Landscape Architects Must Become Planners

Songzhuang Arts and Agriculture City / Sasaki

Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Grove linked the current misalignment between public space and private development to the long history of “decoupling policy making and placemaking.” Urban planners have led in the policy and regulatory-making realm while landscape architects have proven expertise in placemaking.

Landscape architects can instead lead and participate in urban policy-making through “upstream urbanism” while prioritizing public spaces as the dominant placemaking strategy in cities.

To illustrate the importance of this approach, Jeneck discussed the typical block structure of San Francisco, which is 360 feet by 360 feet, as it relates to floor area ration (FAR), or the amount of building area in relation to the size of a lot.

A four-story building occupying 50 percent of the site would have a floor area ratio of 2, which Jeneck notes is on the low end for urban development. Assuming the lot is the entire block, the dimensions of this building would be 180 feet by 360 feet, a footprint with an impractical amount of interior space.

This undesirable set of dimensions for a building can result in design teams creating assemblages of towers, which to achieve the same FAR could take up 70 percent of the site, greatly limiting public space. Developments like this happen because policy makers haven’t accounted for public space corridors and connections from the beginning.

The speakers set out five scales in which urban design takes place: regional plans, city general plans, city area plans, city-specific plans, and project plans.

Landscape architects are intimately familiar with the project scale, but need to shift up in scale towards the regional plan, affecting policy that begins to shape the form of the city.

Point of the Mountain Master Plan / HOK, Draper Site Design

Scaling up gives landscape architects a larger role in designing the broader framework in which smaller urban, area, and project plans must exist, a crucial role the profession is currently lacking.

According to Johnson, landscape architects’ ability to work with complex systems makes them a natural choice for managing the goals that must be met at each scale.

He gives the example of a set of scalar jumps, 1, 10, and 100. 1 is the site scale, the place landscape architects are currently most comfortable, 10 is the city scale, and 100 is governance and public policy.

All presenters looked at lessons from past planning movements in order to inform what a future landscape architect-led planning framework could look like.

They traced the history of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham on the City Beautiful Movement. While the Garden City and the City Beautiful movements were highly influential, they were also ensnared in class politics, giving them a green veneer without truly being equitable.

Cities account for 3 percent of our land area, but 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Getting the next generation of urban planning and design right is imperative.

8 thoughts on “Landscape Architects Must Become Planners

  1. R. Gus Drum RLA 12/04/2019 / 1:54 pm

    Maybe I have a better idea than Landscape Architects stepping out of their professional lane into other professions backyard. How about Landscape architects sit down with professional urban and community planners and collaborate on ideas that open up opportunities for more resilient community and urban space designs. Then the urban planners can get busy making necessary changes to land use planning laws, codes and regulations and work the politics that they live in daily to change the landscape in urban areas. Trying to become something you aren’t trained to be and for which your license does not support (as opposed to the AICP certification testing) is not a wise direction for OUR profession to take. COLLABORATE!

  2. Jitka Dekojova 12/04/2019 / 6:22 pm

    I would re-word it: Planners must talk to landscape architects to create better master plans and policies… and put that in front of them.

  3. Jerome Morley Larson Sr. 12/05/2019 / 10:54 am

    Planning is not design; its sole purpose is to segregate white people — as such it is a criminal enterprise propagated by politicians who can shake down developers without stealing public funds; it has destroyed our planet. Architects should systematically design our urban environments and sell those concepts to the planners to codify.

  4. Brian McClure 12/11/2019 / 10:32 am

    My background and training is in Landscape Architecture, but I don’t know about (all) Landscape Architects being Planners. They definitely need to more proactively work with policy makers though. I’m a long-range planner, and I regularly cringe when I see Architects and Landscape Architects try to take on the development entitlement and master plan process, and completely miss the idea that there are actual codes and standards they need to follow. It’s not a good idea if it’s not allowed. A lot of code I’ve reviewed is bad, and it’s a daily frustration for me, but that’s why designers should more proactively be involved in the review of it. Trying to change it when you’re wanting to submit a project doesn’t work.

    • Jeome Morley Larson Sr eAIA 05/19/2020 / 9:47 pm

      “its not a good idea if it is not allowed.”— oh, really?— an idea, by definition, is something never thought before — so ideas are never allowed? — it is a good idea if it is allowed? — how can it be allowed if it has never been thought before? — design knows no rules, it breaks rules by definition — planning is not design, it is programming — planning is Hudson Yards, design is Rockefeller Center — look how miserable ‘planning’ has gotten us in just eighty years — I don’t want to change it, I want to eliminate it forever — and get back to basic freedom to create.

  5. Stan Clauson, AICP, ASLA 12/11/2019 / 12:09 pm

    A planner could immediately spot the errors in this article with respect to FAR. Also, the transition from a misguided FAR discussion to scale is disconcerting. Moreover, why does this article keep repeating?

  6. John Barnett 12/18/2019 / 2:21 pm

    As a retired long-range planner and landscape architect trained and qualified in both disciplines and experienced in the public sector preparing plans and the private sector negotiating entitlements, I felt the need to comment on this article. While I agree with some of its conclusions, I think it there are important points that need to be clarified. First, on the different types of plans, there are regional, municipal, and area or neighborhood plans. In addition, there are systems master plans such as parks and open space, transportation, water and sewer, storm water, and housing master plans. In the public sector, these plans and their implementation must pass extensive public review, legal, and political hurtles before they are adopted. It takes the skills of a planner to create and shepherd these plans through the approval process. Landscape architects are skilled at understanding the existing environment of sites, developing designs to implement the needs of their clients on those sites, and how to implement those designs. These skills are certainly not mutually exclusive but it is important to recognize that one cannot casually move from one profession to the other without the necessary education.

  7. Kevin Scott Holden 02/27/2020 / 1:27 pm

    The Planning/Design Divide

    Considering the relationship between Planning and Design, thinking of the difference between the two as being primarily one of scale, there are interesting similarities to the relationship between Micro and Macro Economics, and the perpetual challenge of unifying the two.

    The Economic Divide:

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