INTO THE ANTHROPOCENE

Shortly after the turn of the new millennium, Dutch atmospheric chemist and Nobel-laureate Paul Crutzen along with American biologist Eugene Stoermer authored a ground-breaking essay entitled “The Anthropocene”. In the essay, Crutzen and Stoermer assert that the extent of human influence upon the Earth’s geophysical and biochemical processes necessitates formal acknowledgement of humans as geological agents. Their evidence was found not in the fossil record, but in a synthesis of multi-disciplinary research examining human influence on planetary systems.  These influences include expected observations related to climate and atmospheric change as well as patterns of globalization and urbanization, fossil fuel consumption, land use transformation, and others.   Given this evidence, they state: “Considering these and many other major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere...it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term “Anthropocene” for the current geological epoch.  The central axiom of the Anthropocene theory- that humans have geological agency- is a paradigm shift that challenges and disrupts centuries of ontological and epistemological theories and philosophical values regarding how we see ourselves relative to the world around us. 

The Anthropocene radically unsettles the philosophical, epistomological and ontological ground on which both the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities have traditionally stood.
— Jeremy Baskin. 2015

 

THE OPPORTUNITY OF DESIGN LEADERSHIP

Why is the Anthropocene important or relevant to design, and more specifically, landscape architecture? The garden is the primary environment of landscape architecture theory and practice.  In a simple definition, the garden can be understood to represent the intentional, complex and sophisticated artistic modification of the environment, vis-à-vis the landscape, to suit a myriad of needs (i.e. "program").  The design of the garden utilizes a varied design vocabulary, of both tradition and experimentation, and consists of spatial archetypes, materials, processes and other typological characteristics that are in response to contextual considerations.

Scholars of garden history assert the garden is not only a visceral, ephemeral and spatial phenomena, but as a cultural artifact, the garden (and its design) also represents a record of cultural explanation and history similar to literature, painting, architecture, etc. In this manner, the garden embodies and codifies temporal socio-cultural values and meanings subject to interpretation. Therefore, the garden is situated within a broad spectrum of cultural artifacts that reflect, reciprocate and shape prevailing socio-cultural values and their shifts across time. Like other cultural artifacts, the garden can be interpreted and analyzed among a context of socio-political, environmental and aesthetic concerns.  However, unlike other designed cultural artifacts, the garden is expressed, embodied and shaped by the physical environment. This condition affords the garden the distinct capacity to register and render visible the values and meanings of human attitudes towards the environment.  In short, the garden provides a physical embodiment of a culture’s relationship nature.  For centuries, gardens have been conceived from within a prevailing theoretical construct that nature and culture are essential counterparts, but ultimately separable.  In this manner, the theoretical foundation of the garden is the mediation between nature and culture. 

The central axiom of the Anthropocene theory- that humans have geological agency- is a paradigm shift of human-environment relationships. This paradigm shift challenges and disrupts centuries of ontological and epistemological theories and philosophical values regarding how we see ourselves relative to the environment. With evidence found within the climate record, geomorphology, land use patterns, nutrient cycles and other processes, the Anthropocene paradigm asserts that humans are no longer separable from nature; to the contrary, humans have become nature.  Such evidence of human geological agency now radically destabilizes and calls into question the nature-culture construct; a construct that has served for centuries as the foundation of garden (and park) design as well as the basis of modern environmental ethos and policy. Therefore, if the Anthropocene presents a fundamental paradigm shift in how we see ourselves in relation to the world, then we must ask how this shift can catalyze new considerations of the garden (and park) as cultural artifact. Further, the Anthropocene paradigm leverages landscape architectural agency to shape not only the designed landscape but also new cultural values towards the environment.   

This world of pervasive human influence across all scales of the global landscape presents the central dilemma for the 21st century. Landscape architects are not insulated from these issues as the human transformation of the landscape, including urbanization, resource extraction, auto-based settlement and others, are often used as markers of the Anthropocene epoch.   Tomorrow’s landscape architect will be required to operate within contextual grounds and new territories that include, but extend beyond, the programmatic, the aesthetic or the spatial tropes of the 20th century and engage larger global concerns and abstract processes of increasing complexity and scale. It is already evident that critical design practices will emerge from this context whereby design and planning engage cultural and social beliefs that are profoundly different from worldviews of previous generations and the 20th century landscape architectural canon.  Given the scale of the paradigm shift, one can anticipate that these practices will require a new professional discourse, disciplinary lexicon and speculative tools to project and realize alternative future conditions with increasing urgency.  

Utilizing a professional practice model, the studio contemplates how the Anthropocene is an opportunity to see our world anew and how we can begin to explore potential theories, concepts and modes of practice suited to our strange new world bound by human geologic agency.  What new garden typologies of the Anthropocene could emerge from this paradigm shift? What new concepts and terms are emerging from the sciences and humanities that could influence how we think of the garden and the urban park? What new ways of thinking about the environment and "waste" or "contamination" are possible? How might urban processes be reconsidered as essential socio-ecological processes or new forms of urban parks? For Fall 2017, New York City and the contaminated Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn will serve as our laboratory as we examine such issues and consider new directions for critical landscape architectural practice in the 21st century.