Jane Wolff

2022 Winner of the Margolese Prize

Portrait of Jane Wolff

Jane Wolff, Toronto, 2021. Image credit: Amir Gavriely.

Jane Wolff, AB, MLA

Jane Wolff is a pioneer in the advancement of landscape literacy, an emerging subcategory of landscape architecture. A landscape designer, scholar, activist, and educator, she designs playful tools that encourage people to understand and participate in the future of landscapes that surround them — capabilities urgently needed in a rapidly changing world.

No longer can we think of landscape design only in terms of its physical presence. Now, design must also consider the stories embedded in landscapes and bring together wide-ranging strands of expertise to address vast public challenges. Architects, scientists, politicians, and the general public speak different dialects; their varied knowledge bases and vocabularies often preclude mutual understanding. Wolff, a professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto, works to build collective understanding.

Jane Wolff’s work on landscape literacy has had a significant impact on our collective understanding of critical environmental issues. Her human-centric tools of writing, hand drawing and public engagement reach a wide audience without compromising the complexity of the subject matter.

2022 Jury Citation
Wolff drawing the edge of San Francisco Bay to think about vocabulary terms for Bay Lexicon. Image credit: Susan Schwartzenberg.

To address urgent landscape issues such as climate change, Indigenous rights, and rapid regional development, we require consensus and collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Historically, the specialized vocabulary and expertise involved in these issues have tended to favour certain interest groups and exclude others in the decision-making process. “Most North American landscapes take shape through the aggregated decisions of individuals, markets, and governments,” notes Wolff. “Their future depends on informed public choices, but their characteristics test—and defy—the vocabulary we’ve inherited for describing landscapes.” Because landscapes exist not only as material attributes but also as ideas, landscape agency depends on landscape literacy. Experts and citizens need shared conceptual tools that can enable public conversations.

Wolff grew up in Saint Louis, which was founded on the banks of the Mississippi River. “When I was a child, the river had been almost completely separated from the city by highways,” she says. “It didn’t play a part in my everyday life, and like many people, I only understood its importance as a historical abstraction—not as an ecosystem we were part of. Now I wish I’d had the vocabulary—the landscape literacy—to recognize how the river shaped the urban environment.”

As an undergraduate, Wolff studied filmmaking and received a Bachelor of Arts in Visual and Environmental Studies, followed by a Master of Landscape Architecture, both at Harvard University. She taught at Washington University and the Ohio State University before joining the Daniels Faculty at the University of Toronto in 2008.

People see and experience the same landscape in different ways. Wolff’s work reveals that their varied, and sometimes contradictory, perceptions and values can all be true at the same time. She studies a landscape’s layered systems to understand and catalogue its formation, components, dynamic processes, interrelationships, inhabitants, and managers. Relying on field observation, interviews, archival and library research, and popular representations, Wolff uses drawing and writing to create a unique vocabulary for each landscape she studies. These vocabularies can be used by both citizens and experts to tell meaningful stories about their landscape’s past and present circumstances—and to think together about the future.

What unites these disparate investigations is a goal to develop clear language to describe these difficult—and often contested places, so that various stakeholders can understand each other and engage in solutions for a constructive proposal for the future.

Jury Citation

To inform rebuilding processes in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Wolff, in collaboration with her colleagues Elise Shelley and Derek Hoeferlin and their University of Toronto and Washington University students, created the Gutter to Gulf website. This open-access tool explains the history, engineering, and possibilities of New Orleans’s water systems.

Wolff, and her colleagues and students, created the Gutter to Gulf website which became an essential resource for anyone concerned with the city’s planning future. Image credit: Gutter to Gulf team.

Jane Wolff’s ground-breaking work Gutter to Gulf has made a mark in New Orleans making water infrastructure legible and available to many audiences – citizens, designers, policymakers, and politicians – all with a stake in the city’s future. This work demonstrates the power of landscape research addressing the pressing issue of water level rising and enabling positive grassroots action.

Jury Citation

Wolff’s Bay Lexicon offers information about San Francisco’s shoreline to reveal the implications of sea level rise. The project began as a series of flash cards in the Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception on the city’s waterfront. She expanded her exploration in her 2021 book Bay Lexicon, a visual dictionary of the shoreline’s history, present condition, and possibilities.

Bay Lexicon flash card in use near the Exploratorium. Image credit: Susan Schwartzenberg.
An early study by Wolff explores vocabulary related to San Francisco Bay.
A drawing by Wolff reveals that San Francisco’s drinking water comes from a reservoir in the mountains.

Delta Primer describes the fiercely contested ecosystem of the California Delta in terms that transcend the usual boundaries of interest groups and offered terms for public conversation that were taken up by policymakers, environmentalists, farmers, planners, designers, and citizens across California. The project has two parts: a book and a deck of playing cards that can be used as a metaphor for negotiation and exchange.

Delta Primer book and card deck. Image credit: Amir Gavriely.
Two drawings from the Delta Primer card deck by Jane Wolff in collaboration with Thomas Hansen: (left) describes the activities of the Happy Reading Club, which met in Locke, a town in the centre of the Delta and the only rural Chinatown in the United States; (right) illustrates the ongoing threats to levee integrity since 1849.
The Delta Primer deck includes four wild cards that make a panorama of what the future might look like. Drawings by Jane Wolff in collaboration with Thomas Hansen.

Wolff has worked for the past several years with the Toronto Biennial of Art to reveal Toronto’s rich and often unnoticed landscape processes and phenomena to exhibition visitors. In 2019, she and Susan Schwartzenberg co-curated a pop-up field station near Lake Ontario’s shoreline and led a public walk in which Indigenous and settler participants shared their diverse observations and understandings of the evolving waterfront. In 2022, the duo expanded their work, co-curating the Toronto Landscape Observatory. In this interactive exhibition, Indigenous and settler knowledge keepers, scholars, and artists created instruments for observing the environment. In the associated program series, Observatory contributors walked and talked with visitors to explore and consider the changing face of Toronto’s historic industrial landscapes.

View of the Toronto Landscape Observatory showing a range of observation tools: the window; a sketch lexicon; instruments for calculating carbon; a list of questions; an artefacts collection; a map table; the Mobile Observatory cart; and drawings by exhibition visitors. Images courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art, 2022. Photo: Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias.

Jane Wolff exemplifies the core mission of the Margolese Prize by making visible the important work of landscape architecture and demonstrating its importance and value on the future of our ecological and built environment.

Jury Citation
As part of the Toronto Landscape Observatory, Jane Wolff and co-curator Susan Schwartzenberg invited participants to walk in the Biennial’s neighbourhood and use their senses to read and explore the landscape. Image credit: Amir Gavriely.
In a Toronto Landscape Observatory program convened by Dr. Jennifer Wemigwans, Grandmother Jacque Lavallée shared a traditional teaching about the Biennial site’s environs. Image credit: Amir Gavriely.

Wolff’s influence and impact extend beyond academic applications. Research and advisory appointments have brought her into the real world of solution-seeking, from water management to public placemaking. Beyond their immediate task of providing information, these projects help community leaders and stakeholders forge the conceptual tools of landscape literacy that address the ways that human and non-human processes interact over time and space. This work shares access to knowledge and opens doors for conversation. Like the Margolese Prize itself, it expands both the notion of design and our understanding of our natural and built environment.

“Building a society capable of adapting to and flourishing in the Anthropocene,” she says, “means building a sense of belonging to the landscape.”

Image courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019. Photo: Yuula Benevolski.


Selection Committee

Jill Anholt

Artist and Principal of Vancouver-based Jill Anholt Studio

Grant Fahlgren

Member of Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation, founding member and Chair of the CSLA Reconciliation Advisory Committee, and Project Designer at Vancouver’s PFS Studio

Tudor Radulescu

Co-founder of KANVA,
a Montreal-based
architectural firm

Blair Satterfield

Associate Professor
and Chair, Architecture
at University of British
Columbia School of
Architecture and
Landscape Architecture

Brigitte Shim

Principal, Shim-Sutcliffe
Architects and Professor
at John H. Daniels Faculty
of Architecture, Landscape,
and Design at University of Toronto