Green Team Part 21: On Location!

Landscapes loom large on film and TV screens

In our last post, we looked at the growing use of digital devices in our open, public spaces. While we’re just starting to understand the impact that small screen technology is having on our landscapes, the history of screens we watch at home or in a movie theater is far-reaching.   

A site’s ability to tell, frame, or enhance a story is one of the most powerful aspects of any landscape design. No one knows this better than filmmakers and show producers who have been exploiting the narrative potential of landscape since the early days of the industry. With the fall television and film season in full swing, let’s take a look at the work of the location scout and some current on-screen depictions of landscape.  

Location scouts, those who select the site(s) outside the studio where scenes will be shot, recognize the potential for a place to enhance or detract from a storyline. Ever powerful, landscapes are often cited as the inspiration for specific narratives. Highclere Castle and its grounds, home of the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, were the inspiration for Julian Fellowes’ period drama, Downton Abbey. Much of the series is filmed on location at the castle and on the 1,000-acre parkland that surrounds it. The grounds were designed in the eighteenth century by one of England’s most celebrated landscape gardeners, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. The grandeur of the estate’s sweeping landscape and the scale of its castle, often framed by statuesque Cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), speak volumes about the wealth, stature, and optimism of the fictitious Crawley family at the outset of the drama in the early 1900s. The property’s Cedars of Lebanon are thought to have been imported from seed in the eighteenth century, and given to the first Earl of Carnarvon.   

More from Metropolis

A more contemporary story, and another television narrative inseparable from its location, is the recently concluded AMC series, Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, described its Albuquerque, New Mexico, setting as a character in the show, a strong counterpart to the protagonist, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a crystal meth maker following a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer. Viewers easily read the vastness of the sky and the endless desert landscape as a place outside of civilization where laws can be broken and seemingly straight-laced men become outlaws.

By virtue of creative license, movies and television may not actually take place in the locations where they are filmed. Often, because of political, economic, or accessibility issues, story setting and shoot locations vary. My favorite example of this displacement is The Good Wife, currently in its fifth season on CBS. The series is about the wife of a politician caught up in her husband’s very public sex scandal. Set in Chicago, the drama is actually filmed at sites throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.  As someone who has lived in both Chicago and New York, I spend as much time assessing the location choices as I do following the story line. For several seasons, the ivy-covered buildings of Brooklyn College have been a stand-in for the University of Chicago. While the Georgian brick buildings of Brooklyn College are no match for the Gothic stone edifices of the University of Chicago, the statuesque elm trees and lush ivy suggest a collegiate atmosphere, enabling the viewer to believe what we’re being shown.  

Brooklyn College Library that appears in The Good Wife

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen 


Eckhart Hall at the University of Chicago

Courtesy University of Chicago

While it may be impossible to fully recreate the look of a midwestern city on the East Coast, The Good Wife does get a lot right and is fairly successful at taking the New York out of New York. In a recent blog post by the Wall Street Journal, location scout Brooke Kennedy, revealed that they steer clear of shooting on the city’s major avenues to “avoid all the big stuff that is clearly not Chicago.” They even change the color of streets signs and, of course, license plates.

All these elements—street signs, plants, furniture, and of course, architecture—contribute to the narrative of a site and are powerful devices in the toolkits of both the landscape architect and the filmmaker.



Johanna Phelps, RLA, is a landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York City. Since receiving her MLA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, she has worked on urban campus projects in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, a botanic research institute in Texas, and a public plaza in Bilbao, Spain. 

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team that focus on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team will also share its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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