Problem, Challenge, or Focus:

Land Regeneration, Reclamation, and Reoccupation

Listen to Niall Kirkwood's Story

  • Profession:
    Landscape Architect, Professor
  • Job Title:
    Director of the Center for Technology and Environment
  • Organization:
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Song Credit:
    Intermezzo in C Major, Op. 119/3 by Johannes Brahms played by Richard Goode
  • Possibility Fellow:
    Nora Eccles
  • Profile Made Possible By:

Please describe who you are, where you are from, and your current role.

My name is Niall Kirkwood. I am originally from Scotland, and I am currently a tenured professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. I have a full teaching load compromised of lecture, studio, and seminar classes for graduate and doctoral students. Up to 2009, I was the chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture, and I now serve as the director of the Center for Technology and Environment at the GSD.

What problem or challenge are you currently working to address?

That’s very simple. I deal with the regeneration and reoccupation of land that has been polluted, contaminated, and abandoned. Then there are subsets of my work that deal with particular types of land, such as war zones or industrial sites or waste landfills.

Please describe the path that led you to where you are now.

My career path is not a typical academic’s path. I grew up in Scotland, which as a country is distinguished from England, beyond the most obvious things, by having a different educational system. The English system is based on concentrations quite early. In Scotland, you are a generalist right through high school and even into college. I then attended the University of Manchester, where I received two degrees in architecture. So I became a licensed architect, and worked designing buildings in England and the Middle East.

I found that I was unsatisfied living in London and began looking for something that was beyond architecture. I came across the book, Design with Nature, by Ian McHarg, who was one of the world’s top ecological planners. He talked about the roles of nature, the environment, and people in the environment. It struck a chord. He was an educator who projected his ideas that we have to work with the environment in order to be sustainable. I know that may sound very obvious now, but in the 1970’s that was quite revolutionary.

So I did something very odd: I got his number and I called him. He was the professor at Penn in Philadelphia, and he must have just been walking past the phone in the department office that day because he answered my call. We had an hour-long conversation, which I think actually cost me a lot of money at the time (laughs), and he told me I had to come and study under him.

In the next 4 months, I gave up everything. I came to Penn in the fall of ’83 with nothing but two suitcases. I went on to get a master’s degree under Ian, and he was truly my mentor.

After graduation, I worked for one of my professors who had just planned some large projects in London. So my second career was as a landscape architect dealing with buildings, open space, infrastructure, parks, and the reclamation of former docks, in London and in Barcelona. My office was run by academics, and very slowly they began to bring me in to help out with teaching.

Eventually, I entered the third part of my career at the age of 40 when I took a faculty position as an assistant professor at the Harvard GSD. I came to focus on landscape planning on a large scale.

Let me add a little twist. In my first job as an architect, which is my phase one career, I had been working partly in Scotland on land reclamation – mining projects on the West Coast of Scotland. When I started to lay out a research agenda at Harvard, my work again came to focus on the reclamation of land, either that was polluted or abandoned.

Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that somehow I had this all perfectly planned out, but it wasn’t completely random. It was a slow progression, where I began to build on my generalist education. I now am able to connect teams of specialists to one another. I allow scientists to talk to planners. I allow people focused on community action or environmental justice to talk to regulators. I was able to pool all the pieces together to make it holistic.

Who or what inspired you to take the path you took?

I would say the main inspiration is that I am deeply interested in the relationship of human culture to land: how we make our landscape, how we shape it, what tools we use, and ethics behind that.

There are two areas I talk about with my students. One is the quality of life that communities, regions, cities, and nations expect. The second is to do with the health – the health of the individual, the family, the community, and the landscape. I ask, how healthy is this landscape? There is a reciprocal relationship that I learned from my teacher Ian McHarg: exploitation of the land and the environment will ultimately lead to ruin. Our work in the 21st century is actually addressing and repairing the legacy of 19th and early 20th century industrialization.

I’m interested in how you solve the problems we are faced with. How do you clear mines in the DMZ between South and North Korea and repair the soils? How to do you remove lead that might poison children from the ground at Tar Creek in Oklahoma? How do you rebuild Belfast in Northern Ireland after 30 years of military conflict? So my inspiration is really a broader one, a personal one, and a moral one that was inspired by McHarg.

Give a sampling of the work you do on a day-to-day basis.

My day is broken into many parts. I teach, meet with students, advise, and do my research. A lot of my research is in other countries and other time zones, so I spend a lot of time at 10 PM on Skype with colleagues in China. I do quite a bit of writing, publishing, and communicating with academic colleagues across Harvard, as well as other contacts. I bring a wide range of outside individuals, such as government consultants, members of the EPA, environmental lawyers, community activists, and toxicologists, to speak in my classes. Then I’m also in touch with the international community and my colleagues in other parts of the world, particularly in Ireland, Korea, and China.

On a day-to-day basis, I could be going off to look at a site in Massachusetts, meeting with people from the EPA, or skyping to Beijing. I also travel a lot to see the landscapes I am working on. And then I really believe that it is important to talk in public about what I do. I give lectures at Harvard, to governments, to officials, but also to the public.

What are the enjoyable parts of your work? What are the less enjoyable parts?

What I enjoy most is the idea of dealing with a range of people who are all interested in the same outcome. I think the people that I’ve met, the landscapes that I’ve had to visit, and the communities that I deal with are incredibly engaging. Every day is a joy.

The downside, of course, is that time is so short and there are only so many hours in the day. There are so many other things I would wish to be doing that I just can’t do. Because my name is out there in the academic and professional circles, I get all sorts of interesting requests from different parts of the world. These are places where they are dealing with deep social and political strife, but at the same time, the people there realize that they have to address their environment. They are asking how do we prepare for a time when there may be peace?

I think students in the environmental area have many things that they can grasp, but the downside for me is really time. I want to help everybody, but I just can’t.

What is a challenge that you have faced in your career? How did you deal with that challenge?

A challenge right now is figuring out what students need to know to be operable in the world outside of academia. How do you teach these very practical things? It is hard to prepare students when we don’t know what issues and problems we will face ten years down the line. So in a sense, I’m trying to face up to this challenge of how do you provide students with a generalist education about the environment, which is also rich enough to be robust but also flexible enough to change.

What types of interests and activities do you maintain outside of your work?

I love sports. I used to run marathons, but as you get older that gets to be a little bit much. Now I do outdoor distance swimming. I swim about a mile and a quarter every morning in Walden Pond. Swimming is a form of mediation, for me. I use it to clear my head and think.

Can you recommend pieces of media that profoundly shaped you?

If there is a piece of advice I would give to students, in addressing the environment, it’s to read as widely as possible. I read about 40 magazines a week, from Vogue and Vanity Fair to Outdoor Sports and The Farmer’s Almanac, to really esoteric stuff about tae-kwon-do or teenage British music. I’m looking for connections and trends in areas. I’m curious what people are writing and thinking about. A lot of ideas that I work on come from other fields.

This is a way of doing what I refer to as sweeping research. I don’t even really care about the content, but I’m looking for how people are writing about things. Why do fashion advertisements like to use landscapes in their photographs? What kind of landscapes do they use? Why do new cars always have mountainous landscapes in the background? So it just starts to get you attuned, not to so much popular culture, but to the way the world and the way nature is represented. Yes, I can read Science or environmental magazines, but for me they are preaching to the choir. I want to know what rock bands in Czechoslovakia are doing.

Of course students will say, I don’t have time to look through 40 magazines a week. So look at five outside your field. You’d be surprised what funny little connections exist.

What advice do you have for people in their early stages of exploring?

Remain broad. I think you have to have a plan, but don’t over plan. I’ve always followed my gut instincts rather than what made sense on paper. In my first career, I was earning good money in London as a professional architect. My friends and family were distraught because I just gave it all up, but sometimes you have to do certain things.

I also think mentors are very important. There are two types of academics: mentors and masters. Avoid the masters because they will not allow you to rise above them. As a professor, I want every one of my students to do better than I’ve done. I want them to be more productive and creative than I am. I tell them that. It puts a little bit of weight on their shoulders (laughs). I love to keep in touch with my students. I just recently had dinner in Hong Kong with a student from my first graduating class. It is wonderful to see people in person, or stay in contact via e-mail or Facebook.

So to summarize: keep broad, read veraciously outside your field, and find people who can be mentors to you not just in college but beyond.

What is your vision for the problem or challenge you are working to address?

My vision is simply to use the knowledge, experience, resources, and technologies that are currently available and will be available in the future to solve global, national, and local environmental issues related to land, landscape, and its inhabitation by humans.

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