Landscape architects often pitch our profession as a public agency. We believe—at least most of us believe—that we are endeavoring, with our time and intelligence, to create a better, healthier, and more vibrant version of public life. But what is the essence of “public” for us? This is a question we need to ask ourselves. Does “public” simply encompass the group of users of the spaces we design? Or does it manifest something more aspirational: the courage and responsibility to engage the sophisticated, yet hardly articulated, connections between our vision and what is actually understood by individuals?
During an internship as a landscape designer in Munich two years ago, I took an Uber and chatted with the driver. He asked me what I did, and I answered: “landscape architecture.” He was confused about it, so I explained that I design landscapes. His response: “do you design the mountains or the rivers?”
We all admit that a portion of the public doesn’t know much about landscape architecture; but have we ever asked ourselves: do we know the public enough?
We design for people, most of whom we don’t know and will probably never have the chance to meet. And yet the success of our work relies on keen judgment of the public—which is composed of unique individuals.
Landscape architecture, partially derived from gardening, was originally a practice purely benefiting the powerful and wealthy. But that has not remained the case in the modern age. Compelled both by transformations in social structures and a new ethos of serving the public, designers like Frederick Law Olmsted and Ian McHarg navigated the boundary of the field and enlarged the scope of it to address a broader audience.
Over the years, the efforts of generations of designers have made our work more and more visible to the general public. The contemporary topics occupying our field, like climate change and urbanization, demand a tighter engagement with the magnitude of the public at a global scale. These challenges urge landscape architects to be critical about what constitutes and what shapes the publics we face.
Portraits of public spaces and their inhabitants have barely changed in centuries. Open spaces have continued to be depicted as beautiful, pastoral, and protected islands in the city for leisure and recreation to take place. Under that continuity of imagery lies the belief that we, the field of landscape architecture, understand how people appreciate public spaces—and that this is not going to change in the future. Our expertise is underlain by that faith in knowing the public.
But recreation, leisure, and pastoral aesthetics are only minor components of the reality of the “public” that we can engage. As Hannah Arendt argued, publics are formed only in the presence of others, which indicates the significance of public spaces as places where the appearance of people constitutes the reality of a society.
The word “public” is derived from “of the people,” and is inextricable from politics. In many ways, the performances and interactions of people in public spaces are reflections of the social, political, economic, and technological conditions of a society.
Public spaces across the world are hosts to significant moments that go beyond their designers’ original agendas. Political protests, informal occupations, and other forms of public use reveal the potential for undesignated types of interactions between the public and public spaces. Without a more comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the public, such uses will remain outside designers’ vision.