News - July 2, 2015

Makeover for Landscape Architecture

Linda van der Nat

The Master’s programme in Landscape, Architecture & Planning (MLP) has had a makeover. Master’s students starting next academic year will be offered a completely new programme. The university hopes this will give the programme a big boost in the popularity stakes.

The fact that the MSc programme in Landscape, Architecture & Planning has been given a new look does not mean the old programme was not up to scratch, programme director Jan Philipsen is at pains to make clear. There was nothing wrong with the Wageningen programme. ‘Compared with our competitors in civil engineering, social geography and planning, we are up there at the top. The evaluations of our courses are generally good, as are the evaluations of teachers. Our students win prizes in international design competitions with remarkable regularity. But there is room for improvement.’ Although MLP scores highly compared with the competition in Delft and Eindhoven, in the Dutch Master’s programme guide (Keuzegids) it has had the lowest rating of all the Wageningen MSc programmes for years now. In the past the programme faced falling student numbers, mainly because graduates did not see the added value of the Wageningen programme, as well as because of poor job prospects in this fi eld, says Philipsen. There were also complaints from students about high work pressure and poor facilities in Wageningen.

‘The most distinctive feature of the programme is that people are continuously wrestling with the need to produce good work both academically and aesthetically,’ says ex-student Sanne van der Mijl. ‘You are not allowed just to design something that is beautiful; you have to design something that is beautiful and fi ts your story academically. That is a tough challenge.’ Philipsen acknowledged that the programme is caught in a tricky dilemma. ‘As a university programme you must be scientifi c. But the Landscape Architecture specialism is also a design programme and those are not academic as such. The aesthetic quality of spatial design is very important, but there needs to be suffi cient depth as well. It is diffi cult to strike a balance in this. The result is too much of a tendency to train students to be jacks of all trades.’

An ‘intensive restructuring’ of the MSc programme was started two years ago. The coming year’s cohort will have a baptism by fi re. Student Wim Bosschaart was in the Curriculum Development work group, which undertook to restructure the programme. ‘We wanted to offer a more appealing and accessible programme with more specialisms and a better fi t with the labour market.’ Quite a task, which involved a three-hour meeting every two weeks for the last year, with representatives from three chair groups between which there is a tradition of tension: landscape architects, planners and geographers.

The main change is that the new cohort of Master’s students from September will fi nd the programme organized in a new way, explains Wim. The aim is to develop several different tracks within the Master’s to make a clearer distinction between design and research. This will give students more freedom to give their studies more depth and direction. All students will get a scientifi c basis, but there will be a research track and a track geared to design, policy or consultancy. ‘Students can also specialize in three themes; Global Landscapes & Place Making, Climate-responsive Planning & Design, and Foodscapes, Urban Lifestyles and Transition. That way they can prepare themselves for the labour market better.’ Students of both Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning will also be given enough time to gain signifi cant hands-on experience: learning to design is a time-consuming business. Philipsen adds: ‘Many landscape architecture students want to further develop their designing on the Master’s programme. In the current programme that was not enough room in the programme for design studios and there was too strong an emphasis on theory and methodology. The possibility of an entrepreneur track and an education track is under consideration too.

With more clear-cut profi ling the programme aims to solve the problems experienced with the Master’s thesis. At the moment the amount of work entailed for many students is really over the top. Sanne: ‘The number of hours a landscape architect works is rarely in proportion to the hours on other degree courses. On the one hand, that is because the creative process is time-consuming, but the demands of the thesis cannot be met within six months either. I haven’t met anyone in recent years who has managed to fi nish their thesis in six months. That tells you something.'

It needs to be good work both academically and aesthetically

Philipsen: ‘It is true that the demands made on students are very high. It is not for nothing that Wageningen theses are very highly rated by accreditation committees. But because of the combination of spatial design and academic research, as well as the fact that our students regularly compete in national and international design competitions, they currently get too far behind.’ According to Sanne, this is also partly because teachers are not very available. ‘I spent a considerable amount of time when writing my thesis on organizing appointments and communicating with teachers.’ Sanna says there is something wrong with the system. ‘It’s not rocket science. The work pressure on teachers is too high.’ Sometimes teachers are diffi cult to get hold of, admits Philipsen, but it is not hard to imagine why. ‘An awful lot is expected of them when it comes to research and publishing. With most of the theses there is no problem at all, but sometimes pressure to publish means student supervision gets squeezed out. From the education point of view that is a pity.’ Steps have been taken to improve the situation, says Philipsen: from 1 September the team at the Landscape Architecture chair group will be reinforced with an additional member.

Because students and teachers have had a big say in the reconstruction of the programme, Philipsen expect broad support for the new setup. He doubts, however, whether the adjustments to the programme will be enough to send the programme shooting up to the top of the Master’s guide ratings. In his view, a major reason for the relatively low score in the guide is the critical capacities of the students. ‘This develops tremendously on the programme. Because every design is a critical statement. And that capacity for refl ection gets turned on us too.'.

A combination of creativity and science is clearly visible in the MLP workspace. Master’s students have plenty of room here to make models, present plans and print posters.
A combination of creativity and science is clearly visible in the MLP workspace. Master’s students have plenty of room here to make models, present plans and print posters.

Sanne and Wim would agree that students of Landscape Architecture get a lot of practice in expressing their criticisms, but, says Sanne, ‘I have plenty of friends who look at their degree programmes critically too, and they study a different subject entirely’. Wim: ‘It is not the case that, as a Bachelor’s student, I had to compete to get into this workgroup. Students of MLP are full of criticism, but they don’t always put it into action.’ Last year MLP scored 5.8 in the Master’s guide. Looking at his competitors, Philipsen thinks MLP is probably the sort of programme that would not easily score more than 60 to 65 points in the guide. ‘So I am not promising myself miracles now. We are not going to get extremely high scores. But I do have confi - dence that something good is going to develop.’ Wim is pleased with the outcome too. In September he will start on the Master’s he has helped to develop himself. ‘A lot of things are at sixes and sevens at the moment and for sure it won’t all go smoothly from the start.