not actually all that far apart on these matters), but I’d like to quote something that Brian said in another context, describing what members of the DFKALA might contribute to a particular set of landscapes currently made and known almost exclusively by scientists and engineers: ”the intersection, realignment, and reinterpretation of spatial strategies, materials and technologies, and social/cultural value systems. (values seems to be a thing that constantly flumoxes the engineers- us, too, actually, but at least we’re more comfortable with being flumoxed; might tap in to some value added proposition here).”
    It’s values that the scientific method has very little to tell us about.
    (Well, values and aesthetics, both of which are terribly important parts of landscape architecture. Look at Alex’s work with the USACE at Owens Lake that Brian talks about — the value proposition of landscape architecture in that case is almost entirely about understanding and manipulating aesthetics.)
    3. You say “There is already a very closely allied field that operates this way: agricultural sciences understand how to best cultivate crops by GROWING them, KNOWING what is true through by testing experiments using the scientific method.”
    Would you also say that the purpose of landscape science would be to “know what is true”? Because I would have a really tough time getting behind that.
    4. You say “we can see how the science of restoration ecology has required the act of restoration to understand “degraded” and “restored” ecologies.”
    I think this gets the teleological relationship backwards: restoration ecology’s self-definition is that it is the study of the practice of ecological restoration. The end is restoration; the understanding is instrumental. (In that, I think it’s a great parallel to the DFKALA: the end is making landscapes, understanding them is instrumental towards that end.)
    5. Finally, you say “Yes, I do believe maintenance workers can be scientists — T. Fleisher’s organic maintenance experiments at the Battery Park Conservancy and Harvard is a clear example — that’s whats partly so exiting about this idea.”
    I would say there is a huge difference between is and can be — between saying that “to be a maintenance worker is to be a scientist” and “it is possible to be both a maintenance worker and a scientist”. I wouldn’t deny the latter, but I find the former pretty unconvincing. (But I agree wholeheartedly that the project of thinking through maintenance as landscape-making is relevant and exciting.)