The following text is from my Ryerson Memorial Fellowship proposal, which I was awarded from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007. I was able to spend three months traveling in western Europe visiting sites I had selected under the theme of 'New Nature and Cultural Landscapes'.
Nature is re-entering urban and post-productive landscapes in various forms and scales,
from weeds popping up in cement cracks, to takeovers by invasive species. The collapse of
the industrial economy and consequent abandonment of infrastructure have created opportunities
for what Christophe Girot calls 'new nature' ecosystems. Different from first, second,
or third nature, "new"—or, what I call "fourth"—nature is that which occurs in the absence
of human agency in settings that have otherwise been culturally transformed. Such places
have much to offer to the curious observer. They reframe nature as a thing of wonder—a
performing, transforming, interactive marvel—and they raise questions about how "new" or"fourth" nature might be courted through design. Can landscape architects work with nature
without dominating it? How might they create places open to the potentials of nature yet still
responsive to multifaceted human demands?
Landscape architects are perhaps more inclined than architects to accept unstable conditions and uncertain demands and to seek out opportunities for indeterminate experiences. To design with fourth nature, landscape architects must understand natural processes and ecosystems specific to the places where nature is emergent. Armed with that knowledge, they might foster conditions for "wilderness" within the context of a specific program. Acknowledging that wilderness is already a human construct, instances of fourth nature need not be physically or conceptually isolated as if preserved nature, but can manifest characteristics appropriate to human occupation and exploration. In this approach, the profession of landscape architecture is more deeply integrated with both the natural sciences and urban and regional planning. Fear of the unknown, relentless romanticism, and nostalgia for the picturesque are three driving conditions that detract from the practice of contemporary landscape architecture. One way for the discipline to move forward is by embracing process and understanding 'new nature,' thereby cultivating a new approach to place-specific design. Human-made wilderness is both sustainable and transformative. Fourth nature is a form of performance art, in which the players are plants and the scenarios are improvised according to their inclinations within context.
Post-productive landscapes can be found in cities, their margins, and rural areas alike. Whether a former factory within urban fabric, an abandoned airstrip, or a forgotten agricultural field, these places offer starting points for understanding nature within cultural landscapes. Nature colonizes derelict sites according to its own logic played against context. Such situations present raw and honest demonstrations of the current state of natural processes, and they have a real beauty. Yet, they are also precarious, particularly in urban settings, because post-productive landscapes are prime targets for open space development; there are serious pressures and programmatic demands for their use, even though many urban spaces do not have the financial viability to sustain more traditional approaches to landscape design. Accordingly, there is a significant need for viable alternatives. Becoming specialized in fourth nature and understanding its potentials means embracing experiment as a form of design practice. If landscape architecture is to progress as an art, we must get beyond fear of the unknown and learn from the order of nature in its current manifestations. Through experiment, design is reimagined not as imposition but as negotiation between people and nature.
When a landscape work is conceived and installed, it is often fashioned with an architectural sense of stasis. This makes obvious a huge disconnect between the fundamental principle of landscape change and how projects are imposed. Movement and evolution are the bases of biology and biological processes. Literature on the ecology of natural disturbance and patch dynamics describes changes in landscape forms from a biological perspective. Two sorts of community change are recognized: Autogenesis and Allogenesis. In the former, change is driven by the biological properties of the system at hand, whereas, in the latter, an outside driving environmental 'forcing' function is present. As designers in our age of technology, we can engage in this conversation, being a 'forcing' function, but also accepting and learning from internal community changes. The word 'process' to me implies movement or change. In discussions of design, process is often presented as something that takes place before a work is installed, as if process grinds to a halt once the design begins its life. Landscape "management" often involves efforts (e.g., pruning shrubs, pulling weeds) to make dynamic, living organisms seem static. This seems like a squandering of process, or an attempt at control with mundane results. I would like to see landscape architecture turn toward the production of environments where the realization is process-oriented, rather than simply goal-oriented. Such works may not be straightforward or familiar, but they are filled with wonder and possibility.