Environmentalism in Landscape Architecture

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In 1978, the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington, opened its new gorilla exhibit—the first example of what has become known as “landscape immersion” design (Fig. 1). Seeking to reconceptualize the zoo’s very identity, director David Hancocks had asked the firm of Jones & Jones to develop a master plan for Woodland Park. As part of the plan’s first phase, landscape architects Grant Jones, Jon Charles Coe, and their colleagues fashioned the now-famous gorilla forest, a stunning replica of the animals’ native habitat that aimed to provide a stimulating, “natural” environment for the great apes while placing visitors seemingly within that habitat. In numerous ways—from the extensive use of appropriate vegetation to the clever manipulation of sight lines—the landscapes of Jones & Jones seemed worlds away from the bars and cages of traditional zoos. Furthermore, this transformation was not merely physical: according to its advocates, landscape immersion also represented an unprecedented shift in zoo philosophy, from the “homocentric” perspective that had long prevailed to a “biocentric” ethic more in tune with the environmentalism of the day. Not surprisingly, the Woodland Park plan clearly showed the influence of environmentalist thought, from its opening pages describing “an ecological design approach” with “nature [as] the norm” to a bibliography citing works by Aldo Leopold, Eugene Odum, and E. O. Wilson. Acclaimed by zoo professionals and landscape architects alike, the immersion exhibits of Jones & Jones pointed toward exciting new directions in the design of American zoos.

Over the past two decades, landscape immersion has indeed emerged as the dominant style in zoo exhibitry, as anyone who has recently visited a zoological park can attest. Led by firms like CLRdesign, The Portico Group, and Design Consortium, zoo planners have fashioned a virtual world of uncannily realistic landscapes, from Amazonian rainforests and Louisiana swamps to African savannas and Midwestern grasslands. These dramatic exhibits have helped spark a “renaissance” at American zoos, reflected not only in their increased popularity but, perhaps more significantly, in a supposedly growing concern for the earth’s environment among zoo visitors. Fed by this atmosphere of rapid transformation, discussions of contemporary zoo design positively overflow with claims of revolution. In 1989, for instance, one zoo director proclaimed, “In the past 15 years, we’ve probably changed more than we’ve changed in the past hundred.” An article in a recent issue of Landscape Architecture concurred, with David Hancocks even tracing this revolution to a specific profession: “It wasn’t until landscape architects came on the scene that the shift toward a wider, more encompassing view . . . began to happen.” In fact, claimed the article’s author, over the past twenty years, America as a whole has become “a society moving toward a sound biocentric view of what our zoos should be.” Beyond professional circles, the same rhetoric prevails, as tourist guides, photo essays, and coffee-table books all herald “the new American zoo.” Looking back on previous generations of zoo design—the bad old days of bars, cages, and moats—planners and promoters find little more than good intentions, necessary first steps on the path to today’s environmentalist Edens. Download free Environmentalism in Landscape Architecture.pdf here

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