Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Landscape Urbanism

The Landscape Urbanism Reader, edited by Charles Waldheim, begins with a short statement:

“Landscape Urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism. For many, across a range of disciplines, landscape has become both the lens through which the contemporary city is represented and the medium through which it is constructed.”

This simple concept encapsulates everything that is interesting and exciting about landscape urbanism. Imagine if we designed our cities around people, pedestrians and the spaces they inhabit, rather than the position of buildings. Starting not with perimeter blocks, but with linked open spaces, parks and pedestrian routes. The fact that this opening sentence is by the far the best bit of the book, should not detract from the brilliance of the original idea.

Having ploughed through the Landscape Urbanism Reader, I do have a few observations to make. I guess my main gripe with landscape urbanism as defined by Waldheim et al, is an underlying implication that landscape is mostly about green stuff. Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted this, but I would argue that landscape is just as much about the hard grey stuff of streets, plazas and walking routes, as it is about plants and vegetation. More generally, I think the separating of landscape architecture from urban design, is a pretty common misconception.

Improving run-down city centres with the introduction of significant new fingers of green space, has great potential. However, I do think the idea is probably more directly applicable to the hollowed out city of North America than post “urban renaissance”, Britain (which is my main frame of reference). That said, I think Britain has more than its fair share of derelict industrial land which is unlikely to see redevelopment for many years in the current economic climate and could benefit from this approach. This also echoes the Landscape Institute’s current campaign to promote the role of “Green Infrastructure” in the UK.

Having researched landscape urbanism more widely, I do think there has been a tendency to jump from these simple principles, to highly complex, ecological city intervention projects, often with profound philosophical justifications. I’m not saying these projects aren’t interesting, but I think that by framing them within such a complex intellectual context (see landscape urbanism bullshit generator), they have alienated many who would otherwise support the approach. Particularly, when more simple and mundane examples would illustrate the concept more effectively. As an aside, I used an image of New York’s “High Line” to begin this post, which is a project that I greatly admire and think illustrates what can be achieved from a landscape urbanism approach. But I guess you could argue that it tries a little too hard to be clever.

I guess I should say now, that I’m not claiming to be an expert on either landscape urbanism or new urbanism, so these are really just the observations of an outside observer, albeit an interested one. It seems to me that they both approaches have a lot of common ground: quality of place, promotion of open space, creating greater opportunities for walking and sustainable development. However, if recent internet media activity is to be believed the two are diametrically opposed, and hence why I decided to write this blog article. I suspect this particular story also tells you something about today’s news sources, with something implied in one, report later repeated as fact, leading to a snowballing of a particular opinion, but I digress. There have been a raft of news stories, all claiming to discuss or critique landscape urbanism, but mostly just making a bunch of unsubstantiated accusations. They all seem to originate from proponents of new urbanism for some reason. I particularly liked the terms, “green sprawl” and “lawn apologists”, but rather than go through them all, I picked out this gem by James Howard Kunstler (link to article here):

“Landscape Urbanism is explicitly against density and vehemently pro-automobile.”

I’m sorry, but where did this come from? I have read nothing to support this statement. He might as well have suggested that landscape urbanism is about putting a bunch of kittens in a bag and throwing them in a river. This isn’t a critique, it’s badmouthing. Incidentally, I’d also suggest that it is quite possible to have high density development and open space too (off the top of my head, I believe that Hamburg’s HafenCity has 40% open space in addition to being very high density). While I realise that Kunstler veers towards the lunatic fringe, having very much enjoyed his book. “The Geography of Nowhere”, I’m disappointed by his comments.

For what it’s worth, I think the landscape urbanism and new urbanism have some quite profound differences (I also suspect that people are confusing landscape urbanism, with the similar but not the same, ecological urbanism – see here for explanation). At its heart, landscape urbanism is still a new and slightly unresolved philosophy. It seems to be most successfully applied at a more strategic level, thinking of how functioning cities are planned, rather than the nitty-gritty of individual developments. I also think it offers a pragmatic approach to retrofitting our existing cities; introducing linked green spaces to facilitate greater walking and cycling, and to make them more pleasant and better able to function.

By contrast, I think that new urbanism is very much an implementation led approach; mixed-use, walkable centres, open space, transport infrastructure (all good stuff too) and a leaning towards traditional architectural styles. It’s also a pretty well establishedi deology, with a lot of theory and exemplars behind it. But it doesseemsto me that it works best when applied to brand new centres of development, creating little utopias (regardless of how you feel about the style, they always look very nice places to live). Where it starts to get a bit more sketchy is when it is applied at a strategic level; particularly when we are talking about trying to retrofit existing cities with very diverse problems and issues. This is intended as an observation and not a criticism.

However, I still don’t understand why we’ve had such a tirade of invective aimed at landscape urbanism, which I think is a promising idea that can be developed in future years. I suspect there are some vested interests here, particularly from those who want to protect the primacy of architecture within the built environment, but I can only think that it comes down to one or two overinflated egos. People to whom it’s more important to be seen to be right, than to have a mature and considered debate about how we plan and design our cities. I honestly don’t care about who wins or who’s most right, and I’d suggest that all involved could find better ways to occupy their time, than mud slinging and petty squabbles.

I’m generally encouraged that, after many years of neglect, there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in the design of our public spaces. However the big challenge, across the globe, is to find better ways to plan and design settlements that are more sustainable and better suited to the way we live our lives in the 21st Century.