Sunday, April 15, 2012

Object Lesson: Territorialization

[from The Green Intifada, multiple landscape strategies of territorialization are at work here]

Palestinian land owners are planting olivetrees in the West Bank.  This is not only an ecological project aimed at soil conservation and an economic effort intended to increase agricultural production, but also a political strategy intended to resist occupation.  Over at the Atlantic, Anna Van Hollen writes:

On one of the world's most bitterly contested pieces of land, natural resources have long played a central role. Together with water and mining rights, the right to one's trees and the fruit that they bear has come to be inseparably linked to the political struggle at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This project reminds us of another, highlighted over on mammoth a few years ago, that showed how new farming practices on the Sahel (or, more appropriately, recovered farming practices) are leading to increased crop yields through Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration strategies.  Throughout the region farmers are recovering and adapting the techniques, lost during colonialism and the resource-intensive green revolution, to cultivate and manage the native trees that seed themselves in their fields.  These trees then shade the crops, reducing the need for water, and their root systems aid with rainwater percolation and soil conservation.  The biomass they produce can be used as a small- scale fuel source and they provide habitat for rabbits and other animals.  The strategy is a sort of lo-fi landscape practice which stands in stark contrast to the resource intensive and technocratic green revolution, with it’s emphasis on foreign capital, fertilizers, and engineered materials seeds.  Scientific American notes a local bureaucrat:

"Before this trip, I always thought about what external inputs were required to increase food production," Gabriel Coulibaly said at a debriefing session after our fact-finding expedition. Coulibaly, a Malian who worked as a consultant to the European Union and other international organizations, added, "But now I see that farmers can create solutions themselves, and that is what will make those solutions sustainable. Farmers manage this technology, so no one can take it away from them."

["zai" or "tassa" (water pockets) are a traditional Sahel farming practice and consists of creating holes .2- .4m diameter wide and .1- .25m deep; these are then filled with two handfulls of organic material such as crop residue, manure, or compost; tree seedlings that take root in these fields are often then cultivated in addition to sown grains]

This is not to say that the material strategies of genetic manipulation, industrial fertilizer application, or capital investment has no place, but only to assert that they do have a politics.  In the context of the Sahel, this lo-fi form of landscape practice might be seen as a method of territorialization offering direct resistance against the institutions that control foreign capital and technology.  What is more, when combined with the Green Belt Project, formerly lead by the late ecofeminist Wangari Maathai, it is a landscape practice resisting occupation on a geological scale by pushing back against the expanding Sahara Desert through setting new bounds and establishing methods of control and maintenance within that territory.  These are lessons worth taking not only for the ethical implications and to stand in critique to the practitioners merrily putting public parks all over our cultural heritage, but because of the possibilities for new forms and types of landscapes that might arise.

As we’ve discussed here before, this act of territorialization is fundamental to landscape practice and can take many forms- from 17th century English surveying techniques to planting trees in the West Bank to clearing an old warehouse district and putting in a waterfront park in St. Louis.  Despite the admonishments of Foucault it seems that in landscape architectural practice we rarely consider the act of territorialization as a profound and fundamental facet of landscape design.  Instead, as Timothy Morton has hinted, we limit ourselves to a historicized aestheticism, preferring to grapple mainly with certain visual effects of this facet of our practice.  This is too bad because as the Palestinian effort to replant olive groves in the West Bank shows, within landscape practice the assertive act of territorialization- whether through aggression or resistance- is not just political, it’s ontological.

[91 acres of some of the oldest and most important building on the Mississippi River in St. Louis were cleared in 1942 to make way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; at the beginning of the demolition project Bernard Dickmann, the mayor at the time, said "it is with mingled feelings of pride and reverence that we gather here today"; the act of landscape making here was fundamentally and aggressive act of territorialization by a federal bureaucracy; it's effects were spectacular and somewhat devastating]

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Wider Horizons of the American Landscape

We often use this space to explore ideas about the Pan American landscape, or more accurately we use it to engage in all sorts of pedantry and demagoguery meant to shoulder open the great iron door that is rusted shut, supposedly severing the North American landscape from that in the South.  We won’t go into all of our usual tricks today but instead thought we would present some initial results of some analysis and research we been doing in an attempt to construct a theory of the Pan- American Landscape.  This research is still very much in a larval state but we wanted to put it out there and see what came back.  If, by chance, you are interested in helping with this project, collaborating and sharing ideas, or want to destroy anything I’m suggesting here, I welcome your emails at faslanyc[at]

[the Parana River delta, near Buenos Aires, Argentina]

In her essay “SituatingModern Landscape Architecture” Elizabeth Meyer establishes theory as a mediating and reconciling practice that is a bridge between seemingly disparate situations.  This work shown here is the beginning of an attempt to construct a theory of the Pan-American landscape.  Here you will find the initial findings of a broad comparative analysis meant to suggest that a radical reframing of the American landscape is not only possible, but offers great opportunities for significant discoveries within the pedagogy and practice of landscape architecture in the United States.
[Landscape studies within the United States have traditionally been oriented along a horizontal axis.  This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of our theory, historical precedent, philosophical approaches, and travel opportunities have been drawn from or aimed at the European landscape.  In recent generations this horizontal axis has been further extended with an eye toward China and India.  The effect of this is that our discipline is interpreted through a northern and European lens.  This is not a bad thing and there are very real reasons for this tendency.  However, the over-reliance on this horizontal axis is limiting, and we might build a stronger, more appropriate, and more variegated praxis by developing a theory of the Pan-American landscape.]

[Hemispheric studies is a body of work that considers the Americas “as a broad system of exchange, movement, and influence.”  More specifically it “examines the overlapping and dynamic geographies and cross-filliations between peoples, regions, and nations of the American hemisphere.”  This approach offers the conceptual tools for more textured and appropriate interpretations of the political-economic context of the American landscape.  Some of these include an emphasis on difference, modernity, post-colonialism, challenges to dominant cultural modalities from within, and highlighting the cultural effects of endemic political and economic disparity.   This can be seen in the work of social theorists such as Mike Davis as well as Latin American philosophers including Enrique Dusserl and Walter Mignolo, for example.]

[The result of this theory will not be the eradication of traditional pedagogy but the opening of new lines of thinking and action along a vertical axis.  The next few images show the results of some quantitative analysis comparing the European, North American, and South American landscape.  For this analysis, Europe is taken to include all of the countries of the European continent except for Russia.  The analysis presented is synthesized with a low-level of resolution, meant to suggest starting points for an understanding of larger patterns that point to the development of an authentically Pan-American landscape theory.]

[The populations of the three continents are similar, ranging from 400-600 million, with Europe as the most populous.]

[The land area of the three continents is not similar.  Here, North and South America compare favorably, but Europe is much smaller; 1/4 the size of North America and 1/3 the size of South America.]

[Combining the results of the previous two slides shows that the populations of North and South America are almost exactly equal in density- 56 and 57 people per square mile.  Europe’s density is nearly five times as high.]

[When we map the world’s 30 largest metropolitan areas, an even starker contrast is rendered.  Despite having a much higher density Europe has only 2 of the world’s 30 largest cities.  In the Americas there are 9 and they are relatively evenly distributed geographically. This has ramifications for the planning and design professions and calls in to question European models of urbanism and landscape design so frequently cited.  For instance regional high speed networks, or the design of metropolitan landscape types may not translate to a situation where settlement patterns are so heterogeneous and exaggerated.]

[If we start to analyze those same populations for wealth and income disparity we find a rather surprising result.  Using the Gini coefficient to analyze each nation according to income difference the United States falls in line with the general pattern seen throughout the Americas- it is a place of massive income disparity.  Europe is once again a smaller more homogeneous block.  The implications of this are potentially wide ranging, but it is clear that we are talking about a fundamentally different political-economic context in which projects are conceived of, funded, and executed.  If we organize this data into a list from greatest disparity to least and color code it, with American nations in red and European nations in blue, the difference is stark indeed.]

[An analysis of the some of the geological and hydrological characteristics yields similar results.  A point of reference here is the Mississippi River, which has rightly always been the object of much study, and even more so since 2005.  A comparison of the world’s 35 largest rivers according to drainage basin size shows 9 river systems scattered throughout the Americas and only one in Europe; the Danube at number 29.]

[Looking at the rivers carrying the largest sediment load shows the Amazon in a class by itself, 3 other South American rivers at a scale similar to the Mississippi, and 9 total American rivers in the top 30.  The Danube is again the only European river that registers.]

[Not surprisingly, a quantitative analysis of flow rate reveals the same pattern.]

[Moving to topographic difference, by using prominence theory to localize elevations and evaluate topographic change in the landscape we can see both North and South America are a series of regionally exaggerated topographic conditions, whereas Europe is a relatively uniform topography at a smaller scale.]

This quantitative analysis of social, geological, and hydrological patterns at a continental scale not only suggests a fundamental difference in the environmental and political-economic conditions between Europe and North America- an idea echoed by politicians, poets, and painters for centuries now- it also suggests some striking similarities between North and South America.  This analysis completely excludes any ethnographic analysis.  We want to mention that this is because limitations of time, not because of a lack of relevance.  Going on a hunch, it is easy to imagine that when historical and contemporary analysis is folded in the differences with Europe and the Pan-American similarities will be ever more striking.  One need only consider the number and variety (some are nasty, some are perjorative, many imply violence) for racial mixing in the Americas such as creole, mestizo, Acadian, criollo, mulatto.  Or consider evidence such as the mere possibility of German Chancellor Angela Merkl to declare that “multiculturalism has utterly failed” (and its impossibility here) to guess at the implications of the ethnographic research.

This analysis points to a theory of the larger American landscape that will have direct implications for some of the exciting work that is already underway and has been for some time.  Much exciting work on the American landscape is already begun by individual practitioners and academics, including Ethan Carr and his work on national parks, James Corner and Alex MacLean’s study of the effects of technology and policy in shaping the North American landscape, Camilo Restrepo’s work on urban projects as a catalyst for social justice in Medellin, Colombia, or Anita Berrezbeita seeking to contextualize the work of Roberto Burle Marx. 

What we are lacking is a theory of the Pan-American landscape that can situate these lines of research, bodies of knowledge, and built works in powerful relation to one another.  By incorporating hemispheric studies into our landscape pedagogy, we might construct a lens able to take in wider horizons of the American landscape and open up a whole range of concepts, ideas, forms, and techniques that are awaiting discovery.

Much of this research was initially presented last week at the 2012 Council for Educators in Landscape Architecture Conference in Champaign, Illinois.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Landscape Forensics Lab

[a forensic mapping of the Exolgan logistics depot along the Riachuelo Canal in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the image is a composite of google aerial photos over 10 years- areas that are blurry have been subject to more structural movement; areas in blue are 2001 structures- including roads and sand piles; yellow are 2005 structures; red are 2010 structures; it becomes clear that a new path has developed crossing the highway in the top right corner, likely due to the new housing by the highway; the central area has largely fallen in to disuse, with the blue/yellow building to the right being deconstructed and the boat loading ramp falling in to disuse; this means that the luffing cranes are now standing idle, with informal paths now crossing to the newly paved tow path road]

Recently we were driving through Indiana in our Volvo station wagon munching on some granola and listening to NPR when we heard a short bit about one of our favorite subjects- landscape archeology.  The piece highlighted the work of Harvard urban archeologist Jason Ur and the work he is doing pairing high resolution declassified spy satellite photos with powerful image recognition software to identify sites where soil has been disturbed according to patterns consistent with sites of human occupation.  He then uses a powerful computer algorithm that is able to pinpoint the locations of likely sites of ancient inhabitation for a given photographed landscape through extremely close pattern analysis.  The computer algorithm is more accurate by an order of magnitude than the traditional method of gridding off a plot and traipsing through the field. 

And that gets us thinking.  A landscape architect should open up shop as a landscape forensics lab.  Forensics in this case wouldn’t be limited solely to the realm of legal arguments- although that is being done in fascinating ways- but rather would be the methods and techniques used to reconstruct highly specific evidence for argumentation reinforcing some position.  Built on the landscape architectural tradition of close and detailed site readings, and relying heavily on the excellent Archeology of Garden and Field, this lab would also incorporate radical new methods:  balloon aerial mappings allowing for specific high resolution aerial maps of contested terrains in change, D.I.R.T. Studio’s deductive mappings of generalized industrial processes onto historical Sanborn maps, F.A.D.’s 1-to-1 scale mappings with genetically engineered seeds designed to sprout purple in the presence of chromium, or composite photographs showing the accretion and removal of structures, machines, and landforms. 

[change in the confined disposal facility "yarara" in the Port Dock Sud at the mouth of the Riachuelo on the edge of the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the growth of the facility over time- from yellow to blue to red to green- is at times informal, insecure, and insufficient for the storage of contaminated materials]

Application of these techniques would allow for the recreation of highly specific places and open up new, actionable lines of work- rather than basing our designs off the topographic survey, we might draw from a host of highly specific documents, deftly deploying novel methods for each project, and demonstrating through a robust practice how we might understand Graham Harman when he states that time is always reversible… but space never is.

In some ways this is not new- each landscape project has always relied on a number of documents (site photos, building codes, master plans, soil borings), and many of a smaller scale do not even use a topographic survey.  However, the ability to develop and deploy a wide range of forensic techniques within the economic constraints of a project budget might be something we are capable of, but it not something we actively pursue.  If we did, one could imagine resultant project documents taking the shape of field manuals, or field work in the form of installing simple monitors and robots with algorithmic scripts that continually construct the landscape.  Instead of paying for expensive topographic surveys of entire sites, the grids might be localized, with the money saved going to aerial and deductive mappings and historical research, the construction of digital and analog models as well as speculative seedings.  Imagining a career of analyzing, collecting, building, and tracing, little kids might grow up deciding between Indiana Jones or Roberto Burle Marx.  Okay, that’s a bit much.  But we are interested in the ways that landscape practice might expand, and the adoption and continued development of forensic techniques points and exciting way forward.