COP26 Special Issue

Design for Direct Action is the title of an article that Ed has written for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. You can read the article here and below:

Designing for direct action

Remaking public spaces through environmental protests, strikes, demonstrations, and occupations makes landscapes of the climate crisis visible. Direct action provides an essential voice in discourses aimed at addressing anthropocentric climate change – discourses that move too slowly due to the need for international agreements, as they are resisted by corporate lobbies, and are ignored by a politics of nationalism. The actions of the climate movement represent a taking and remaking of public spaces – streets, square, parks – to demand action from banks, corporations, the media, and elected representatives around the world.

These are not the public spaces of landscape architecture, urban development, and masterplanning that occasionally operate in tension with such direct action. As Shelly Egoz writes: ‘All too often, politicians, security forces, and in some cases a small army of design experts and landscape professionals, have gradually erased the visibility and symbolic prominence of these landscapes’ [1]. As public spaces are redesigned agendas for limiting undesirable publics, from homeless people to political protestors, can manifest in planning processes, material specifications, new bylaws limiting protest, and police patrols that restrict public gatherings.

But the public spaces of the Schools Strikes, of the Climate Coalition, and of Extinction Rebellion can provide clues to more democratic landscape practices, more just relations with worlds around us. Rather than focusing on the visual and material reconfiguration of urban spaces that may fulfil a client brief to appeal to narrower, more commercial, more passive, less contested publics, the formation of public spaces around concerns for the climate crisis demonstrate openness to collective participation, invention in forming spaces, determination in organisation.

It is through the remaking of public spaces that shared concerns are revealed, whether reconfigured through planning and design, reconstituted for events, or claimed and occupied during civic actions. The geographer Don Mitchell writes that ‘Any move¬¨ment or struggle to create an alternative spatial orga¬¨nisation of society must necessarily take and produce new spaces’ [2]. Environmental movements, political ideologies, and commercial agendas reveal themselves in the remaking of public spaces – from marketplaces to civic squares, from built over green spaces to thoroughfares pedestrianised. Mitchell reminds us that public spaces ‘[...] are produced through constant struggle in the past and in the present’ [3].

Climate protests are moments in wider landscapes of the climate crisis. These are landscapes that make visible associations between fossil fuel corporations and coastal flooding, between debating chambers of national governments and the lack of progress to address wildlife destruction, between marketplaces of global banks and destructive resource exploitation, between printing presses of media conglomerations and the denial of global warming by corporate interests. The urban sociologist Fran Tonkiss explains: ‘The sites of urban protest in this way are politicized in terms of a much larger spatial system of global relations and inequities.’ [4]: climate protests in public places provide an intense illustration of these interconnected planetary landscapes.

Maintaining sites of public protest for environmental movements are also landscape practices. It is no longer sufficient just to plant trees that reduce heat-island effect, to design spaces that reduce storm-water flooding, to specify materials that have lower embodied carbon. Finding ways to support and inform structural change is also an increasingly urgent landscape practice. Landscape architects need to support climate movements in their diverse forms and practices, through designing spaces that enable public gathering, by advising clients of the importance of democratic public spaces, by defying clients who seek to impose new laws that undermine spaces of politics.

Contesting public spaces is one of many landscape practices that can engage with the climate crisis. But the slow movement of policy makers, of corporate interests, and of public behaviour suggests that professionals with knowledge and concern for landscapes impacted by global warming must claim their role in making change. Referring to ‘radically unbuilding’, the American landscape architect Kate Orff writes: ‘The act of unmaking the errors of the past, of gathering, and of recognising each other and the earth as worthy of deep care is one of the most profound challenges before us’ [5]. To do this we must support landscape practices of environmental protest to make visible and force open conversations about the climate crisis and its impact on marginalised communities and threatened landscapes around the world.

Ed Wall
October 2021

I would like to thank all the Landscape Architecture and Urbanism students at the University of Greenwich for embracing our 2019 brief of designing for direct action.

[1] Walk Out is the winning proposal in a competition organised by the Royal Parks, Museum of Architecture, Zaha Hadid Design, and University of Greenwich. The manifesto is a basis for new interactions with the Wilderness in Greenwich Park. (Nicola Ida, University of Greenwich, 2019)
[2] This protest banner is the starting point for The Wilderness Assembly, a new public space for human and non-human participants in the Greenwich Park deer park. (Meredith Will, University of Greenwich, 2019)
[3] The global rebellions in cities around the world were marked by the distinctive Extinction Rebellion logos. (Photo Ed Wall, 2020)
[4] The extinction rebellion protests in London led to a clampdown on public assembly through The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 that grants the police new powers to restrict public protest. (Photo Ed Wall, 2019)

[1] Egoz, S., Jorgensen, K. and Ruggeri, D. (2018). Defining Landscape Democracy: A Path to Spatial Justice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar
[2] Mitchell, D. 2015. Claiming a right to place in the urban landscape: planning resistance and resisting planning in Glasgow. In Egoz, S. (Ed.) 2015, Hva betyr landskapsdemokrati? Defining Landscape Democracy, As: Centre for Landscape Democracy, NMBU, pp. 16-17.
[3] Mitchell, D. 2003. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 142)
[4] Tonkiss, F. 2005. Space, the City and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press pp. 66)
[5] Orff, K. 2020. What is Design Now: Unmaking the Landscape. In: Wall, E. (ed.) The Landscapists: Redefining Landscape Relations. Wiley/Architectural Design