“Toward a Thriving Human Culture”
A review of
A Landscape Manifesto
by Diana Balmori.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
A Landscape Manifesto
Hardback: Yale UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Ecological sustainability needs cities. Not only that, it needs dense, well-designed, diversified cities where human intentionality can place itself within the functionality of the larger climate, watershed and ecosystem.
For many of us, this will require a fundamental paradigm shift about where and how we locate nature – and cities. First of all, human culture must enter the realm of ecology, keeping an eye toward the health of air, water, soils. Diana Balmori’s A Landscape Manifesto moves us in this direction in significant ways, locating cities (human culture) in nature, shifting representations of land to more accurately represent a new ecological conscience, and revisiting old landscape forms, equipping them with new functions. While all of this might sound like too huge of a task to find a place to begin, that is not the case, as Balmori introduces all of these basic ideas first through the lens of The Lawn.
In an earlier book, Redesigning the American Lawn, Balmori writes (along with her co-authors), “Understanding the dynamics of lawn ecology may bring to a human scale the meaning of ecological sustainability.” She picks up this theme in A Landscape Manifesto, reviewing characteristics of the old model, the Industrial Lawn: in the US, it covers 31 million acres, “the nation’s largest single crop;” it is dependent on fossil energy, water, and chemicals to survive; “yard waste is the second-largest component of the waste stream.” The familiarity of practices of maintaining a lawn situate it on a scale in which action is possible; in Redesigning the American Lawn, the authors introduce the Freedom Lawn, which keeps much of the lawn form, but introduces species diversity, composting in-place, using available water and solar resources; yet another approach is exemplified in Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates project, replacing front lawns completely with edible landscapes.
Both approaches encompass tactics common throughout A Landscape Manifesto, and they accomplish them at a home scale: the lawn, although using natural processes, is still a built landscape; new aesthetics emerge – the Freedom Lawn (or Edible Estate) takes on a new visual appearance suited to a new ecology; and a familiar form has been given new significance, fitting it into the broader ecosystem, rather than trying to exist apart from it. Balmori writes:
Our new concept of nature has transformed the way we look at the lawn, jumping from our front yard to the air, water, and soil around it on a much larger scale, the scale of a city. Freedom Lawns, though ecological, will not be natural landscapes. They will be natural in the way they work, and will express this is the new forms they take (18).
The Lawn, then, is a helpful model to consult as Balmori moves on to the other projects and approaches in this book. And this is a manifesto, after all, so a few of her points should be presented as we move along (One can read all the points of the manifesto here):
2. Nature is the flow of change within which humans exist. Evolution is its history. Ecology is our understanding of its present phase.
4. Landscape forms encapsulate unseen assumptions. To expose them is to enter the economic and aesthetic struggles of our time.
Just as the lawn is an old form that can take on new uses and meanings, there are others: drainage ditches become rain gardens or parks that filter sediment, manage runoff, and reduce erosion; closed ports are opportunities to bring water ecosystems to meet the land; roofs become “Fifth Facades;” and abandoned railways, canals, and paths become Linear Parks. Once again, all of these strategies are highly constructed, but at their core is the possibility of weaving together human use alongside functioning natural processes and, significantly, making that interaction visible. Green roofs are a visually striking contrast to the familiar tar roof, and the projects Balmori writes about (and that are depicted here with an abundance of illustrations) are strategically placed to be visible from either taller buildings or from the busy Queensboro Bridge. Likewise, Linear Parks, such as the Highline – with Balmori’s submission highlighted here – exist right in the midst of dense cities, and are “a major reconstitution of the way we use space and time and of how we view transportation” (31).
6. Shifts are taking place before our eyes. Landscape artists and architects need to give them a name and make them visible. Aesthetic expertise is needed to enable the transforming relations between humans and the rest of nature to break into public spaces.
7. High visibility, multiple alliances, and public support are critical to new landscape genres that portray our present.
In framing Balmori’s approach to landscape, Michel Conan writes that Balmori “create[s] a pleasurable and attractive site endowed with topographical forms hat are explicitly expressive of a new constructed nature and that achieve a sustainable balance between humans and nonhumans…It demands the creation of a new biological process, a new topographical form compelling aesthetic appreciation, and a sit for a desirable public life” (xvii). Certainly the plans, photographs, and diagrams contained in A Landscape Manifesto visually express this practice. The Beale Street Landing in Memphis has six levels leading down to the riverfront, each structured and planted according to the level of the Mississippi, disappearing and reappearing with the rise and fall of the river; pathways and constructed islands extend the reach out onto the river in St. Louis: “what mattered most about that site [was] the mighty Mississippi River and our giving all our attention to establishing a new human connection with it – a way of being on the river that created the opportunity to enjoy a truly fluid… experience” (182). And then there is her work making land artist Robert Smithson’s Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island a reality – a barge planted with earth, trees, and rocks, displacing the park from its expected location.
But as I said up front, the significance of this book is in locating the city as a part of nature, and embracing human culture as a part of the ecosystem. Balmori writes:
Instead of embedding nature in the city, it is about embedding the city in nature. It is not about planting trees, but about creating a different relationship between landscape and its elements (water, earth, air) and the city. And between landscape and architecture, what I have called interface… To embed the city in nature means paying attention to these parts for the design of a city and using engineered systems that work like systems from nature (219).
As others have suggested (e.g., David Owen’s Green Metropolis), the city is uniquely situated to develop ecological practices and a thriving human culture. A Landscape Manifesto sketches some directions forward, beginning with a renewing of our minds (and our lawns), and then to practices that must be adopted by communities working together. Balmori’s own landscape practice provides a host of examples to draw inspiration from, and her manifesto opens up possibilities for many more to come alongside.
Brent Aldrich is Art Editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and adjunct professor at Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.