Reyner Banham, in his 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies, chose to view L.A. as an interwoven network of ecological systems: freeways, suburbs, mountains, and beaches. This urban expanse, even in the 1970s, was not only a landscape radically different than what people of Banham’s time had seen before, but more importantly, presaged the prevailing type of urban geography that would become a defining characteristic of the late 20th century and beyond. This new type of urban region, where the lines between and among the city, its suburbs, and nature are increasingly blurred, defines the so-called “megalopolises” of today.

With Banham’s Los Angeles in mind, landscape architects, geographers, and researchers came together at University of Southern California (USC), under the direction of Kelly Shannon, director of the USC School of Architecture’s Landscape Architecture Program, and USC assistant professor Alison Hirsch, for the Landscape as Necessity conference September 22–24 to focus on issues relating to the connections among megalopolis, nature, and the future of both on a rapidly warming planet.

The three-day-long conference was built around the idea that the landscape architecture discipline is, as stated on the conference website, “uniquely able to synthesize ecological systems, scientific data, engineering methods, social practices, and cultural values, integrating them into the design of the built environment.” It was organized around six prevailing themes: “Preemptive Territorial Design,” “Cultural Agency,” “Water Urbanism,” “Landscapes of Infrastructure,” “Productive Landscapes and Food Security,” and “Energy Fields.” These topics point to the ever-expanding mantle the landscape architecture discipline has increasingly embraced in recent years. This positioning has enabled landscape architects to achieve a new level of prominence in society, both in the rapidly urbanizing areas of the world and in legacy cities, where urban renewal, post-industrial society, and climate change mitigation are being harnessed in an effort to make cities more equitable and sustainable.

These considerations come heavily into play in the work presented at the conference, which was broadly based and featured research and projects from around the world. One panel discussion, called “Resource and Risk,” mined the generative potential of “resource-strained geographies” and featured the work of Miho Mazereeuw, director of the MIT Urban Risk Lab, Eduardo T. De Mesa, chief of the Planning Division at the Los Angeles District of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Kristina Hill, associate professor at University of California, Berkeley, and Gerdo Aquino of Los Angeles–based SWA landscape architects. Mazereeuw presented research from her project “Risk Ecologies– Haiti Evacuation System,” a complex and multivalent study of the currently practiced strategies deployed in Haiti to adapt to the region’s many climatic and social struggles. Aquino presented his firm’s work for the Sava Promenada in Belgrade, Serbia, a project that introduces a one-kilometer long, variable urban waterfront that accommodates seasonal river flooding the Sava River.

The Landscape as Necessity conference brought together a wide array of landscape-minded luminaries, including Harvard-based researcher Bradley Cantrell, whose robotically created modeling techniques generate two- and three-dimensional abstractions of alluvial sediment patterns. (Courtesy Bradley Cantrell)

The Landscape as Necessity conference brought together a wide array of landscape-minded luminaries, including Harvard-based researcher Bradley Cantrell, whose robotically created modeling techniques generate two- and three-dimensional abstractions of alluvial sediment patterns. (Courtesy Bradley Cantrell)

Aside from panels, the conference featured paper presentations, such as “Preemptive Territorial Design, Energy fields, Infrastructures,” and showcased work from experts such as, Barry Lehrman, assistant professor of Landscape Architecture at California State Polytechnic University Pomona, who presented a substantive hydrological analysis of his Los Angeles River research. It also featured work by Bradley Cantrell, a Harvard-based researcher who presented the robotic modeling techniques his team uses to create abstracted sediment simulations for riparian landscapes and that of Yusuf Zoheb Nazerali, an architect, landscape designer, and educator who presented his urban design project “Basha Wolde Chilot” for the city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that seeks to stitch together old and new parts of the city through landscape infrastructure and economic re-orientation.

The lengthy and impressive grouping of presenters, which ran the gamut from heroes of the field to rising researchers and visionary thinkers, lent a sense of urgency to the
conference’s major themes, reinforcing Shannon’s notion for the meeting, that, “More than ever, there is a fundamental necessity for landscape architects to continually expand the public realm, creatively repair polluted sites, and develop innovative hybrid programs.” As conference attendee Kelly Majewski, principal at Los Angeles–based landscape architecture firm Superjacent said: “There was overall feeling from the conference of a call to action for landscape architects from Los Angeles and around the globe to get involved at all levels of the process from design to politics to funding.”

This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.

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