The Tragedy and Beauty of Being a Landscape Interventionist

In Science we trust (cd.shopify.com)

_COLUMN_ door Maarten Jacobs

The idea that public trust in science and scientists in decreasing is frequently propagated in the media. Well, is this trust indeed eroding? The climate change debate and human nutrition debate are two example cases suggesting distrust amongst the public.

Yet, closer inspection of these examples reveals a different picture. True, some segments of society are sceptical about climate change, or at least about the supposed human role in it. The loudest voices of this scepticism, however, are often exactly from, or paid by, those having a clear interest in being sceptic.

 

Burning fossil fuels means big money for some, and taking climate change seriously arguably presents challenges to the continuation of that money flow.

Can you see the global warming? (nrdc.org Hakan Jannson Alamy)

Can you see the global warming? (nrdc.org Hakan Jannson Alamy)

The vast majority of people in western nations believes that global warming is happening, that humans have a substantial role, and even that something should be done, that is what the figures on the basis of large scale surveys tell us. Basically, we trust climate science. True, some segments of society are sceptic towards claims made by human nutrition scientists, such as the claim that e-numbers in food products are safe. Typically, those sceptics are a minority, and are exactly those who adopt food as a life style and identity item. The vast majority happily buys food in supermarkets, feeling perfectly safe about consuming stuff denoted as e-numbers. We trust human nutrition science. Beyond these critical examples, human behaviour even reveals overwhelming and massive trust in science. If a computer does not do what we want it to do, we might blame ourselves (I am not so good in using computers), we might blame the software (probably a bug), we might blame the computer (everything erodes and stops working properly at a certain point in time), but we do not blame the scientific insights behind, for instance, the working of the microprocessor.

“If we look out of the window, we do not directly see the climate changing. Yet, if we look out of the window, we directly see the landscape.”

The overwhelming trust in science does not necessarily extend to the landscape interventionist – anybody who proposes future landscape interventions – whether a landscape architect, land use planner, or urban designer. What then, makes the landscape interventionist different from the mainstream scientist? Firstly, the scientist usually studies things that are there. The landscape interventionist proposes things that are not there yet. The landscape interventionist can carry out some ex ante research, such as studying beauty experiences upon pictures representing design alternatives, or cost-benefit analyses on different energy provision strategies. Yet, knowledge claims remain premature, as the means of studying things that do not exist yet are limited compared to the means of studying things that do exist.

View from a window (shutterstock)

View from a window (shutterstock)

Secondly, the landscape interventionist interferes with the world on the scale of human experience while scientists often study things on different scales. If we work with a computer, we do not directly see the working of the microprocessor. If we eat, we do not directly notice the working of e-labelled molecules. If we look out of the window, we do not directly see the climate changing. Yet, if we look out of the window, we directly see the landscape. You do not like the working of micro-processors? Irrelevant, because they work. You do not like climate change? Irrelevant, it changes anyway.

“If Watson and Crick had not discovered the molecular structure of DNA, others would have done it. If a landscape interventionist would not have proposed a particular plan, somebody else would not propose the same plan.”

You do not like the proposed landscape? Relevant, because it can be different and the proposal should address future users. This is the tragedy of being a landscape interventionist. Proposing future interventions is difficult enough, and the relevance of public evaluation makes it even harder. But there is another side of the coin. The political dimension of the landscape interventionist – having to deal with the public and winning hearts for a proposal that cannot rely on solid evidence – constitutes room for freedom and creativity, much more than the scientists has. If Watson and Crick had not discovered the molecular structure of DNA, others would have done it. If a landscape interventionist would not have proposed a particular plan, somebody else would not propose the same plan. The landscape interventionist as an individual matters a great deal. This is the beauty of being a landscape interventionist.

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