Land AS: conflicting definitions of land – and disciplinary relations to it – in landscape architecture
– Julian Raxworthy
As its name would suggest, landscape architecture has, by definition, a relationship to land. This relationship varies between the prosaic – as a “steward” of the land – and the pragmatic – as a designer of it. However, while it often views land broadly in landscape planning and landscape ecological terms, its real agency is limited by a factor that it rarely considers: land tenure. The contradiction between large-scale ecological functioning and the limitations of the building lot is the basis for this paper.
Reflecting broader societal conceptions of land, inflected by the way the discipline operates, in this paper I work through a series of conceptions of “land” for landscape architecture: Land AS Boundary; Land AS Pattern; Land AS Surface, and Land AS Depth. In doing so, I seek to demonstrate how each of these geometric descriptors sits within the frame of land tenure and larger land-management practices, generally in ways that contradict the values of the discipline. Ultimately, I conclude by proposing changes in both practice and future areas of theorization about the relationship between landscape architecture and land tenure specifically, toward which I aim to contribute.
In his book Land and the Given Economy: The hermeneutics and phenomenology of dwelling, Todd Mei offers a basic philosophical proposition which, while seeming like plain common sense, also has profound implications: “the philosophical conception of land is logically prior to the economic conception of land”1. This statement is profound because society, and its laws, think about land in the opposite way: that land is first and foremost about ownership. But, as Mei logically points out, if it is owned, it must have pre-existed ownership, which must give it some level of autonomy. However, the dominant ways of thinking about land deny this, and in this paper I explore a number of these conceptions: Land AS Boundary; Land AS Pattern; Land AS Surface; Land AS Depth.
As I am a landscape architect with an interest in urban design, I shall maintain a disciplinary focus on landscape architecture that nonetheless has broader implications, because the discipline seeks to speak for land as landscape, in a general way, as part of its self-identified ethic of stewardship2. As I shall demonstrate, this is a fraught position for the discipline because of the way it operates as a service-based practice in the frame of capitalism, which brings its own foundational contradictions for landscape architecture.
Richard Weller notes that “in landscape architectural discourse since [mid-to-late-twentieth-century landscape architect and ecologist Ian] McHarg, [stewardship] means to oversee the large scale relations between natural and cultural systems”3, arguing that this should continue in the twenty-first century, so that “the world should come to know [stewardship] simply as the increasingly broad and important practice of landscape architecture”4. Weller’s modus operandi for how the discipline would exercise this stewardship role is for landscape architecture to operate as an “art of instrumentality”, a concept he has developed extensively5.
I argue that the model of the steward in relation to the subject they steward – in this case, the earth or land – is metaphorically like that of the shepherd, who occupies a superior position to their flock. While the shepherd looks after their flock, they do so for their own gain. As for Weller’s steward, for the shepherd the flock is an instrument: of food, of economy. The truism “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them” (putatively ascribed to Albert Einstein6) seems relevant here, since—despite his ecological arguments to support his model of the steward—climate change, and the ecological catastrophe that Earth is facing, result from the kind of “instrumental” approach that Weller is advocating. Mei’s reminder about land preceding economy is pertinent here, because it emphasizes that we are reliant on the land, rather than the other way around, as the steward model would suggest.
In what follows, I consider how land features in landscape architecture in the conceptions of land “AS” something that I outline, where the role of land is either primary or secondary. While some of these conceptions are much broader than landscape architecture, I will show for each how they inflect, and are inflected by, the discipline, and how the relationship between steward and subject changes on this basis. Ultimately, I will argue that landscape architecture is fundamentally limited in its ability to be such a steward (even as I show why this is the wrong term) because of its relationship to a capital-based view of land that is “instrumental”.
I will work through the implications of tenure for this stewardship model, showing how a property-based focus limits the discipline’s broader desire to adopt a global focus, moving from the abstract notion of title to what title and cadaster do on specific sites, speculating on effects that arise from sites to the city as a whole, thereby showing how practical the implications of this philosophical position are. Through a simple example, I shall show how land tenure creates problems for climate-change mitigation, and thereby jeopardizes landscape architecture’s characterization of its stewardship role, as a synthesis of the overall argument of this paper.
Land AS Boundary
If we return to Mei, there is very little “being” in this conception of land, which is revealed here as the geometric definition of a contract; and indeed, as Chalmers notes: “when lawyers talk about property, they are usually talking about the rights that people have to things, rather than the things themselves”10. That land-as-property is inherently based on capital and capitalism is demonstrated by its transactional, and thereby financial, nature: “at its widest, property means any right that can be transferred from one person to another”11.
Viewed from this perspective, despite the focus on “site” in landscape architecture, land remains abstract, and based on accuracy of the boundary for the sake of the transaction. For Cole and Wilson, a “good boundary” has two features: it should be permanent, and it should be unambiguously recognizable and locatable. Neither of these qualities clearly denotes land, though the features that the boundary might relate to in all but the last type do: “natural objects [‘the mean high water mark of a stream’, or a ‘line between two prominent trees’ for example], man-made objects [‘a line along a ditch or a roadway’] and legal or mathematical entities [‘lines between points defined by geographic… coordinates’]”12.
In the history of Western property law, “natural objects”, the materiality of site, has played a part. Although it was still based on a transaction, the Roman law of res, upon which contemporary property law is based, did have a specific, physical relationship to place (or site) because the seller was required to touch the land, or hold a handful of soil, and swear that they were its owner13. Colonial surveys also often used “monuments” that were natural for orientation (like Cole and Wilson’s “natural objects”), though colonial surveyors were responsible for “ordering an ‘irregular’ landscape”14. Reordering is vital to Cole and Wilson’s central criteria for a “good boundary” of permanence, since the irregularity of nature manifest in the inherent changeability of natural materials makes “natural objects” or “monuments” unreliable in the long term. This also explains why a desire to meet the other good boundary criteria of “unambiguity” and “recognizability” has led to a reliance on Cole and Wilson’s third type of feature, “legal or mathematic entities”, through the use of digital georeferencing in contemporary cadastral surveying, for example. In this process, “features” that relate to the specific site, to its “being”, are lost, with specificity registered only as an artefact of technology, where only the z elevation value of a boundary corner point registers true site-specificity, the other x & y co-ordinates remaining abstract and related to the larger mapping system. With x, y and z co-ordinates on each corner, the boundary is revealed as an abstract polygon stretched across a topological surface.
In considering “Land AS Boundary” I have demonstrated that, as Burns and Kahn argue, there is very little of Mei’s “being” in the notion of site, because the process of establishing its nature is focused on its definition for ownership, and therefore on financial considerations. There are more “sensitive” approaches to site, such as Christophe Girot’s “trace concepts” like “landing”, where one becomes super-sensitive to one’s intuition during the initial visit15. However, the site boundary is not absent in such sensitive site readings: one still enters a site that is shaped by its boundary, through an urban fabric composed of boundaries.
Land AS Pattern
In Design with Nature, Corner’s teacher Ian McHarg set out a method, an “integrative science” with “diagnostic and prescriptive powers”17, that “… in essence … consists of identifying the areas of concern as consisting of certain processes, in land, water and air – which represent values. These can be ranked – the most valuable land and the least. … The method requires that we obtain the most benefit for the least cost but that we include as values social process, natural resources and beauty”18. The result of McHarg’s analysis was revealed in maps viewed “through transparencies – like light shining through a stained-glass window”19.
Between teaching and professional cases, McHarg interspersed evocative examples that cast nature as a dynamic process and the human as a static form, showing how the former wreaks havoc with the latter. In each case, consistent with the book’s title, McHarg demonstrated with a flourish how consideration of ecology in development can mitigate, and even enhance, natural forces. In his heavy rhetoric he mourned how, in a rural setting, “the farmer sells land rather than crops”20, and talked about modern artefacts like freeways and industry as concrete geometry, yet throughout, land tenure was implicit but ignored in everything described: a priori but presumably just a fact of life.
Although McHarg’s own authorship or innovation of the “McHargian method” using overlays analysis is contested21, it has become implicit in landscape ecology, which is generally based on looking for patterns in the landscape, as Richard T. T. Forman does in Land Mosaics, its title describing how “from an airplane, land almost always appears as a mosaic”22. For Forman, three “mechanisms” contribute to the mosaic pattern: 1. “substrate heterogeneity”, the result of geological and soil effects; 2. “natural disturbance” like fires, etc., and 3. “human activity”. While Forman does suggest that human activity creates his patch-corridor-matrix model, from activities like “plowing fields, cutting woodlots, and building roads”, land tenure is not explicitly recognized as the origin of this pattern, since his overall argument is that “mosaic patterns are found at all spatial scales”, the underlying cause being that “a land mosaic is directly dependent on thermodynamically open conditions, with solar energy creating and maintaining structure”23. By including property boundaries in the list of things affected by the laws of thermodynamics, land as ownership, and thereby capitalism, is naturalized, just another factor corresponding to the pattern-finding human view.
That landscape pattern is as much an emergent quality of capitalism as it is of propensities of landscape is evident in the discipline of “urban morphology”. Although it is generally viewed as a subset of architectural urban design, when Holden and Liversedge argue that “the land is a document”, in which landscape architects should be able to “‘read’ the landscape and understand the cultural forces that have influenced its formation”, they are essentially referring to urban morphology, “the existing patterns of land ownership that have been reorganized for economic, social and political reasons”24.
Crucial for my argument here, however, is that although land tenure boundaries are drawn as patterns, the implications of land tenure are not properly considered in either McHarg’s or Forman’s method, nor in their later operationalization in the contemporary landscape architecture theory I shall discuss in the next section, because the “gaze” of the map is assumed to have powers of action, simply through seeing; as Corner says: “Mapping is always already a project in the making”25. This conviction – that land is a pattern being seen objectively for the first time – arises from the context of the Modernism in which McHarg practiced and continues today in Forman’s work. The McHargian method is informed by the revolution of scientific objectivity since the Enlightenment, which later came to design as Modernism. The convergence of science and design was seen to act as a removal of subjectivity from design, and this is particularly true for “landscape planning”, of which McHarg’s and Forman’s work forms a part, the latter part of its next iteration: “landscape ecology”. While there is a definite empiricism to mapping in these sub-disciplines, their relationship to landscape architecture implicates them in design, where the subjective will always play a part. This subjectivity is minimized for McHarg by the “defensibility” of the process, and its representation of the world as found. In showing how landscape planning sees “land as pattern” but ignores what this pattern really is, I am arguing that the irksome practical difficulties of working across property boundaries are subsumed to the map’s gaze, graphic contiguity implying seamless continuity of action.
Land AS Surface
The catchment (also called the basin or the watershed) is “basic to hydrological thinking”27 and widely regarded as the fundamental ecological and land management unit. The catchment comprises a dynamic relationship between topography and hydrology, land and water, that is first and foremost geological. Geological material has certain subterranean forms due to a combination of geological action and its material nature, which interact with the meteorological factors that cause it to weather, including air and water. This action causes the creation of topography, the ridges of which define the valley that is the extent of the catchment, the area where “all rainfall … drains naturally … or is directed to by human intervention towards … the catchment outlet”28. The origin of “catchment” as a hydrological term implies land as a two-dimensional surface, but its influence extends deeper than surface water issues, since gravity generally causes eroded soil to move downwards, and topography affects both weather and microclimate, as well as species distribution.
As a unit, the catchment has two paradoxical properties that cause issues with the landscape patterns of tenure: “natural processes result in the formation of a stable (at large scale) yet dynamic (at small scale) system bounded within physical (catchment) constraints”29. The stability of the large-scale system is the result of the long time frames of geological change, which moulds the underlying shape of the catchment; whereas the dynamism of the small-scale system results from the mobility of water and soil. This provides an inherent contradiction to using the catchment as a common-sense land management unit and tool, implicit in McHargian models, because the space of flux at the small scale is the same space of land tenure, since “land use and ownership are inconsistent across the landscape and do not necessarily map to natural boundaries such as those delineated by watershed and catchment boundaries, therefore water use is spatially and temporally variable”30. In terms of discussions of the formation of settlements, hydrology fundamentally shapes urbanization, both because it is easier to build over land than occupy spaces flooded by water, and because rivers and harbors have provided important transport in infrastructure. Construction techniques can be mobilized to build on quite diverse topographies, up to a point where the premium of cost for steep slopes becomes prohibitive: a factor mapped extensively by McHarg in his “capability” maps of land, using slope angle deduced from topography.
This contradiction between the unit of analysis – the catchment – with the gaze of the map (and its sense of agency through mapping), and the creation of boundaries by land tenure represents a key dysfunction in landscape architecture’s self-image: that it is a steward of all land, operating geographically, but that it always operates only on sites defined by land tenure. This contradiction has significant implications, which I will spell out in the next section.
Land AS Depth
Together with its partners, architecture, planning, and urban design,32 landscape architecture generally subscribes to a density-focused model of development, even while it also works largely in sprawling suburbia, which it passively also seeks to reform. Density describes how many people live somewhere per square hectare, where more/higher is generally regarded as better. High density is seen as a valuable aim of urbanism for a range of reasons, where the social, economic and environmental interact, including: reduction of car usage and greater public transport usage to reduce emissions; less isolation between people and greater public safety; higher urban diversity in the economy resulting in richer streetscapes; and greater housing affordability, amongst other issues.
By definition, “densification” makes an existing area more dense; it is an additive process, to land particularly. It considers land as a surface that has to accommodate as much building as possible. Density is also described in terms of FAR, or Floor Area Ratio: a ratio of floor area to the size of the housing site. Ratios greater than 1 imply a multistorey building. Because an existing site or lot, a land tenure unit, is being densified, what is called the “coverage” – the percentage of the site covered by building – increases, therefore the open soil area decreases. Since landscape and gardens are assumed to have therapeutic value for recreation, the necessity to punctuate density with green spaces is widely recognized, so densification is often accompanied by the creation of public spaces, including streets and parks, as well as lot- or site-based greening to offset the loss of landscape.
Unlike planning, which has disciplinary purview over multiple sites – and despite landscape architecture’s broad landscape interest – landscape architects provide services to a client, who has a particular site in mind: landscape architecture is a service industry, even if it wants to be a steward. Since it is part of what I refer to as “the density police”, or strident advocates for density, as well as being employed to “green” sites, a concrete example of the conflict between stewardship and site is instructive around the issue of “deep soil”33. While densification should produce affordable housing, and is aimed at higher public transport usage, in the Australian housing market car parking is a major value component for price. Since existing streets cannot take more parking, this is happening on individual sites, and more often than not takes the form of underground car parks. To mitigate this, podiums above car parks are provided with garden beds to ensure “greening”, the podium becoming essentially surrogate land.
A key issue here is that any real climate change effect needing mitigation – notably the heat island effect – will require land that is not just a surface for development, a certain area of potential coverage, but will also need to be deep. As heat increases, and is amplified in urban areas due to the heat island effect, tree canopy will be needed to provide localized shade; root depth is a limiting factor here, since podiums can hold only a certain amount of soil depth in planters, for both structural and configurative reasons. Furthermore, as temperature increases, even if soils are uncovered, they will dry out more, as will aquifers, which will also limit available water for trees. Without open soil, water will not be able to reach the aquifer and recharge it.
The creation of public open spaces by governments may be undertaken to provide recreation to more new urban property-owners who lack such resources on site. However, as I argued above, individual sites are required to scale up mitigation effects, since there is more private land than public land in cities. This is an example where land tenure and land ownership interfere with the wider functioning of land as catchment, a contradiction which is key to how landscape architecture satisfies its disciplinary ambitions of stewardship: Whom does it work for? The land, or its owner?
In this paper I have identified a series of conceptions of land AS something: boundary, pattern, surface, and depth. At the beginning I referred to Mei and his notion of the “being” of land, and it is clear that all the conceptions I have put forward are united by virtue of being geometric: about lines and mathematical descriptors. While I have used landscape architecture as a frame to my discussion of these conceptions, they reflect larger conceptions of land in society, and the fact that they are geometric is a key part of these societal conceptions: because they are quantitative in essence, which fits easily within the economic frame that Mei discusses, but also that of landscape design, where geometry is the mode of proposition and specification. As I tell students in landscape design studios: “If you can’t draw it, you can’t build it.”
The geometric terms used to describe land are representative of its economic nature in capitalist society, but, more importantly for this paper, those same geometric terms lie at the heart of landscape architecture’s representational methods and tools – indeed, they lie at the very heart of the way landscape architecture does what it does and, therefore, what it is. Returning to my introduction, and to Weller’s characterization of landscape architects as stewards, in this paper I have argued that the primacy of site and client constitutes a real and practical limit to these larger ambitions for landscape architecture. With the property boundary comes an extent of (self-)interest for the client that the landscape architect, as the engaged service provider, must represent.
The boundary – or site, or lot – trumps the catchment to the degree that the state is willing to intervene inside private property, inside someone’s sovereign ground, at least under capitalism. This is a key issue for responses to climate change. Landscapes are made up of multiple lots owned by individuals – Forman’s “mosaic” – and while it is possible to levy and restrict large corporations – theoretically, at least – intervening at scale on the mass of small properties as required is impossible without both changing the relationship between the state and property, and being willing to enforce that change on the mass of those who are unlikely to be able to afford it.
This is a useful point at which to return to landscape architecture and to end this paper with a series of propositions, both practical and theoretical. Ideologically, and with caveats to the confidence with which it is applied at a large scale,34 I agree with Weller about landscape architecture’s stewardship role, but from an ethical point of view, most professions would probably take the same position. The agency of being able to act as a steward involves a practical change in how landscape architecture is practiced: it needs to value the roles of landscape architects in government (which tend to be treated as bureaucratic in a profession that celebrates design) and, on the level of professional practice, work more like urban planners: in a systematic way that looks at creating conditions and influencing city-making processes more broadly, and treats policy as a creative, design-like activity.
Landscape architecture needs to develop theories about land tenure for itself, and understand its embeddedness in the “thought-world” of capitalism and the ways that capitalism makes landscape. It needs to begin to explore the contradictions between such a thought-world and the values of landscape architecture in, terms of non-capital-based concepts of what landscape is. I hope that this paper, and my future research, will contribute to developing such a body of theory, which might move landscape on from simply being “an art of instrumentality”.
1. Mei, T. S. (2017) Land and the Given Economy : The Hermeneutics and Phenomenology of Dwelling. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, p. 8.
2. See: Scarfo, R. A. (1988) Stewardship and the Profession of Landscape Architecture, Landscape Journal, 7(1), pp. 60–68.
Nassauer, J. I. (2011) Care and stewardship: From home to planet, Landscape and Urban Planning at 100, 100(4), pp. 321–323. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2011.02.022.
Weller, R. (2014) Stewardship now?: Reflections on landscape architecture’s raison d’être in the 21st century, Landscape Journal, 33(2), pp. 85–108.
3. Weller, R. (2014) Stewardship now?: Reflections on landscape architecture’s raison d’être in the 21st century, Landscape Journal, 33(2), p. 86.
4. Ibid., p. 104.
5. Weller, R. (2006) “An art of instrumentality: Thinking through landscape urbanism”, in Waldheim, C. (ed.) The Landscape Urbanism Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 70–83.
6. See: https://hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/7751/did-einstein-say-we-cannot-solve-our-problems-with-the-same-thinking-we-used-to
7. Holden, R. and Liversedge, J. (2014) Landscape Architecture: An Introduction. London: Laurence King, p. 15.
8. Burns, C. J. and Kahn, A. (2005) Why site matters, in Burns, C. J. and Kahn, A. (eds) Site Matters: Design Concepts, Histories and Strategies. New York: Routledge, pp. vii–xxix.
9. Cole, G. M. and Wilson, D. A. (2017) Land Tenure, Boundary Surveys, and Cadastral Systems. Boca Raton: CRC Press, p. 101.
10. Chalmers, R. (2018) An Introduction to Property Law in Australia. 4th edn. Pyrmont: Thompson Reuters, p. 5.
12. Cole and Wilson, (2017) Land Tenure, p. 101.
13. Burdick, William L. (1938) Principles of Roman Law and Their Relation to Modern Law. HeinOnline. Rochester: Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Co., p. 313.
14.Pett-Conklin, L. M. (1986) Cadastral Surveying in Colonial South Carolina: A historical geography. Louisiana State University Press, p. 37.
15. Girot, C. (1999) Four trace concepts of landscape architecture, in Corner, J. (ed.) Recovering Landscape : Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 59–69.
16. Corner, J. (1999) The agency of mapping: Speculation, critique and invention, in Cosgrove, D. E. (ed.) Mappings. London: Reaktion Books, p. 213.
17. McHarg, I. L. (1969) Design with Nature. New York: The Natural History Press, p. 35.
18. Ibid., p. 34.
19. Ibid., p. 35.
20. Ibid., p. 22.
21. Herrington, S. (2010) The Nature of Ian McHarg’s Science. Landscape Journal, p. 29.
22. Forman, R. T. T. (1995) Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, p. 3.
23. Ibid., p. 4.
24. Holden and Liversedge (2014) Landscape Architecture, p. 15.
25. Corner (1999) The Agency of Mapping, p. 250.
26. Ferrier, R. C. and Jenkins, A. (2010) Handbook of Catchment Management. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 1.
30. Ibid., p. 30.
31. Meyer, E. K. (1994) Landscape architecture as modern other and post-modern ground, in edquist, h. and bird, v. (eds) The Culture of Landscape Architecture. Melbourne: EDGE Publishing Committee, pp. 13–34.
32. Which, the author would argue, is a multidisciplinary field in which landscape architects also practice effectively as urban designers.
33. The Sydney Landscape Code Volume 2: All Development Except for Single Dwellings (2016) defines “Deep Soil” as: “an area of natural ground with a relatively natural soil profile. It excludes areas where there is a structure underneath, as well as pools and non-permeable paved areas.” I must gratefully acknowledge the landscape architect Libby Gallagher for pointing out issues of deep soil and densification to me.
34. Despite real cautions about geoengineering (Hamilton, 2013*), landscape architecture continues to flirt with it as part of the grandiosity of the stewardship model – for example, at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where landscape architect Martha Schwartz runs design studios on the topic https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/course/climate-crisis-beyond-adaptation-resiliency-a-designers-geoengineering-toolkit-for-mitigation-spring-2021/
*Hamilton, C. (2013) Earthmasters: Playing God with the climate. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Julian Raxworthy is Associate Professor and Discipline Lead: landscape architecture at the University of Canberra, Australia. A Registered Landscape Architect in Australia (and in South Africa), he was design manager for Aspect Studios, and principal landscape architect for Wolff Architects in Cape Town and for Donovan Hill Architects, in Brisbane. He has held tenured academic positions at RMIT University in Melbourne, QUT in Brisbane, both in Australia and convened the Master of Landscape Architecture & Master of Urban Design at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Virginia, and at the École Nationale Supérieure de Paysage (ENSP) Versailles. He is also an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, where he completed his doctorate entitled “Novelty in the Entropic Landscape: landscape architecture, gardening and change” in 2013. A founder of Kerb: journal of landscape architecture, his most recent book is Overgrown: practices between landscape architecture and gardening, published in Fall 2018 by The MIT Press, supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
Volume 3, no. 3 Autumn 2020