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How Designed Outdoor Environments Touch our Lives

Photo by Jeremy Bittermann

April is World Landscape Architecture month, a celebration of how designed outdoor environments touch our lives. Think about the small city parks, fountain squares, waterfront promenades, forested urban trails, and other places that we take for granted as part of our daily existence. All were once upon a time proposed, designed, and built, and cared for over time. They’re not chance leftover spaces between buildings — they’re the living rooms of our cities.

The American and European traditions of landscape architecture differ sharply from the Japanese garden tradition. In our short history we have tended to separate our planning professions into roles of designer, builder, and steward, with separate skills and status assigned to each. In the centuries-old Japanese tradition, by contrast, a true garden craftsman is master of all three, and a garden’s maintenance and maturity over time is, often, granted more importance than the design itself.

But when it comes down to the essential, east and west do, in fact, meet.

Sunlight streams across the Flat Garden. / Photo by Julia Taylor

Whether we’re in a 16th century temple garden in Kyoto or an urban park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, much of the enchantment of how we experience an outdoor space comes from what we don’t see – the master’s hidden hand.

New York’s Central Park might look from the air like a preserved pocket of nature, when in fact it is an astonishing achievement in civil engineering. When you walk through a Japanese garden –be it one like ours that is just over a half century old, or one that’s more than half a millennia old, your intuitive response might be to feel connected to nature. In fact, you’re experiencing not just the garden’s careful design, but the years of thinking, planning, setting, pruning, cleaning, training, and tending that is the gardener’s craft.

The Sapporo lantern surrounded by the lush greenery of spring. / Photo by Roman Johnston

When an outdoor space gives us joy and a sense of restoration, it doesn’t ultimately matter if its creator was an American landscape architect who was the first in the family to pursue the profession, or an eighth-generation Japanese gardener. What matters most is that it was made by someone who had the optimism and foresight to create a gift of living beauty for future generations, and the faith that its heirs would cherish and care for it in that same spirit.

Photo by Julia Taylor

So, happy World Landscape Architecture Month. May you spend at least a little more time in April in a state of wonder, enjoying a designed outdoor space – whether it’s up here at the Portland Japanese Garden, your local neighborhood park, or a new place somewhere out there in the world that calls out to you. You might just find it habit-forming.

— Kristin Faurest, director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center