Action

Landscape architects design and plan landscape to serve human purpose at scales from garden to region.

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Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature, introduced me to landscape architecture. In the 1970s, I worked in professional practice for six years, including five years in McHarg’s office, on projects ranging from plans for an entire metropolitan region (Denver) to a single city (Sanibel, Florida), portions of cities (Toronto), new towns (Woodlands, Texas) and park designs (Pardisan, Iran). Several of these won awards, some are now considered landmarks; nevertheless, they raised issues and demanded knowledge that could not be pursued fully within the constraints of a professional office.

From private practice I moved to Harvard to teach, then to Penn and now MIT, but the years in practice still influence the kinds of questions I ask, the methods I use, and what I write. Even in a successful, reflective practice like McHarg’s, there are avenues one has neither time nor funds to pursue. So I created a research practice where I can set my own agenda and where grants and a university salary support action-research projects for some clients, like community gardeners and children, who cannot afford a designer, and others who do not know they need one, like community development corporations, city agencies, and public schools.

For the past twenty-five years, I have studied how processes of development, settlement, migration, and disinvestment interact with natural processes such as water flow to produce landscapes of poverty. This led to discoveries, such as the high correlation in many inner-city neighborhoods of vacant land and buried floodplains, and to proposals, such as one to transform low-lying vacant land into parks that are also stormwater detention basins that achieve multiple goals: they rebuild a neighborhood, reduce combined sewer overflows, and improve regional water quality. I first proposed this idea in 1985; now it has become reality.

Action is a way of knowing. I use practice to develop and test theory, and theory to reflect on practice.

Design is for me a frame of mind, a habit of redefining problems as opportunities and then devising solutions that are comprehensive, functional, sustainable, memorable, and fair.