Originally published in Landscape Urbanism Journal 02: Buzz or Noise?
by Sarah Kathleen Peck and Eliza Shaw Valk
View from Brooklyn Bridge Park
We work in a profession where precision and accuracy are critical, and yet we imagine and propose things never before done. Each drawing and conversation is a step towards a physical realization, and the better we can document and convey our intentions, the better they can be understood and implemented. Our profession is limited to drawings, words, presentations, and conversations—good communication is imperative. We tell stories about what we do and why we do it. How well we tell these stories matters.
Over the past twenty years, the mediums of communication have again turned upside-down: Bill Clinton is famous for never sending an email while in office; today, we send hundreds of emails and carry personal computers in our pockets. Often, even while someplace, our hands and minds are elsewhere, connected to communities and information resources that pull our attention away from here and now. While we have yet to understand the implications of our media-heavy, internet-rich world on our social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental constructions, these questions are the subject of this second issue of landscape urbanism.
As Richard Saul Wurman has written, one of the most beautiful art forms is conversation, with its full range of rhythms, expressions, gestures, and signals that together construct dialogue and meaning. This is why meetings never go out of style; why we continue to work in offices; why we tell stories and meet at bars. While Edward Tufte bemoans many of the stifling presentations given today—complex information distilled into inane charts and bullets—in the absence of face-to-face interaction, we must pick out words, draw pictures, and select tools to tell the story of what we want to communicate: what we hope to achieve in the places that we are creating.
All of this channels down to questions about process and landscape urbanism. In a world where media bombard us with information every step of the way, with limited time and attention, with an excess of tools at our fingertips—how do we do our best work? Are there new tools—particularly this intangible, sticky idea of “social media”—that can inform our process and make our work better? And how do we integrate these new technologies into physical spaces in the world?
In this issue, we focus on the mediums used to express the message. We’re delighted to feature two excerpts from Richard Saul Wurman’s writings on communication and his recommendations for dealing with information overload in an increasingly fast-paced digital world. Editor Eliza Valk compares the processes of writing and drawing and how these exercises of expression push the perimeters of what is known into what is not known, but needs to be imagined. Marshall McLuhan, in his 1967 bestseller “The Medium is the Message,” (or its original misprint and still accurate title: the medium is the massage) frames our next forum question: how do we use media effectively and powerfully—for aesthetic, performance, and communication objectives?
In light of the remarkable software developments now taught and applied in our field, Andrea Hansen pulls together the evolution of computational representation techniques and how these digital tools imprint form on land. We also are showcasing student work from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design featured in several exhibits that Andrea curated. In addition, Lauren Manning, a visual information designer, looks at four tools for data representation in her analysis of diagrammatic, infographic, mapping, and narrative forms of visual storytelling.
With our phones and computers in hand, we are connected to a bounty of information. We are not simply absorbing data; information transfer is becoming more fluid and dynamic. Location-based services aggregate information about who we are, where we go, and what we like. What do we do with this data? How can we crowd-source smartly? How can we use this data both in the design process, as well as in our public arenas? Amanda Walter and Brian Phelps each tackle these questions: Amanda looked at the use of QR Codes in park design in New York City and Brian created a forum for crowd-based mobile mapping at the recent ASLA conference in San Diego. Katherine Harvey and Michael Pinto integrate digital and analog forms of expression into the survey, analysis, and design behind an arts program at the Los Angeles International Airport, promoting cultural engagement through airport urbanism.
And finally, despite all of the digital technology at our fingertips, we return to the act of a few people gathering to talk, in person or over the phone. Meg Studer sits with Charles Waldheim to collect his thoughts on landscape, ecological, and infrastructural urbanisms with regard to recent global events; and we are re-issuing an essay by Charles asserting the need, despite the current proliferation of urbanism modifiers, for a progressive, ecologically informed urban practice. Finally, springing from a distinctive history of publicly engaged work, both past and into future, we talk to Charles Birnbaum of The Cultural Landscape Foundation about reaching broader audiences to promote the legacy and significance of landscape architecture.
Cities are intricate places, built in mishmashed layers. Similarly, conversations collide and overlap—a jumble of ideas that obscure or emerge with every exchange. We are not singularly focused or unidirectional in our modes of design, nor have we settled on one tool of communication. Every project and conversation—each iteration—offers a lens to view, describe, or alter our work and world. This second issue looks at how we tell the stories of landscape urbanism, and in the telling, how we can continue building.
Sarah Kathleen Peck works in the spaces between landscape architecture, technology, communications, and strategy, and is the founder and editor of this site.
Eliza Shaw Valk is co-editor of this site and is a designer and writer with a background in dance and performance.
Image Credits: Photo by Eliza Shaw Valk.