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Joan Iverson Nassauer

Her work linking ecology, human behavior, and landscape architecture is inspiring a new generation of researchers, ecological planners and designers.

By Jennifer Dowdell, University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment, MLA cohort of 2007

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Photos: Joan Iverson Nassauer (L), Jennifer Dowdell (R)

For over 20 years Joan Iverson Nassauer has taught landscape architecture at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, while building on an incredible body of work that weaves together socio-environmental inquiry with design, exploring the relationship between aesthetics and ecology, perceptions of nature and behavioral change. Her research explores how human perceptions affect and are affected by landscapes.

In 1997, before the term “ecological design” was widely used, Nassauer published a book on the topic entitled Placing Nature (Island Press). In 2007, she examined the use of scenario approaches in assessing and addressing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico in her book From the Corn Belt to the Gulf (RFF Press). Having authored over 80 refereed papers, published two books, lectured worldwide, and advised dozens of students in graduate research and applied project work, she has substantially influenced the profession. But Nassauer may be best-known for her discovery of landscape “cues to care.” Through extensive research, she found evidence that human intent and care for the landscape has an effect on perceptions and behaviors to change the landscape (seeing a native landscape with a mown edge leads us to understand that despite its initially-perceived messiness, it is actually an intentional and cared-for space). Nassauer has also studied farmers’ perceptions of conservation landscapes and performed research that has influenced brownfield redevelopment, vacants in urban areas and new approaches to green infrastructure, transportation planning, ecological restoration, and urban and rural watershed management. Her distinguished career has been recognized by the International Association of Landscape Ecology and she is a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Council of Educators of Landscape Architecture.

When asked what qualities women bring to the interdisciplinary practices of ecology, landscape architecture, and academia, Nassauer at first wondered if perhaps the usual characteristics associated with the feminine might be stereotypical in light of the complexity of human behavior and cultural norms. After some thought though, she described what she believes is at the heart of the question. Even in 2018, women are still outliers in the profession. If one considers the continued wage gap and the glass ceiling limitations on growth for women around the world in the practice, it continues to demonstrate that women are outliers. “So what’s the advantage to that?” she asks rhetorically. Based on her observations, the status of “outlier” brings with it a flexibility of mind and the capacity to see things from more than one perspective. She explains that this is especially useful in boundary-crossing activities, like bringing science into the practice of landscape architecture. She points out that scientific research is often conducted without a very direct reference to practice, sometimes none at all. But as outliers in the field, women can conceptualize projects in a way that is attentive to the points of view of others, making for more holistic results.

When Nassauer thinks of landscape architecture practitioners who are doing the most engaged ecological design, those with a knowledge base in environmental science and the socio-environmental science, she notes that while that category certainly includes men it may well include a slightly disproportionate share of women. And, according to Nassauer, these women tend to have a flexibility of mind that is “wonderfully liberating,” allowing for discoveries one might not otherwise find. “That flexible mindset to be curious about how things function and to bring that back to the profession of landscape architecture,” she said, “helps landscape architecture authentically contribute to environmental solutions. She added, “In a very personal way, to be able to authentically follow your curiosity is personally what keeps life fun and keeps work fun.”

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