From Landscape to Ecological Urbanism

Landscape as Urbanism / Princeton University Press
Landscape as Urbanism / Princeton University Press

Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design, is moving away from the “original assertions and ideological charge of landscape urbanism,” a controversial theory he has shaped and promoted. Instead, in his new book, Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory, Waldheim takes a broader view, arguing that landscape architecture is the design discipline best positioned to create more sustainable cities through “ecological urbanism.” Our cities are increasingly complex, and a systems-based approach is needed to sort through all the inter-relationships. In our multi-layered urban world, what better organizing tool can there be than the underlying ecology of a city?

Much of the design press seems to agree with Waldheim. The Architect’s Newspaper, CityLab, and other planning and design publications have expanded their coverage of landscape architecture, with the latest urban ecological plans, parks, and plazas now getting as much attention as major new buildings. And we are starting to see these ideas percolate into mainstream media as well. In a new profile of West 8 founder and landscape architect Adriaan Geuze, ASLA, and his work at Governor’s Island in New York City, The New Yorker wrote: “parks have become the new architecture stars, perfectly suited for our green and community-seeking age.” There is a growing awareness of the value of ecological landscapes, in all forms, in our cities.

Waldheim’s book is not written for the general public. The writing can be tricky, but the book is rich in bold ideas. He has a thought-provoking take on the twinned history of planning and landscape architecture, and how these disciplines have shifted roles in a few major cities over the past few decades. He increasingly sees contemporary urban planners as “rushing into document design,” and focused on “managing public relations, legislative processes, and community interests,” while landscape architects bring the sweeping, layered ecological visions and make them happen. “In many instances, landscape design strategies precede planning. In many of these projects, ecological understandings inform urban order, and design agency propels a process through a complex hybridization of land use, environmental stewardship, public participation, and design culture. Often in these projects, a previously extant planning regime is rendered redundant through a design competition, donor bequest, or community consensus.”

In ArchDaily, Waldheim lists 12 projects he thinks are examples of this trend, and in his book, he holds up New York City, with its High Line, Chicago, with its Millennium Park, and, finally, Toronto, with its ambitious set of Waterfront Toronto parks, as prime examples of a landscape and ecology-first approach to city-making. Waldheim argues that these big, landscape architect-led projects are a sign that “landscape architects are the urbanists of our age.” However, Waldheim doesn’t go into any detail about the leadership, planning and regulatory frameworks, or local cultures that enabled these projects to happen in the first place. For Waldheim, the role of the landscape architect is increasingly paramount.

One of the most interesting chapters looks at the history of the term “landscape architect.” Waldheim argues that with landscape architect’s increasingly ambitious urban and ecological scope, the term doesn’t do justice. He reveals, though, that this debate has been ongoing since the late-1800s, at least among the leaders of the field. Frederick Law Olmsted particularly disliked the term landscape architect and “longed for a new term to stand for the ‘sylvan art.'” Olmsted was quoted: “landscape is not a good word, Architecture is not; the combination is not. Gardening is worse.” Waldheim writes that Olmsted wanted a better English translation of the French terms that “more adequately captured the subtleties of the new art of urban order.” And, interestingly, many of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which was formed in 1899, also “chafed” at the title landscape architect, including ASLA’s only woman founder, Beatrix Farrand. Waldheim floats the possible translation of the French and Spanish conception of architecte-paysagiste as “landscapist” and presents it as a more relevant title for an evolving profession.

Towards the end of Landscape as Urbanism, Waldheim moves away from the West and sees the future of landscape architecture in Asia, personified in the unique role Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, plays in China. “Yu represents a historical singularity and is arguably the most important landscape architect practicing in China today.” Yu plays the role in China that Olmsted once played here in the U.S. but perhaps on an even broader scale. (And through omission, Waldheim seems to say there is basically no one of his stature in our country practicing today). “Yu has leveraged this unique historical position to lobby Chinese political elites, most notably national leadership and mayors, for the adoption of Western-style ecological planning practices at the metropolitan, provincial, and even national scales.” Through this effort, his lectures to China’s Conference of Mayors, and his influential publications, Yu has “effectively articulated a scientifically-informed ecological planning agenda at the national scale.” Yu’s advocacy culminated in a recent project: a Chinese National Ecological Security Plan. Waldheim sees this as the epitome of the positive role landscape architects can play in shaping a more sustainable, ecological urban future. And Yu and others’ “ecological urbanism” may surpass the more limited landscape urbanism approach in earning followers.

Waldheim concludes that an “ecological approach to urbanism promises to render a more precise and delimited focus on ecology as a model and medium for design. This has the dual benefit of avoiding some of landscape’s luggage, whole rebooting the now two-decades-old intellectual agenda of landscape urbanism.” Ecological urbanism opens up a whole new set of opportunities. “Increased calls for environmental remediation, ecological health, and biodiversity suggest the potential for re-imagining urban futures.” What an exciting idea: marrying ecological health with good design for both humanity and other species in our cities.

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