Landscape Urbanism & New Urbanism: it shouldn’t be so divisive

Despite the efforts of each party to highlight its differences, there is a significant overlap between Landscape Urbanism and New Urbanism, both positive and negative. Positive: a concern about urban harmony. Negative: a tendency to fragment (call it sprawl).
Urbanists of both colours would do better to recognise this common ground and realise that fragmented urbanism risks the social, economic and environmental health of cities.

Some thoughts
The current Metropolis magazine exchange between Andres Duany and Alex Krieger, on the respective merits of New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism, has brought a simmering debate to the boil. This week’s 50th Anniversary celebration of Urban Design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) looks set to be an intriguing engagement. Duany, a pioneer of New Urbanism, will be speaking alongside (among?) the pioneers of Landscape Urbanism. How will Daniel deal with the lions’ den?

Charles Waldheim, Chair of Landscape Architecture at the GSD, gave a revealing and stimulating presentation on Landscape Urbanism recently to Christian Werthmann’s class there on “Sustainability for Planning and Design”. The foundational concept of Landscape Urbanism – that a balance needs to be found between human and non-human habitats, between the green of the landscape and the grey of the city – is undoubtedly correct. The sterility of most contemporary urban environments is evidence of ignorance or antipathy among planners and designers towards the biodiverse landscape. The consequential impact of insensitive, resource-depleting and damaging development on watersheds, soils, flora and fauna is ultimately costly for the human economy. Water is, especially, a resource that can and does provoke hostility and conflict.

Landscape Urbanism proposes that a new attitude is taken towards first, the preservation of natural habitats and second, the introduction of these into the barren settings of our towns and cities. This is a difficult proposition to argue against in principle. However, in practice it is apparent that the means by which the ecological enhancement of cities takes place – the manner in which urban places are “greened” – is, above all, a design problem. And here’s the rub.

Almost all of the projects chosen by Waldheim to exemplify Landscape Urbanism could be characterised as impressively large tracts of landscape (usually parks) sitting between small parcels of urbanism. The design language spoke of division rather than integration; an urbanism of the big green and the small grey. The formula seems to be, “Either have landscape or urbanism but not both in the same place”.

The most striking aspect of the presentation was that Landscape Urbanism’s breakup of urban places into small enclaves is resonant of many projects of the New Urbanism, where relatively isolated “communities” of pretty, historically familiar houses are set within a green landscape. But, Waldheim was clear to present Landscape Urbanism as a critique of New Urbanism – as beyond New Urbanism. However, his critique focused on the aesthetic – the architectural treatment of the buildings within the pockets – rather than on the morphological – the pockets themselves. In terms of morphology and not aesthetics, the overlaps between Landscape and New Urbanism outweigh the differences. This is a point picked up in Mike Mehaffy’s recent, powerfully argued critique of Landscape Urbanism, titled Sprawl in a pretty green dress. Mehaffy is an advocate of a less sprawling, more connected form of New Urbanism. He draws comparisons between the sprawl present in early New Urbanism and that visible in Landscape Urbanism projects.

When it was suggested in the discussion following Waldheim’s GSD presentation that the separation of “landscape” from “urbanism” might be problematic because of its divisiveness, his response was to propose that “Theories of connectivity have had their day”. There is evidence though to suggest that this is not the case. Connectivity is a subject discussed widely by practitioners, academics and members of the community alike. Both within the GSD and beyond. Commentators, like David Aaronovitch in the Times [ref], talk about connectivity as the flow of information, communication, social capital and economic potential. Connectivity is an issue of immense value.

There appears to be an anxiety within Landscape Urbanism that too many connections will dilute or disturb the city. That too much contiguous urbanism is wrong. More worrying is the apparent view that connections might dilute the landscape by interruping the green singularities (parks) that enclose the grey necessities (jobs and houses). This is a kind of landscape purism, with parallels to be drawn between the desire of certain architects to see their buildings as distinct from context – as totems, not to be diluted by having to respond to the setting.

If so, then this must be of concern for, in its stated desire to provide an alternative approach to traditional architectural supremacy, Landscape Urbanism appears to be borrowing its clothes. In a recent discussion with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Alex Krieger supported this notion by suggesting that there are two kinds of Landscape Urbanism: one that concentrates on the landscape agenda and another that seems only to provide a green stage for “starchitect” buildings. There seem to be difficulties with both and, while starchitect scene-setting is the more obviously worrying of the two, concerns need also be directed towards the other: the landscaping of the city. Again, the problem has its origins in morphological concepts. For, in separating the green from the grey, nature is seen by some landscape urbanists as a place to go to rather than part of where you are already. There is a worrying precedent in town planning that Landscape Urbanists should be wary of.

In 1963, Colin Buchanan proposed the separation of pedestrian and vehicle realms in his seminal work: “Traffic in Towns”. It was deemed to be safer for people on foot to be kept clear of people in cars. Separating people from vehicles has had the effect of separating place from movement in the eyes of architects and transport planners. The consequence of this has been to separate the activities of transport planners from those of architects. This has created a world of convenience, with the two professions not needing to work together but only to “coordinate” their activities. “You do the roads and I’ll line them with buildings”.

This may be convenient in professional practice but it has been far from convenient for the hundreds of millions of people now forced to live in the urban places that were created. The local places that have been created are often too small to sustain strong economies. Required to travel in cars between local pedestrian precincts, communities have, literally, grown fat on its product.

Crucially, by separating the urban landscape into local places connected by global (car dominated) roads, a vital middle level of urbanism has been left out. This middle level is created by a continuous, contiguous network of urban connections. A network of seamless connections, not one perforated by landscape voids. One that creates the sense that, when moving between places, you are always moving in the city, always part of some gradually unfolding place.

More than merely an emotional benefit, continuous urbanism creates a sophisticated set of scalar relations: more than “local or global”. This can be ambiguous. The question, “Which centre am I part of?” might be answered: “Many – some at different times and often several at the same time”.

Urban economies thrive on this ambiguity, drawing their trade from multiple communities of users, moving at multiple scales but who are co-present in continuous urban networks. As soon as continuous urbanism is interrupted, the simultaneous micro, macro, meso effect is lost.

This can be difficult for partitionist thinking that prefers to sort phenomena into trays. It is the legacy of nineteenth century natural science. A place for everything; everything in its place. Yet, simultaneous, continuous urbanism reflects the reality of living in real, vibrant places where it is possible to affiliate with more than one community, more than one place and more than one scale of movement.

The Landscape Urbanism projects that separate the green from the grey do not therefore do enough, if anything, to change the paradigm of “you can have either local or global but not both together” that the New Urbanism inherited from Buchanan.

And what might be the way forward?

It should be to see the “grey” city, in itself, as an ecological object. To acknowledge that the grey city – as a network of streets and spaces that are simultaneously landscape corridors and conduits of human movement, community relations, commerce and ideas – is the green city. New Urbanism offers the concept of the “transect” as one means of doing so. This is a powerful start. One that Landscape Urbanism ought to be able to embrace.

The GSD’s celebrations over the next few days provide a platform for concrete discussion of this and many other ideas. If the debate focuses less on the personalities involved and more on the core concepts of the city – supported by the evidence of rigorous research – then progress may be made.

Undeniably, the Metropolis exchange has been good publicity for all concerned. Will it also be good for the future of urbanism?

8 Comments on “Landscape Urbanism & New Urbanism: it shouldn’t be so divisive”

  1. Interesting thoughts Tim.
    I like the fact that you bring infrastructure into the discussion. A friend of mine always tells me “I can’t give you definitions, but I can provide examples”. In the same line, I would recommend you to take a close look at Weiss/Manfredi’s Seattle Waterfront Project. It integrates landscape, infrastructure, urbanism and architecture: a good example for ecological new integrated urbanism?

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