Reciprocity Theory

Elizabeth Meyer has written a manifesto which attempts to terminate our tendencies as landscape architects to settle for “sustainable landscape design” and rather strive for designing “sustaining beauty”. Her main arguments stem the universal acceptance that a sustainable landscape design is one which takes into account only ecology, social equality, and economics. Meyer asserts that the fault in the understanding here arises because aesthetics serves no purpose in our existing sustainability agenda. She strongly believes, and successfully argues in her manifesto, that beauty should play a much more central role in sustainable design work. Her opinions are influenced by some of Frederick Law Olmstead’s philosophy that people’s actions can be influenced by the conditions of their environment. While she does not claim design can change society directly, she does believe that perceived beauty has the ability to widen an individual’s consciousness and realign one’s ethics to alter perceived value. When we as designers realize our potential to help “decenter” society’s environmental ethic, we then have great power to impact decision making at large, extending far beyond the boundaries of one park, region or ecosystem.

Meyer’s call for designing “sustaining beauty” can be practiced in our work by applying “an aesthetic that celebrates motion and change that encompasses dynamic processes, rather than static objects…not a timeless aesthetic, but one that recognizes both the flow of passing time and the singularity of the moment in time that demands both continuity and revolution.” (Spirn 1988:108). This idea of mimicking natural process (not natural forms) seems to resonate strongly with the main arguments of Diana Balmori’s Landscape Manifesto. Balmori urges landscape architects to construct a new aesthetic (i.e. a shift away from the picturesque) which more poignantly addresses the need for a new kind of negotiation of the relationship between nature and culture in our day and age. Balmori and Meyer both recognize the reciprocity of this relationship of human as steward, landscape as restorative, and would attempt to have us, as landscape architects, be more prominent intercessors to maintain context and site specific solutions.

Meyer and Balmori have both significantly influenced my design approach and philosophy. Before reading either of their manifestos, I was convinced that beauty, and the concept of aesthetics generally, really did not have anything critical to do with sustainable design. I naively believed that by simply implementing “best practices” and relying on standard picturesque aesthetics, I could create a sustainable landscape design. But the reality is that “nature” is messy; there is no “us and them” or “in here and out there”. If we are to consider ourselves different than conservation/restoration ecologists, we need to be able to make evident and legible the reciprocity between humans and natural processes through resilient, purposeful, juxtaposition and adjacency which allows for immersive, transformative experience.



Meyer, E. K . (2008). Sustaining beauty: The performance of appearance, a manifesto in three parts. Journal of Landscape Architecture, 3(1): 6-23.

Balmori, D. (2010). A Landscape Manifesto. London: Yale University Press.



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