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.
Moving into the future, we need to be humble and recognize the importance of shared vision between us and the public. We need to equip ourselves to identify the transforming public through new lenses of communication, both within and without our physical design work.
In our current pedagogical approach, students only learn to be comfortable with presenting work to a small and intimate group of people, and to cope with questions from people who are either familiar with their work or with their design language.
Should our professional education expose young designers to a larger and diverse group of voices and teach them to communicate their own design visions with those voices? Should it encourage them to develop design methodologies that are more flexible and open to different perspectives?
Speculating into the future of the public is an exercise of designing within newly constructed cultural, political, and technological contexts. This frees design from being too purely solution-oriented, thus allowing it to be less restricted by traditional understandings of the public and instead to focus on understanding a transformed public and implementing design creativity. This will allow designers to tap into, and better prepare for, different trajectories of the public into the future.
There is much collaboration between landscape architects and environmental engineers and ecologists. This history of collaboration has successfully transformed the scope of landscape architecture. If we look to other fields of knowledge, could it be just as transformative to learn from sociologists, anthropologists, public health scholars, and psychologists—to better understand who we are designing for in the future?