Landscape change has profound social, psychological, and physical health effects on populations, whether voluntarily or involuntarily involved. Designers have worked towards improved health but also intentionally towards military or colonial domination. In looking at the history of the profession we must reflect on context of past and present projects and also hold designers responsible for social and health outcomes.
Without the obfuscating disassociation of designing for financial gain, design for health deals directly with human populations and patterns of well being. This process can become warped towards exclusive nationalist or sectarian ends - which raises important questions in conducting projects and analyzing precedents.
- Were high risk communities involved in the project or removed by the project? Who became stewards of the project and continued to “set the table” for years to come?
- Did the process bring about an intended effect for all, particularly vulnerable parties, or did unhealthy people simply become removed or replaced?
- Were successful efforts at inclusivity thwarted by contexts and polarizing discourses? What are those discourses and how did the project build resiliency beyond polarization?
- Were any silver linings created, even unintentionally, and is there an ongoing discourse within subaltern spaces created in the process? What systems of stability or indeterminacy foster these subaltern spaces and discourses?
These questions are necessary as we consider, create, and manage parks for generations to come; especially within the context of working with landscapes for health. Designers, particularly in the Americas have wrestled long with these questions (Consider Bartomolé De Las Casas in the 16th century). Even the most well intentioned plans can go awry - Thomas Jefferson, for example, designed what he saw as an ideal classical "city on a hill" - by locking up and controlling the vast majority of the population as slaves and relying on the economic sustainability of commodity slave labor.
In the 19th century, cultural mores that bind communities together, and their ecosystemic bioregional systems in which people live, were being eroded by wholesale commodification, resource extraction, consumption, and waste. Frederick law Olmsted and others of the era, such as Smohalla, Seattle, Alexander Von Humboldt, Sequoyah, Sojourner Truth, Simon Bolivar; and many others; attempted to shore up cultural value through humanist stewardship of place. They did this for the improved health and well-being of people everywhere, in present, past, and future generations.
It is no wonder that doctor/ designers of past generations took the Hippocratic oath - devoting themselves to help all people regardless of origin or allegiance. Olmsted was one of these designers devoted to public well-being aside from racial ethnic or national boundaries.
Olmsted.health hopes to help designers everywhere practice landscape medicine.
Celilo 1952, before it was inundated in 1957 for the Dalles hydroelectric Dam. Considering the health of society we must consider cost of large scale projects, as well as the unmeasured benefit of long standing places of social, cultural, and ecological value.
"Landscape change has profound social, psychological, and physical health effects on populations"
"Who became stewards of the project and continued to “set the table” for years to come?"
A PRECEDENT VISION
The methods deployed by Olmsted were deeply set in an ideal of democracy in which individuals who may not necessarily have monetary capital can improve their health through access to the the social and collective healing capital of parks. The parks created were an effort to preserve and cultivate social well being of society in a collective, cared for, land and stewardship trust.
In the United States he witnessed and documented early 19th century slavery conditions under the economics of cotton production in the East and speaks clearly and profoundly of the responsibility of the whole of the continent to work to address the deeply unjust system of capital exploitation that was at hand:
"While water runs downhill, the current and counter currents of trade, of love, of consanguinity, and fellowship will flow north and south. The unavoidable comminglings of the people in a land like this, upon the conditions which the slavery of a portion of the population imposes, make it necessary to peace that we should all live under the same laws and respect the same flag. No government could long control its own people, no government could long exist, that would allow its citizens to be subject to such indignities under a foreign government as those to which the citizens of the United States heretofore have been required to submit under their own" - Olmsted
A Map of the Cotton Kingdom and its Dependencies in America, contributor F.L. Olmsted, Mason Brothers, 1861
"The parks created were an effort to preserve and cultivate social well being of society in a collective, cared for, land and stewardship trust"
Along with experiences around the United States and a trip to China, Olmsted was highly influenced by his time in England, where he witnessed the cultural and economic changes caused by the movement of large landowners to consolidate town and village lands into for-profit cash-crop enterprises. The commodification of formerly associative kin and reciprocity based relationships had turned a once rigid hierarchical system into one of commodified agricultural and factory workers, and largely invisible businesses.
Olmsted saw the destruction caused by commodified cash crop based settling of the Midwest and West. The process of privatization of lands formerly held in common was laying waste to traditional cultures and resources. Herds of buffalo and horses were being killed to rot or turned to dog food; old growth forests with the largest trees in the world were smashed into matchsticks, and prairie and orchard horticultural systems were ripped up in a colonial scorched earth and resettlement regime. Whole towns and villages across the United States were being uprooted, wiped out, or rendered into cheap labor force.
In terms of the West, these sentiments are best described by the landscape doctors like Smohalla and Seattle who worked hard to maintain cultural and ecological integrity in the face of capital commodification and endless expansion of the grid.
There was a reactionary context to some of the work of Olmsted and many contemporary conservationists and preservationists, but Olmsted’s parks are not purely reactionary. In aiming to cultivate a gentle stewardship that continued local traditions, they brought a collection of people together to imagine and build these common spaces. Often the approach intensified valued aspects of the land: aggregating stones, creating new planting areas, and staging programming and collective use of spaces. Olmsted emphasized the appearance of ecological complexity - which he called “naturalness,” and “age” - soft curves of hills with the protrusion of pleasing stones, small winding paths, gently curving boulevards. Much of the aesthetics deployed would be described today as “biomimicry,” or “biophilic design” although at the time they were more likely to be considered “picturesque,” “gothic,” or “classical;” as they had naturally eroded over centuries of gentle use.
The parks were created to function within the larger “super organism” of the city and region. This is much like how a set of plants or a pond operates in an local ecosystem to refresh the aquifer, stabilize temperature fluctuation, and provide a home for numerous insects, fish, birds and other animals; or how a body operates in a room, an organ in a body, or an organelle in a cell.
The parts symbiotically help to maintain the rhythmic homeostasis of the whole, not a dead lifeless homogenous stability, but a refreshing, beating, heterogeneity. In parks creation there was a sensitivity to an intrinsic and undeniable interconnectedness referred to in terms of the ancient philosophy of “physiology” - the relationship of all living things in parts and wholes at multiple scales.
Late 19th century parks planners did not have access to the real time data of today’s medical and municipal communities, but they were extremely aware of the presence and flow of diseases. Generally this was described in terms of the quality of the air - and its effects on the disposition or “humor” of the people exposed to it. The quality of the place and its landscape was seen as the collective evidence of the actions and health of the inhabitants.
This psychological and social reading of the people of a place was the method by which chronic disease could be prevented or improved, through slow and calculated collective lifestyle change. Historically, this process had involved inspiration much more than active construction; as local healers, preachers, artists, and priests shared powerful imagery, stories, songs, and visions to help people in terms of individual lives and collective actions.
"This psychological and social reading of the people of a place was the method by which chronic disease could be prevented or improved, through slow and calculated collective lifestyle change"
VULNERABILITY AND ECOLOGICAL HIERARCHY
At the antithesis of commodified monocultural fields of agricultural production are complex ecological hierarchies. Monocultures by contrast, are extremely fragile - any fluctuation in the market necessitates removal and replanting of vast areas; if disease strikes, it can devastate nearly the entire population. Ecological hierarchy, however, works according to complexity theory, and remains resilient and even thriving with disease or market changes. Ecological complexity was extremely important in the aesthetics and practices of the Olmsted team, and they are likewise valuable today.
At the core of this practice is recognition of the realities of ecological hierarchy and increasing ecological complexity and resiliency through careful stewardship of place. Rather than replacement or erasure (20th century models), the landscape medicine model is to steward existing long standing relationships that populations, particularly high risk groups have this place.
Often these relationships are represented through cultural practice and care - traditional arts, intergenerational activities, respect for the dead. Extended families, and the rituals of daily life and special occasions that extended families practice in place, are key.
At the crux of this system of ecological complexity are vulnerable individuals and groups. Just as the infirm and the young are the central node around which families and inter-family groups come together around operate, vulnerable individuals and groups are the crux around which a complex and resilient society operates.
The ability by which society can care for the vulnerable is the measure of society. The complex mixture of people, biological diversity, physical infrastructure, data, government, and corporations that make up society is no exception. Our shared spaces are our testing grounds for resiliency. If there is a portion of the population that is being excluded, hidden, or hurt, this is the responsibility of the whole. If individuals or groups are being motivated by isolation or polarization to commit criminal or terrorist acts; this is the responsibility of the whole. Only by creating resiliency and inclusion can we begin to soften the hard edges that drive people to madness.
In the context of today’s global polarization and climate change, we must foster care and stewardship of place that increases ecological complexity, diversity, and resiliency. The tools have arisen with the times. In no time in history have we been better at integrating vast amounts of knowledge on a local basis. At no time in history have there been such extant user created networks of dynamic feedback. To foster care we must connect user created end to end systems with accountability in place.
Little by little we can tend stewardship with intergenerational traditions and begin to tie together the nets of our complex ecological hierarchy - and with the resilience of nature - live on.
The Nature of Gothic, John Ruskin, 1892, exhibiting biomimicry.
"vulnerable individuals and groups are the crux around which a complex and resilient society operates.
The ability by which society can care for the vulnerable is the measure of society."