“There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land … is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.”
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
Sustainable landscapes result when we apply ethical standards to decision-making about land use. Unsustainable landscapes result when, as Aldo Leopold observes, land is thought of merely as property from which self-interest can derive economic gain, “entailing privileges but not obligations.”
The conditions described by Leopold in 1949 remain altogether too true today. Serious landscape degradation for short-sighted economic gain, locally and globally, is a significant and growing problem.
Leopold’s writings on environmental conservation are some of the most important contributions to the modern sustainability movement. He argued that proper land use is an ethical proposition. According to Leopold, the premise of ethics is “that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts,” and therefore individuals must consider that community when making decisions. He goes on to say “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.”
His ideas are undergirded by one of the most important principles of ecology and sustainability: interconnectedness. Embracing a land ethic, we change our attitudes and perspectives, our relationship with the community: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”
A land ethic also transforms our framework for decision-making and taking action. We meet our obligation to the community of interdependent parts and set about restoring the damage done.
Much of the sustainability movement is about restoration: restoring healthy ecosystem functioning; restoring community; restoring health and wellbeing; restoring connections that have been severed. When it comes to landscapes, land use, and land functioning, we know how to do this. We know how to restore and recreate landscapes and the benefits they provide. What’s more, we have plenty of examples of doing it spectacularly well.
Perhaps the best example of restoring and recreating degraded landscapes is the very first major effort attempted in the United States. In the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmstead had the task of transforming a dismal property that was about to be overrun by a rapidly expanding city. Author Douglas Strong describes that landscape in his excellent book Defenders and Dreamers: “A few rocks and barren pastures appeared between low, swampy areas that were ‘steeped in the overflow and mush of pigsties, slaughter houses, and bone-boiling works.’” Bleah. Doesn’t sound like much. But with vision and determination, Olmstead and his colleagues created Central Park in New York City, the first of America’s great city parks. In the process he laid the foundation for landscape architecture in the United States.
Olmstead went on to create seventeen major parks including Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Franklin Park in Boston. He transformed the landscape at Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, NC, and created the master plan for the campus of Stanford University. He also had a hand in protecting Yosemite Valley prior to its establishment as a national park.
It is particularly interesting to note Olmstead’s motivation for his extraordinary work. It was the same as Leopold’s: ethics. He had a strong sense of social justice. He understood nature’s value beyond economic self-interest and our obligation to protect, restore, and recreate conditions for nature’s beauty and bounty to flourish.
He believed parks and other beautiful natural settings were essential to human welfare, a concept validated on a regular basis in current human health research. At a time when the wealthy were buying large tracts of land and creating estates, Olmstead felt government, reflecting the will of the people, had an obligation to set aside and protect parks and open spaces and make them accessible to all, especially to the poor who otherwise would never have access to such places.
Sustainable landscape architecture today considers the inputs and outputs of land use, and finds ways to eliminate negative impacts and create restorative ones. In the United States “Green Industry,” planting to create sustainable landscapes, has become economically the largest segment of plant agriculture.
Sustainable landscaping, reflecting a land ethic, can be practiced in our own yards and neighborhoods. It means reducing the need for irrigation. It means treating stormwater the way nature does — by spreading it out, slowing it down, and letting it soak into the ground, thereby preserving the natural hydrologic cycle and replenishing groundwater. It means minimizing and eliminating the use of chemicals; eliminating non-native and invasive plants; promoting biodiversity and habitat creation; using locally-sourced materials; and so on. Check out Alabama Smart Yards as a guide for doing this.
The entire sustainability movement is based on ethics, on a recognition that each of us “is a member of a community of interdependent parts” and reminds us of our obligation to consider our impacts on others, the world around us, and future generations. Because of the pioneering work of Leopold and Olmstead, and the many people who have followed their lead, we have an ethical framework for decision-making and spectacular examples of what we can create.