City and Regional Planning

Environmental Readings 2016

From the Foreword:

A long, deep green thread exists in American literature from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman through Herman Melville and William Carlos Williams and on to Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Berry, and Colson Whitehead. This literature has influenced how we perceive our environments and, in the process, many planners, designers, and conservationists, including Frederick Law Olmsted, Jane Addams, Aldo Leopold, Lewis Mumford, Ian McHarg, and Anne Whiston Spirn. My University of Texas at Austin Environmental Readings courses traced this thread and its effects on how we shape our landscapes through design and planning.

The readings in the course focus on green literature as well as design theorists and theories. Three of the most important theorists in environmental planning and landscape architecture are Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., Charles Eliot, and Ian McHarg. The senior Olmsted pretty much created the field of landscape architecture, adapting the English pastoral aesthetic for the rapidly urbanizing North American continent to address pressing urban issues. Arguably, the planning profession in the United States also began with the senior Olmsted. Charles Eliot was a protégé of Olmsted’s. Eliot pioneered the use of comprehensive, scientific landscape inventories; originated the concept of land trusts; and designed the first metropolitan regional open-space plan. Educated in both landscape architecture and city planning, Ian McHarg influenced both fields in the late twentieth century. He urged us to better understand natural processes and how people use space.

Current theories in environmental planning and landscape architecture addressed by the Environmental Readings list include: frameworks for cultural landscape studies, the future of the vernacular, ecological design and planning, sustainable and regenerative design, the languages of landscapes, and evolving views of landscape aesthetics and ethics.

I taught Environmental Readings each spring at the University of Texas at Austin and will continue to do so at Penn. I inherited the Environmental Readings seminar from my Arizona State colleague Laurel McSherry (now at Virginia Tech) when she went on sabbatical with a Rome Prize. At Texas, I reworked the course on Laurel’s inspirational foundation to make it my own. Mostly, landscape architecture and planning students have enrolled. However, I have also had architecture, history, public administration, geography, sustainable design, and urban design students take the course. Every year or two, I choose a different, recently published book, usually a novel, to conclude the semester. For instance, this semester I assigned Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America as well as a less typical selection, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment and human ecology Laudato Si’. I plan on using Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad next spring when I will offer the course for the first time here at Penn.

The essays that follow are by students who were in the class in the spring of 2016 and emerged out of spirited and collegial exchange in the seminar meetings. The collection of essays Is Landscape… ? provided an open question framework for exploring how we might understand “nature” and the built environment in a rich variety of ways. By examining topics such as cultural preservation, spiritual ecology, space/place, performance, dance, film, urbanism, heritage, tradition, and innovation, several related threads emerged over the course of the semester and are represented in the essays collected in this volume. The insight shared across the conversation presented in these pages is that landscapes are fundamentally inseparable from the people who observe, experience, study, shape, and inhabit them.

Frederick Steiner
Dean and Paley Professor, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia



Frederick Steiner, Dean, Paley Professor, Co-Executive Director, The McHarg Center