Collective Consciousness in Landscape Architecture: Embracing a Social Justice Orientation to Professional Responsibility

By Kyle D. Brown and Todd Jennings

Excerpted with minor revisions from Brown, K.D. and T. J. Jennings. Social
Consciousness in Landscape Architecture Education: Toward a Conceptual
Framework. Landscape Journal. Volume 22, No. 2. Copyright 2003. Reprinted
by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.

The practice of landscape architecture is diverse, and the implications are far-reaching. The consequences of planning and design efforts affect landscapes and stakeholders at a variety of scales well beyond the contractual scope of work, whether the client or practitioner operates in the public or private sector. This means that the profession is involved with decision-making concerning the use, allocation and preservation of resources. This, more often than is recognized, pushes the practice of landscape architecture into the political realm, forcing it to confront the realities of political power as well as the institutional and social structures that embody this power. However, we argue that the collective consciousness of landscape architecture has failed to explicitly recognize the political nature of its practice, particularly at it relates to social justice issues. This lack of recognition has resulted in an apolitical service ideal espoused by the profession within the United States. As an alternative, we advocate developing an explicit collective consciousness within the profession, and offer the principle of social justice as a foundation for such a consciousness.

Claims of Responsibility in the Discourse of Landscape Architecture

Within landscape architecture there have been significant discussions of the professional’s responsibilities to society. The social agenda conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted for the profession of landscape architecture focused on a sense of shared community and dedicated service to meeting the social, psychological and physical needs of society. Olmsted’s early calls for service to society have persisted through the present day. Editorials by leading landscape architects have promoted the idea of service to the welfare and concerns of society. A number of important texts on landscape and design theory have explicitly espoused ideals of service to society in a variety of forms. Many more texts are implicit in their promotion of various social ideals.

There is clearly no shortage of ideas about what landscape architects should be concerned about and responsive towards, but the increasing complexity and diversity of practice has been translated into many competing concepts of responsibility. A common theme throughout many discussions of service by the profession is the notion of stewardship, or caretaking of the landscape, which has long been associated with the profession. Yet as scholars have pointed out, the collective understanding and application of the term stewardship has varied substantially over time. The result is a term that Robert Scarfo describes as “undefined, unsubstantiated and ambiguous,” as it attempts to describe a wide variety of responsibilities and work situations. In his study of the profession, Patrick Miller concludes that the diversity of the profession “presents problems in the fundamentally different ways in which certain segments of the profession view the landscape and approach design,” and Kathy Crewe and Ann Forsyth (Landscape Journal 2003) have proposed a typology of approaches to landscape architecture that reflect a diversity of goals, processes, ethics and understandings of nature and power relationships.

Within this diversity of views about the profession and service to society, responsibilities towards socio-political issues such as equality and justice are much less apparent than the commitment to the physical environment. While there are efforts made to address such issues by a number of individuals, there is a serious lack of explicit discussion of equity and justice in society, or recognition of power, oppression and privilege within communities in which landscape architects work. It can be argued that the activities of landscape architects engaged in these issues may be substantial but not reported in the mainstream professional publications. Similarly it can be argued that such practitioners draw insight from rich literature on these issues in philosophy, the arts or social sciences, rather than texts in landscape architecture, but this is precisely our point. The lack of discourse within the discipline that explicitly engages institutional and social power structures in the practice of landscape architecture reflects an overall collective consciousness that is largely apolitical and as such, perhaps even naive.

Claims of Responsibility within Professional Codes

In addition to the discourse revealed in the literature, a profession’s responsibilities to society are also informed by the official codes of ethics by the professional societies. For our purposes, it is useful to compare these codes in the professions of landscape architecture, architecture and planning with regard to what they explicitly say related to socio-political issues. The American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) Code of Professional Ethics asks members to “understand and endeavor to practice the ethical standards of the Code of Environmental Ethics.” Although not reiterated within the text of the professional code, the Code of Environmental Ethics outlines objectives based on a number of principles including:

  • The health and well-being of biological systems and their integrity are essential to sustain human well-being.
  • Future generations have a right to the same environmental assets and ecological aesthetics.
  • Long-term economic survival has a dependence upon the natural environment.
  • Environmental stewardship is essential to maintain a healthy environment and a quality-of-life for the earth.

These principles offer some guidance in the practice of landscape architecture. While it could be argued that their vagueness opens them to multiple, perhaps conflicting interpretations, they do express concern for the welfare of society, particularly with regard to relationships with natural systems. However, this welfare is decidedly contextual, obligating the professional to only “understand and endeavor to practice” in response to this concern.

The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Code of Ethics and Professional Conductcalls for its member to “serve the public interest” in their work. But the AIA code fails to provide any operational definition or guidance for its members in terms of what specifically is in the public interest, beyond the act of “serving.”

The profession of planning provides the most explicit discussion of values and concern for social issues within its professional code. The American Institute of Certified Planners’ (AICP) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct requires its members to serve the public interest, similar to the AIA code. However, the AICP code addresses the problem of defining the public interest by challenging members to develop their own “conscientiously attained concept of the public interest.” In addition, the code makes specific obligation to those who lack formal organization and influence, particularly the needs of the “disadvantaged.”

The comparison of these codes in terms of fostering collective consciousness yields interesting insights. Architecture provides the least guidance for its members by employing, without elaboration, some undefined notion of the public interest. From architecture’s apolitical statement, it is difficult to envision how this notion could generate professional identity or solidarity in terms of support for one’s actions by one’s colleagues. Planning is the only profession to address political structures with specificity, but it is perhaps most interesting for its call for members to attain their own concept of public interest. As such it is simultaneously political in nature and cognizant of a multiplicity of views about the nature of power structures. While this flexible approach accommodates a variety of perspectives, it may raise questions about the extent of the solidarity and identity it provides the profession if practitioners’ concepts of public interest vary dramatically.

Landscape architecture is explicit in its commitment to the physical environment and could also be interpreted as implicitly addressing a wide variety of social issues. However, the ASLA code could still be considered apolitical in that it lacks explicit recognition of the institutional and social structures that influence power and decision-making. This apolitical perspective is reinforced by educational standards that require programs to teach “professional practice methods, values and ethics,” but offer no guidance or expected outcomes as to how or why values and ethics should be addressed, and makes no mention of power structures or their accompanying social justice issues. There is not even explicit connection to the Code of Environmental Ethics or the values it reflects within these educational standards. This offers little support for beginning landscape architects in their efforts to develop operational understandings of responsible professional behavior.

The Apolitical Perspective and the Potential for Justice

We have seen how the diversity of practice has introduced a wide variety of interpretations concerning the social responsibility of landscape architects. The ASLA professional code expresses concern for the welfare of society, particularly in terms of ecological issues, but explicit recognition of institutional and social structures which influence decision-making in the landscape is limited in the discipline’s discourse, and is virtually nonexistent within professional codes or supporting educational standards. This neutrality may be in response to the diversity and complexity of approaches to practice as previously described. However, by being silent on the politics of practice, the implication is that students and new professionals are socialized to view practice as inherently apolitical rather than charged with political implications that require conscious claims of social responsibility and/or commitments to social justice.

Given the diversity of approaches to landscape architecture and the multiplicity of views, it seems unlikely that a single unifying collective consciousness will emerge to inform professional practice. Landscape architecture is not unusual in this regard. A number of researchers have pointed out that homogeneity within professions is not an accurate assumption. However, heterogeneity does not mean that professional practice should adopt an apolitical perspective for the sake of accommodating all views under one umbrella. Designs and plans prepared by landscape architects have consequences to the public realm. Practitioners must explicitly recognize how their actions either reinforce or alter existing social structures in order to take responsibility for them and the implications of their design for the civil, political, cultural, social and economic rights of all stakeholders.

Drawing upon the AICP code as a model, we advocate an approach that promotes the conscious attainment of a concept of social responsibility within each practitioner. One can imagine competing concepts of social responsibility emerging around different traditions within landscape architecture, and it is essential that these traditions be explicitly engaged in landscape architecture education in order to support transmission and transformation of beliefs that are the foundation of collective consciousness. The design studio offers the ideal environment to engage such issues, as it traditionally serves as the core for design education.

As an initial step in examining how the design studio can engage such issues, we propose an approach rooted in social justice. Philosopher John Rawls argues that justice is the fundamental virtue of functioning societies. Justice is the foundation of the progressive and advocacy planning traditions and integral to what Crewe and Forsyth describe as the “Plural Design” tradition. Justice is particularly suited to political issues encountered in practice due to its focus on institutional and social structures. And it is arguably broad enough to encompass the principles of sustainability outlined in the ASLA Code of Environmental Ethics as well as many other contemporary concerns of landscape architecture. While social justice has received limited attention within landscape architecture to date, we believe that it holds great promise as a foundation for collective consciousness in landscape architecture and is worthy of examination as a foundation for education as well as practice.

For Further Reading:

Brown, Kyle D. and Todd J. Jennings. 2003. Social Consciousness in Landscape Architecture Education: Toward a Conceptual Framework. Landscape Journal. Volume 22(2): 99-112.

Crewe, Katherine and Ann Forsyth. 2003. LandSCAPES: A Typology of Approaches to Landscape Architecture. Landscape Journal. 22(1): 37-53.

Miller, Patrick. 1997. A Profession in Peril? Landscape Architecture. 87(8): 66-88.

Kyle D. Brown is director of the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies and associate professor of landscape architecture at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and Todd Jennings is an associate professor of educational and developmental psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

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