Take a moment and think about your city’s defining landmark. Is it the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Maybe the One World Trade Center in New York? Or Hong Kong’s IM Pei Bank of China Tower? I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say that, chances are, you probably chose a structure made of steel, stone and glass: a building or monument. That’s perfectly acceptable of course, but let’s lower our gaze towards ground level and consider the landscapes that surround us: our parks and gardens, waterfronts and boulevards that sometimes sit in the shadows of skyscrapers in cities around the world.
I recently attended a conference in Toronto by The Cultural Landscape Foundation, an organisation based in Washington dedicated to raising awareness of landscape architects and designers. I was stunned that while I know who masterminded a number of city buildings such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Eaton Centre downtown and the CN Tower, I was hard-pressed to name a single person responsible for one of Toronto’s many parks or civic spaces. In fact I’m not even sure if the thought that these spaces were actually designed by someone had ever crossed my mind.
But of course they are. And there are many examples of how intelligently designed landscapes can completely revolutionise a city. Perhaps the best one is during the 19th century, when Frederick Law Olmsted created Central Park in New York. The shanty towns and swamplands in the area eventually gave way to the various lively Manhattan neighbourhoods we know today. People are drawn to great landscapes.
Yet while many non-architects know about the Pritzker Prize’s illustrious laureates, landscape architects have been largely neglected by those outside the industry. Perhaps it’s because we are blind to the neighbourhood park that we use so often when we walk our dogs and go for our daily runs. And maybe we are too busy focusing on shopping that we don’t pause to contemplate who’s put the well-placed bench at that sweet spot for us to rest our legs when we need it most. In any case, it’s about time we correct this mindset. The Cultural Landscape Foundation believes that by drawing more attention to the heritage of our shared spaces we stand a better chance at preserving them, much like how we conserve and celebrate significant pieces of traditional architecture.
I simply think it makes sense to know who designed the parts of our city we’re most intimately familiar with. Unlike buildings that are innately exclusive in the sense that they keep people who have no business being in them out, our shared landscapes are inclusive by nature. Anyone can go to a park for a picnic or watch ferries sail by on the waterfront. Shouldn’t a city’s defining landmark be a place where city dwellers actually dwell?
Jason Li is Monocle’s deputy bureau chief in Toronto.