In a major initiative spearheaded by Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences members and colleagues at the Lebanese University, landscape architecture is being embedded in the Middle East with the first regional conference devoted to the discipline.
Often misunderstood as being mainly about beautification, garden design or ornamental planting, landscape architecture is in fact “a complex cultural concept, a tangible expression of nature and environment and a context for social and economic betterment”—so says Jala Makhzoumi, Professor of Landscape Architecture at AUB during her welcoming address at the “Unfolding Middle Eastern Landscapes” conference.
The conference was convened under the auspices of the Lebanese Landscape Association (LELA), recently formed under the presidency of Dr. Makhzoumi, and recognized as the Lebanese representative of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) at the 2015 IFLA World Council held in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Delegates came from across the Arab world, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and the Gulf, as well as from Canada, Italy, Serbia and Turkey to participate.
There were 42 contributions from15 countries and sessions covered recovering, conserving, and maintaining heritage landscape features, the role of agriculture in enhancing landscape, greening of urban spaces, environmental protection, sensitive infrastructure projects, and landscape architecture as a tool and supporter of human rights and social justice.
Conference delegates expressed excitement not just about the ideas and arguments presented, but the very fact that an unprecedented discourse on landscape architecture connecting academics, professionals, students, and the landscape industry had been initiated in the MENA region.
"After the experience of this conference, it is evident that in LELA has IFLA gained a dedicated new family member," Andreja Tutundzic, Chair of the IFLA Committee for Education and Academic Affairs and a member of the Landscape Architecture department at Belgrade University, told us.
"Three days of impressively organized events brought contemporary topics presented from different viewpoints, setting a high standard and bringing a confidence for a future of the profession for the region," he added.
Landscape architecture has a long history, going back at least 150 years in the United States, where the term was first coined, and even longer in England, where the term “landscape gardening” was associated with names like Capability Brown and Humphry Repton.
Its American pioneers, such as Central Park designer Frederick Olmsted, focused on the centrality of improving the lives of ordinary people via their lived-in environment—not just the English aristocracy in stately homes—and it is very much that tradition which is now being seeded in the MENA region through the efforts of the AUB faculty and their peers.
Dr. Makhzoumi set the tone of the conference when she highlighted the challenge of cultural disconnection in a region where urban planning and open space design tended to have been fixed during colonial rule with little reference to the richness of indigenous management practice of land and water resources.
“Landscape professionals will need to restore cultural and ecological continuity, to reconnect temporally with the past and spatially with city and countryside to re-claim the exceptional bio-cultural diversity of the region as heritage and as inspiration,” she told the conference.
She also spoke of the necessity of applying a landscape approach to uphold human rights and enforce social justice, to address the needs of marginalized communities.
Independent initiatives by landscape-focused activists—such as opposition to the Fouad Boutros Highway—have been “stepping stones”, Dr. Makhzoumi said, for the Beirut Madinati campaign, “a cry from ordinary citizens to have a say in the fate of their city”.
FAFS Dean Nahla Hwalla spoke of AUB’s role in establishing this fast evolving discipline in the region with the first Bachelor of Science degree in Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management (LDEM) which was started in 2000. “Landscape architects are contributing increasingly to nature conservation, rural development, urban greening and ensuring the health of people and the environment they inhabit,” Dr. Hwalla said.
Sixteen years after the program started, LDEM graduates are successfully employed in Lebanon, the region, in Europe and the Americas—and some of them presented brilliantly at the conference, Dr. Makhzoumi told us.
There remains a long road ahead before landscape architecture can take its rightful place alongside more established disciplines. LELA has in its sights recognition by the Lebanese Order of Engineers in a separate category from “agricultural engineer” as currently is the case.
It also seeks to help establish landscape education programs in other Arab countries, with the aim of creating more national associations to bolster and enhance the of IFLA’s nascent Middle East branch.
"Having in mind the existence of only few professional associations in the Arab World, LELA’s determined establishment followed by its acceptance in IFLA is an example for the other countries in the emerging IFLA Middle East Region," Tutundzic said.
After two days of academic papers, delegates were treated to a trip to the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, where landscaping, botanical and ecological approaches come together to preserve Lebanon’s most important natural habitat, including maintenance of the largest remaining cover of Lebanese cedar trees, the oldest documented forest in history and a popular ecotourism destination today.