Landscape Architecture Theory: An Ecological Approach

Landscape Architecture Theory: An Ecological Approach

by Michael Murphy

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For decades, landscape architecture was driven solely by artistic sensibilities. But in these times of global change, the opportunity to reshape the world comes with a responsibility to consider how it can be resilient, fostering health and vitality for humans and nature. Landscape Architecture Theory re-examines the fundamentals of the field, offering a new approach to landscape design.

Drawing on his extensive career in teaching and practice, Michael Murphy begins with an examination of influences on landscape architecture: social context, contemporary values, and the practicalities of working as a professional landscape architect. He then delves into systems and procedural theory, while making connections to ecosystem factors, human factors, utility, aesthetics, and the design process. He concludes by showing how a strong theoretical understanding can be applied to practical, every-day decision making and design work to create more holistic, sustainable, and creative landscapes.

Students will take away a foundational understanding of the underpinnings of landscape architecture theory, as well as how it can be applied to real-world designs; working professionals will find stimulating insights to infuse their projects with a greater sense of purpose.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610917513
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 12/13/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 584,966
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 16.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Dr. Michael D. Murphy is professor emeritus of landscape architecture at Texas A&M University where he taught from 1969 to 2012, and served as head of the landscape architecture department from 1989 to 1991. Dr. Murphy has extensive experience in both practice and teaching, also serving as department head at the University of Pretoria. In earlier work, he held appointments as an urban designer and ecological planner on large-scale landscape assessment, planning, and design projects at Chris Mulder Associates Incorporated. He has been particularly interested in ecological design and in programming as a means of integrating the talents of multidisciplinary planning and design teams. In recent years, he has been involved in landscape restoration in the hill country of central Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Landscape Architecture Theory

An Ecological Approach

By Michael D. Murphy


Copyright © 2016 Michael D. Murphy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-751-3



Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape — he is a shaper of the landscape.

— Jacob Bronowski

For thousands of generations, people have modified the landscape to improve their access to resources, security, and comfort (Redman 1999; Diamond 2005; Mann 2011). Over the course of human history, people have increased their ability to shape the landscape to meet their needs and aspirations. But the landscape, having evolved over millions of years, has developed into a complex of interrelationships we have yet to fully comprehend and, as a result, to control. Today we have reached a point at which our power to change the landscape often exceeds our ability to understand and predict all the consequences of those changes. By accident as well as design, human activity has become the primary agent of change in the global landscape (Silver et al. 1990, 50; Union of Concerned Scientists 1992; Suzuki et al. 2004, 71).

Design is our way of guiding change in the landscape to improve the human condition (Rapoport 2005). Landscape architects do this through the creation of places such as gardens, parks, campuses, greenways, and neighborhoods. Theory provides the basis for designing well; to bring about successful change in the landscape. The purpose of theory is to determine what constitutes success in design results and to inform the design process as a useful and successful enterprise. Theory not only provides the evidence on which effective landscape change may be based, it also describes the means for bringing it about and furnishes the metrics for evaluating the quality of the environments that are created. The basic aims of theory are to understand the landscape and how it functions, to determine the conditions to be created through design innovation, and to identify the means to realize them. Three questions frame the investigation:

How can the quality of human life be improved by design?

How can the quality of the environment be improved by design?

What knowledge and skills are required to facilitate these conditions?

Many factors are considered in design: the intentions of clients; the needs and expectations of those who are to use the designed setting; how the interactions between users and setting will create situations to be resolved or opportunities to be exploited; the materials of design — in this case, the landscape itself — and finally, the processes of decision making and creative expression as they influence design outcomes.

From an ecological perspective, context is critical to understanding. This introductory chapter begins with a discussion of some of the issues that influence our understanding and design of the landscape and provides context for the material to follow. Subsequent chapters describe a series of knowledge areas and their underlying values that inspire the changes we impose on the landscape, inform our reasons for doing so, and guide us in reaching design decisions based on a foundation of reliable evidence.

The designer's role is to "reimagine and remake the human presence on Earth in ways that work over the long haul" (Orr 2002, 3). In the past, designs by landscape architects were intended to be functional and beautiful and inspiring. In the future, they must also be restorative, life sustaining, and regenerative — for people as well as for landscapes.

Further, technological innovation represents a growing influence on how we design and develop the landscape. But our primary theoretical concern with technology is to assure that this powerful tool is applied wisely: that it is used not to do the same things more efficiently, but to bring us to a clearer understanding of how to do things better, while consuming and impacting less. The role of technology is to support the intentions of design without interfering with the artistry of design.

The material presented here is a recent history, not of the works of landscape architecture or of their creators, but of the knowledge and ideas that have guided their understanding of the landscape in their efforts to change and improve it. Our first aim, then, is to establish the context for design as a practical and theoretical pursuit.

Landscape Architecture

The term landscape architecture was coined by Gilbert Laing Meason in his 1828 book On the Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters in Italy, and landscape architect was first used as a professional title by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in connection with their work on New York's Central Park in the mid-nineteenth century, after Olmsted found that his title as architect-in-chief was unsatisfactory in describing their role (Twombly 2010, 24). The term came into general use after the formation of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899. Today there are many ways to define landscape architecture. The description provided here is intended to be inclusive of a broad range of practice and research areas shared by most practitioners and academics.

Landscape architecture is the design discipline dedicated to understanding and shaping the landscape. As a profession, it provides site planning, design, and management advice to improve the character, quality, and experience of the landscape, typically as a setting for human activities. The purpose of landscape design is twofold: to guide change in the form of the landscape to create and sustain useful, healthful, and engaging built and natural environments; and to protect and enhance the landscape's intrinsic cultural, ecological, and experiential qualities.

The primary role of landscape architecture is to organize the complexity of the landscape into comprehensible, productive, and beautiful places to improve the function, health, and experience of life. To do this effectively, design practitioners need to understand the landscape and the ways people interact with it, and to apply effective design process and implementation methods.

Attending the dynamics of human development is the challenge to continually re-form the landscape to better accommodate people's evolving requirements. These requirements include the provision of needed resources, space for activities, satisfaction and appreciation of the physical setting, enhancement and preservation of environmental and human health, and the creation and expression of cultural and environmental sense of place. To achieve these multiple, often-competing objectives, designers need a clear understanding of human and environmental processes and the ways they interact to shape the landscape we experience and rely on. To understand these processes, designers also need to be aware of the considerations that influence the way we comprehend and interpret the world around us.


Our values shape the way we define the landscape and influence the actions we take to change or protect it. Values are the ideals or principles we consider important in our lives, the ideas that give purpose and meaning to our thoughts and actions (Rokeach 1973). They are qualities that society considers worthwhile as ends in themselves — such as liberty, truth, and justice — that form the basis of our customs and institutions. Judgments about ethical behavior are a manifestation of values (Snow et al. 2000). Values are based on the comparative worth we ascribe to things, whether tangible or intangible.

In general, the values of landscape architecture lie in three broad areas: aesthetic, ecological, and social (Thompson 2000). Landscape architecture is committed to enhancing human experience, sustaining environmental quality, and establishing social equity. Just as importantly, landscape architecture values the spiritually satisfying and psychologically health-giving benefits of people's harmonious relationships with one another and with their environment. More than anything else, landscape architecture values a holistic approach to addressing utility, beauty, and health as complementary, not competing interests.

Aesthetic values refer to the quality of the human experience and the extent to which that experience brings sensual and emotional pleasure and satisfaction. The goal of social equity implies that the role of the designer is to speak on behalf of the users of designed settings — in particular the young, the elderly, or the infirm — and for the health and stability of the ecological and cultural environment in which human activity occurs and on which human existence depends (Beatley 1994; Enlow 2006). Social justice and equity are at the heart of what landscape architects do and why they do it; in fact, social good is the purpose of professional licensure: the protection of public health, safety, and welfare. Designers' responsibilities lie as much with the public good as with that of private clients since, in addition to safeguarding the general public, protecting the welfare of users and the environment is the best way of protecting the long-term interests of the custodians of the landscape: clients, both present and future, who own or exercise control of the landscape.

Control of the landscape for survival and prosperity is a universal concept. The concept of territoriality and the domination of space and resources is widely observed in nature and well documented for all forms of life as a way of defining the individual and organizing the group to assure survival (Ardrey 1966; Hall 1966; Altman 1975). The landscape is more often considered, and valued, as property, territory to be owned, than as an environment that we collectively inhabit, and for which we have a shared responsibility (Gintis 2007).

Values influence our understanding of the landscape and shape our attitudes toward it, and hence, they inform our collective thinking and behavior. Our values shape our vision and guide our decisions about the landscape and what we wish to achieve by its design and development. The quality and character of the shared landscape is a direct reflection of prevailing values and attitudes. One of our most prevalent attitudes is that the landscape is a commodity.


We are consumers of land and resources as well as products. In good economic times and bad, society pursues a model of ever-increasing production and consumption as the driver of an expanding economy. A prevailing attitude toward the environment is that it is a resource to be exploited for maximum human benefit in the shortest possible time (Redman 1999). The landscape is considered important primarily because it is a commodity that can be exchanged in the marketplace as the source of raw materials from which products can be manufactured. Unfortunately, this socioeconomic system of continuing growth and expansion has not yet developed a means of conserving or expanding the resources to be exploited as demand increases, or of reincorporating expended materials back into the landscape for reuse with the effectiveness that we find in ecological systems.

Social systems are commonly viewed as separate from ecological systems. This is relevant to landscape architecture theory because it helps us to understand how we as a society value the landscape, as it is our values that shape decisions about how we regard, design, and use it. As will be described below, our relationships with the landscape are reciprocal, not one-way. Ecosystems function cyclically, revealing that a one-way extraction of materials — treating the land as commodity only — is antithetical to the health of the ecosystem on which our health depends.

A half century ago, conservationist Aldo Leopold envisioned a land ethic whereby mankind, owing to its superior intellectual capacity, serves as a steward in addition to functioning as an integral part of the larger system of the landscape, which, he believed, included geology, climate, and other organisms living in harmony: an ecological community (Leopold 1966).

But it is difficult to hold the view that we possess land and, at the same time, to conceive ourselves as being a part of it, a component of the ecological community. In our collective view, it is almost unthinkable that we would belong to the land rather than the other way around. For the most part, we define land as a commodity belonging to individuals (Lahde 1982). Land defined as "property" has "value," and land without economic benefit is "valueless." Our intellectual relationship to the landscape is often better characterized as domination than as stewardship.

These issues raise fundamental questions: Where does the landscape fit in this paradigm of determining whether land has value or not? Does it have value to us in any context other than economic? Do we consider the landscape to have intrinsic value, or is its value only utilitarian when it has been subdivided and transformed into property? If it has value, can we enhance and protect the value of the landscape through design? Do designers — as shapers of the landscape — have a responsibility to the landscape, or only to those who own or occupy it, the people we call "clients" and "users"?

These questions are central to an examination of landscape architecture theory because they enable us to consider the status quo and question whether it is structured to promote or obstruct design innovation. As society evolves, the answers change. In the search for design theory, it may not be the destination but the journey that is most important to understanding.

Finally, it is helpful to understand that things placed in the environment stay there — somewhere. For example, wastes — things without value — are either reincorporated into the system, or, if they are materials that have no history of reintegration, they remain in the system, no longer contributing to landscape function but interfering with it.

Thus, it is imperative that we understand the environment we wish to improve as an ever-changing whole in order to determine which of its aspects are relevant to the outcomes we intend when its features or processes are rearranged by design. Although often conceived as a commodity, the landscape is, more importantly, a process and a place that, by design, is either enhanced or diminished.


Another consideration is to define what is meant by landscape. The traditional definition of landscape is an area of the Earth's surface that has been modified by human activity (Jackson 1984). This comes from the Germanic landschaft, literally meaning, in English, "a small collection of buildings as a human concentration in a circle of pasture or cultivated space surrounded by wilderness" (Motloch 2001, 3). Landscape is, by definition, land shaped by human activity. The definition is often expanded to include natural areas, such as wilderness, that evince no human modification. This seems appropriate since, in reality, no place on Earth has escaped the influence of human activity, whether through direct settlement, husbandry, or deforestation, or by indirect actions such as habitat modification or air pollution (Berleant 1992; Sanderson et al. 2002; Mann 2005). Microbiologist René Dubos argues that "There is no 'natural' ecology. Man has changed everything in nature" (Dubos 1968). Consequently, the traditional definition is inclusive, encompassing all contiguous land areas of a definable character — such as a forest landscape or a desert landscape.

Landscape historian J. B. Jackson (1984) summarized the word landscape, ultimately, to mean "a collection of lands" making up the visible features on the surface of the Earth, and their relationships to one another. Thus, the essence of landscape, as opposed to land, is land beheld: the characteristics of the land as perceived by the senses rather than a purely intellectual construct. The transitory characteristics of a perceived environment, such as changing patterns of light and shade, or its variability through the seasons, are an integral part of our understanding of a landscape.

Landscape is a broad term encompassing the totality of our physical surroundings. The landscape is observed, characterized, and understood differently by people in different situations and from different landscapes, conveying a different meaning to each of them. Geographer Donald Meinig (1976) described landscape as the union of the physical and the psychological: "composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads." Thus the landscape is an entity that is defined by our senses and interpreted by our intellect. It reflects prior experience as well as prevailing cultural, social, and economic values. Landscapes express, in addition to their own biophysical makeup, the character of a society as it has evolved over an extended period of time. When fully understood, the landscape may be comprehended as more than just a physical condition and more than just an emotional response to perception, but also as one of the most accurate reflections of a society, its values, its technology, and its aspirations.


Excerpted from Landscape Architecture Theory by Michael D. Murphy. Copyright © 2016 Michael D. Murphy. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I: Substantive Theory
Chapter 1: Substantive Theory
Chapter 2: The Biophysical Landscape
Chapter 3: The Human Landscape
Chapter 4: Design Purpose
Chapter 5: Design Form

Part II: Procedural Theory
Chapter 7: Design Process
Chapter 8: Problem Definition
Chapter 9: Design Collaboration
Chapter 10: Design Thinking


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