The Softest Power
Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture
2018 Fall Conference
Play With The Rules

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 11-13, 2018
An ongoing preoccupation of the profession of landscape architecture has been the design of nature to improve the well-being and mental health of urban dwellers. This focus was a primary tenet of Frederick Law Olmsted, and while for Olmsted, much of the belief in the healing powers of nature was conjecture, today there is a large and growing body of evidence that shows that environmental factors play a key role in treating, maintaining and improving overall human health. Whether physical or visual, exposure to nature has been demonstrated to alter mental states through reducing stress, restoring attention, and improving emotional connection to place, to name only a few mechanisms recognized in the scientific literature.
Accepting that differences in environment correspond to differences in human health, it is understood that landscape architects, through the design and improvement of spaces of nature, act to positively shape physical and mental states. Indeed, it is critical to the profession of landscape architecture to make a strong assertion that how nature is designed, and consequently perceived, matters, for if there was no measurable difference between the health impacts of a self-generating nature and the work of the trained landscape architect, then design services would be far less necessary. This being the case, the landscape architect is responsible for shaping environments which aim to have a controlled, predictable and measurable impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the public. This paper extends the trajectory of this argument, asking, what if any, is the professions obligation to contribute design expertise to sites facing the combined challenges of a significant depression of human health and the loss of nature.
Afghanistan serves as a test site for this provocation, where years of conflict have left this once densely treed nation with one of the lowest percentages of forest coverage in the world. In this post-conflict environment, the American taxpayers have already been funding a Military
reforestation campaign through the well-supported Commander’s Emergency Response Program. To date, a variety of scales of tree plantings have been undertaken by the military with little design interest. Yet following Olmsted, it is recognized that an increase in tree coverage, as an analog for an improved nature, can positively impact perceptions of a local environment and consequently the mental and emotional health of local citizenry. Thus, for the American Military, the design of nature presents itself as a cost-effective tool for large scale environmental and attendant community wide psychological modification, with benefits increasing through time as plants mature. Landscape design is then well within the doctrine of “soft power” and show strong potential to contribute to the winning of “hearts and minds.” Yet this conclusion, for many, will uncomfortably set questions of environmental and social justice at odds. Whether in Afghanistan, or returning to Olmsted and working domestically, this paper asks: while designing to restore mental health and well-being, do we not also have the obligation to comment on the political structures in place which perpetuate this suffering and inequality?