In Operative Landscapes: Building Communities Through Public Space, Alissa North, Assistant Professor in the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Toronto, argues that the best contemporary landscape designs are concerned with more than just aesthetics. Instead of striving for fixed, static designs, the goals of these landscapes are “operational”: they aim to guide “the transformation of urban environments over time.” By moving away from fixed form, landscapes can be open-ended and non-prescriptive, changing in response to — but also influencing — the development of their communities. North makes a case for “operative landscape design” through a collection of case studies oriented around a series of short essays. By equally weighting real-world examples and abstract theory, this book can be interpreted as an attempt to ground some of the concepts found in landscape urbanism. Operative Landscapes attempts to connect theory to practice.
Operative Landscapes is divided into five sections, each representing a phase of the design process: conceptualize, plan, develop, construct, and evolve. Each section is introduced by a short essay, followed by a series of case studies that explain the concepts in the essay. The “conceptualize” section looks at projects that build on the histories of existing sites. By establishing themselves as part of larger historical narratives, these projects strengthen connections to communities. For instance, the redesign of Cristal Park by Klotzli Friedli Landscape architects in Biel, Switzerland strategically inserts new landscape elements into an existing public space. Instead of treating the site as a blank slate, the designers carefully preserve and build on many existing elements on the site, including opportunistic vegetative growth and unplanned footpaths. By designing around existing elements, the designers retain much of the new park’s history and character while allowing for a greater diversity of recreational opportunities.
The “plan” section looks at master-planned communities that are driven by networks of public space. For instance, Masdar City, a brand-new city built in the desert of Abu Dhabi designed by Foster+Partners, is oriented around a series of flexible public spaces intended to allow for many uses. This was one example where I felt the case study did not really line up with the theory: while this project is certainly interesting, I am not sure if this kind of top-down urban design really embodies the kind of open-ended, reciprocal relationship between public space and urban form described earlier. While the public spaces in Masdar City may be flexible and non-prescriptive, the overall urban form of the city seems to be entirely designed from above. What “operative” effect will these public spaces have on Masdar over-time?
In the “develop” section, we see projects that involve the conversion of remnant or abandoned sites into public spaces, inciting reinvestment and redevelopment in their surrounding neighborhoods. “Construct” explores projects that dealt with unexpected construction challenges (frequently involving contamination), while “evolve” describes projects that change over time as they are used and adopted by their communities.
As North acknowledges, many of these projects fall across several categories. Indeed, the distinction between these categories, while each individually interesting, can be blurry. Despite this occasionally disorienting aspect, the book’s organization is appropriate to its subject matter – each section represents a way landscapes can operate in their communities.
Operative Landscapes provides a timely collection of case studies that demonstrate the capacity of landscape architecture to drive urban design. Sometimes its language tends toward impenetrable design-speak. Also, it might be more successful if it devoted more space to fewer case studies. The explanations of the presented works can be brief.
Still, by exploring urban design through the relationship between community and public space, North successfully establishes not only the aesthetic and ecological significance of landscape-driven urban designs, but the critical role these places play in the daily lives of city dwellers.
This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University.
Image credits: (1) Birkhauser, (2) Cristal Park Plan View / Klotzli Friedli Landscape architects, (3) Masdar City Master plan rendering / Foster + Partners