While researching our page on wetlands, we learned a bit more about what goes into managing complex ecosystems. Turns out, more than scientists are involved in helping the environment, and more than the volunteers and citizen scientists who help out with the work we normally think about. One of those roles that surprised us (but really makes a ton of sense) given their cross section of work between human facility and natural function.
That role is the landscape architect.
But first, what exactly is landscape architecture? Rarely are we just talking about structuring the land on its own, though that is an aspect of the job. Landscape architecture spans many disciplines including urban and industrial design, geography, ecology, architecture, soil science, botany, structural engineering, and a dash of artistic know-how. Essentially, if the project exists in a space between the constructed and the natural, a landscape architect is likely involved!
The architects themselves, in addition to having general knowledge of the above or knowing when to reach out to other experts in those fields, must be good analysts, designers, planners, managers, and, above all, communicators. Especially when needing to reach out to or work with experts in other fields, being able to effectively communicate concerns between each other and the client is a big responsibility.
And you did hear the word "client" correctly. This isn't typically a solo job. Restructuring land for human use (or otherwise) is usually something requiring a plan, funding, and someone who has gone through the licensing steps necessary to consider starting the project in the first place. Even in the most artistic of scenarios, the architect would be hired to do something with a space already attained by a client of some kind. This doesn't necessarily mean that your work is always dictated by some upper echelon rich guy. It could be a government-funded project to create a park, a city wanting to build a central plaza, a corporation designing a new headquarters, a private company building out a golf course, or individuals looking for help with building a home. It can't be stressed enough that there are a lot of applications to this field and the use cases are really only limited by the imagination.
But why would folks hire a landscape architect when building something only tangentially related to the environment? While it is certainly true that someone could opt to build on a plot of land on their own, having the environmental understanding of what you're building on is a huge boon. Understanding the substrate that your foundation will sit on, how the hydrology of the area could play into abundantly wet seasons and ways that water damage can be mitigated are big considerations. Perhaps you're wanting to build near a forest or a lake, and make sound construction choices that will ensure the environment you intentionally built near to begin with continues to thrive with you there. All of these things help both the client and the environment compromise to suit the best of both worlds.
Really, it comes down to making sound judgment calls throughout the project with regards to the environment. Having someone be that connective tissue between various constructed and natural bridges (physical and theoretical in this case!) ensures that someone has your back as all of the work is done. That landscape architects have a broad understanding ensures that all parties involved are aware of a project's current status and shifts in the plan without a hitch.
Now that we have a bit of an understanding of this role, how does it tie back into the environment? Probably one of the biggest tie-ins is that expertise of the relationship between human construction and the Earth. Without having to bring on a whole mess of teams needed to complete a project, having that broad knowledge available is a huge boon to environmental sciences. Let's consider a few examples.
As we discussed in our piece on wetlands, these are one of the most complex ecosystems that occur on the planet. Even when humanity throws itself full-force at this kind of project, it takes years to establish a wetland, potentially even decades to centuries depending on the type of wetland you're looking to construct. For ecologists to be able to bring in expertise on what is architecturally feasible to create a wetland is tantamount to the project's success. An ecologist may know the right mix of soil, hydrology, and species science to see the end result in their mind, how to form the land such that the conditions for that result to be met requires architectural knowledge.
Zoos and wildlife centers are key places for humans to learn about animals, but they're also an interesting case since they need to be able to sustain both human and animal use. Here, again, we can see immediate use in the landscape architect's structural background, being able to create spaces for animals and humans. However, these spaces tap into another aspect of the role: sociology. This can apply to both humans and non-humans, but in order for a space to be truly functional, it has to both work mechanically, but also be something that the structure's inhabitants will use and feel comfortable using. There's a lot that can be read into making spaces for humans and non-humans, but there's no denying this sense of the structure as a social space is key to success.
And finally, while less about any specific project, having a group of people working to create efficient structures allows for the building out of environment friendly policies and procedures for any project. This coupled with the role being a highly regulated job throughout most of the world introduces a wonderful spot in the architecture process to start adopting more Earth-friendly building requirements. Having this group advocate and require these policies puts a readily accessible stop gap in place for potentially harmful building practices. In all parts of the world, organizations for landscape architecture are advocates for legislation toward environmentally-conscious procedures across all projects.
So next time you may wonder about ways in which you can help make the Earth a better place, consider the array of options that are out there. One doesn't have to want to go strictly into a scientific field to help the planet. In the case of landscape architecture, you can put your project management and communication skills to the test while potentially filling an artistic design-shaped hole in your heart. Finding a way to use your aspirations and talents in a environmentally friendly way may well just be an exercise for your imagination.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
* American Society of Landscape Architects
* Interview on Designing for Human and Non-Human Space
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