New Web Site Tries to Answer the Question: What Is Landscape Urbanism?

Landscape Urbanism, a relatively new theory that took more solid form through a book released in 2006 and is now actively promoted by the likes of Professor Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard University, and James Corner, ASLA, the head of Field Operations and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania, has been widely discussed but little understood. Much of the discussion among the broader design community has been about how this new theoretical approach has come into conflict with New Urbanism. While some argue that landscape urbanism is a needed corrective to outdated urban design theories that focus too much on buildings and offers a far more sustainable approach to urban development, others dismiss the theory as either not truly sustainable, or pure academic jargon, with little real meat. The Boston Globe ran a nice piece outlining some of the controversy. The New Urban Network has more on the “street fight” between the theories. On top of all this, there’s the proliferation of other “urbanisms,” namely Ecological Urbanism, another theory that has come out of Harvard. Others are very tired of all the new theories and think successful projects speak for themselves.

Among this abundance of new thinking on cities, there’s a new Web site, Landscape Urbanism, that looks like an effort to better define landscape urbanism, promote the concepts more broadly, and perhaps stir debate among academic and design communities. The team behind the site argues that their overall goal is to promote the idea that “process matters in design, that collaboration between disciplines is critical, and that complexity should be embraced as part of urbanism and landscape architecture. While many have argued that the ideas of landscape urbanism are too undefined or complicated, we think that through this publication and website, we can better explain and explore the ideas.” The group has also put together a diverse advisory board to help get the word out.

The Web site producers encourage visitors to explore the first issue, which focuses on “indeterminancy and multiplicity.” The articles by a number of different authors seem set on tying the new ideas to actual projects and cities, outlining how the ideas outlined in landscape urbanism theory can be understood in practical terms. One interesting article covers Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8’s installation along the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier in the Netherlands. There are also articles from practicing landscape architects; academics, including Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, at the University of Virginia; writers; designers; and blogger Jason King, ASLA. There’s a set of “strategies” that they argue “advance the practice of landscape urbanism and landscape architecture.” Lastly, visitors are encourage to submit comments, essays, photos, projects, or concepts of their own.

While many landscape architects and other designers may not be aware of the ongoing theoretical debate, current students and future practitioners at a few top schools are being steeped in these new theories, and this process alone may have some impact on future practice. Some view landscape urbanism as a powerful new analytical approach that, as Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, said, is central to the “emancipation of landscape architects.” Others may view the theoretical debate as irrelevant, or, worse, a confusing distraction from the budding public understanding of landscape architects as leaders in sustainable urban design, but these theories can be expected to have some influence. Perhaps it’s important to explore and understand what’s being debated.  

Check out the Web site.

Also, for those attending the ASLA 2011 Annual Meeting, be sure to check out the sure-to-be-interesting conversation between Professor Charles Waldheim (the coiner of landscape urbanism) and Andres Duany (the father of New Urbanism), and other leading urban design thinkers such as Laurie Olin, FASLA; Diane Balmori, ASLA; and Maurice Cox, University of Virginia, which will be moderated by John King, Hon. ASLA, San Francisco Chronicle.

Image credit: Installation along the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier in the Netherlands / West 8

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