Richard Weller Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Richard Weller Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Richard Weller says it’s time to redesign our cities as “high performance ecological machines”

FESTIVAL LIVE: Foreground catches up with Richard Weller in Canberra, where he is creative director for the 2016 Festival of Landscape Architecture, to discuss the challenges and opportunities for cities in the era of the Anthropocene.

Maitiú Ward: You’ve said that if the 19th century was the century of engineering, and the 20th century was the century of architecture, the 21st century is the century of landscape architecture – but only if landscape architects can step up. What do you think is required of it, for the profession to step up?

Richard Weller: Several things. Firstly, its capacity as a profession, it’s still quite small so we need more people. We need more university programmes. If you look – and I have a map of the world where we’ve located all the schools of landscape architecture – they’re primarily in the United States, in Europe and there’s a few in Australia, as you know. In many of the other parts of the world, there are critical issues to do with the tension between food production, biodiversity and urbanisation, right? The big push factors of the 21st century, there’s no landscape intelligence, there’s no design intelligence, there’s no planning. So, it’s a question of capacity. But it’s also a question of the ambitions of the profession and the ambitions of the individuals in that profession.

“Landscape architecture is still hanging on the developers’ drip, waiting for the phone to ring.” – Richard Weller

The profession is still just hanging on the developers’ drip, waiting for the phone to ring in first world, rich cities. And yet, it’s a profession that, theoretically and actually, still advertises itself, and thinks of itself, as having some kind of mandate to steward the world’s landscapes. And that goes back to a guy called Ian McHarg who wrote a book called Design With Nature. That’s the most important and popular book in landscape architectural history, where he effectively describes the landscape architect as a ‘steward of the earth.’ That’s what we’re actually about. But we’ve become a boutique design service industry in some rich cities around the world.

The theory and the practice are two different things, right?

MW: So what’s required of the practice, then?

RW: The practice has to start dealing with the issues that are going to be the drivers of change in the 21st century. So the first thing is climate change is the major push factor; rapid urbanization; loss of biodiversity and then the push for food production. Every landscape has been pushed to its limits and those landscapes need to be designed and planned. So there’s a big opportunity for a profession that has the skills to do that if we can get out there.

MW: Some of these issues that you’ve talked about, particularly climate challenges, in some ways they’re empirical challenges, if you like. They’re challenges for geologists, biologists and so on as much as they are for landscape architects. Where do you see landscape architecture sitting in relation to those kinds of professions, those kinds of skillsets?

RW: If you take any piece of territory, any piece of land almost of any scale, and if you appraise it not so much from an artistic perspective, let’s just park aesthetics for a minute, but if you appraise a landscape from the perspective of its performance – that means it’s productivity and its ecological performance – you need other disciplines to help you understand that. To measure it. Any piece of land requires a thousand experts to really understand it and describe it. But it’s only the landscape architect that can bring all those areas of expertise together and produce a plan for how that landscape will be transformed over time.

“Landscape architects are inherently trained and mindfull of systems changing over time.” – Richard Weller

Because we work with time. That’s out great asset, we work with time. Architects don’t. They do buildings and its frozen music. Landscape architects are inherently trained and mindfully of systems changing over time. And we’re also good inter-disciplinary collaborators. We can work with scientists, we can work with developers, we can work with agriculturalists, we can work with the conservation community. We get on with all these people. That’s its great potential.

MW: This idea of a high performance ecological machine is a kind of instrumentalism, ultimately. You say in your presentation that that’s not what you’re envisioning. How is it different?

RW: Because any landscape architect worth their salt understands the history of aesthetics. They understand the beauty of things. They’re attuned to the poetry of landscape, because they’re inherently romantic people. That’s what attracted them to the discipline in the first place.

They love the natural world and they also love design. But they’re also connected to the sciences. So the power of the profession is that – we always say this – it can bridge the sciences and the arts. Well OK, let’s do it. Landscape architecture is big in theory, not so big in practice.

“We say the power of landscape architecture is it can bridge the sciences and the arts. Well OK, let’s do it.” – Richard Weller

MW: So you don’t think that bridging is happening, in other words.

RW: It’s not happening really, not really. As I say, if I draw a line from the centre of an Australian city, you’ll find good public space in the centre of those cities. You draw a line outward, just walk outwards, go through the suburbs, through the peri-urban, go out through the industrial lands, go into the agricultural lands and get out into the conversation landscape or broadacre agriculture. And that’s what I call ‘the line of diminishing impact.’ Every step we take outwards, we have less and less impact and yet the landscape and the issues get bigger and bigger as you go out. But cities now aren’t just objects separated from all that territory that I just mentioned. They draw down on the world’s resources and you’ve got to be able to trace those resources – where things are coming from and where they’re going to. And that gives you a global diagram of the city. The city is now a global phenomenon. It’s not isolated.

MW: On a positive note, you’ve said we’ve begun what you describe as ‘the great reconstruction.’ Which is to say, there are great swathes of the planet now that are theoretically locked away from development. But a lot of that securing has been done by conservationists. What is it about conservationists, as opposed to landscape architects, that have allowed them to accomplish this?

RW: We should ask that, shouldn’t we? How did the conservationists achieve so much political clout globally? They’ve gone into very difficult territory and they’ve secured now, to this day, 15.4% of the world’s terrestrial surface. They’ve locked it up.

“When you need to weave new land uses through complex political and economic territory, get a landscape architect.” – Richard Weller

MW: I’ve never heard that statistic. It’s remarkable.

RW: It’s a lot of land. And some people think it’s neo-colonial. Some people call it a land grab, based on first world environmental concerns, not the concerns of Indigenous people and communities in those parts of the world that are being locked up. So it’s fraught with complications but nonetheless, from a global environmental perspective over the last 50 years, what they’ve managed to achieve is pretty remarkable. If you compare that to what we’ve achieved, I think Peter Walker, a famous landscape architect, once said we’ve designed only about 0.0002% of the world’s terrestrial surface.

MW: But they’re not designed environments, are they?

RW: They’re not. They’re legal. But what’s interesting about that story is that the Convention on Biological Diversity, which Australia is a signatory to and every country in the world bar America, mandates that the land that you secure can’t just be a big chunk of land somewhere, it has to be representative. By representative they mean that the 17% should apply to each of the ecoregions in your jurisdiction. The world is made up of about 860 eco-regions, so theoretically 17% of each of those ecoregions should be protected. So when you come at it from that angle where there are a lot of shortfalls in a lot of critical areas. You can’t just meet the 17% by locking up a big chunk of forest in Siberia, right? No one gives a shit about Siberia, it’s not biologically that valuable. You might value it from a carbon sequestration point of view but it’s not biologically valuable. What’s biologically valuable is the west coast of South West Australia, the North East forests of the east coast of Australia. They’re the two hot spots that we have. And what that means is there’s absolutely unique biodiversity in those regions. If we lose it there, we’re fucked. It’s gone together. The species don’t exist anywhere else.

“Turning cities into high-performance ecological machines, you need landscape architects for that.” – Richard Weller

MW: Where’s the opportunity for landscape architecture in a problem like that?

RW: Because there’s another word in the Convention which says, not only must the landscapes be representative, they must be connected. So, if I’ve got a fragment here and a fragment here of protected area. Under the Convention a nation is supposed to try and stitch that fragment to that fragment. For species to migrate, to move. Everything’s always been on the move, we just haven’t understood it. If you just isolate fragment they’ll eventually die. You need to open up pathways, so that means a re-organisation of land use on a pretty big scale. So that’s something to think about, right? That’s something landscape architects can do. Now, the scientists can do it too. They know how things go from A to B, so they’re involved but when you need to weave new land uses and new lines through complex political and economic territory, get a landscape architect. That’s a global project. And it’s not just about us being powerful and getting bigger. It’s just the way the world is. The multinationals work globally. The United Nations… everyone works globally except us. We’re fiddling around with pissy little projects in rich cities. And the public in the rich cities have worked it out, anyway, for themselves. They don’t really need us; they can just do pop-up stuff. They’ve worked out that design is pretty easy, right. But turning your cities into high-performance ecological machines, you need landscape architects for that.

MW: Every time I hear that phrase ‘high-performance ecological machine’ the first person I think of is a filmmaker called Adam Curtis. He produced a series of documentaries working out of the BBC called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace which suggest this idea of ecology was really a by-product of IBM and research that came out of the Rand Institute in the 1950s and 60s related to an idea of a kind of perfect system, perfect equilibrium. So I’m wondering how you define that word, ‘ecology’ – how should a landscape architect understand it?

RW: Well, it’s an understanding of how systems can support maximum life, not just human life. And where are the sources of what drives that. Of what’s flowing through that system and where are the sinks. Where is it coming from, where is it going. What’s the transmutation of the material and how much damage does it do across the whole cycle of sourcing to end point. What you just said is kind of a conspiracy theory. I mean, I know what you mean. You can imagine a sort of fascist high-performance ecological state, I get that. But really it’s just smart design to maximise performance like we do with anything. Cars, traffic, buildings. I mean, we tune systems so they perform. If we don’t tune our systems to ecological concerns, they’re one dimensional. They’re serving us and nothing else and ultimately that’s suicidal, it’s not smart.

MW: Do you think it’s possible to have a system in perfect equilibrium?

RW: No, I don’t. Never. Equilibrium is death. There’s no equilibrium. There’s chaos and the whole universe is driven by disequilibrium. The weather is a system of disequilibrium chasing equilibrium and never getting there. And that’s life’s drive. I’m not talking about ecology as some sort of balance or harmony. But can we take any system and examine it and ask: is it supporting life to a maximum capacity? And most of our systems aren’t, they’re killing life. We’re killing everything. We don’t see it. We don’t feel it. But we are. So that’s what’s called the Sixth Extinction. And to be part of that history is a nightmare. I don’t want to sound preachy but our only hope is design. We can design our way out of this; that’s my position, otherwise I won’t get out of the bed in the morning.