Last week a new voice joined the on-line conversation about landscape architecture, urbanism and design. The brainchild of Sarah Kathleen Peck, the new website landscapeurbanism.com is the result of the collaborative efforts of a small group of designers from around the country. Part on-line publication, part blog, the site has several components features forums, strategies, and issue one—a collection of essays, articles and projects by people around the world investigating the ideas, definitions, and theories of landscape urbanism. Topophilia caught up with Sarah and had a few words with her about the genesis of the site and hopes for how it might impact the ongoing conversation about landscape urbanism.
What was the impetus for starting landscapeurbanism.com (LU.com)?
As a graduate student, I studied both planning and landscape architecture — and I wanted to understand how these two disciplines fit together, and why they were so consistently held apart as two separate and tidy disciplines). Design and policy seemed like two ways to figure out the same puzzle — making better places to live; understanding context; creating parameters that inform our decision-making for long-term processes. At the end of the day, I'm interested in why we live where we do, and how these environments affect our health, happiness, and behavior. I'm interested in why our cities are the way that they are, and what possibilities we can create with design at a large-scale in the future.
Could you tell us a bit about the development process you went through in putting together LU.com?
I'm still amazed at how it all happened. The project started as an idea — an inking, if you will, while I was still a graduate student. I was just beginning to design websites and learn about landscape architecture, and at the time I went to school — 2006 — Charles Waldheim had just published the Landscape Urbanism Reader and I was influenced by the leadership of Jim Corner, Laurie Olin, and Lucinda Sanders. Yet I struggled to understand the term “landscape urbanism” and what to do with it. I was particularly frustrated that something I found so obvious, so intuitive — that cities are designed, that ecological processes exist no matter if you channel streams into concrete culverts or alternatively allow for more natural river sweeps across a larger area — was yet so difficult to explain. I don't think what we do is all that complicated. Is it interesting? Absolutely. Important? Fundamentally. And yet, as designers, we often struggle with communicating our ideas and intentions; at telling the story in a larger, more meaningful way And if we can't talk about what we do, and talk about it effectively — well, to me, that's a huge lost opportunity.
Rather than try to talk about what we do in the same way, to the same people, I began thinking: how can we tell our story differently? How do we tell the story of landscape architecture, of cities, in a new way, a way that makes sense to more people?
And in conversations — from joining twitter, to meeting people at tech parties, to dabbling in the start-up scenes, and exploring areas beyond our field — I've found that architecture and landscape architecture and cities are topics that garner lots of debate and intrigue from nearly everyone. It makes sense, right? We all live in and use cities. We are thrust into landscapes, whether we acknowledge it or not. People adore parks – and yet there is a disconnect between using them and understanding where they come from. We are united by a common locational existence — a sense of place. I've not had one boring conversation about the field. In fact, isn't it true (I must have read this somewhere) that a larger percentage of people want to become architects as one of their career choices? I think it's in the top 5 – but, of course, I could be making that up. And then, for some reason, these same people go to school and don't end up becoming architects or designers; from the field of people that do pursue design –well, something like fewer than 10% of people who get through studying architecture actually become tried-and-true architects. Why does that happen? Why do we find this so interesting, and then see such drop-out rates later on?
I bring this up because I think that in both our educational process and our design process, we’ve lost the public somewhere along the way. We have people who admire architecture, who enjoy parks, but can’t tell you how and why things turned out the way that we did. Why does this happen? In the education realm, are we losing an untapped field of talent that’s turning towards other disciplines? In the practicing world of landscape architecture, are we doing our best work? These aren’t questions that I profess to have answers to just yet – and perhaps I never will.
I read a book, called "Blue Ocean Strategy," that talks about finding new oceans (markets) for your business, rather than all competing in the same tide pool for the same niche projects. I want to think bigger about landscape architecture. Who needs us, but doesn't know it? What projects and connections should we or can we be making on a larger scale?
But I'm getting ahead of myself, distracted again. Your question was about the development of this project. Over the past year or two, the project started as an idea and slowly grew into a team of designers, schools, and students. In 2010, I finished the first part of my research, a project in communications and landscape architecture that stemmed from an employee fellowship program at SWA Group, an annual program that allows employees to take up to four weeks to study a project of their choosing. After I finished the research project, I reached out to colleagues and friends and began building a network of people interested in the idea of building a website about landscape architecture. The response was overwhelmingly positive. I found that quite a lot of people, like me, were very interested in these ideas of landscape urbanism and how to disseminate them.
The editorial team – today we have 13 outstanding individuals, who are advising, creating, and helping think through ideas and possibilities for this project. Designing a website — like designing a city — is not a sole endeavor. We've had lots of late meetings, endless working weekends, and for a short time I went out to New York to kick start this project. Just this past month, one of our editors, Eliza Valk, came out to San Francisco to help figure out this project and push it forward – we could not have done this project without everyone on the team. Each person, in turn, has reached out to their school networks and colleagues and firms, and over the past year, we've built a project that collects ideas across multiple binaries: firms and individuals. Students and professionals. Landscape and urbanism.
Aside from it’s existence, is there a feature of the website that you are particularly fond or proud of?
We had a vision, and we put it on a piece of paper in late 2010: to build a website for and about landscape and urbanism. In particular, we said that we wanted to create a space for collaboration, communication, and dialogue about what it means to design cities. We talked about featuring work, collaborating with writers around the globe, and having a team of bloggers — and we've done that. We created it.
The project, however, is really just starting. It’s a big effort to get an idea from concept to production; from production, in turn, to reality – but we’re not really done with the project. Landscape architecture sites and websites are probably two disciplines that are constantly in need of maintenance (and rarely accounted for)! But what we’ve done is set the stage nicely for building a library of projects; for building a collection of articles as an online resource, and started forums and blogs that engage readers.
How do you imagine LU.com will engage non-designers in the conversation about design and urban environments?
This will be an ongoing challenge. As designers and landscape architects, we often speak to ourselves, to our peers — rather than communicate with the people who are educators, clients, or individuals beyond our firm. The first issue is still quite theoretical – and I wonder if it’s accessible or confusing to the non-designer. My aim is to have something that's useful for designers, but accessible also beyond non-designers. I think your idea, Kira, to create an issue that features non-designers in particular – is a fantastic idea. I think we still need to aim to achieve a means of communicating to a broader range of people, and I'll be watching the comments and getting feedback from the issue one and our launch to learn what we can do better and how we can improve.