What is Landscape Architecture?

Close your eyes and think of your favorite outdoor memories. Do you remember a striking view? Perhaps you recall an open expanse where you basked in the sun, an evocative work of public art, the smell of wildflowers along a path, or the glow of lampposts that illuminated your travels back home. Though our surroundings often fall into the background of our conscious minds, they have an incredible impact on how we feel and interact with the world around us. Landscape architects deliberately influence these environments, and in turn, our everyday experiences.

“Landscape architecture is a piece of a very complex system that creates the setting of your life. It’s a co-created outdoor space between you and everything around you,” explains Maci Nelson, host of The Landscape Nerd podcast and project manager at LAND studio in Cleveland.

Not only does this include plants, paths, and parks, but also parking lots, streetscapes, sidewalks, or your views as you walk or drive to work in the morning. “Landscape architecture even comes down to the moments that you cherish: the placement of the bench where you had your first kiss or a seat underneath the shade of a tree,” Maci continues. “I like to view it as a social system as well as a biological system, because what we see every day really informs how we think the world operates.” Maci stresses that when people are exposed to different and imaginative ways of experiencing landscapes and natural systems, it informs their worldview and relationship with nature itself. “If you are only seeing lawns and houses, then you might think that's all nature has to offer. And if you are seeing forests in the middle of cities, then you might start to understand how complex systems can be.”

Each day, these social and biological systems converge in novel ways across every inch of Central Park, where 42 million annual visitors explore 843 acres of diverse human-made landscapes in the heart of Manhattan. And it’s up to a team of landscape architects at the Central Park Conservancy to facilitate this interaction.

“It’s really about bringing people, nature, and outdoor environments together and shaping those places,” adds Steve Bopp, Studio Director for Planning at the Central Park Conservancy and a licensed landscape architect.

20240312 Captial Projects BTS 17 20240312 Captial Projects BTS 60 20240312 Captial Projects BTS 104 20240312 Captial Projects BTS 295 20240312 Captial Projects BTS 121

Members of the Central Park Conservancy’s Capital Projects team, made up of planning, design, and preservation professionals, share a behind-the-scenes look at their work.

Transforming the Space

Central Park has long remained a prominent specimen of landscape architecture. One of the Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted, is often referred to as the “father of American landscape architecture.” Olmsted and co-designer Calvert Vaux wanted the Park to mirror the natural world of the Catskills or the Adirondacks. And he executed this vision so effectively that it’s logical to look around and assume Central Park’s landscapes were created by nature or have always existed in their current form. But each of its 843 acres—its water bodies, meadows, lawns, gardens, and woodlands—were meticulously designed and built by humans.

“Central Park was really the birthplace of landscape architecture in this country,” Steve shares. Created in 1858 as Olmsted’s first execution of landscape design, Central Park is a blueprint for urban parks throughout the United States. Striving to honor Olmsted’s original vision for the Park, Steve and the Capital Projects team—which consists of landscape architects, as well as other design, planning, and construction professionals—focus on seamlessly reflecting the natural world. The work of landscape architects is so densely woven into the fabric of our culture, yet it is often overlooked or underdiscussed as a discipline. This is, in part, by design. “Often, we like to say, if we’ve done our job well, you won’t realize that any landscape architecture, design, or construction has happened. It would just appear to be natural,” he elaborates.

Though landscape architecture may fly under the public’s radar, many of today’s landscape architects prioritize a collaborative design process. They strive to anticipate and understand a community’s concerns and desires, designing alongside its members to create spaces that address their needs. Because of this, there’s a push within the profession to educate and engage the public in a dialogue about both their design process and the work’s transformative potential.

“When I think about fashion, for example—everyone puts clothes on every day. At the same moment, everyone has an opinion about fashion; people understand that fashion is designed,” says Sara Zewde, founder of the Harlem-based landscape and urban design firm Studio Zewde. “I often think about how people walk through parks every day, but there isn't a vibrant public discourse about the design of public space. That's something that I hope changes.

A timelapse of the Conservancy’s work at the new Harlem Meer Center site illustrates how the project is reconnecting the landscapes and increasing access on the Park’s north end.

Creating for Communities

In addition to designing new spaces from scratch, landscape architects play a pivotal role in evolving and adapting existing public spaces. The discipline is at the heart of the Central Park Conservancy’s capstone project to a more than 40-year campaign to restore Central Park: the forthcoming Harlem Meer Center. On top of rebuilding the facility formerly known as Lasker Rink & Pool, the project reimagines its surrounding landscapes across the Park’s north end. The previous structure, which has already been demolished, divided the Park and restricted access for the surrounding Harlem community.

Thanks to the care and collaboration of both landscape architects and building architects, the new facility is tucked into a hillside, with a path north of the site continuing over the building’s green roof. Informed by the Conservancy’s thorough process of community engagement, the project’s aim is to reconnect the Park’s landscapes, creating enhanced access and harmony between these landscapes and the people who use them. In essence, landscape architecture can act as a bridge, developing inventive ways to link communities to the natural world. “For the Harlem Meer Center project, we held extensive community meetings with users of the previous Lasker Rink and Pool facility, neighboring groups, and other groups with specific interests such as naturalists, birdwatchers, and those that use the Harlem Meer and the North Woods,” Steve says.

Like the previous Lasker facilities, the new pool space will double as an ice rink in the winter. Its updated design also includes the option for the rink and pool space to contain artificial turfgrass, allowing for use during the “shoulder seasons” in between skating and swimming weather. Thanks to this design update, the new Harlem Meer Center will be open year-round, whereas the previous facility was closed for nearly half the year.

9d3aca9b ee5d 40f0 8a03 fd9f980787ee 9557fa7c ab8c 4991 85c8 1928168f86a2 A0b2d08c c81d 4e70 8b77 d4b779af6006 9d3aca9b ee5d 40f0 8a03 fd9f980787ee 1 6071d1a5 833a 4979 b53e 212ca727eaa6

Renderings of the finished Harlem Meer Center that demonstrate the innovative vision of the project’s building and landscape architects. The design seeks to bring Park visitors closer to the natural world.

Designing for Change

Today’s landscape architects recognize the importance of building for the future of an ever-evolving world. Their work often requires reexamining precedent and challenging the aesthetics and assumptions of those who shaped the land before us. Beyond simply reiterating design, the work demands creativity to adapt, push boundaries, and imagine the possibilities of a space.

Sara points out that although Olmsted’s vision was trailblazing, it was influenced by prevailing European standards for scenic landscapes and developed with less consideration of biodiversity and ecological concerns. Fortunately, landscape architecture presents an opportunity to challenge history, subvert expectations, and restore ecosystems. “What we associate aesthetically with a park is a very narrow slice of what's possible in design. I think it’s important we expand the design traditions of landscape architecture, as there are opportunities to make more people feel welcome, feel affirmed, that a wider range of activities are welcome, and a diversity of people belong,” Sara explains.

Among the many factors landscape architects must consider as they evolve our public spaces, a changing climate presents unique challenges. Creating spaces for our collective future requires landscape architects to both mitigate the current effects of the climate crisis and anticipate its possible future outcomes. “Climate change is in everything that we do,” Maci says. “Because when we design, we're already projecting 25 years out.” Efforts to encourage landscape resilience could involve strengthening a space's infrastructure, designing to minimize a landscape’s carbon footprint, and diversifying ecosystems to foster biodiversity.

The Harlem Meer Center project aims to address these goals and embed sustainability into its design and construction processes. It will increase the abundance and variety of native plantings, as well as the presence of wetlands. Across Central Park, the least represented type of landscape is wetlands. Many of the Park’s artificial water bodies have unnaturally abrupt edges, whereas water bodies that occur in nature often have a gradual grading across the transition between land and water. In nature, there are intermediate zones with water levels that rise and fall seasonally. In the Park, water levels are controlled and fixed by weirs, which limits seasonal fluctuation. The Conservancy’s landscape architects have added wetland zones to some of the Park’s water bodies, while working with their fixed water elevations. When we increase wetland habitat in the Park, more plants and animals have the conditions they need to thrive. This increases the Park’s overall biodiversity and, in turn, its resilience.

“The best landscape architects design for change,” Sara says. “Landscape architecture at its best is design in dialogue with a dynamic a set of systems. We're intervening with them, we’re in a dance with them, but we can't ultimately restrict, constrict, or define them because they're bigger than us.”

Amileah Sutliff is the Senior Marketing Writer & Editor at the Central Park Conservancy.