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.