Design Critics: Landscape Architects Can Take the Lead in Designing Cities

For the Sunday morning general session at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Bradford McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, organized a panel of some of the most prominent architecture and urban design critics from around the U.S. and Canada. The panel consisted of Inga Saffron, architecture critic, The Philadelphia Inquirer; John King, Hon. ASLA, urban design critic, The San Francisco Chronicle; Steven Litt, architecture and urban design critic, The Plain Dealer; Chistopher Hume, urban design columnist, The Toronto Star; and Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic, The Los Angeles Times. Throughout the discussion, the panelists stressed the need for landscape architects to take a leadership role in the planning and design of our cities.

For the first question, McKee asked the panel, “What is the story for landscape architecture in your cities?” Litt framed Cleveland as a typical Midwestern city – losing population, but seeing a downtown resurgence. With the middle class starting to return to downtown, “a lot of energy is being refocused in the center” despite its shrinking population. Still, Litt expressed frustration that landscape architects do not often capture large projects that have the capacity to make the city more sustainable on an urban scale. As an example he said when landscape architects are involved in large-scale projects, the results have been positive: Cleveland’s new Bus Rapid Transit Corridor, which included design work from landscape architecture firm Sasaki Associates, has been hugely successful, achieving “a phenomenal return on investment.”

Hume also stressed that the potential of landscape architecture is “not about the prettification of the city, it is about creating value.” He described how landscape architects have been driving the transformation of the Toronto waterfront, 2,000 acres of “what was industrial wasteland, the kind of area that people avoided like the plague.” Through a series of small projects, landscape architects have led people to understand that this part of the city could be a great place to live. Drawing applause, Hume stated that landscape architectures should strive to change “the way people perceive the city in which they live.”

King described the tension between large and small projects in San Francisco. Because “things move so slowly, and there are so many political constraints,” small-scale urban interventions are starting to make a big impact. Hawthorne also expressed the difficulty of achieving large-scale landscape architecture projects, though he did say that Los Angeles is “in the mist of reengaging the public sphere,” and that this transformation “holds exciting opportunities for landscape architects.” On the other end of the spectrum, Saffron described how Philadelphia is aiming for large-scale green infrastructure, planning for the addition of 500 acres of stormwater-capturing parkland, easing city expenses and providing spaces for people.

The relationship between landscape architecture and the public sector was a recurring theme throughout the session. When faced with the question of how wise public agencies are at producing excellent landscapes, Litt lamented, “all the state transportation agencies are hugely powerful, and they are run by engineers.” To change this, landscape architects “have to mobilize and fight it out at the state level.” King and Hume also felt that landscape architects are not playing enough of a role in the public sphere. Despite the widespread revitalization of urban centers, Hume said “landscape architects have been timid to recognize this opportunity.” Instead of simply filling in the spaces around buildings, landscape architects should be making spaces first and siting buildings after. By doing so, Hume felt we can design “cities that have actual public realms.”

Another interesting theme in the session was the changing perception of the value of public space. Responding to the question of whether the public connects to landscape architecture the way we want them to, Saffron stated, “I think people really care about their parks, especially their neighborhood parks.” She felt that we’re in a “post-job” period, where people have work but no jobs. Because people are not “chained to their desks,” they have time to use public space in a more intense way than before. Hawthorne also spoke to the growing demand for a civic realm. He said that people in Los Angeles, despite their reputation, have a desire for public space, but they don’t have the opportunity for it. He felt that part of this desire for public space was driven by a technological shift: people’s obsession with their phones has led to them viewing car ownership as a burden, not freedom. After all, “driving is the one time that they can’t use their phones.”

This question of the public’s relationship to landscape architecture also prompted a discussion about the profession’s visibility. King stated, “I think people appreciate landscapes, but I don’t know how many people really associate landscape architects with public landscapes.” Elaborating on this point, Hume said, “The great conundrum for the landscape architect is that when the project is successful, they think it is natural and has always been there.” Therefore, landscape architects need to make people aware that these spaces “did not spring out of nature, that every aspect was designed.” Still, landscape architects must remember that people use public spaces and take ownership of them. When landscape architects do whatever they want, the public sees it as an intrusion. Hume felt that many in the public do not see landscape architects as their allies, perhaps because “the word architect implies ego.”

Throughout the session, landscape architecture was painted as a critical, but often missing, element of urban design. As cities grapple with climate change and the legacy of suburban sprawl, landscape architects need to assert themselves not only as designers of parks and gardens, but as designers of all public infrastructure.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credit: Sam Brown Photography / ASLA 

4 thoughts on “Design Critics: Landscape Architects Can Take the Lead in Designing Cities

  1. jgonot 10/04/2012 / 10:47 pm

    When our urban cores were expanding rapidly after 1850s, the concept of City Beautiful Movement brought on by Daniel Burnham spurred the impact that landscape architects have on designing cities. Olmsted was Burnham’s “partner in crime” if you will. Together they brought City Beautiful to reality in places like Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. The importance of landscape architects in designing cities has constantly changed over the decades, but I strongly believe that landscape architects are positioned now to greatly impact the design of cities.

  2. Vanessa Santos 10/08/2012 / 10:19 am

    I think we could help by embracing movements such as City Beautiful instead of seemingly not wanting to be associated with words like beauty, pretty, etc. There is no shame in beautification. I also believe that engineers have a role to play but that as we move forward collaboration between a multiplicity of disciplines is necessary. This is one aspect I like about being a landscape architect because we seem very willing to work with ecologists, biologists, etc. We have to continue to move forward out of the ’80s ideology of landscape art into a more ecologically driven design that layers public space with art.

  3. Landscaping Penticton 12/03/2012 / 4:35 am

    Landscape Architecture is a commonly misunderstood profession. One might think that a landscape architect is someone who puts together lush colors of flowers and trees, putting their fullest creatively to work every hour of the day. Although to a certain extent this is a creative profession, it is typically creative because of the cost-effective design solutions you come up with to meet your clients’ strict needs.

  4. Designer Alliance 12/24/2013 / 5:26 am

    I am agree with this post. Landscape architects can take the lead in designing cities. Throughout designing, landscape architects should also take care of the public relationship.

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