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Archive for the ‘Shoulders of Giants’ Category

Jack Dangermond (esri.com)

I’m tempted to say “I ♥ Jack Dangermond,” but … I do REALLY like him! He is the very inspirational president of ESRI, Environmental Systems Research Institute, the company that produces ArcGIS software, and he is a landscape planner from way back. The profile in the NY Times reveals his personality beautifully. He has somehow managed to keep his company privately held since its founding 42 years ago. He could have sold out so easily many years ago, but he is passionate about his work. When I met him a few years ago at a small specialists’ conference, we heard that he had just pulled an all-nighter on a big project – not because he had to, of course, but because he was so caught up in it that he wanted to. (FYI – If you are a job-seeker, you should really read the article. Jack discusses interviews and what ESRI looks for in new hires.) (more…)

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Or do we? We are inclined to think that “our time” is the most extraordinary ever. But then we stumble upon something from the past – people’s previous preoccupations, thoughts, ideas – and realize that we are not the first ones to be thinking these thoughts. That’s my feeling when I find references to the problem of traffic jams and urban congestion … in the 1920s. Or when I read about the how overwhelming the world has become as a result of technology and available information … in the 1960s.

In The Reflective Practitioner (1983), which I am re-reading, Donald Schön discussed the crisis in public faith in professional knowledge stemming from that turbulent period, the late 1960s. Schön noted an unprecedented need for adaptability, and that professionals faced the dilemma that they were being asked to “perform tasks for which they had not been educated” (p. 14). Catching up with new demands on professional practice would be transitory, at best, because of the rapid pace of change. “The patterns of task and knowledge are inherently unstable” (p.15) – doesn’t that sound familiar? Everything seems inherently unstable today … too. And about those wicked problems:

The situations of practice are not problems to be solved but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder, and indeterminacy.

Here Schön is following the ideas of John Dewey. And he goes on to quote Russell Ackoff, a founder of the field of operations research (the ultimate in positivism and rational problem solving), who had his own terminology for wicked problems.

managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. [Emphasis added] Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems: they manage messes.

Citation: (1979) Journal of Operational Research Society 30 (2): 93-104.

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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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Land is political. Making change happen – to protect landscape resources, to create more sustainable neighborhoods and cities, and so forth – requires that potential changemakers have political awareness, at the very least, and, better yet, shrewdness and intuition. Phil Lewis, emeritus professor of the University of Wisconsin, tells a story in his book, Tomorrow by Design, from the early years of landscape planning, before the environmental movement, that is worth repeating. Lewis demonstrated political ingenuity that is simply too uncommon. (more…)

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One of my favorite stories about discovering the profession of landscape architecture comes from the autobiography of Ian McHarg (A Quest For Life, 1996). I am reminded of this story when I read about some landscape urbanist proposals. First, the story, and, later, an explanation of what it might have in common with landscape urbanism.

For several years now, I have asked students in my classes if they have heard of McHarg. Routinely, in a class of 40 ro 50, one or two hands go up. For a quick introduction, I refer them to the classic book, Design With Nature, and often – even though I hate to use them – one of the obits written after his death in 2001, like this one from the NY Times. Wikipedia is always a choice too. McHarg was born in Scotland in 1920. At the age of 16, he spoke with a career counselor who suggested that he might try landscape architecture. It still amazes me that this happened in Scotland in 1936. McHarg tells the story (pp. 21-22):

Then he said, “Have you ever considered landscape architecture?” I had never heard of it. “I have a friend who is a landscape architect,” he said. “His name is Donald Wintersgill. I will arrange to have you meet him.” (more…)

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