Three Questions to Lisa MacKenzie

Three Questions to Lisa MacKenzie is part of ESALA Declares series of short interviews which aim to frame and extend the conversation beyond our event ‘Why aren’t we planting more trees?’


Question One: How would you approach the question ‘Why aren’t we planting more trees?’ 

Lisa MacKenzie (LM): With optimism that this question is being asked but also with caution in the way that I answer it.  

Caution:   As the subtext of your question rightly asserts, there is a need to understand a myriad of complex inter-relations before one takes action in any landscape, whatever its scale.   Individual trees, copses, woodlands, forests are often admired and respected as living and ‘breathing’ elements of our built and rural landscapes.  They represent a positive inter-connectivity between the earth and the sky and symbolise the vital cycles of exchange and dependency that exist in our biosphere to support life.   Caution is needed however, as many other types of less identifiable landscapes also function in this way, to name but a few:   moorlands, saltmarshes, grasslands and bogs.    The upper layers of the earths living crust where soil processes take place is vital to carbon sequestration and I feel that this function is often forgotten, or worse, completely overlooked.    Yes, trees are wonderful and can contribute both social and environmental gains in ecosystem services across small and large scales but what happens if trees are planted in the wrong place?  What impact might the presence of new trees have on positive ecological relationships that already exist? Are we attentive to what happens to carbon stored in the biomass of the tree when it is cut down or dies?  What happens to woodlands and forests over long time spans? That these questions are rarely asked indicates that we have a wider societal deficit of knowledge about our place in the biosphere.   I feel that this knowledge is critical to the development of ecologically sensitive forms of decision forming about the future of our landscape resources.

Optimism:  Although there is no easy way to re-balance the terrifying carbon surplus in our atmosphere I do feel an energy from everyone around me to live their life in a more ecologically embedded way, in particular from the students that I am lucky enough to teach.   I can feel their will to identify, surface and call out contemporary and historic processes of destruction that are too often tied to privilege, power and wealth.  In response,  I feel as responsible citizens and especially as academics that we should be demanding different forms of action that put both social and environmental equality at the very start of every conversation we have about the future.   In many landscapes, planting trees could make a positive contribution to our biosphere and in these sites we should be seeking to understand if action is right, if action is possible and the if obstacles exist, how might we overcome them?

Question Two: If you were to ask another question to frame this issue, what would it be?

LM: How can we put social and environmental equality at the very beginning of every single action we take rather than declaring it as a goal that we hope to reach?  

In the case of planting more trees, this would mean taking an open stance, committing time and investment to understanding the complex socio-ecological inter-connections that exist in specific places and fostering practices of socially engaged decision forming and decision taking.  Then we could act with confidence and with care.

Question Three: Could you offer an example or case study that engages productively with this question? If you were to suggest one action, first step or strategy to be implemented to address this question, what would that be?

LM: A wonderful case study would be to start right here on our doorstep in Edinburgh.  The University of Edinburgh has large scale land ownership in the centre of the city.   I would like to work on a strategy to identify the social and environmental potential of our institutional landscapes.   Are they working hard enough to bring benefit to staff and students and to wider society?    How are our buildings and landscapes made? Can we undertake world leading practices of designing nature based solutions and implement practices of material re-use?  Can we engage in ‘outreach’ that allows us all to situate ourselves and our landscapes ecologically and socially in the city?   Can we correct solely economic rationales and negotiate and represent a new future?

The University of Edinburgh has an incredibly important role in opening discourse and seeking new reflexive forms of rationality about how we share and deploy knowledge in the climate crisis.  We have an opportunity to start in our own site, in our own landscape, with our own buildings, from ‘below’ the ground up.  Not only in our external spaces and buildings but also in the ways that we should be able to draw from our knowledge base to make consistently good decisions about both our environmental and social organisation as an institution.


Lisa MacKenzie is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA). Lisa has built rich and diverse academic and professional networks across Europe where her work is well known. She is often asked to speak in International fora on the future of of our planetary landscape resources. She is a Board Member for Public Art, Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, An advisor to the Landscape Institute, Scotland, A panel member of the Design Review team at Architecture and Design Scotland and A member of the Landscape Alliance Scotland on Landscape and Resilience to Environmental change. Lisa conducts her work to forge meaningful relationships between Research, Teaching and Practice, using each method of knowledge formation to draw influence from and feedback to the other. She believes that landscape architecture’s authority exists in its force as a mediatory genre. In all forms of practice in which she is engaged, Lisa is motivated to seek out inter-epistemic knowledge and translate findings into outputs that are useful, useable and command impact on the ground.