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Archive for the ‘Reflective Practice’ Category

How do you determine the popularity of an idea, thing, or person? Number of Google hits? Presence of a Wikipedia entry? Number of Twitter followers? Or what? All of these measures suggest recent popularity, but tend to say little about what was once popular. I wondered if the idea of “wicked problems” was still current, and the presence of a lengthy Wikipedia entry suggests that it is – to someone anyway. 65K Google results… well, reasonably pervasive. No hashtags yet!

The idea of wicked problems was articulated by Rittel and Weber in a classic article published in 1973. The phrase, wicked problem, is used

to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (Wikipedia)

Landscape problems involving small land areas and limited numbers of users are not wicked. But many urban design, community planning, land use planning, and environmental issues are indeed wicked. And some, like climate change, are “super wicked.”  (Yes, this is official academic jargon.) Wicked problems have these characteristics (also from Wikipedia):

  • The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)
  • Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
  • The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
  • The problem is never solved definitively.

Wicked urban, community, land use, and environmental problems are commonly place-specific, so problem solving efforts cannot be easily transferred to new locations. Each place and problem are unique, and each proposed solution is an experiment – often a grand one. What should we do with these things? A follow-up post will consider the link between wicked problems and reflective practitioners, ala Donald Schon.

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PlaceMatters, a nonprofit that developed from the Orton Family Foundation, recently published Bridging the Divide Between Science and Planning: Lessons From Ecosystem-Based Planning Approaches to Local and Regional Planning in the United States. There are six case studies in the report, chronicling the efforts of a partnership between PlaceMatters, the Packard Foundation, and NatureServe to better integrate ecosystem science into community planning. The subjects of the planning efforts are quite varied, and the locations range from Maine to Hawaii. The report is a welcomed contribution, especially given that there are not enough documented cases like the ones detailed here. I was struck, though, by a key finding:

Throughout all of the case studies and lessons, one underlying theme becomes apparent: although good data, robust models, and a logical decision process all matter, the politics matter even more. How effectively a community planning process unfolds is determined in large part by who participates, how they participate, and what power they each wield. How effectively such a planning process incorporates good scientific information depends on how much credibility the experts and their tools have in the process. In other words, community planning efforts are not exercises in abstracted rationality, but rather they are fundamentally political processes involving multiple parties with divergent interests. All community planning processes and decisions, not to mention subsequent implementation, are subject to the politics of their communities, and any approach to EBM that fails to recognize this is much less likely to produce effective implementation of a scientifically appropriate plan. [Emphasis added.]

Whoa, how was this not known from the outset? Because of the gulf between the science of the landscape and the real world of land use decision making. And this is precisely why efforts like this are needed, and why the title, Bridging the Divide is so appropriate. Using scientific knowledge to enhance land use decision making is valid and important, but the local politics of place have to be acknowledged from the get-go, or the planning effort will be doomed.

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Where is this blog headed? Continue reading to find out. (more…)

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Landscape architecture academics frequently debate the role of “theory” in the discipline. There is a sense that landscape architecture cannot mature without a body of theory supporting it. Some authors have sought out and expounded upon theories from other disciplines that apply to ours, and others have articulated theories that are unique to landscape architecture. What this debate suggests, though, is that practice is not enough. Especially on university campuses. Doesn’t this give practice short shrift? (more…)

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How has the economic turmoil that officially began in December of 2007 affected the profession and land use planning? I distinctly remember talking to my class in the fall of 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, wondering out loud what this all meant. It felt like some kind of slow-motion train wreck. Most of those students graduated this year, in May of 2011, and they have been labeled a “lost generation.” I hate that label and the challenges that these recent graduates face.

One recent graduate in landscape architecture, J. Lyons (MLA 09) told me that she “honestly feel[s] like we’re in the midst of a very hasty and significant paradigm shift because of the combination of pressing environmental and economic concerns.” A paradigm shift is exactly right. Everything needs to be reconsidered, in my opinion, especially for those of us living in the United States. After 3 1/2 years of recession (or now “recovery”), people are starting to catch on to the fact that things have changed … probably permanently. Among other things, I’d like to explore in this blog the implications of this paradigm shift on the profession.

For now, I’ll start with my list of what I think will affect professional and academic practice.

Factors that will shape future practice:

  • the demand for interdisciplinary approaches to complex environmental and urban land use problems;
  • the need for a better understanding of urban ecological systems;
  • the importance of quantifying the value of interventions (based on monitoring of built works);
  • in a time of fiscal austerity, resource-efficient communities;
  • design in developing countries.

How should the paradigm shift be addressed in education?

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