A footnote on landscape ‘values’

As I work through this train of thought (see previous posts on “valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes”), I realize some clarification of what I mean by ‘value’ is in order.

I want ‘value’ to encompass both specific aesthetic effects or qualities of landscape and the broader socio-economic and cultural relations implicated in them. For example, bright colours (or, at least, highly contrasting colours) are highly valued in contemporary urban gardens and landscapes. This is something that is easy to take for granted, but the horticultural valuation of colour and contrast is historically specific and has shaped not only trends of garden design, but the selection of species in cultivation by growers (though, admittedly, there is historical research still to be done to convincingly establish this claim). It is also associated with a preference in certain contexts (e.g., municipal, corporate, institutional) for annual (as opposed to perennial) plant species, which tend to require more water and chemical fertilizers than perennial species, and entail more waste (e.g., in the form of the plastic ‘cell packs’ in which they are sold). At the same time, colourful flowers and highly contrasting foliage are highly amenable to being photographed, which enables them to be incorporated in a broader visual culture (e.g., in lifestyle magazines, calendars, coffee table books and so on) that in turn helps to reinforce preferences for particular horticultural qualities and forms. Thus, as a landscape value, bright colour is reciprocally related to specific historical and socio-economic circumstances–its predominance is problematic because its suppression of other possibilities has much broader implications.

A tree pit garden outside a restaurant in Montreal

A tree pit garden outside a restaurant in Montreal

In this context, the search for and elaboration of alternative landscape values is a way of pursuing environmental and social change through cultural means. Or, to put that another way, of making landscape appreciation more critical. What are the qualities and effects associated with processes and circumstances that are environmentally beneficial and socially creative? I think that answering this question is a strategy for orienting intervention and communication in support of a greater diversity of landscape forms, uses and design processes in cities.

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