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

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 and manipulation of 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 revealing the influences of human population growth and per capita natural resource exploitation on planetary systems.  These influences include not only expected observations related to climate and atmospheric change, but also included a broad range of data pertaining to patterns of globalization and urbanization, fossil fuel consumption, land use transformation, anthropogenic manipulation of the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, alterations to hydrology and geomorphology, and agricultural exploitation, resource extraction and fossil fuel consumption, unsustainable rates of potable water use and extraction, and rapid increases in species extinction and loss of biodiversity.  Given this evidence, they state: “Considering these and many other major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales, 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. 


Since Crutzen and Stoermer’s essay in 2000, the Anthropocene concept has gained significant scholarly attention and popular media coverage. While much attention was initially drawn to the geo-stratigraphic consequences of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene is now understood as both geologic event and socio-cultural paradigm shift.  Over the last decade, the Anthropocene has catalyzed upheavals of scientific and humanistic theory and discourse across a broad array of fields, including the ecological, biological, atmospheric and geophysical sciences, along with sociology, geography, philosophy, visual arts, literature and many others.  In large part this shift arises from the core axiom of the Anthropocene: that humans are now geologic agents.  Thus the Anthropocene paradigm challenges and disrupts centuries of ontological and epistemological theories and philosophical values regarding how we see ourselves relative to the world around us.   One obvious- and very significant- disruption is the widely held belief of nature and culture as essential counterparts, but ultimately separable. Recognition of human geologic agency radically shatters this belief.

 

DESIGN LEADERSHIP IN THE ANTHROPOCENE

Why is the Anthropocene important or relevant to design, and more specifically, landscape architecture?  Like literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, infrastructure and other tangible cultural works of design, the garden (in its broadest sense) reflects and reciprocates prevailing socio-cultural and scientific theories and their shifts across time. From the formal traditions of the Renaissance, into the Beaux-arts, through modernism and post-modernity, the formal manifestation of the garden- of the landscape- encodes and expresses the socio-cultural and scientific theories of the time.  These attitudes include social, environmental and aesthetic concerns, among others. One has to only examine the shifting political priorities, programming, aesthetics and locations of urban park design over the last century to offer a glimpse into the semiotics of the "garden" and its relationships to concurrent shifts in social and cultural priorities. Thus if the Anthropocene presents a emerging and fundamental paradigm shift in the sciences and humanities, perhaps on a scale unseen since the Renaissance, then landscape architecture must certainly re-orient to this paradigm so as to explore new theories and alternative project typologies while also contemplating new modes of practice suited to our strange new world bound by human geologic agency.  

 

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.  As recently noted by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, "...the landscape of the Anthropocene is a cultural landscape and therefore a question of design".  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 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.  Anticipating a future practice model that is situated within the leading Anthropocene futures, LA8201 seeks to engage the contemporary Anthropocene discourse and, via the design process, conduct speculative yet applied project-based research to examine and postulate on landscape-based Anthropocene futures that transcend disciplinary boundaries.  

 

COURSE BACKGROUND

The course is an award-winning graduate landscape architecture studio that focuses upon a single, complex urban project, which poses significant programmatic, infrastructural, spatial and aesthetic challenges found in the 21st century urban context. Selected projects typically are post-industrial sites that are layered with meaningful- and often contested-historical, environmental and social legacies. The course pedagogy is grounded in that of project-based learning and the future critical practice studio. The pace and methodology of the course approximates that found in leading professional offices, providing students with preparatory experience necessary for the rigors of challenging contemporary practice and project leadership. These experiences lead to the development of a professional portfolio that can leverage future opportunities for management of complex urban projects utilizing a synthetic and collaborative landscape architectural methodology.


The course has achieved early praise for its work. In just the past four years the studio has garnered numerous awards. Most notably, the 2012 student work for Seattle’s Duwamish River received the 2013 Minnesota ASLA Award of Excellence, besting over 30 other professional projects and nationally-recognized design offices to win the Award of Excellence, the highest professional annual award that can be bestowed upon professional work. In addition, this award was the first collaborative studio project to win an ASLA Professional Award in the 50 year history of the University of Minnesota LA Department. In 2013, the Willamette studio resulted in the only student work to receive an award in the first annual Minnesota ASLA Student Awards program. The 2013 studio’s work also garnered two ESRI-sponsored USpatial mapping awards, also in the award program’s inaugural year. In 2014, the studio’s work on the Chicago River earned three Minnesota ASLA awards, including the “People’s Choice” award. Further, the studio work has been shown as case studies at lectures at several Universities throughout the US. This recognition is in large part due to the student work, but also due to the studio pedagogy that situates student speculative work as critical practice in our world of massive change and rapidly shifting paradigms.