Friday, December 31, 2010

Public, political, personal -- landscape/nature is good for you. And the lack of it may be killing us.

Earlier this month, the ASLA blog, The Dirt, reported on an essay by Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design, University of Minnesota, on the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted's early career in public sanitation/health on his later work as a landscape architect -- and as a public intellectual. The essay,"Frederick Law Olmsted and the Campaign for Public Health" (detailed, fascinating and nicely illustrated), was published in November 2010, at the Design History Foundation's Places. Professor Fisher provides good background on Olmsted's lasting concern with public health as a strong motivation in all his work. Fisher also brings the topic to the present with this question:

". . . almost a century and a half after Olmsted left the U.S. Sanitary Commission, we find ourselves, once again, in an era when the larger issues of public health intersect the practices of landscape architecture, architecture and urbanism. And we might well wonder: What would Olmsted do, were he alive today, and facing such paradoxical threats, arising from scarcity in some places and from abundance in others?"

Fisher's answer is that Olmsted would be an aggressive and fearless advocate. "Olmsted would bring a sense of high professional purpose to the work; throughout his ife he pursued larger social goals, regardless of cost, as opposed to the politically expedient or personally beneficial course. . . . The low-density development that contributes to our obesity, the air and water pollution that contributes to our cancer rates, and the systemic impoverishment that contributes to our pandemics -- all are traceable to political decisions and cultures that favor property owners, developers, and landlords, and the banks and shareholders who benefit as well. We will never confront our contemporary public health problems in any meaningful way unless we question the prevailing power structures -- unless we make a powerful case for long-range social good and challenge those who skew the rules in favor of short-term gain . . . . Olmsted's career as a landscape architect foretold where the field would go for its first century and a half in America. His career as a leader of the Sanitary Commission may foretell where the field needs to go in the next century. The health of all of us may depend on it."

Moving from the political to the personal, within a week of Professor Fisher's publication at Places, Jane Brody, in her Personal Health column in The New York Times, wrote about Americans' "outdoor deprivation disorder." Brody cites a variety of studies and publications (including Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods) about how our indoor, sedentary lifestyle contributes to a panoply of afflictions. Brody provides a round-up of the public policy initiatives (ranging from the National Wildlife Federation's "Be Out There" public education program and The National Park Service's "park prescriptions" campaign, among others) focused on getting us outside and into nature (and into the sunshine) -- and to get us moving/active.

Environment/landscape/public realm policy, public health initiatives, personal health -- the issues are coalescing. We can expect more in 2011, and, hopefully, better outcomes in the public and private spheres.