Examining changes needed in New Zealand landscape architecture practice


Although landscapes have been planned and made for several thousands of years, only in the blink of an eye, in relative time, has landscape architecture been a profession. Following Frederick Law Olmsted’s coining of the title, landscape architecture has been taught in universities in Europe and the USA, and more recently in many countries of the world. When the principles of the profession were established in the USA and Europe by the then leaders, western culture and values were privileged. Researchers, writers and promoters of the profession were almost exclusively western and professional principles and practice became entangled in western values. This was not critical when those cultures were western. However, as practice expands in countries such as India, People’s Republic of China, and those countries where indigenous cultures have a very different concept of landscape, the western cultural values entangled in the profession put practice and culture in conflict.

The landscape architecture profession now needs to tease theory and practice from cultural values in order to recognize and enable non-western cultures to confidently express their values in landscape planning and design, so that their contemporary places resonate and connect to their cultures. This paper examines the issue of mono-cultural teaching and practice, the challenges (even oppression) perceived by those who seek recognition of diverse cultural values, and some possible ideas for change. This is a serious issue because if the profession fails to extend beyond tokenism by recognizing other cultural values in practice, then those from non-western cultures are likely to turn their back on the profession. This is already occurring in New Zealand where some Maori perceive landscape architects as unresponsive and disinterested in Maori cultural values. An alternative scenario is the maintenance of the status quo, and the continued global proliferation of the same ‘High Streets,’ meaning the ubiquitous designs derived from the same design values, dominated by the one culture. Landscape diversity will instead become landscape poverty. Our profession will be responsible for such landscape degradation.


Landscape architecture is a trap. It lures the unsuspecting student into thinking that their learning is about professional theory and practice from around the globe, rather than primarily from the western sectors. It lures the English speaking practitioner into thinking that they have received the body of landscape architectural knowledge from the world’s practitioners and writers, when non-English writers from cultures as diverse as Persia and Japan have rich archives of writings on landscape planning and design, but which has not been translated.  It lures those who are not from western cultures into thinking that their cultures cannot be part of landscape practice, because landscape architecture is about western values. This is a false and unfortunate misunderstanding. It is false because landscape is a cultural construct and although most teaching, writing and practice is currently set in a western cultural framework, there are other understandings which respond to different cultural frameworks. Theory, writing and practice omit a large proportion of the world’s cultures, yet seem to be promulgated as the only understanding of landscape architecture. There is other knowledge, developed over centuries in China and by other eastern cultures which interpret nature and landscape in different ways. There are indigenous cultures throughout the world who understand landscape and nature in very dissimilar ways from western culture. We landscape architects who work with and between other cultures therefore need to recognize this misunderstanding for what it is: western culture rather than universal landscape understanding, and take vigorous measures to understand, recognize, respect, and learn from as well as practice recognizing and privileging non-western cultures in their appropriate place, so that the profession has a richer and much more diverse international practice. This is one means to achieve contemporary spaces that provide an authentic sense of place and home, and that reflect and connect to the people who live there. This paper sets out to examine the issue of mono-cultural practice, the examples of recent concerns expressed, and some moves to address the issue.


The mono-cultural concerns

Chinese landscape architects and particularly more recent landscape architecture students[1] have complained that contemporary teaching and practice in China does not reflect or respond to Chinese culture. That may be true because the profession now has as its contemporary base western-derived landscape understanding. In an interview of Chinese professors of landscape architecture reported in Landscape Architecture Magazine the following was noted:

Some of the people who lead China’s most influential programs studied in the United States, and some of the programs have strong connections with American academics. Tsinghua University’s landscape architecture program was established with the help of a team of American landscape architects led by Laurie Olin, FASLA, of the University of Pennsylvania.[2]


 However, recent scholarly work on landscape architecture theory from China reflects the different values Chinese people hold. It places importance on, among other things, naming places, or landscape features, such as rocks. Chinese, in contrast to western culture, emphasizes poetry, emotion and symbolism when considering landscape. It shares the attention to the visual or aesthetic aspects of landscape with western cultures, in contrast to indigenous cultures. Meng, in a philosophical address explored poetry and events which are associated with landscapes as a means of interpreting and recognizing landscape values. Such thinking responds to the centuries old traditional Chinese understandings of garden and nature.[3] He and others have explained that it is not only feng shui that encapsulate Chinese cultural understandings of landscape. There are many different philosophical understandings which have been promulgated over the centuries.[4] Feng sui is an eco-philosophy which is relatively well-known in the west and has been adopted for centuries in China, but even this philosophy’s greater currency does not imply that it is part of teaching or mainstream understanding of landscape architecture in other parts of the globe.

Ideas for change

Maori landscape architects have been exploring ways that landscape, and the landscape architecture profession, might be re-conceived in terms of Maori culture. They have based interpretations on concepts such as mauri and wairua, as well as Maori religious beliefs and customs. They have found this a challenge as all received their initial professional teaching in terms of western cultural constructs. They have also found their colleagues often slow to adopt the very different values and approaches with which they have been grappling. Such thinking and work undertaken by Te Tau-a-Nuku (Maori landscape architects and aligned professionals group) was explained by Damian Powley at the IFLA Congress in April.[1] He spoke about fostering the development of kaupapa Maori aspirations within landscape architecture. His presentation included a ‘Maori landscape response which relies on empirical - place bound observation.’ He emphasized the role of people as a means of engagement with place, as well as describing an assessment methodology. This work and other presentations were supported or lead at the conference by Phil Wihongi who is also working vigorously to change thinking and practice. However, as a reflection of the New Zealand profession’s current lack of commitment to Maori values and culture, Te Tau-a Nuku are affiliated to Nga Aho, Maori designers association, rather than the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects.


On a more positive note, landscape architecture students have ventured into this contested construct, exploring ways to design that respect and recognize contemporary pressures on the urban landscape. Josephine Clarke presented a challenging paper derived from her final undergraduate study for the IFLA Congress proceedings,[2] which sought to overcome the invisibility and lack of engagement with Maori by demystifying the engagement process, and provided some practical ideas for doing this.

Another paper by Ben Mellor, based on his Victoria University Masters thesis, provides a stream day-lighting design which explores the various Maori states of water, and ways to represent and enhance an urban stream, without the need for interpretive signs or Maori patterns. Mellor challenges European tradition and culture through his proposed engagement with water, rather than standing and watching.[3]{cke_protected_1}  While both students were tested in their work by the overarching western cultural bias of our discipline’s teaching, they non-the-less have taken steps where others too timid have yet to venture.

Indigenous contribution

An interest in landscape architecture and cultural values and interpretation has been expressed by Maori leaders to encourage our profession. In the keynote presentation to the international participants at the Shared Wisdom conference, Malcolm Paterson, Ngati Whatua’s resource manager, emphasized the link between Maori and the land and water through pepeha, or tribal acknowledgement, in which identity is derived from landscape features. He described pioneering land sculpture by an ancestor, Titahi on a massive scale, echoing the moko and carving patterns on the land. He also spoke of resourcescape and namescape as important issues for Maori, as well as aspects of hospitality and guardianship of the land, but noted the disempowerment of Maori in resource management.


Ngati Hine kaumatua Kevin Prime recently presented a comparison of the western landscape architecture approach and compared this with a Maori understanding of landscape features, aspects and whakapapa. His interpretation does not translate words into Maori but takes a Maori perspective as well. He urges landscape architects to recognize these different perspectives. At the same conference at which Prime presented his interpretation of Maori ways of understanding landscape,[4] others gave accounts of their work on landscape aspects such as Takere Norton and Iain Gover of Ngai Tahu, who have developed a database of Maori place names. The information is recorded on GIS maps which allow verification, accuracy and the inclusion of narratives to add to their tribal knowledge base. Nga Whenua Rahui’s chair Sir Tumu Te Heuheu reminded the same conference that all the cultural mapping and recording of landscape history was about people. This of course returns the issue of landscape back to the construct. A cultural construct is about people and their culture. Landscape is not a commodity or an object. It is based on people’s understandings, beliefs, memories, values and perceptions.

The recognition of the links between people and landscape, the intangible aspects which contribute to a cultural landscape is a concept well accepted by UNESCO, and a category for inscription as a World Heritage Site. Aotearoa-New Zealand’s maunga Tongariro is inscribed as both a natural as well as a cultural landscape. Other sites in the world are being listed solely as cultural landscapes. Such landscapes are often maintained by belief systems and cultural knowledge helps to sustain those particularly special landscapes. This in turn recognizes the relationships people have with landscape and the intertwining of people and landscape.

Steps for change

When contemplating a strategy for change that has been resisted for many years, strong leadership is needed together with an action plan which is monitored for progress and change. The issue, as in China, needs to be addressed in different ways. It firstly must be addressed in educational institutions so that the teachers understand that their western values are being privileged to the discomfort and disadvantage of Maori students. The small numbers of successful Maori students and Maori landscape architects is a symptom of the profession’s current myopia. This same pattern is repeated in other countries where western values are the basis for landscape architecture. There are very few Aboriginal landscape architects in Australia, few First Nations landscape architects in Canada and in South Africa, African landscape architects have yet to be trained. This situation may seem a puzzle because indigenous peoples’ cultural understanding of landscape is integral to their belief systems and an essential part of who they are. A key reason for this is that those students do not feel their values and ethnicity are accepted, and look elsewhere.


There are steps underway to bring about change. Unitec in Auckland has a Maori Advisory Committee led by a Maori lecturer and practitioner[1] and have appointed an educator to develop and implement a Maori strategy to achieve change. In Wellington, Victoria University School of Architecture has a Treaty Committee{C}[2] which is has a strategy for bringing about change in staff values and knowledge which includes language training and surveys each year on the inclusion of Maori values in teaching and research. Lincoln University has also given attention to Maori language and student projects for iwi Maori. Despite this change is frustratingly slow.


The profession itself, the New Zealand Institute of landscape Architects, could increase the emphasis and pace of this change in a number of ways which might include among other things:

{C}·       Taking responsibility for bringing about change

{C}·       A Maori landscape values document

{C}·       Annual workshops with specific groups, such as Maori social scientists, on making change

{C}·       Special advocacy and support for Maori practitioners

{C}·       Inclusion of the Maori landscape group in their executive deliberations

{C}·       Requiring registration for practitioners to demonstrate conversance with Maori cultural values

{C}·       Requiring education providers to demonstrate steps to change through accreditation reviews

{C}·       Dissemination of Maori place names for adoption by the profession

{C}·       An annual survey of practitioners to monitor change

There are many other ways that could be considered, which include the fields of research, teaching and learning, practice and communication. Most particularly though, commitment and action is needed rather than a lengthy and debilitating consultation exercise.



The landscape architecture profession in New Zealand has tended to resist change. It has not widely adopted an understanding of cultural landscape and tends to uncritically follow legal interpretations of landscape, which in turn confirm western culture. None of the current New Zealand profession’s information privileges Maori values. Teaching and research generally (but not exclusively) follows the western pattern. This is not unsurprising as most landscape architects in New Zealand have a western, largely European, cultural heritage. Some regard promotion of Maori ways of doing things as a professional aberration at best. Even planting native plants was deemed in Christchurch by some members of the public as an attack on local people’s English garden heritage. Our profession is not far from mainstream values, where arguments about landscape are perceived as attacking people’s heritage, or even an attack on nationalism. So fundamental is the New Zealand cultural link to a myth of forest and lush green scenery, to beaches, sunshine and surf that our landscape is perceived as an important part of our identity.


We landscape architects have been smug for too long about our professional principles and practice, and are losing our professional leadership to others, who will interpret landscape without reference to our profession. We need to set strategies in place to bring about fresh changes to our profession. I see this as needing rapid affirmative action: through Maori language, Maori sections of the profession and different thinking. For too long we have overlooked our western professional monoculture. We now must work feverishly to bring about cultural diversity and inclusiveness. This is our bi-cultural place so it is up to our landscape architecture profession, if we want a future, to take urgent action.