Are There Any New Ideas on Cities?


This was just one of many provocative questions asked by San Francisco Chronicle design critic John King, Hon. ASLA, at the 2011 ASLA annual meeting general session. For the two master landscape architects on the panel, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, and Laurie Olin, FASLA; Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, the godfather of landscape urbanism and chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard University; and Maurice Cox, former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts and former mayor of Charlottesville; the answer was yes and no.

Olin thought that “all ideas have been around” but there’s been a “subtle shift in points of view.” New projects are now “framed differently. There’s been a discovery that cities are landscapes.” Cities are no longer an “architectural problem” but a “cultural landscape.” He said this shift is important because “everything in cities impacts humans.” In other words, everything is a design issue for landscape architects.

“There are bottom-up forces now shaping American cities,” Schwartz said, arguing that these forces are indeed something new. Cities are now “children of necessity,” with population and increasingly scarce resources shaping their form. But she also saw “concept-based ideas” that are “loud and up for multiple readings” sprouting up. Now, there’s a “new context in which cities can be understood. Landscape is a platform for how cities function.” However, with shrinking global resources, water scarcity, and climate change, this platform is also shifting, meaning “we need new ways of governing ourselves.”

Andres Duany, the chief proponent of New Urbanism, didn’t make the panel due to flight problems so there was none of the expected crossfire between him and Charles Waldheim on the theories shaping how designers see the built environment. But, alone, Waldheim argued that landscape urbanism (see earlier post) is a “phrase percolating through the general discussion,” which means there may be something to it. Waldheim said these ideas and practices have been “emerging over two decades.” Landscape urbanism wasn’t just dreamed up by design eggheads but “is the result of things that are already happening.” He said landscape architecture has always been a “socially progressive art and meant to be disruptive.” Landscape urbanism just describes a set of landscape architecture practices that are “leading change in cities.” Armed with these ideas, Waldheim contends, landscape architects have been “taking market share away from planners and urban designers.”

As a former mayor and a designer himself, Cox brought the conversation back to the practical problems facing communities. He said “design disciplines need to think about what communities actually want. Design needs to make things real.” For example, a mayor may want to add a large building that breaks up the street grid. Should they do it? “Designers can decode issues.” He added that the “quality of life” in any community is intrinsically connected with the “health of the environment.”

Are Big Ideas Dangerous?

The big idea of the moment seems to be reusing old infrastructure, but does every city need a High Line?, asked King, particularly given many cities can’t afford one or may screw up the implementation. For Schwartz, “there’s no danger. Cities are in fierce competition with each other. Cities have to come up with big ideas.” She seemed to argue that Central Park was the original big idea and now “earns lots of money” for New York City, much more than if there was nothing but buildings there. She said the big problem is that “people aren’t educated about what landscapes can do, how street trees fight urban heat islands, and work together as a system.”

Olin thinks that cities trying to copy the High Line just to bring in tourists will shoot themselves in the foot. “People need to build cities for themselves. Paris was not built for tourists.” But he said Americans really need to learn to live in dense environments because, in effect, density becomes the key attraction. Waldheim agreed, adding that it should be about “building communities first.” Cox seemed to offer something similar, arguing that “every city already has a High Line” — it’s usually a “toxic brownfield site” but the issue is “finding the uniqueness of that particular place, and using it fuel development.” The High Line was a product of citizen advocacy and action. “It wasn’t Mayor Bloomberg’s idea. He opposed it, and didn’t see it as a tourist draw. There are thousands of High Lines in America.”

How Can We Rebuild Our Cities?

“We need to continue to rebuild and reinvest in cities,” said Schwartz. Cities are constantly changing. Using London as an example, she said “cities are an evolution.” For Waldheim, cities are a bottom-up, organic form, the result of “community development.” The High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park didn’t “come from the planning process.” As examples, he also pointed to New York and Toronto, two cities where “multi-sector development” basically works. Unfortunately, in too many communities, “planners are there to protect communities against design.”

Olin thinks landscape architects play a critical role. “We are agents of change, but we need to figure out what kind of change. We give form to change.” Like Schwartz, Olin thinks that projects have to solve problems – they have to deal with the atmosphere, with water.

“How do you envision a new future for cities,” said Cox. For him, the issues are tied to what people want. “People understand what they have and are fearful of change. How do you prepare communities to enable new things to happen?” Design disciplines, he added, are “practiced in trying to envision the future, and have a really valuable skill set.” But they need to be “close to decision makers, confidants, and be at the community meetings,” particularly given so many landscape architects worked in highly charged, “contested” sites.

Schwartz sees many American cities falling behind their European counterparts, failing to renew themselves. Teaching at Harvard, Schwartz has many design students who immediately want to leave Boston on graduation because they “can’t do anything there.” Boston is such a historic city. However, London is “six times as old as Boston” and is “doing incredible contemporary design.” The U.S. is the “most conservative country when it comes to supporting design. This expresses what we are today: fearful. We are not in a good place. Design has to be about bringing people into the future.” She thinks it can’t all be bottom-up. “Leadership needs to take risks.”

In response, Cox said “politicians only become fearless when they have the support of their communities.” In Miami, there’s been a “laborious” process of revising the zoning codes, because communities need to be involved.”

In that process of renewal, Waldheim thought that landscape architects play a critical role. “We leaven the cultural climate, and enable those who want to take risks.” As an example, he pointed to the 9/11 site and the initial development-heavy spaces and how the “design classes rose up and said ‘you will not do this.'” Still, some cities are betting on heritage, and are not taking part in the “global design culture,” the few exceptions in North America being Toronto and New York.

Do We Need Any More Isms?

Is the “transect” (as promoted by New Urbanists) the only thing we need?, asked King. Waldheim said there are now more than 60 urbanisms. “Clearly, this is a symptom that we need alternatives and have to break down traditional models.” Schwartz seemed to get behind the rise of landscape urbanism, arguing that “these theories are useful because they force use to think critically. Landscape urbanism is forcing us to focus on cities. In the past, the focus has been on suburbs. I am very happy that landscape urbanism has spliced together landscape and cities.”

Cox said mayors aren’t asking for new isms but are looking for practical solutions to their problems. “Some cities have to accept that they aren’t going to grow, no matter how depressing that is.” Olin agreed that the focus should be really be more about declining quality of life. “There’s so much dsyfunctionality in the suburbs. Suburbs are the ring around the bathtub. There’s a vast landscape there that needs help.” Landscape architects, being “hopeful optimists,” can help “find another way” but it may not be theory-driven.

What Does Occupy Wall Street Say About Public Spaces in American Cities?

Politically-charged locations are taking shape in cities, and previously “blank spaces” are getting new uses, said Schwartz. In the U.S., there’s been a “demise in the value of public space.” The public realm just isn’t valued as much. “This is the risk of privatization – there’s been a loss of civic ethic.” Spaces are now “alien for this kind of civic expression.” To explain how crucial these spaces are, she pointed to a square in Yemen, where “once tribes enter, they are safe,” so the square forms a crucial element in political and social tie formation. “Public spaces are important organs for the city.”

Cox wondered if the March on Washington could have happened without the National Mall. He said Occupy Wall Street is just an example of “how public spaces have been reclaimed.” These people are “trying to find places where their voices can be heard.”

Olin added that there was a “joy in protest. It’s about community.”

For other perspectives on this session, see Planetizen‘s coverage, “Landscape Architecture Rising,” and The Atlantic Magazine’s, “Are Americans Afraid of Innovative Urban Design?

Image credit: ASLA

3 thoughts on “Are There Any New Ideas on Cities?

  1. Tired of the BS 12/01/2011 / 10:45 am

    Philosophical rubish.

    Promote urban agriculture. Eliminate bureaucratic policies and special interests for the “common good.” Promote energy independence.

  2. Bill Eubanks, FASLA 12/01/2011 / 10:46 am

    While not every City needs a Highline, per se, it is an example of something that functions quite well and could be replicated, where appropriate.

    I just spent several days in the Bucktown area of Chicago, at a home across the street from an abandoned elevated rail line. Foreboding signs and obstacles not withstanding, neighborhood residents routinely use the rail corridor to stroll or walk their dogs.Volunteer grasses and trees sprout along its length. It provides a different perspective on the community.

    With provisions for access and safety this could be a wonderful pedestrianway — built not for tourists but for the citizens of the community.

    Most ideas are not new — but let’s pay attention to the ideas that work!

    • Tired of the BS 12/01/2011 / 11:24 am

      Yes, an excellent opportunity to have community gardens, fruit trees, vegetables, composting, hen houses, bee hives… anything but just another pretty green walk that needs maintenance, security infrastructure, and the like.

      A real sense of COMMUNITY, an active interaction of neighbors and livelyhoods. Not yet another artistic interpretation of what nature is.

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