JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Jane Wolff

January 23, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

Jane Wolff (MLA with distinction, Harvard University, 1992) is Professor of Landscape Architecture and the recipient of the 2022 Margolese National Design for Living Prize. Her activist research draws on her education in landscape architecture and documentary filmmaking; it uses drawing, writing, walks, and public installations to decipher and represent the web of relationships, processes, and stories that shape the everyday landscapes of the Anthropocene. Her fellowship research project is titled Absence: An Operational Definition. Jane is one of our 2023-24 JHI Faculty Research Fellows.

What are your main research interests?

My main research interest is to illuminate the web of relationships that comprises an urban landscape. My main research goal is to help people recognize their own roles in the ecosystem, now and looking ahead. And my main research activity involves developing tools and initiating conversations to help people with different worldviews and expertise acknowledge and decipher those relationships and roles, articulate their own values and hopes, and think together about how to go forward.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

My project explores water in Toronto: I’m investigating the relationships that water creates between the landscape and the people who live here, and I’m testing representational strategies for making those relationships visible and legible. Why? Because of a paradox made urgent by the climate emergency: water supports every aspect of our existence, and yet it’s mostly absent from our collective consciousness. The colonial construction of the city has hidden hydrological processes from view. As the changing climate pushes and surpasses the limits of our infrastructure, this invisibility creates dilemmas for individual citizens and for the city as a whole. In practical terms, basements and roads and rivers and shorelines suddenly flood and too many people don’t know why. In political terms, this lack of understanding limits public discussion about the future. The eventual outcome of my Jackman work will be a field guide, a citizen’s handbook to water as a constant generative presence in the city. It’s fun to think about what that might look like.

What are you hoping to experience this year as a JHI Fellow? How has your JHI Fellowship experience been so far?

What I was hoping when I came here: to learn from my colleagues’ varied points of view about our common theme and to prepare the beginnings of a book about water informed by a rich discussion I could not have had anyplace else. What I’m finding: my fellowship is even better for my research than being on sabbatical—the structure, the thematic framework, and the collegial discussion are extraordinary fuel for thought. What I’m most looking forward to: at a large scale, seeing how my work evolves because of this context, and at a small scale, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!

Can you share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

Two books come to mind for two reasons: they’re beautifully written, and they’re connected to my project here at the JHI. Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Walk, a brief handbook to walking mindfully, is fundamentally about attending to the magic of the ordinary. Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t, a collection of short stories, uses small happenings and details to speak to big questions about how people make sense of their lives. My Jackman project is about uncovering relationships and circumstances that are simultaneously essential and overlooked, and both of these books ask a reader to wonder about things that are often taken for granted. I’m inspired, too, by the simplicity of the writers’ expression and the complexity of their content.

What is a fun fact about you?

I love to swim.