Landscape urbanism: the sound of the suburbs

Paul Raven @ 31-01-2011

As the human species becomes majority-urban, the planning and maintenance of cities becomes an increasingly important matter… and where importance goes, there too goes profound philosophical disagreement on best practice. Meet the Landscape Urbanists, the newest new school of architecture and civic planning [via BigThink]:

The landscape urbanist vision propounded by Waldheim and his allies comes down to two central insights. The first is that American cities in the 21st century are not like American cities from the 19th century, and should not be expected to function the same way. The second is that the best way for urban designers to protect the environment is to prioritize the natural landscape. Design should accommodate the waterways and the wildlife that were there before you arrived; it should preserve the rainfall instead of shunting it into sewers, and perhaps use it to irrigate nearby vegetation.

Taken together, those two positions add up to a vision of city planning that doesn’t put a priority on city life over suburban living; it focuses instead on resource protection, the creative use of natural infrastructure, and so-called systems thinking — that is, exactly what landscape architects are trained to do. There are, as yet, few examples of the ideas put into practice: Supporters tend to point to projects still under construction, like the park being built on top of a landfill in Staten Island, N.Y. But Waldheim has said that his program is “specifically” and “explicitly” meant to dislodge the New Urbanists from their perch in the American planning world.

[…]

Proponents of the New Urbanism have not been taking the accusations of obsolescence sitting down. In a widely circulated November essay on the website of Metropolis magazine, Duany mockingly cast the rise of landscape urbanism at Harvard as a “classic Latin American-style…coup.” His fellow New Urbanists have weighed in with more substantive critiques that have been equally harsh. One planning professor in Arizona attacked the landscape urbanists for caring more about nature than humans; on the planning website Planetizen, the Portland, Ore.-based urban design theorist Michael Mehaffy published an indictment of landscape urbanism called “Sprawl in a Pretty Green Dress?”

The underlying argument between the groups goes beyond the relative merits of density, or the question of whether you should start a planning project with the buildings or with the watershed. It’s an argument about whether human beings should adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves, or try to change them. Is sprawl inevitable, or isn’t it? At what point does it make sense to come to terms with it and try to find pragmatic, incremental solutions that don’t rely on any paradigmatic cultural shift?

This is one of those moments where I find myself entertaining the idea of immersing myself in an entirely new academic discipline; I’m in no way qualified to take a side on that argument at this point, but its importance to the near future is blindingly obvious, and I’m a sucker for big questions waiting on an answer.

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