Civilian Corps of Landscape Reassessment
As residents of the United States, all of us have benefited from the resources that this land provides. Some of these resources are responsibly managed, like some logging operations and grazing land. Some are much more harmful, like hydroelectric dams that have drowned Indigenous lands, and block natural habitat. Whether through development or extraction, we as humans have the special ability to drastically change the world around us in a very short amount of time. In a time of rapid environmental change, we need to find ways to better connect, observe, and assess the landscape so that as a society, we can make more informed and compassionate choices on how to manage our shared resources. When we talk about stopping climate change, we have to stop talking about returning to a nostalgic past. We have to start talking about a hopeful but different future with a very rough patch in between
The United States Federal Government has long mapped, and surveyed the land of this country to promote expansion, extraction, and tourism. I am proposing a set of tools, distributed by a new branch of the Department of the Interior, the Civilian Corps of Landscape Reassessment, as a means to give citizens a point of access to the discourse and conversation around land issues and create collaboration between citizens and through active participation, increase personal investment.
My tools act as a means to give citizens a point of access to the discussions around public lands. When dealing with community engagement projects, it is important to give groups a shared purpose or goal. When an external designer or group enters a community proposing workshops and quick fixes, the outcome is almost always flawed and often leaves participants disappointed and dissatisfied with the process. The Civilian Corps of Landscape Reassessment and the community archive that it will create are an attempt to enable interactions that allow citizens to observe and record their feelings about their local landscape and provide that data to government officials in a way that they feel heard and understood.
I want to leverage individuals’ physical relationships to local landscape with a design process that is both engaging and creates an emotional investment that goes beyond donating to nonprofits. By capitalizing on history, storytelling and local vernacular, the CCLR will get people excited to be a part of the process of recording landscape and tie it back to a larger whole, that of their local land management issues. It is important to not only get current land users to participate but to entice people who do not see themselves as ‘outdoorsy’ to participate as well.
The insights gathered will be incredibly valuable to land policy makers and will be important to connect users with policymakers. Much like land management issues are hyper-local, land knowledge is also local. Knowledge about one’s surroundings are often passed down through generations through storytelling and consistent observation. This will then allow more transparent decisions made as a result of the public’s opinions and knowledge in combination with experts in their fields. Through exciting, and unusual approaches to engagement with these issues, noteworthy ideas will form, new people will get involved and there will be an increased investment made into the land and community.
Land alone can not make a landscape. A landscape can only exist in the eyes, ears, nose, and skin of a living thing. It is a collection of land features that are viewed or sensed from one place by one being. We as people often put ourselves at the center of existence, letting the land radiate out around us so that its features can become wayfinding objects as we move through the world.
I wanted to see how residents of cities see themselves in relation to their world. Do they have an understanding of the land around them, and to what extent? There have to be features that they use to navigate and use to place themselves in their world. I wonder if it would be possible to get back to the storytelling and local knowledge style of wayfinding we relied upon before the ‘matter-of-fact’ directions that you get from a GPS.
While everyone has spent time reading a map, few people have to draw them in the modern age. As an experiment, I asked my classmates to perform a simple task, to draw a map. On a square piece of paper, there was a box with only the instruction to “Draw a map of your current location.” There was no scale or pre-drawn features. Some maps, however, contained red dots with the title, “YOU ARE HERE” placed at random in the box as well as unlabeled green dots. The red dots placed at random were forcing users to not place themselves at the center of the map. The green dots acted as a simple provocation. It implied that there is something important out in the world, a place, goal or destination. It is up to the mapmaker to define what the physical distance is between them and that point and by doing so define what is important to them at that moment.
These mapping exercises have the ability to pull out of people their opinions and view of the place in a much more casual, conversational way than just looking over a pre-drawn map. We need to once again go beyond the limits of reason to speak about the places we live.
CIVILIAN CORPS OF LANDSCAPE REASSESSMENT
The mission of the Civilian Corps of Landscape Reassessment is “to inspire the citizens of the United States of America to observe, record, and reassess the landscape and their place in it, so that we as a country can make more compassionate choices in regards to the land for the benefit of current and future generations of all species.” Using this department as a design fiction strategy, I hope to gather support from citizens and engage them in activities that make them more aware of the way that they and their government affect their landscape. It does not matter that the CCLR is fictional. Fiction is powerful: it allows people to imagine a positive future and realize the steps it will take to make it a reality. It is far too easy to imagine a post-apocalyptic dystopia where everything humans have worked to create falls apart. There you would have a clean slate, a place to start anew without the baggage humans have acquired. It is much harder to imagine a future where humans start making the right choices while living with the ones they have already made.
The American West that most people know is one of fiction. From the photography of Ansel Adams to the spaghetti western movies, there are countless representations of what people want the American West to be. Through a speculative design framework, the Corps can subvert the official narratives that depict romanticized visions of a landscape. Instead it aims to give individuals the opportunity to form their own relationship with the land. These individuals then have the opportunity to contribute their experiences to a new narrative. This narrative will acknowledge our western societies’ past mistakes and hold the community responsible for a more compassionate future.
The Corps executes its mission through the dissemination of tools. These tools can be checked out from any “CCLR Field Office.” During the time of this thesis process, the only field office was at 169 Weybosset St, Providence, RI 02903 (my graduate design studio). In the future these tools could be housed at public libraries, community centers, and National Park, US Forestry, Bureau of Land Management offices. All of the tools that the corps offers are made of readily accessible materials and can be constructed with tools that can be found at any makerspace. The CCLR will provide instructions on how to construct all of the Corps tools free of charge in the case that users want to make their own to keep or do not have easy access to Corps provided tools.
It is important to note that these tools are not trying to solve any one problem in particular. They instead act as a new lens to view, understand, and interpret your own local landscape. These tools vary in application and the data recorded, but all ask the user to show up in a different way to their environment and reconsider how they experience the world around them. Along with these tools, citizens are asked to fill out forms to go with their observations. Here I am trying to bring out storytelling and emotion. What are you hearing? Why is it making this sound and how does it make you feel? These answers, along with the artifacts, will then be cataloged and available for review. Together, with their neighbors, local citizens will have the opportunity to reflect on their experience and relationship with their local environment.
(1 OF 3) ALL EARS
The soundscapes we interact with help inform our relationship with the land just as much as the visual inputs. Most people can hear birds chirping out of their window and make a few quick deductions about what the day will be like. If birds are singing, it is likely spring or summer, likely warm and sunny, and there is not much wind. We make these conclusions all without ever seeing the bird in the flesh. But much of our soundscape gets overwhelmed with too much input take for granted the individual noises being made around us.. The All Ears Listening Device is a listening device that both amplifies and directs hearing while limiting physical movement. Instead of getting a 360 degree soundscape, the device limits you to two smaller cones of sound from opposite directions. It is with these opposing sound inputs that the users are asked to consider and record. How are these sounds competing with each other? How are they complimenting each other?
In one observation session, one observer noted the chirping birds in one ear while lamenting the road noise in the other. These competing inputs became a point of contention for the observer; they noted that the birds made them “calm,” and the cars made them “anxious.” When the device was removed, the observer could hear neither birds nor cars.
(2 of 3) Dome-Mento
the Dome-Mento Dome is an expanding dome that is lightweight and portable, but also large and stable when expanded. At each of the 19 nodes of the dome, is a portal for users to frame their photographs. Using a camera, users have to move to each node and photograph the object of choice. This process ensures that there will be a complete set of photographs, evenly spaced and of consistent distance from the object that will be used to create the three-dimensional mesh.
(3 of 3) Color Trekker
Looking to expand on the usefulness of tools that backcountry travelers already use, the Color Trekker is a way to map and catalog your surroundings through color. Taking design cues and functional elements from traditional trekking poles, the Color Trekker also contains a color sensor at its base. When placed against the ground, it is able to record and store the exact color code of the object it is touching. For the Corps, this tool has been used in several ways.
Traditionally, to record hike or trip in nature, you would use a map or GPS to track where you have been. Forgoing a direct spatial awareness for understanding a trip, the Corps askes observers to map by color. Every step, take a color reading. Over time you will have amassed a large tapestry of colored bars representing the changing land underfoot. Normally when we go for a walk, we look up to the sky or horizon. But there is beauty in what is directly beneath us. These maps then through color show how terrain can change over a distance. It will expose observers’ unconscious decisions on where they are walking as well as alert park rangers on if they are staying on trail or not. Distance would also be measured in new ways. The physical length of the tapestry would represent the length of your trip and efforts in collecting.
All tools come with observation cards to record drawings, stories and memories.
The information gathered by the members of the Civilian Corps of Landscape Observation belongs to the people of the United States of America. It is to be aggregated into one central location and will be accessible by anyone in the country. The work of reassessment is a community activity and in order for conversations and connections to arise, the whole community must be able to see the collective fruits of their labor. On a macro scale, this archive will take the form of an online database. All observations will appear in this database in full, with the exception of full names. The online database will not be curated by the CCLR in any way. It is up to local communities to form their own stories based on their collective observation labor. The CCLR will provide ways to search the archive. Potential search strategies include: Location, Date, Land Manager, Tool, Observation density, Observation Type (drawing, story, poem, image, map, model), Keywords Used
From the tests performed, the tools are succeeding at their goal. At the most successful, they have brought out insights, new understanding and a rejuvenated curiosity from their users. At their least, the tools have encouraged users to go on a half-hour hike in their local state park. In my eyes, both are wins. These wins, though, are only first steps. Moving forward with this project or similar ones, there is an opportunity and need to connect these insights made with the contemporary conversations happening on land management issues. The information collected could both inform those conversations and bring more people to the table.
The Citizen Corps of Landscape Reassessment has been an exciting framework to work within and grow my own thinking on public land issues. It is my hope that it will continue to evolve beyond the constraints of the Rhode Island School of Design and be a catalyst for wider-ranging conversations and unusual observations.