The Myth of Value Neutrality and Why Personal Values Matter in Our Work

Article Written By Michael Grove, FASLA

With the majority of landscape architects in the United States practicing on the coasts and in cities, it’s no secret that we operate within social bubbles and that our viewpoints are influenced by confirmation bias. On the whole, our profession’s political values lean towards the liberal end of the spectrum. This is likely because governmental policies around environmental protection and climate change impact our foundational ethos as landscape architects. Similarly, potential legislation to update infrastructure and to implement ideas from the Green New Deal offers a host of direct benefits to the practice of landscape architecture. This isn’t to say that we should always conform to a left-wing agenda, but as designers that directly influence built outcomes, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we tiptoe around difficult conversations and play the role of Switzerland in our interactions with clients and the public. Value neutrality is a myth and damages our relevance as a profession.

An age-old argument in science (and, I would argue, landscape architecture is as much science as it is arts and humanities) is that our personal values and beliefs should not intrude into our work if we are to remain neutral and objective parties to the process. As we continue to operate as a nation divided by political ideology, many landscape architects may be tempted to reaffirm their neutrality. This perspective, however, assumes two things: 1) that value neutrality is necessary in order to gain trust; and 2) that value neutrality is even possible to begin with. Evidence from a host of other scientific disciplines suggests that neither assumption is correct. Every encounter we have as landscape architects—or simply as human beings—is, by its nature, a values-driven encounter.

To be clear, I am not arguing that landscape architects should not or cannot be objective. Nor am I advocating that we dismiss alternative points of view. I am, however, suggesting that it is not incumbent on us to censor our values and lived experiences. Rather, we must work towards and confirm that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that bias is minimized. Science does this through peer review. For landscape architects, where we are tasked with balancing art, science, and sociology, I believe that the best mechanism for us is diversity. Diversity in landscape architecture is critical not only to allow us to mirror the population of the communities we serve and thus forge stronger connections with them but to ensure that the work we produce minimizes unintentional harm. Examples of unintended harm are plentiful in our profession, ranging from plans that suggest managed retreat of indigenous coastal communities without inviting their direct involvement in the creation of those plans; public realm investments in already wealthy neighborhoods that exacerbate inequity; or the design of a playground that may meet ADA standards but fails to consider other creative ways to be more inclusive regardless of ability. Many organizations in our industry are going through a process right now to make the business case for diversity. To me, that business case is blatantly obvious: myopic thinking is the new malice, and diversity reduces the potential for unconscious bias in our work that contributes to unintentional harm.

It is well documented that people are more likely to accept evidence that matches what they already believe. Research has shown that our biases are validated by those we surround ourselves with. We are also aware that social media amplifies those biases, whether or not they are overt or unconscious. This is not a new construct borne from the internet age, though our connectivity exacerbates this phenomenon. Four hundred years ago, the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote that “man prefers to believe what he wants to be true.” That’s not to say that changing hearts and minds isn’t possible, but message isn’t the point here; it’s the messenger. People are more likely to accept a message when it is delivered by trusted messengers, notably teachers and doctors, because they have a direct and personal connection to us as individuals. So for landscape architects to build trust, we must therefore establish connections beyond our professional organizations, firms, and academic institutions and seek to diversify the messengers. We must immerse ourselves in the communities that our work has an impact on, and do so authentically. We need to step away from our drawings, shed our esoteric vocabulary, and directly engage with the public as part of our daily practice. All of us.

Our charge as landscape architects is to protect public health, safety, and welfare; ensure equitable access to nature; and safeguard people from the damaging impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. Opinion polls suggest that this is what people all around the world want too. But it is also incumbent on us to do even more to reduce bias in our work and to foster equity and inclusivity. If we attempt to extract our personal values for fear that they may conflict with the values of our audience, we miss an opportunity to discover significant points of overlap and agreement, or to include perspectives we may have never before considered. Lack of dialogue is what leads to bias, not the suppression of our personal values. Value neutrality is a myth that limits our ability to tackle the most pressing issues impacting society today. As landscape architects, our words and ideas have value to others. To be a trusted messenger, the profession of landscape architecture must share its values proudly. We should be confident in the knowledge that we seek to make the world a better place, but acknowledge that we will only get there by embracing diverse perspectives. So find your voice. Be an activist. Get political. The future of our profession is depending on you to speak your truth.

Michael Grove is the Chair of Landscape Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston, Denver, and Shanghai.

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