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Landscape Architects as Advocates for Culture-Based Sustainable Development

By Patricia M. O'Donnell

This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. LAF asked a diverse group of leading minds to write a “Declaration” reflecting on the last half century and offering bold ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time.

Patricia M. O'Donnell

Founder, Heritage Landscapes LLC

Charlotte, Vermont

Patricia M. O'Donnell, landscape architect and planner, founded Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Planners and Landscape Architects in 1987; the firm is dedicated to a vibrant future for communities and cultural landscapes. O'Donnell holds masters' degrees in landscape architecture and urban planning.

*Affiliation at the time of the Summit

Landscape Architects as Advocates for Culture-Based Sustainable Development

by Patricia O'Donnell

For the New Landscape Declaration, I seek to provide a global context, motivation, and avenues for our collective actions toward a hopeful, equitable future. For three decades, I have participated on the front lines, with national and global colleagues, addressing cultural landscapes and urban landscape heritage. These experiences have revealed a key truth: you must show up and speak effectively to contribute.

Six colleagues authored the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s 1966 Declaration of Concern focusing on environmental concerns and the future of our profession. Times change, and today’s complex concerns pose a multitude of challenges and the skill sets of landscape architects can contribute to solutions.

Sustainability—a larger construct integrating society, economy, and environment—emerged in Our Common Future (WCED, 1987). Landscape architects have both embraced and disdained sustainability, with work that integrates these aspects or work that, obsessed with form and aesthetics, emphasizes alternate values and marginalizes our impact. The record reveals that we missed opportunities in the 1990s to demonstrate the relevance of our profession to the earth and humanity.

I recall a global rumble rising at the millennium, and in response, world leaders agreed to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Those eight goals addressed poverty, hunger, gender equality, health, environment, and development with an emphasis on human capital, infrastructure, and human rights. The MDGs received limited interest from landscape architects.

A global foment about starchitecture and heritage collided in Vienna in 2005. As the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) Americas’ representative, I spoke about defining urban landscape character and features, noting that half of city space was landscape (52 percent of Vienna, 56 percent of Washington, DC). My contributions and those of colleagues to this global dialogue led to the adoption of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) in 2011. HUL stressed that heritage and development are potentially mutually supportive, fostering social cohesion and quality of urban living. HUL tool groups (community engagement, knowledge and planning, regulatory systems, and finance) are being broadly applied, and landscape architects can benefit from partnering to activate them effectively.

A parallel movement recognizes intertwined culture and nature. As the 2015 IUCN/ICOMOS1 Connecting Practices initiative and a growing body of literature have expressed, we must acknowledge the inseparability of culture and nature to survive. Humanity needs nature.

The millennium rumble has built to a roar with widespread opportunities to contribute. Embracing complex pervasive issues, the United Nations created, through an open two-year process, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), adopted by 193 sovereign states on September 25, 2015. Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development lays out 17 goals with 169 targets to guide nations toward patterns of development that favor diverse life on Earth. This transformational agenda is impressive because “never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavor across such a broad and universal policy agenda.” In parallel, the climate change forum at COP 21—the 2015 Paris Climate Conference—led to a promising global climate agreement.

Why should landscape architects engage in achieving the UN SDGs? Landscape architecture skills foster inclusive processes, partnering, and innovation that can rise to these massive challenges. The UN SDGs agreed on a worldwide framework, a complex global platform of goals and targets. If landscape architects take this framework seriously and partner to achieve the global 2030 agenda, we can make meaningful contributions to the momentum toward a sustainable future.

Which of the UN SDGs are relevant to landscape architects? A landscape architect might focus initially on Goal 13—Climate Action, Goal 14—Life Below Water, and Goal 15—Life on Land, as all are relevant. Digging deeper, the goals and specific targets reveal a multitude of ways to contribute individually with clients, teams, civic leaders, community partners, and collectively through professional organizations, leadership, and advocacy. For example, in Goal 1—No Poverty, the World Bank cites a veritable tidal wave of urban in-migration: five million people monthly seek an elusive better life, outpacing sustainable growth, increasing poverty, disparity, and inequality. Research and observation verify that few trees are found in disadvantaged neighborhoods. What can we do? Plant trees in poorer areas to build community wealth and advance social justice.

Goal 2—Zero Hunger is a key benchmark, as 800 million people go hungry every day. The targets address food security, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture with initiatives in urban agriculture, soil remediation, and market spaces as contributions. Goal 3—Good Health and Well-Being offers target 3.6 to “halve the number of global deaths and injuries for road traffic accidents.” Landscape architects design better intersections, complete streets, and multimodal corridors. For Goal 4—Quality Education, we can serve as informants and advocates for sustainability and resilience. Targets 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6 of Goal 6—Clean Water and Sanitation address protecting water resources, counteracting pollution, and restoring water-related ecosystems, all things we already do. Goal 7—Affordable Clean Energy focuses on renewable energy, where landscape architects can contribute to siting and impact assessment. Goal 8—Decent Work and Economic Growth seeks to strategically “decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.” For example, employment could spring from public spaces as we adapt and shape them anew.

Goal 11—Sustainable Cities and Communities addresses housing, transportation, planning, safeguarding cultural and natural heritage, provision of public space, and reducing disaster impact and environmental degradation. Target 11.7 seeks to “provide universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces,” engaging the urban commonwealth of public spaces. Accessible open spaces offer economic, environmental, and social benefits as cultural assets today and a legacy to the unborn. We can elevate public spaces.

Goal 16—Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions and Goal 17—Partnerships for the Goals offer pivotal constructs for progress. In this urban century, recall Jane Jacobs’ words that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Landscape architects must collaborate in shaping policy, planning, building, and setting new standards. The World Urban Campaign, Habitat III, and the 2030 Agenda await. Join me there.

Let’s get to work, as President Barack Obama challenged us in his speech at COP 21, Paris, 2015

1. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) published a report, “Connecting Practice,” in 2015 that aims to explore and create new methods of recognition and support for the interconnected character of the natural, cultural, and social value of highly significant land and seascapes.

LAF is grateful to the many individuals and organizations that provide financial support towards fulfilling our mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment.

Much of what LAF is able to accomplish would not be possible without the thought leadership and financial investment of our major supporters, including ASLA, which provides over $125,000 of in-kind support annually.