GSD as Epicenter
The escalation of voices in the (let’s call it debate for lack of a better term) about some of the urbanisms out there – most notably New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism, has kicked up a notch even in the past few weeks since the initial salvos. There has been a fair amount of dialogue around this (and also a lot of posturing), which from reactions I’ve heard has both engaged and alienated equal numbers from both camps. As most folks have heard, in Metropolis, Duany attacked (there’s no other word for it), the alleged ‘takeover’ of the Harvard GSD with a nefarious Waldheim-led transformation so that “the Urban Design Program will morph entirely toward third world initiatives—all offshore—thereby leaving the field clear for Landscape/Ecological Urbanism to be the GSD’s only urban program operating in North America and Europe.” and that “there will not be much of whatever remained of the urbane, urban design sensibility. Landscape/Ecological Urbanism will rule without dissension.”
“I suspect Andres’ postulating a nefarious ‘coup’ at Harvard, in which Urban Design is erased in favor of something called Ecological Urbanism, is actually a cover for a personal worry that the term Landscape Urbanism will soon supplant New Urbanism amongst the purveyors of design sloganeering. The arrival of a new oracle, timely draped with environmental virtues is unsettling. “
Not really having a lot to say about the GSD or it’s influence on the profession, I think the specifics of the exchange are less interesting than the very public ‘shot across the bow’ as Krieger put it, leading to what I think may prove to be a significant escalation on both sides of the battle lines (as if it were a war with only two sides…). The war continues…
Some Recent Battles
Waldheim’s post on Agrarian Urbanism got some convinced that Landscape Urbanism wished for a return to the ‘sprawl utopia’ of Wrights Broadacre City or other utopian agro-urban visions from the twentieth century. Taking the mantle of oppositional dynamics of cities and ag lands – even when it is obvious there is a strong desire for some balance. As Daniel Nairn, who came up with an interestingly balanced proposal of urban agriculture worthy of investgation, on his blog Discovering Urbanism mentioned, “A quick background check on Landscape Urbanism suggests that he may seriously be hoping to revive the Broadacre City. When we thought Jane Jacobs had thoroughly shellacked the whole decentralist train of thought back in the 1960s, a few academics have apparently determined that the dictates of avant garde subversiveness actually swing them back into the direction of auto-dependency and vigorous fragmentation of land.”
:: Farmadelphia – image via Ziger/Snead
He then swings widely to a broad generalization of the opposition, which i think is the most interesting point of the arguments, as it belies the balanced approach of land (ecological, productive, useful) within the urban pattern – which can be done without the sacrifice of density and urbanization. More production in cities will impact urban form – it’s inevitable and part of a conversation – but if we’re really talking about where people live and what they want, it’s very clear that food (for novelty, self-sufficiency, or even for apocalyptic preparation) is something than can and will be woven into our cities. It won’t look like Garden Block, and it won’t look like Broadacre City…
This alludes to another in a line of misunderstandings, perpetuated by a cherry-picking of thoughts from literature – similar to that of Michael Mehaffy’s article before, amping up the notions of justifying sprawl (how the hell the landscape urbanists caused sprawl is beyond me), or a desire for automobile-centric cities (being realistic about culture and conditions is not the same as condoning them). I wonder what the critics would say about similar exercises like Weller’s Boomtown 2050 which uses a number of utopian frameworks to envision development and density of Perth, Australia (reminiscent of the equally abstract ‘Metacity/Datatown‘ explorations of MVRDV These are not projects to pick apart – but are, at best, inspired and relevant thought exercises that we can learn from – with no notions that these are actual solutions.
:: Datatown from MVRDV
The ideas that we understand an urban reality and ‘get real’ about sprawl, ecological systems, the prevalence of cars and transportation desires, amongst and other realities – is helpful, and (rather than ignoring them for some traditional ideal) reflects the sense of landscape urbanism ideology and venturing into history for precedents seems valid for any urbanist approach. Also the common assumption that landscape or ecological urbanism is about throwing out the baby by displacing urban density and elimination of walkability, compactness, transit (good city planning, smart growth, new urbanism, whatever you want to call it) in lieu of protecting the bathwater and providing ‘greenery’, as demonstrated in Nairn’s split shot of a natural lake scene and a downtown streetscape – is also equally misguided, as there isn’t a call for suburban utopia of Broadacre or a modernist tower in the park of Le Corbusier. An ecology of the city is not, like early 20th Century ecology, removed from humanity, but interwoven into it. It is also not purely based, as critics would like to admit, on avant-garde artistic expression at the detriment to good urban principles. It is rather not deterministic – relying on a fluidity and acknowledgement that we set a stage, but ultimately fail when we try to control all of the details of a city.
The point made by Waldheim, (and Daniel – it’s Charles, not Peter) was not a tacit agreement with the proposed projects, nor a call to an agrarian suburbia dominated by cars. Understanding the history of the agrarian urban tradition (my reaction to Waldheim’s essay here) is vital – and discussion of historical examples is not to be equated with a blind acceptance of the merits of these proposals. (Yes, hindsight is good, but vilification for revisiting history is something New Urbanists may want to avoid). In fact, Waldheim seemed cautious of the proposals, not laudatory – a sort of a plea, in our rush to implement all things urban agriculture, to perhaps learn and not repeat some of history’s mistakes. As stated by Waldheim, it is an exploration, as:
“…these brief notes outline a history of urban form perceived through the spatial, ecological and infrastructural import of agricultural production. The choice of projects is based on the idea of agricultural production as a formative element of city structure, rather than as an adjunct, something to be inserted into already existing structures; thus this tentative counter-history seeks to construct a useful past from three projects organized explicitly around the role of agriculture in determining the economic, ecological and spatial order of the city.”
Another post from Yuri Artibise gets into the discussions of the variety of available ‘ubanisms’ – mentioning the concept of ‘sustainable urbanism’ (also echoed in Duany’s essay in the Ecological Urbanism book that is supposedly the ‘first official guide of the new regime‘). As mentioned: “Sustainable urbanism is an emerging discipline that combines creating multi-modal places, nurturing diverse economies and building high-performance infrastructure and buildings. It is more than a synonym for green or ecological urbanism. Rather, it looks at the triple bottom line by making sure that our urban centers are socially inclusion, economically dynamic and environmentally conscious.”
:: Sustainable Neighborhood – image via Google
This seems more like ‘green’ new urbanism than anything else. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with the sentiment – as an ecological lens to new urbanism has been much more integrated in recent years, which was a welcome addition. It’s the subtext that this is unique and different from other urbanisms (underlined passage to highlight this) that seems odd. If one can reference above definition as antonymous to green or ecological urbanism, then it represents a common misunderstanding by many of green or ecological urbanism – reduced to greenery in cities with little to no regard for the actual social and economic functions of cities – which is a simplistic viewpoint that doesn’t mesh with the literature. More also to come on Duany’s article in the EU book – which is pretty interesting reading…
:: Page from Ecological Urbanism – image via GSD
Is it LU v. NU?
The responses above (and the current ire/debate/flame war) I believe stems from the very specific attack (there’s no other word for that either) thrown out by Waldheim previously that LU was in diametric opposition to NU – as quoted:
“Landscape Urbanism was specifically meant to provide an intellectual and practical alternative to the hegemony of the New Urbanism.”
And as Krieger mentions in response to Duany: “Well, those are fighting words, I guess, and so a counter-offensive campaign among the New Urbanists has been ordered. “. This kind of provocation is kind of asking for some reflexive response (perhaps that was the goal?) but I think muddies the waters in terms of the debate. While it’s easy to say that it is placed in opposition, I don’t see Landscape Urbanism being approached in any sort of systematic way to refute or offer an alternative approach directly framed as attacks on New Urbanism. Perhaps a more nuanced reading and criticism of NU (along with some really good questions, like why West Coast Calthorpe NU seems so different than the Neo-Traditional approaches?)
:: Calthorpe’s Urban Network – image via Neo-Houston
There are too obvious fundamental differences and a philosophical gulf between the two concepts but its simplistic (and diminishes the value of LU) to frame it merely as an alternative to NU (see a recent, more broadly articulated vision from Waldheim here) – as it is looking at a vastly different context, scale, and approach.
“The most striking aspect of the presentation was that Landscape Urbanism’s breakup of urban places into small enclaves is resonant of many projects of the New Urbanism, where relatively isolated “communities” of pretty, historically familiar houses are set within a green landscape. But, Waldheim was clear to present Landscape Urbanism as a critique of New Urbanism – as beyond New Urbanism. However, his critique focused on the aesthetic – the architectural treatment of the buildings within the pockets – rather than on the morphological – the pockets themselves. In terms of morphology and not aesthetics, the overlap between Landscape and New Urbanism outweigh the differences.”
Another post, (and belying my ideological stance) is what I think is the most elegant and eloquent response I’ve heard (worth all of us reading) from Charles Birnbaum, written in The Huffington Post today. voice of rationality to the entire proceedings. The sentiment from the article, which is gleaned from a number of practitioners and academics can be summed up as such:
“Since the early 1980s, Waldheim noted, landscape architects have played the role of environmental advocates, concluding, “the advocate scenario reached the limit.” He added, “The rise of landscape as a design medium is bigger than all of us and none of us have exclusive access.” Waldheim is building a big tent in theory and now in faculty. The approach welcomes shared values, myriad and overlapping expertise and a celebratory embracing of complex social, environmental and cultural systems. He notes, “there is a decentralization to horizontality and it is very difficult to structure urbanism out of buildings. …
I am among those that believe that the time for landscape architecture has come and that there is sufficient evidence of increasingly greater global demand for our leadership. Our potential role has never been more central. So to Duany and those that disagree or feel threatened, go back and read Olmsted, Jr., because in addition to the principles that you have liberally borrowed for context-sensitive architecture and planning, much can be gleaned from Olmsted Jr.’s enormous comfort zone, which like the Landscape Urbanism movement, embraces a shared value, systems-based approach that is built on collaboration and open mindedness.”
“Architects are trained to design objects. They go through design school looking at form and program. Landscape architects look at voids, space, systems, based in training in ecology. They deal with bringing spaces together — how they are transformed through ecology. It feels to me that the basic training of the professions is different and landscape architects deal with city building in holistic ways.” “New urbanism does not do that. It is a holistically fabricated place that does not look at pieces in the puzzle.” He suggests, “We need to find ways to be fabric weavers — you can’t have a whole city of objects.”
Getting Back to Urbanism
This is illustrated in another recent definition (from Tom Turner at Gardenvisit) for the slippery idea of what landscape urbanism (or at least the urbanism part) actually is. From some recent discussion, he states that: “LANDSCAPE URBANISM is an approach to urban design in which the elements of cities (water, landform, vegetation, vertical structures and horizontal structures) are composed (visually, functionally and technically) with regard to human use and the landscape context.” I’d disagree, saying the reference to ‘design’ and composition make it landscape architecture, not urbanism. A good case in point is the High Line – which can be understood in terms of landscape urbanism through its contextual place in the urban fabric, but in application is seen as a design using compositional principles. See why this is so confusing?
:: High Line (landscape design or urbanism) – image via Arch Daily
Thus, I find it funny that the term ‘urbanism’ (at least how I interpret it) has become disconnected from the origins that makes it a powerful analytical and theoretical tool. Urbanism, per se, is not a planning system or urban design method, and it is definitely not a landscape design strategy or architectural approach. Rather, it is a way of reading cities in ways that yield information that is utilized towards those ends (which not being the means to those ends). As Wikipedia simplifies it: “Broadly, urbanism is a focus on cities and urban areas, their geography, economies, politics, social characteristics, as well as the effects on, and caused by, the built environment.”
One aspect I think worthy of discussing is the general premise that New Urbanism is a codified normative planning strategy, meaning ‘that it is indicative of an ideal standard or model’, while Landscape Urbanism, which is primarily a postive (or descriptive) planning strategy, aimed at describing ‘how things are‘. This is overly simplified, but really constructive when you consider that landscape urbanism is looking at a different worldview that is much closer aligned to what we mean by urbanism – not seeking out or determining outcomes that is more akin to architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design.
Perhaps as mentioned by Mason White on Twitter, is there an opportunity to open up the debate on urbanism to a wider array, and see who is the survival of the fittest: He posits: “this new urbanism vs landscape urbanism scuffle could use more ____ urbanisms to let a full fledged Darwinian onslaught unfold. any takers?” The [blank] urbanism debate not withstanding (and frankly I’m enjoying a sort of cage match format) – the whole concept of urbanism as a term is quickly becoming somewhat comical (similar to the modification of terming ending with -urbia that preceded it) with either serious or seriously funny iterations – which if anything is going to render meaningless the concept of which we try to understand. Few of these discussions are about ‘urbanism’ in a true sense, but rather descriptors for planning, urban design, landscape architecture and architectural solutions. I wonder what should, and what is going to replace it, because after this we may have to abandon it’s lifeless corpse, leaving it again to those who want study cities, not design them.
I do agree that, once all the huffing, puffing and chest thumping is over, there will eventually be a shaking out of a somewhat cohesive (and constantly evolving) group of approaches to urbanism. Not one of these will be the answer to all of our problems, but perhaps we can reach a level of stasis where each is mutually reinforcing and complementary to the others to allow a range of potential readings of the city. These ‘urbanisms’ will be reinforced by a range of strategies for portions of the urban areas, through planning, urban design, site design, and architecture. Any designer/urbanist/planner/architect – lending to the flaws of a single-purpose approach that we’ve seen so shallow and misguided throughout history – is going to be quickly left in the dust of the more enlightened and holistic thinkers.