Despite knowing that the landscape is dynamic, as an ecosystem and as a socio-political territory, most of us continue to imagine that dynamism as the result of the movement of isolated elements – birds, fish, people – over a fixed environment – rivers, borders, roads. This column reflects on what it means to believe in the fiction of landscape as a stable context without migratory conditions, which determines that our responses regarding its design and development policies are limited and doomed to fail.
In the early 1930s, a severe drought in the United States was responsible for a massive decline in agricultural productivity, particularly in the geographical region known as the Great Plains, especially in the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. After the First World War, these areas had been over-used for the cultivation of wheat, and millions of hectares were covered with a surface layer of soil, exposed and volatile. Without rains, the crops weakened until they disappeared and the ground cover, without roots to fix it, was lifted by the winds and dragged by dark clouds floating throughout the region, blocking the sun and suffocating those who unsuspectingly observed their passage. The phenomenon, known as the Dust Bowl, was not a natural disaster as we like to say about these latitudes, but one of the worst ecological tragedies manufactured by man thanks to the perfect combination of overexploitation of resources, lack of territorial planning, and an unforeseen natural phenomenon (1).
(1) Without a doubt the best record of the event is found in the work of historian Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Great Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
To make matters worse, the event took place alongside the Great Depression and farmers, unable to pay their mortgages or invest in the necessary industrial equipment to cope with the new condition of their land, had to abandon their properties, going mainly to California and settling with their families in overcrowded and miserable camps where many died of hunger, unable to find a job to survive. This new social class, masterfully portrayed by photographer Dorothea Lange and by writer John Steinbeck – whose 1939 novel gives the title to this column – is a reminder that nothing is static and fixed when natural systems and territorial development processes are in a kind of cosmic conjunction.
On a planetary scale, we know that terrestrial configurations are transformed through tectonic plates and, without going any further, during the last fifty years we have been dedicated to monitoring and trying to prevent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other geological events. In fact, landscape designers are faced daily with the need to define strategies capable of making visible a landscape that is always becoming something, while adapting to new and changing conditions.
This dynamism is what makes the landscape – as an ecosystem and as a sociopolitical territory – a medium so extraordinary and rich in experiences, on the one hand, and so disconcerting and difficult to model and manipulate on the other. As a complex multiplicity of processes, all propagating and proliferating changing organizations, the landscape requires a creative approach to how these systems are designed and managed. Nevertheless, the majority of us continue to imagine this dynamism as the result of the movement of isolated elements – birds, fish, people – over a fixed environment – rivers, borders, roads. We know that environmental conditions are changing, but we believe in the fiction of a stable context, determining that our responses in terms of design and development policies are limited and doomed to fail.
Consequently, we need to understand that landscapes have a migratory condition, defined by the moment in which their component elements (materials, entities, and actors) assemble and define them. They change and are even configured, as a result of new assembly patterns. As much spatially as qualitatively different landscapes can and are manifested in the same geographical site. It is time, then, that we begin to produce and evaluate landscapes based on migration parameters, asking ourselves how landscapes mutate and what results can we expect from that movement? If we know that there are ‘things’ that flow, interchange amongst them, outside and within the landscapes, and that despite this partial autonomy that ‘things’ maintain a deep relationship with each other, it is vital then to examine the landscapes along a historical trajectory. And, if we also assume that the assembly of landscapes is aligned with what we do with them, then another question arises: what parts and processes of the landscape do we choose to address and what lines of action do we take with them?
We could say that John B. Jackson defined landscape epically as “a composition of spaces made or modified by man to serve as infrastructure or support of our collective existence” (2). Faced with this premise, as a landscape becomes an infrastructure for a production system, a particular and socio-ecological material construction of the landscape is articulated that determines, as a result, how the landscape will move and how it will behave in the future.
(2) J.B. Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p.8.
Returning to the case of the Great Plains– whose images evoke futuristic constructions of our destiny, such as those in the film Interstellar, one of the challenges we must assume as a country is to face the rapidly growing problem of drought. We can start by announcing two categories of possible responses from the design perspective: the construction of resilient landscapes, or specific interventions capable of adapting to changing conditions, and that of geo-engineering landscapes, capable of reversing ongoing processes through deliberate, large-scale interventions. Whatever the path, we need to start doing something.