Krista Reimer
MLA graduate, University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design

The Aesthetics of Ecology and the Ecology of Aesthetics

  • Honorable mention in Nikon's Small World Photomicrography Competition. Dr. Ales Kladnik, 2004.
    Honorable mention in Nikon's Small World Photomicrography Competition. Dr. Ales Kladnik, 2004.
Above: Honorable mention in Nikon's Small World Photomicrography Competition. Flies caught on a Drosera leaf (carnivorous sundew plant), Dr. Ales Kladnik, 2004.


Note: An earlier version of this piece was presented in a panel discussion at the “Design with Nature Now” conference hosted by the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania in June 2019. Many thanks to the others who presented in the same panel for their discussions, which aided in developing these ideas, and to James Billingsley for his editing of this further worked piece.



Landscape aesthetics are often seen as superfluous or irrelevant to ecology—or, increasingly, they are seen as an environmentalist tool. Rarely are aesthetics considered the facet of landscape architecture with the most significant ecological effects—yet this is the thesis I will explore here. This exploration is predicated on the abandonment of an assumed clean disciplinary division between aesthetics and ecology; and it requires a cursory look at both the aesthetics of ecology and the ecology of aesthetics, two studies significant to understanding their interrelation. 


When Ian McHarg promoted his theory of ecological design in the practice of landscape architecture, he reinvigorated picturesque aesthetics and their naturalization, claiming of eighteenth-century English works that “Nature itself produced the aesthetic.”[1] Rendered objective through this naturalization, picturesque aesthetics became another criterion he could consider in his method of suitability analysis. Together, these ideas positioned landscape aesthetics as both fixed (debate ends when picturesque aesthetics are understood to be “naturally” right) and as an optional, separable subdivision of disciplinary thought; in conducting a suitability analysis one could choose whether to make the “scenic value (land)” map or to omit it.[2] Both positions hold strong within the discipline today. However, while the picturesque continues to predominate in landscape aesthetics, work has been done to argue against its constructed associations with naturalness and goodness—examples include Herrington (2010) and Weller (2015).[3] Conversely, the tendency to consider aesthetics not as a fundamental, inescapable, and operative component of all work but as an optional, additional subdivision of disciplinary consideration has been largely unquestioned thus far. A notable exception is Karen M'Closkey and Keith VanDerSys’s book Dynamic Patterns, which is premised on the understanding that “Aesthetics is not a superficial or 'extra' concern that shrouds more fundamental issues or realities; it is the means by which we come to understand them.”[4] At present, most disciplinary work is presented as ecologically driven. In such projects, aesthetics are rarely discussed as essential to the work; aesthetics are either: 1) unmentioned; 2) seen as inconsequential to the ecological mission but as giving some other value; or 3) seen as reinforcing the ecological mission for which they are not a part but a promotional tool. The following are examples of each of these positions.


While the presentation of ecologically driven landscape architecture projects without any discussion of aesthetics is widespread, its institutional acceptability was perhaps best recently highlighted by the exhibition accompanying the “Design With Nature Now” conference organized by the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania in June 2019. As far as I understood the descriptions, out of the twenty-five projects collected to demonstrate the forefront of ecological design, only one was noted for its aesthetic contribution.[5] I was involved as a research assistant in the preliminary procuring of content for the exhibition; habituated to an ecological discourse devoid of aesthetics, I did not recognize its almost total absence until some months after my involvement had ended.


In February 2018, just over a year before the exhibition opened, Marc Treib organized a conference at the University of California, Berkeley titled “The Aesthetics of [Contemporary] Planting Design.” In opening the conference, Treib stated, “My impetus for organizing this symposium was very simple: Is there still a place for the art of landscape design in an age dominated by the science of ecology? Certainly, this isn’t a question of either-or—of either beauty or responsibility. Instead, we are looking for the design of planting that embodies both art and responsibility and does so with both skill and understanding.”[6] While this suggests that Treib is interested in the relationship between aesthetics and ecology, his equating of ecology with responsibility is telling. Later in the talk, he summarized “the goal of this symposium is to suggest planting and landscape design that surpasses the address of function and ecology alone. Yes, we must begin with environmental limits and human resources that bear on the site; but what level of beauty and intrigue can we also achieve within these constraints? And, in some way, can we even surpass them?” Here ecology, reduced to a set of constraints and the obligation to meet them, becomes related to aesthetic ambition only insofar as it is a necessary basis for aesthetic design; when function and ecology are met, aesthetic ambition can be added.


If Treib’s stance might be critiqued for arguing for ambitious aesthetics while assuming a fixed ecology, those who see aesthetics as a promotional tool for ecologically driven projects might be challenged for arguing ambitious ecology while accepting normative aesthetics. Joan Iverson Nassauer’s work on the landscape of the single-family home over two decades is emblematic of this approach. In describing a 1995 project to install rain gardens in suburban yards in Maplewood, Minnesota, Nassauer emphasized the effort taken by her design team to study “what people in this neighborhood would accept in their front yards.”[7] That same year she wrote “applied landscape ecology is essentially a design problem. . . . It requires placing unfamiliar and frequently undesirable forms inside familiar, attractive packages. It requires designing orderly frames for messy ecosystems.”[8] Her 2017 essay on increasing suburban carbon storage reiterates these ideas: “Respecting what residents want their landscapes to look like could help planners and designers devise development patterns that nudge suburban residents and developers to want landscapes that provide greater ecosystem services.”[9] Nassauer’s concern with aesthetics is motivated by the desire to make ecologically driven projects palatable. 


Elizabeth Meyer further invigorated the disciplinary conversation on the use of aesthetics to support environmental aims with her now well-known 2008 paper “Sustaining beauty. The performance of appearance: A manifesto in three parts.” While Nassauer’s approach to aesthetics aims for palatability, Meyer argues for aesthetics for their capacity to encourage environmental concern: “Immersive, aesthetic experience can lead to recognition, empathy, love, respect, and care for the environment.”[10] This is an admission that aesthetics have an ecological effect, but a limited one.       


Each of the unmentioned, inconsequential, or promotional relations between ecology and aesthetics are predicated on the notion that these concerns are disciplinary subdivisions. The “unmentioned” position assumes one’s ecological notions have not been influenced by aesthetic theories; the “inconsequential” position assumes aesthetics have no ecological effect; and the “promotional” position narrowly focuses its study on the relationship between landscape aesthetics and ecology with the highly instrumental question: what can aesthetics do for an environmentalist agenda?


Abandoning the assumption that there is a clear separation between aesthetics and ecology, the theoretical project of relating them expands. Two studies apparent within this expansion are those of the aesthetics of ecology and the ecology of aesthetics. For the sake of brevity, I will use the long-standing aesthetics of the picturesque as a case study to make a preliminary exploration into these lines of inquiry.


The aesthetics of ecology

It might be said that thus far we have a theory of ecological aesthetics: the use of aesthetics to realize the aims of an ecological science assumed to be objective. By focusing on what landscape aesthetics can do for an assumed objective ecology, however, there has been minimal disciplinary work to understand how the long-running aesthetics of the picturesque have preconditioned the comparatively younger sciences, values, and concepts comprising ecological and environmentalist thought.


In his paper “The Suffocating Embrace of Landscape and the Picturesque Conditioning of Ecology,” Aaron M. Ellison, Senior Research Fellow in Ecology at the Harvard Forest, asserts that, thanks to the picturesque, ecology has since its mid-1800s origin been based on an underlying axiom of balance in nature.[11] Responding to calls by McHarg, Nassauer and Meyer, among others, for “built landscapes to better reflect nature [or] natural processes,” he asks, “But can we actually define nature or ecological quality independently of our interpretation of it?” Is every ambition to achieve what is understood to be ecological health really the desire to realize a picturesque dream?  


For “nature” to be in balance, it must lack agency and creativity; the picturesque is suspect as a source of the objectification of plant life. In Deccan Traverses, Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha discuss how a late eighteenth-century painting of a fictional Indian scene by the British artist Thomas Daniell “reveals not only the power of artists practising picturesque art to construct places, but also their ability—which has become so commonplace and taken for granted today—to isolate, extract and assemble objects with the eye alone.” Since its beginning, a great power of the picturesque has been its capacity to objectify: recasting agentic and forceful entities as passive, encompassing environment— a reconceptualization with particular impact on plant life. This highlights that the ubiquitous eco-spatial notions of “environment” and “habitat” might also find roots in the picturesque. Echoing the scenographic emphasis of the picturesque, both “environment” and “habitat” are container conceptions.


Feminist theory provides a framework through which to understand the effects of landscape’s objectification by the picturesque eye. As highlighted by Timothy Morton, “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.”[12] Through the picturesque, we have come to see the earth and plant life as a unified fuzzy body, which we suitably sculpt, shave, and prune. There is a remarkable similarity in the typical sections of a geofoam hill and a breast implant. The picturesque and its objectifying tendency then stands in direct conflict with the work of forward-thinking ecological theorists—for instance Jane Bennett’s attempts to perceive vibrant matter, or the actor-network theorists’ effort to describe actants.[13] Whereas these theorists are working to see a world of related actors, landscape architecture in the picturesque tradition predominantly sees a world it acts in and on.


The picturesque, now three centuries strong, is a powerful force in shaping notions of the world. As long as picturesque aesthetics are widely propagated, the normalcy of ecological ideas such as the balance of nature, the objectification of plants, and the world as environment will likely remain. The influence of landscape aesthetics on ecological thought, however, is only one of its myriad ecological implications. The total set of implications is the ecology of aesthetics.


The ecology of aesthetics

 To study the ecology of aesthetics, it is first necessary to bring Homo sapiens onto a level equal to any other species. Only after doing so can it become possible to discuss the enormous effects the picturesque has had on intraspecies social dynamics, interspecies behavior, and species migration.


Only a few decades into its conception, the picturesque already had global implications, as a political tool of British colonial expansion. As with every topic only skimmed in this essay, significantly more research is needed to understand the extent of the picturesque’s influence in the massive global changes brought about by British imperialism. However, as the picturesque served the purposes of creating a unified image of the many regions of the British empire, naturalizing power, and masking slave suffering and discontent, it undeniably had an effect on the era’s people, their politics, and their economy.[14] Krista Thompson has discussed how picturesque paintings of Jamaica served these purposes. In colonial Jamaica, plantation owners began hiring artists to create picturesque renditions of their estates beginning in the late eighteenth century. James Hakewill, a British artist and architect hired by plantation owners, toured Jamaica in 1820 and 1821. His resulting publication, A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, contained aquatints of twenty-one plantations which, amid the contemporaneous heated debate on the abolition of slavery, provided docile and tranquil representations amiable to the planters’ proslavery cause.[15] In these images, the “aesthetics of concealment, long a central part of picturesque aesthetics, provided a ready-made mask through which planters and the artists they commissioned could disguise the conditions, violence, and brutality of the plantation.”[16]


Beyond its early political implications, the picturesque has since its inception generated considerable human migration in the name of landscape tourism. In an early example, William Gilpin’s 1782 Observations on the River Wye popularized touring the Wye Valley; an estimated 1.5 million tourists continue to travel there each year.[17] And in the case of Jamaica, following abolition and facing the need for a new, viable island economy, the picturesque was reoriented into a useful tool for marketing the island as a tropical paradise.[18] The ongoing success of this campaign is evident from the quantity of tourists who continue to visit Jamaica, more than 4.3 million annually as of 2018.[19] Not only has landscape tourism had an enormous effect on human migration, it has considerably impacted the way humans interact with segments of land, vegetation, and animals globally, through the development of national parks. The 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, signed into law by Woodrow Wilson, stated that “the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks. . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purposes of the said parks. . . which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”[20] In the words of the National Park Service itself, the establishment of the national park system in the name of preserving picturesque scenery “began a worldwide national park movement. Today more than 100 nations contain some 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves.”[21]



The above discussions of the aesthetics of ecology and the ecology of aesthetics are only a scratch at the surface of these topics, but they strongly suggest that the landscape aesthetics we develop, theorize, and propagate have immense potential to influence a vast array of relationships—in short, to produce profound ecological effects. It is worth acknowledging that these effects of the picturesque have not been instigated exclusively by works of landscape architecture per se— for instance, photography was also highly influential in the tropicalization of Jamaica. However, landscape architecture, in its broad sense, has been essential to the continued predominance of the picturesque, and the role of evolving landscape aesthetics lies more clearly within the purview of this profession than that of any other.


Most ecologically minded design work has begun from an axiom of landscape architecture as applied science—a practice following from some other discipline’s model of the world. Acknowledging that aesthetics has as much to do with ecology as does science, it becomes possible to see the development of landscape aesthetics as a disciplinarily specific means of world modeling.





[1] Ian L. McHarg, Ian. Design with Nature, 73.

[2] McHarg, Design with Nature, 111. See “Scenic Value land map of Staten Island.”

[3]Susan Herrington, “The Nature of Ian McHarg’s Science,” Landscape Journal vol. 29, no. 1 (2010) 9–11; Richard Weller, “Planet Photoshop,” Landscape Architecture (China) 4 (2015), 86–88.

[4] Karen M'Closkey and Keith VanDerSys, Dynamic Patterns: Visualizing Landscapes in a Digital Age. Routledge: London and New York, (2017), xii.

[5] The description of the Room for the River project, a series of thirty-four riverine flood mitigation strategies implemented in the Netherlands, claimed this project was superior to other forward-thinking water management projects for having an equally important second goal of creating “a more attractive river landscape.” No details were given on what basis the projects were deemed attractive, or how this attractiveness was conceived of ecologically.

[6] Mark Treib, “The Aesthetics of Planting Design,” lecture, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, February 17, 2017.

[7] Joan Iverson Nassauer, “Ecological Design Science and Imagination,” lecture, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley March 5, 2018.

[8] Joan Iverson Nassauer, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames” Landscape Journal vol. 14, no. 2 (1995), 161–169.

[9] Joan Iverson Nassauer, “Greening Sprawl: Lawn Culture and Carbon Storage in the Suburban Landscape” in Infinite Suburbia, ed. Alan Berger, Joel Kotkin, and Celina Balderas Guzman, Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017, 507.

[10] Elizabeth K. Meyer, “Sustaining beauty. The performance of appearance: A manifesto in three parts,” Journal of Landscape Architecture, vol. 3 (2008), 95.

[11] Aaron M. Ellison, “The Suffocating Embrace of Landscape and the Picturesque Conditioning of Ecology,” Landscape Journal no. 32, vol. 1 (2013), 79–94.

[12] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009, 5.

[13] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010; Bruno Latour, “On Actor-Network Theory. A Few Clarifications Plus More Than a Few Complications,” Sociale Welt 47 (1996), 369–381; Michel Callon, John Law, and Arie Rip, eds., Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology: Sociology of Science in the Real World, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1986.

[14]Jeffrey Auerbach, “The picturesque and the homogenisation of Empire,” The British Art Journal vol. 5, no. 1 (2004), 47–54.

[15] James Hakewill, A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, London: Hurst and Robinson, 1825.

[16] Krista A. Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 39.

[17] Forest of Dean District Council et al., “Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Destination Management Plan 2015–2020,” working document, 2015, 25.

[18] Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics.

[19] “Annual Travel,” Jamaica Tourist Board,,

[20] An Act to establish a National Park Service, and for other purposes, Pub. L. 64–235, H.R. 15522, 39 Stat. 535, enacted August 25, 1916.

[21] “Quick History of the National Park Service,” National Park Service,, May 14, 2018.