Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Climate, Equity, and Technology (Part II)

Image created in Photoshop using generative AI / Phillip Fernberg
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Image created in Photoshop using generative AI / Phillip Fernberg

“Our fellows have shown courage, written books, founded mission-driven non-profits, created new coalitions, and disseminated new tools,” said Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership program at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Sanders highlighted the results of a five-year assessment of the LAF fellowship program and its efforts to grow the next generation of diverse landscape architecture leaders. The assessment shows that past fellows are shaping the future of the built environment in key public, non-profit, and private sector roles.

And she introduced the latest class of six fellows, who focused on climate, equity, technology, and storytelling:

Artificial intelligence (AI) will bolster, break, and transform the process of landscape architecture,” said Phillip Fernberg, a designer and PhD student at Utah State University. Many kinds of artificial intelligence have been developed over past decades. But what has recently caught our collective attention is ChatGPT, an “artificial general intelligence.” He said ChatGPT “isn’t as magical as you may think” — it’s machine learning from patterns of data. But it shows the range of transformative and disruptive technologies to come.

AI will bolster landscape architects’ work by making it far easier to find images of different species of trees and plants. It can also help landscape architects and community groups better analyze landscapes, particularly at the large scale, and advance efforts on climate change, biodiversity, and equity.

But it will also break landscape architects’ conception of their role and value as designers. AI tools have already demonstrated they can create landscape architectural renderings that look nearly human made. This raises questions for landscape architects, like: “What is it that I really do?”

Renderings created by Midjourney AI / Phillip Fernberg
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Renderings created by Midjourney AI / Phillip Fernberg

Fernberg thinks renderings won’t become fully AI-driven, but designers’ jobs will be rethought to better integrate with AI. He said a host of privacy, ethical, and intellectual property issues will also need to be addressed.

Ultimately, AI will transform how landscape architects work, changing the data, models, and processes used by designers. He called for landscape architects and ASLA to catch up to where architects and planners are. These professions have formed networks and working groups and developed research to explore the implications of AI. “Landscape architects need to imbue their value system in these tools.”

For Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, increasing access to gardens and nature in prisons helps inmates heal from abuse, trauma, and addiction and prepare for a healthier life after their incarceration.

Worldwide, there are currently 10.3 million people behind bars. Approximately 25 percent of those people — 2.2 million — are incarcerated in the U.S. In America, prison is “oppressively bleak” and “designed to be demoralizing.” These environments are typically “austere and efficient.” Prison practices are also rooted in a history of racism and social injustices. Most often, there is very little access to nature.

In contrast, many European countries have “open prisons” that provide inmates access to wild nature. Inmates have responsibilities tending gardens and earn trust that prepares them to be responsible citizens post-incarceration.

European prison garden / Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA
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European prison garden / Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA

Through a series of powerful recorded interviews, Winterbottom found that inmates involved in garden programs experienced a range of benefits. They experienced reduced stress and conflict. They harmed themselves and others less and cared for themselves and others more. “Working on the garden helped them work on themselves. Outer gardening led to inner gardening — weeding and pruning their defects and shortcomings,” one interviewee said. Correctional officers, which also suffer from high rates of PTSD and suicide, saw benefits.

Garden at San Quentin prison / IGP
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Garden at San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California / Insight Garden Program

Winterbottom sees the need for a national policy to enable restorative prison gardens, but acknowledged it will require long-term advocacy to achieve. He pointed to “pockets of change” in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington. He urged landscape architects to partner with prisons to develop gardens, volunteer or teach in prisons, mentor formerly incarcerated people, and advocate for reform.

“Landscape architects deal with massive social and environmental problems but we are nearly absent in popular culture. We need new vehicles to bring people in,” said Joseph James, ASLA, founder of Eponymous Practice. One promising vehicle is graphic novels, which are “the fastest growing section of the library.” These visual books are increasingly popular because they are “really approachable and accessible for struggling readers.”

Building on his love of comics, James spent his fellowship drawing and writing his own graphic novel focused on the power of place. He said places become meaningful for people when they are tied to memories and emotions. And he wanted to convey how landscape architects purposefully design places that people connect to.

His graphic novel features teenagers who had transformed a park into a magical world, a place of adventure, with ruins and a wizard. They learn their beloved landscape is being threatened by a renovation, but then with the help of a neighborhood landscape architect become involved in the redesign process. They learn how landscape architects plan and design communities.

Landscape architecture graphic novel / Joseph James
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Landscape architecture graphic novel / Joseph James
Landscape architecture graphic novel / Joseph James
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Landscape architecture graphic novel / Joseph James

James is also developing a companion teacher’s guide for the graphic novel, with recommendations on how to use the book to teach earth and life sciences and design thinking. He argues that “place-based storytelling” is one of the best ways to reach young people and introduce them to landscape architecture.

And he called on landscape architects to develop strong relationships with K-12 schools and use hands-on drawing exercises in classes. His graphic novel is rooted in his work with teachers and students at the Boston Green Academy and explorations of Franklin Park.

The tree wizard of Franklin Park. Boston, Massachusetts / Joseph James
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The tree wizard of Franklin Park. Boston, Massachusetts / Joseph James

Read Part I

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