Territorialized Terrains: Toward the Re-Appropriation of Cultural Landscapes

This article first appeared in Labour Issue 01 “Division, Control, Ruin” in 2019. The full issue can be viewed here.

In the United States, the term cultural landscape has been appropriated by the formalized structures of city making that aim to both dictate and limit encounter to only that which serves the particular economic and aesthetic aspirations of existing power structures (Low 2005, 64). This appropriation of landscape preservation within the power dynamics of the neoliberal city enables the erasure of individuals and populations within the city that it views as outside this scope, resulting in the permanent alteration of the social, economic, and physical anatomy of the surrounding neighborhood (Zukin 2010). Thus, traditional modes of landscape architecture practice are culpable for their role in enabling the morphology of the urban landscape toward exclusivity and homogeneity in the name of historic preservation.

Additionally, this new, more insidious form of segregated publicness only further limits opportunity for encounter, playing into Negri and Hardt’s assertion that “the majority of spontaneous encounters with others in the metropolis are conflictive and destructive, producing noxious forms of the common” (Negri and Hardt 2011, 255). Hiding behind the language of authenticity and vitality, this mode of preservation seeks to strip the landscape of these attributes in favor of a hyper-curated form of urbaness which enables economic gain by a select few. This approach discards conflictive encounter as pernicious, preferring instead to limit encounter with proclivities toward a different worldview than that held by those in power. With this in mind, what is the role of landscape architects in preserving culture that is outside of this assemblage? As spatial designers, we have been subordinate to these power structures resulting in a homogeneity of space-making devoid of meaningful contextualization of space. It is time that the practice of constructing landscapes acknowledges this reality and begins propagating new methodologies for subverting spatialized hegemony.

Beyond landscape typologies that place a premium on environmental services and “placemaking,” an inability to support diverse understandings of authenticity is pervasive throughout the preservation movement. Less than three percent of National Historic Landmarks in the United States are representative of minority populations, women, or the LGBTQ community (Frey 2019). This is evidenced in the City of St. Louis. In total, fourteen places are listed as National Historic Landmarks – the Eads Bridge, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, Goldenrod Showboat, Wainwright Building, U.S. Customhouse, Union Stations, Missouri Botanical Garden, Joseph Erlanger House, Scott Joplin House, Gateway Arch, Tower Grove Park, The Shelley House, Christ Church Cathedral, and Eugene Field House (St. Louis Planning Department 2014). Of the fourteen National Historic Landmarks, only three are outside of the central corridor – St. Louis’s axis of strong economic investment. Of the remaining three, only one is found in North St. Louis – a predominantly African-American portion of the city that has been subjected to continuous regiments of erasure and disinvestment including, famously, Pruitt Igoe and the forthcoming National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) campus. Expanding this list to include the 290 local historic landmarks, the trend persists with less than 24% of those sites designated historic residing north of Delmar Blvd, the oft-cited threshold between racial and socioeconomic groups in the city.

This memorialized representation is significant in that it can promote or prevent individuals and communities from achieving a sense of belonging. At the scale of the National Historic Landmark, memorialized representation might mean the inclusion of significant spatial territories of one’s culture alongside that of other cultures. In St. Louis, this might manifest through the addition of Fairground Park to the NHL list, along with recognition of the temporal and spatial elements of the terrain that have resulted in its current state of disinvestment. This could include special recognition of Fairground Park’s legacy as the first integrated municipal swimming pool in the United States, resulting in the Fairground Park Riot in 1949. In reality, it has manifested as memorialized exclusion through the inclusion of Tower Grove Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden while obscuring the fact that their founder, Henry Shaw, was a slave owner – a fact one would be hard-pressed to find on the park’s website or perfectly manicured lawns. The differences between these two terrains goes beyond the conspicuous unequal resource distribution as evidenced in their maintenance. It is both physical and immaterial. It is witnessed in their disparate geographies – and in the way each is discussed over avocado toast in the Central West End.

At the scale of the constructed landscape, memorialized representation might manifest through the space making process, and the types of activities the subsequent design does and doesn’t support (Trudeau 433). In 1830, Boston Mayor Harrison Gray Otis banned cattle grazing on the Boston Common, removing pasture fences soon after; in spite of the fact that since opening in 1634, cattle grazing, and other utilitarian uses dominated the park’s terrain. Coincidentally, the banning of grazing in Boston Common coincided with the filling of the Back Bay, making way for the creation of a new wealthy residential community. This shift in the acceptable programmatic uses of the park was deployed as a tool by newer, wealthier residents who had power in the form of access to political and social capital to systematically erase the landscape cultures of longer-term, often working-class residents. Or as Carolyn Gallaher puts it, “the boundary between “us” and “them” is not just an abstract line upon which mental boundary wars are waged. This boundary is articulated on the ground, in the construction, reconstruction and contestation of spaces” (Gallaher 1997, 262). This contestation is not novel to specific nations, political structures, or climates. In St. Louis, it is evidenced in the absence of basketball courts in public parks. The removal of basketball courts in St. Louis parks reached its crescendo in 1997 when Mayor Clarence Harmon removed the basketball courts from Lafayette Park. The court removal was at the request of then Alderperson Marit Clark who suggested that the presence of the basketball players made families feel uncomfortable using this park (Lippman 2019). The parallels between Lafayette Park and the Boston Common are hard to ignore. Lafayette Park is the oldest park in the City of St. Louis and was set aside as part of the City’s Common Fields. In the 1960s and 70s a small number of preservationists who were beguiled by the neighborhoods Second-Empire style architecture took an interest in the neighborhood and used their political and social capital to engage the city who made Lafayette Square the City’s first historic district in 1972. As the transformation of the neighborhood continued, so too did the orthodoxies of the dominant groups (Trudeau 2006) and behaviors that previously belonged – such as playing basketball, were now viewed as noxious within the demarcated spaces of the polity (Trudeau 2006).

Designers have a proclivity to ignore these and other external factors, choosing instead to focus on the work of transforming the terrain into designed landscapes. This excessive focus on the role of the designer in creating landscapes has permeated the conversation of cultural landscapes. Much like the preservation field writ large, an out sized objectification of the design has resulted in a value system that perpetuates the tropes of dominant orthodoxies. This focus on a narrow period of human history from an even narrower worldview has resulted in the homogenization of aesthetics and culture to the detriment of many. For these reasons, it is imperative that we engage in new methodologies for identifying and honoring cultural landscapes that do not fit neatly within codified definitions of our carefully crafted profession.

Tom served as a Sasaki Fellow with The Cultural Landscape Foundation where he produced the “What’s Out There Cultural Landscapes Guide” for Boston. Prior to studying landscape architecture and urban design, Tom brought people together as a concert promoter, producing hundreds of concerts, including several festivals and outdoor events which stoked his interest in how people occupy the built environment.


Work performed while studying landscape architecture at Washington University in St. Louis

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