Dr. Robert G. Ribe Contributions to Knowledge in Landscape Architecture and Planning:
Almost all the contributions sketched below have been accomplished as part of teams, often very large ones. Dr. Ribe thanks and acknowledges his many students, UO faculty colleagues, Federal agency researchers and managers, designers and planners throughout the Pacific Northwest, and others of these types around the world who have mentored and assisted his scientific investigations and explorations of landscape change.
The expert-based methods of visual landscape assessment often employed by landscape architects are founded on formalistic concepts of aesthetics often consistent with theoretical interpretations of scientific findings regarding public perceptions of landscapes. But there have been very few direct, operational linkages between empirical evidence about public preferences and the descriptive determinations of scenic value and impact opinions documented by landscape architects. These assessments are therefore not evidence based, except by typically weak and broad inferences to research. Ribe is the first researcher to establish such clear and direct linkages so that every-day professional scenic assessments of forests, both from within and in vista views, can be calibrated, defended in legal and political contests, and be founded on evidence. He has done so using extensive and detailed data on the structure and pattern of many forests and extensive surveys of many hundreds of people. [Early work in this area received a National ASLA honor award for research and communication in 2000.]
Public acceptability perceptions of the condition and management of valued landscapes are derived from more than just aesthetic reactions. But environmental planning law often largely limits professional assessments of public perceptions to aesthetic considerations. Ribe is among the first researchers to tackle the problem of professionally assessing more robust perceptions of social acceptability. In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, Switzerland and Tasmania, he has studied complex public perceptions across people with different environmental attitudes to ascertain how aesthetic perceptions interact with perceptions of ecological and economic values and the choices landscape planners make. [This work, as it relates to the aesthetic work in the paragraph above, received an Oregon ASLA honor award for research and communication in 2013.]
The Northwest Forest Plan is one of the largest, most intensive, legally powerful and highly prescriptive landscape planning programs being attempted in the world. It aims to balance the production of ecological health and economic development in the Coast Ranges, Cascade Mountains, Olympic Mountains and all valleys in between from San Francisco to the Canadian border. A major policy prescription in the plan is a set of design guidelines for timber harvests, but the plan was implemented with very little scientific basis for such guidelines. Ribe contributed substantially to three large-scale, multidisciplinary regional research projects to build this scientific foundation for timber harvest design standards. He was the sole social scientist in these efforts representing human needs and perceptions. His findings have been among the most influential, because the biological and hydrological findings tend to be indeterminately mixed. National forests and USFS districts have modified their design standards to include levels and patterns of live-tree retention within harvested areas recommended by Ribe to maximize public perceptions of beauty, acceptability and enjoyment of forest landscapes within the region.
Switzerland is attempting to greatly expand its production of wind energy to replace nuclear power. But most proposed wind farms there are encountering strong local and public opposition due to their scenic impacts upon traditional cultural landscapes, communities’ sense of place and identity, and tourism economies. Ribe has contributed substantially to the development of rapid and accurate methods for simulating the visual and aural impact of alternative wind farm designs in Switzerland. He has also lead the development of public participation methods and public opinion survey protocols for testing of alternative wind farm projects in search of those most acceptable to the nation.
An emerging approach to landscape planning is alternative futures analysis using agent-based models. In this method a model is built to capture many of the critical dynamics of a landscape. It is then set in motion to play itself out over and over again under different sets of assumptions, without any control by the planner or researcher. The model plays out on a map in a self-organizing way, directed by the simulated behavior of landowners, policy makers, ecosystems, and other physiographic, hydrologic and climatic processes. The simulated behavior of landowners well into the future, in response to environmental, policy and economic changes, is central to the useful validity of these models. But the methods most frequently employed to “write the code” to simulate landowners choices in effecting the landscape have typically been quite crude, presumptive, and based upon very little direct and detailed knowledge of landowners’ actual attitudes, preferences and goals in relation to where they own land and what they do there. Ribe lead the team that is likely the first ever to use an intensive and extensive social-science survey of actual landowners in a regional landscape to program their behavior in an agent-based alternative futures study. He lead this work as among the principal investigators of a 1.4 million dollar National Science Foundation grant to study the extent, severity and impact of wildfires attributable to climate change under different policy and planning scenarios in western Oregon.
Ribe (who holds a Master’s degree in economics), along with other landscape architects and social scientists was appointed to a joint U.S. National Science Foundation and European Union working group charged with finding better methods of assessing the value of cultural ecosystem services from landscapes. This type of service is widely recognized as an essential component of the ecosystem services paradigm of policy analysis in making landscape-planning decisions that many nations around the world are adopting. This new approach is as opposed to traditional environmental impact assessment and cost-benefit analysis methods. The aim is not to find project designs that meet economic goals while minimizing environmental impacts. Instead, the economic value of alternative future landscapes is to be estimated very broadly to include all manner of landscape services and functions, and then the most valuable plan selected – which may favor environmental values as a primary choice for “production” rather than a sub-optimized by-product. Fairly strong methods are known for estimating the value of services derived from natural science processes. But methods of estimating the monetary value of landscapes to people’s experience and quality of life in valued places and communities are much weaker, often only referencing crude measures related to recreation days or simplistic descriptions of evidently preferred recreation environments. Ribe has contributed significantly to the publications and presentations of the working group toward establishing methods for the valuation of cultural landscape services for use internationally.
Ribe has also gained knowledge that has been disseminated to students and professionals through his consulting work and project reports, often in concert with his University of Oregon classes, in urban growth management, new city planning and protection of landscape scenery in both the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region and the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. [Early work related to Portland growth management and maintaining landscape quality received an Oregon American Planning Association merit award for special project achievements in 1993.]
Ribe has been on the editorial board of Landscape and Urban Planning for more than ten years, is a frequent editorial reviewer for numerous books and journals related to landscape architecture, and edited the 1993 CELA conference proceedings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board recognized Ribe in 2009 as among the leading innovators in impact assessment research and methods. He has been awarded international fellowships at the University of Melbourne, Australia and the Swiss Federal Technical Institute; and visiting scholar appointments at the Texas A&M University Center for Health Systems and Design and the University of Arizona Environmental Psychology Laboratory. He has been invited to give lectures at more than 20 universities and colleges and has received over three million dollars in research grants. Ribe has employed his knowledge of visual landscape impact assessment methods and research as an expert witness in cases related to energy development, forest harvest permits, and scenic highway protection.
Ribe has also taught many design studios and subject matter classes covering more conventional and common aspects of landscape architecture and community and regional planning. These have included classes in media skills, technical landscape construction, site analysis, land use planning, recreation design, ecological restoration, urban design, planning theory, design theory, transportation design, urban growth management, Oregon land planning, research methods, and applied economic theory for planners and designers.