Landscape Architecture

Activ-ISM: Anne Whiston Spirn

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 5:00pm
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Virtual Lecture

As part of raising consciousness about design justice, this semester the Department of Landscape Architecture devotes its lecture series (Activ-ISM) to activist practices and community engagement. 

Anne Whiston Spirn is the Cecil and Ida Green Distinguished Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at MIT. The American Planning Association named her first book, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design (1984), as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century and credited it with launching the ecological urbanism movement.

Since 1987, Spirn has directed the West Philadelphia Landscape Project (WPLP), an action research project whose mission is to restore nature and rebuild community through strategic design, planning, and education programs. Through experimental projects, WPLP seeks to demonstrate how to create human settlements that are healthier, economical to build and maintain, more resilient, more beautiful, and more just. A key proposal of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project is to manage the West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek watershed as part of a broad approach to improving regional water quality and as a strategy to secure funds to rebuild neighborhoods. In 1999, a White House summit for leading "Scholars and Artists in Public life" cited WPLP as a "Model of Best Practice." For more on WPLP, see and

WPLP employs landscape literacy as a cornerstone of community development and served as a laboratory for Spirn’s second book, The Language of Landscape (1998). The book sets out a theory of landscape and aesthetics that takes account of both human interpretive frameworks and natural process. It argues that landscape is a form of language with its own grammar and metaphors, and that we endanger ourselves by failing to learn and use this language.

In recent books, Spirn has continued to develop the concept of landscape literacy as part of the larger subject of visual literacy and visual thinking. Her award-winning book, Daring to Look (2008), presents photographs and reports from the field by the great photographer Dorothea Lange in 1939 and reflects on how the dynamics she saw and recorded in the Great Depression are still shaping American lives and landscapes. Spirn’s most recent book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery (2014), is about seeing as a way of knowing and photography as a way of thinking.

Since the mid 1990s, Spirn has explored the role of the World Wide Web as a platform for teaching and as a forum for experimentation and expression. She continues to explore the role of photography, multimedia, and the Web in qualitative research.

More on Whiston Spirn:


If you require any accessibility accommodation, such as live captioning, audio description, or a sign language interpreter, please email to let us know what you need. Please note, we require at least 48 hours’ notice. If you register within 48 hours of this event, we won’t be able to secure the appropriate accommodations.