Cheryl Barton '68 is an internationally known leader in the shift toward resilient futures through landscape architecture and green urbanism. Barton heads up an eponymous 10-person urban planning and design firm in San Francisco. She is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and fellow and past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
By Sherri Kimmel
Q: You grew up in Erie, Pa. Did your proximity to the environment surrounding Lake Erie influence your decision to pursue landscape architecture?
A: The deterioration of Lake Erie greatly informed my career trajectory. At an early age I understood that humans were dangerously out of sync with their habitat, and that the quality of environments and places has a profound effect on people. I felt compelled to intervene.
Q : How did your time at Bucknell help develop that need to intervene?
A: At Bucknell, I majored in fine arts, with an informal minor in geology. I saw the work of the environmental artists, Robert Smithson, Robert Irwin and others, who were interacting with the landscape in ways that made it more visible. It was not just art; it was something more. They brought attention to the environment. That integration of art and science was critical for me.
Q: It sounds like a formative time.
A: It was. During my senior year, I saw the work of Dan Kiley in a 20th-century architecture class and attended a lecture by Ian McHarg. These were the first times I heard the expression “landscape architect.” It was eye-opening. In different ways, their work focused people’s attention on the landscape and inspired greater environmental stewardship — that really spoke to me.
Q: Can you talk about your design philosophy and how it relates to environmental responsibility?
A: We’re at a tipping point as a planet, and we can deal with that as an art, or as science, or one can combine the two perspectives — which is what I do. I am interested in going beyond sustainable to resilient. Sustainable infers holding our own. Resilient means doing something to make a site, a landscape or the planet more resilient to whatever changes the Anthropocene Era brings to us. Sustaining beauty — the art and design of it all — is fundamental to engaging humans in seeing and caring about place.
Q: Could you name a few projects that stand out as favorites?
A: The South Lawn at the University of Virginia, a contemporary version of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about landscape. A scrappy little park in Portland, Ore., called The Fields. It had a very low budget and a very simple design, yet it has become the front yard for The Pearl neighborhood. The Faculty Terrace at Stanford Law School that has been voted one of the best places on campus. We’re currently working on a self-supporting ecodistrict in Reno, Nev. A four-block area of the city will have its own urban forest, wastewater treatment and energy systems. It’s a model for how cities can adapt to the future.
Q: Can you tell me about where you live?
A: I live in an urban observatory — a modernist flat high above the street in downtown San Francisco. The view encompasses a landscape panorama from southeast to northwest. It is open to the sky, the bay and the city and overlooks a park. We experience climate patterns and urban street life simultaneously. On a daily basis I’m immersed in the landscape where I work.