American Landscapes: A Brief Sketch of Political Economy

[Using the Gini coefficient to analyze each nation according to income difference the United States falls in line with the general pattern seen throughout the Americas- it is a place of massive income disparity. The implications of this are potentially wide ranging, but it is clear that we are talking about a fundamentally different political-economic context in which projects are conceived of, funded, and executed. Here the darker color indicates higher levels of income and wealth inequality. If we organize this data into a list from greatest disparity to least and color code it, with American nations in red and European nations in blue, the difference is stark indeed. Canada is the only American nation to make it in to the European section of the list.]
Political economy is the mode of production and wealth distribution, and its relations with law, customs and governing institutions in a society. While often implicit it is fundamental to the context of any theoretical or practical landscape project. It is what is alluded to when someone says that a project is a “product of its time”. Political economy is why it often seems foolish to talk about landscape projects in terms of replicable models. To take a well-known contemporary example, the High Line must understood within its political economic context: as a product of the halcyon days of early 21st century New York City, made possible by public-private partnerships for public spaces and spurred by the white-hot real estate market of the 2005 Chelsea neighborhood.
In the field of Hemispheric Studies there is a broad, rich debate regarding political economy of the Americas. In very coarse terms there is a fault line along which most arguments tend to divide- either the Americas are considered to be of a piece and studied together, or they are considered in relationship to their dominant European power during colonial times. While often considered to be evidence of a problem, this polarized debate has also proven incredibly productive, akin to a dynamo wherein electrical current is created by moving a wire through a magnetic field. Limits and assumptions of one way of thinking are tested and critiqued against the concepts and theories of the other perspective. This tendency was noted by Charles C. Griffin in his 1951 essay “Unity and Diversity in American History”. Unfortunately, despite the fundamental importance of political economy to landscape architecture, in our field we have no such debate. We fall squarely on one side of the line.
This is a problem. In our landscape histories direct lines are traced from Mediterranean antiquity through the European Middle Ages to modern American and European landscapes. This despite the supposed weight we give to place and site. Our theoretical foundations are built largely on the backs of the important contributions of British, Dutch, French and German philosophers and theorists with no attention whatsoever paid to the work of Latin American or Indigenous American thinkers. It is not a terribly surprising problem- the specific practice of landscape architecture is largely European and Creole-American (those descended from Europeans) in derivation, and the tendency to both privilege and push against the cultural values of Europeans is common in post-colonial societies, especially among the creole class. However, the facts of American political economy beg for a different, or at least less hegemonic, approach.
Landscape architectural projects are conceived of and implemented in very specific, highly contingent contexts, a context in which political economy plays an important role. The wealth and income disparity of a population that the project is meant for is an important driver, and always has been. This can be seen especially in the work of Olmsted and Eliot, who conceived of the large urban park systems of the late 19th century as places that would bring together people from all classes of society in pursuit of civilizing and humane forms of recreation and socialization. American cities at this time were places of great wealth disparity, uncontrolled industrial production, class division, and rudimentary sanitation services. The park systems such as Central Park or Boston's Emerald Necklace were conceived as a sort of antidote to this, meant to counteract ill-effects of modern society. While this was a common condition in Europe as well, the situation tended to be particularly extreme in American cities such as Buenos Aires and New York, where massive waves of immigration combined with combustible industrial growth creating a volatile mix.
[journalist Jacob Riis used photography to expose the difficult conditions of the poor working class in 19th century New York City as part of a larger reform effort which included the creation of a wealth of new social insititutions, including the municipal park]
The United States is often thought of as different or special in the Americas when it comes to wealth. And by the conventional measure of gross domestic product it is. However, if a more complete picture is sought and income disparity is taken into account a radically different picture comes to light. The United States, while a wealthy nation, is a place of massive inequality like the rest of America, much more in line with nations such as Nicaragua and Uruguay than Germany or France. This can have very real effects on the ability to conceive and carry out certain types of landscape projects, such as new public spaces and infrastructures. It is widely accepted that different cultural values inform concepts and practices of landscape-making, a fact that is both one of the great strengths and tensions of modern public space. But people and classes of radically different means often have different ideas and ways of making landscapes as well. An exorbitantly wealth class or organization may want to import forms that display power from cosmopolitan capitals and pay experts and laborers to build and maintain the place, whereas extremely poor people may be more concerned with the productive capacity of a place, or the ability to hide from or elude others.
If political economy is taken seriously as part of the context of a landscape project, then we must question the appropriateness of importing models and concepts from Europe where the populations tend to be wealthier, more homogenous, and have much less income disparity. What is needed are the development and celebration of our own unique forms and modes of practice for landscape-making. To begin we might start in three places. The easiest is already underway, and always has been in some form: looking to practice. Our best practitioners, in part because of the necessity of responding to local problems in order to build real landscapes, have historically been a great source of American landscape design. They are, however, limited because right now practice is almost exclusively a service profession and therefore limited to responding to the market. Second, we might work to recover indigenous forms that have been lost or ignored for too long.
Third, we should look to Latin America. This is a place of nearly equal size and population of post-colonial societies with high levels of income inequality and rich and troubled history of race, religion, and cultural values. There is much to be gained. By turning our focus there new ways for project financing and methods of implementation that respond to the political economy closer to our own will be discovered. The romantic myths of wilderness and nature will be put to death and returned home to Europe in a pine box, instead replaced with new visions and understanding of the great infrastructural and ecological earthworks that existed in Amazonian basin. Two-hundred years later, we will act on the truth in Thomas Jefferson's 1813 letter to the famed German naturalist Alexander Von Humbolt entitled “A Hemisphere Unto Itself”:
The European nations constitute a separate division of the globe; their localities make them part of a distinct system; they have a set of interests of their own in which it is our business never to engage ourselves. America has a hemisphere to itself. It must have its separate system of interests, which must not be subordinated to those of Europe.

3 thoughts on “American Landscapes: A Brief Sketch of Political Economy

  1. Pingback: Three Landscape Approximations | landscape archipelago

  2. Pingback: Concluding with American Landscapes | landscape archipelago

  3. “An exorbitantly wealth class or organization may want to import forms that display power from cosmopolitan capitals and pay experts and laborers to build and maintain the place, whereas extremely poor people may be more concerned with the productive capacity of a place, or the ability to hide from or elude others.”

    This is so true yet suppressed, to the point where I forget it more frequently than I consider it — that the diversity of space-making processes connects directly to inequality of income, race, gender. Part of what makes landscapes so fascinating is that different agents, including those who are oppressed, can organize in a space that, at another scale, is organized by a different agent. I guess that’s either what democracy is supposed to look like or subversion if democracy isn’t working. Designers emphasize good design being subversive without talking about institutionalized racism, income inequality, gender inequality. What are examples of spaces produced by agents disassociated from dominant institutions?

    Grassroots movements in the America’s for building parks seems like one place to articulate models under-represented in our European-guided field. I’m thinking of the Lafitte Corridor in New Orleans, where (to oversimplify) a few friends walked a 3 mile blighted path annually, imagining what the blight could be, until years later, when the size of the group grew to thousands, and built a mass powerful enough to at least begin to guide the initiation of the design process — now run by Design Workshop. What I think is interesting about this process is that it is so reminiscent of the local culture of procession as demarcation of territory (I think it’s worth noting, the Corridor movement is markedly white, the procession and second line, black. In the context of race, space and agency, the park is a more permanent assertion of space, sanctioned by government, harder to remove, while the procession is more ephemeral, permitted on an event-by-event basis, arrested by the police or violence).

    Landscapes that are more active and ephemeral — words that are popular in landscape architecture right now — would be right to look to examine those who are oppressed, who cannot (or do not desire to?) achieve permanent spaces the way the majority of park design typically has in the way the history of our profession has articulated it. I think I’m just repeating what you’re saying back to you, but it’s helpful for me anyway.

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