Reading the Landscape: A Reference Manifesto

As mentioned previously we are fully engaged in a group reading of the Landscape Urbanism Reader, edited by Charles Waldheim, and as promised, are providing some brief synopses of what transpired in the previous weeks dialogue are regular intervals.  Our first week was a soft launch, allowing folks to introduce themselves to the group, and then to comment on the Introduction by Waldheim, “A Reference Manifesto”.

For starters, I wanted to give a brief overview of our group members – so you have a feel for the who and what of this diverse array of contributors.  It’s exciting to see the diversity (geographical, disciplinary, age, background, gender, and more) of the group as well as to have folks relatively new to LU theory and those with some experience.  A rough breakdown of two key metrics gives a snapshot of the group dynamics and global community made possible through our digital opportunities:

Landscape Architecture/Design, Architecture, Real Estate Development, Planning, Civil Engineering, Graphic Design, Marketing, Sustainability Consulting, History and includes focus from Academia (both students and professors) and from a range of firms, universities, and experiences.

Shanghai, China; Portland, Oregon; Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tennessee; Boston, Massachusetts;  Guelph, Ontario, Canada; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Seoul, Korea; Charlottesville, Virginia; Austin, Texas; Somerville, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California; Salida, California; London, UK; Manchester, UK; Rougemont, Switzerland;

This is sort of a preliminary overview and snapshot of what’s in the book – so it typically left the group with more questions than answers.  There was some good dialogue that referenced the distinction between those new to Landscape Urbanism and those with some background – as well as a few surprises from people that had initially read the book but were now revisiting it after some time.  The frontispiece included an image from Andrea Branzi – particularly his

The intro also includes the controversial and provocative excerpt from the text – outlining the ‘discinplinary realignment’ that places landscape in a more prominent position in terms of conceptualizing and production of urban space.

As a relatively open-ended intro, there were many perspectives – including some of those mentioned within the text such as global capital, de-industrialization and changes in the modes of economic production, increased importance of public infrastructure, decreased density & decentralization (surburbanization), cities as themed environments for tourism, commodification and homogeneity of form, waste & toxic landscapes, social pathologies, and prevalence of the automobile/paved surfaces, and the integration of ecological processes.

While Waldheim specifically frames these issues within the predominant themes of North American cities, many question the overall potential scope of LU – particularly in being able to address rapidly growing cities, density, and whether it is specifically oriented towards looking at suburbs instead of the city per se.  It echoes trends from a number of critics that the theory ignores specific existing conditions of growing cities and the rapidly changing nature of cities – folding into that concept the distinction of what is considered ‘urban’ today as densities, edge cities, and other non-central city agglomerations change our perceptions of the city.  There was also thinking about the different nature of deindustrialization between the ideas of Rust-Belt shrinking cities versus changes in the nature of production (a shift to the service economy) in cities that are still growing but changing in less physical and more social/economic ways.

Others mentioned questions related to the ideas of horizontality, the role of the car within, how is landscape defined within this context, the role of ecology, positions on capitalism, origins in postmodernism, and the role of nature (and our historical/cultural perspectives of it)…bringing in ideas from Leo Marx to William Cronon – as well as the role of Olmstedian designed pastoral scenery from the 19th Century.   Marx was brought up in terms of the concept of the triad of primitive, progressive, and pastoral views – specifically relating to the American viewpoint of its relationship with land derived from the frontier ethic and movement westward – which is a truly American phenomenon that has taken root in other locales that didn’t experience the same relationship. This was mentioned as a source for some of the confusion related to LU theory – as it does focus on the progressive in that it acknowledges the technological and economic reality that influences our modern world (infrastructure, cars, decentralization).  The resulting view then is that by default, acknowledgment is akin to support.

Much attention was given to the concept of the ‘horizontal field’ as merely a “uni-directional urbanism” or in a broader viewpoint of a “multi-directional” schema capturing fluctuations of people, capital, communication.  Others   One reference connected this to Peter Walker’s minimalist themes of flatness, seriality, and gesture – which provides a connection to postmodernism at least from the design perspectives of the 1980s. Even taking in the context of a field of operations, the horizontal field seems to be ambiguous, leading to questions of scale, how does agriculture fit in, is it relevant to the city or just the suburb, and ambivalence towards sprawl.  Others took a different reading of horizontality, seeing the references as “not to me so much a call to build cities this way but rather, an acknowledgment that they exist in this form.” or that the views of horizontality are not limited to terrestrial or territorial expansion, but encompasses the surfaces at a variety of scales of rooftops and other urban spaces.  It is also important to mention that many point to the fact that Waldheim, although the originator of the term, does not speak for the movement as a whole – and others may have a more expansive viewpoint.

The idea of a new prominence for landscape architecture, a theme admired by many of the LAs in the group was also mentioned – whether as a “shot across the bow of the other design professions” or a true path to interdisciplinary methods with landscape architects as the synthesizing leaders of these teams.  Building on this idea is a broader viewpoint of landscape as a more holistic conceptual framework (not specifically applying to a discipline) that including the broad range of landscape elements, as well as the urban landscape that includes people and buildings as parts.  This distinction beyond ‘greenery’ to a broader view of landscape is vital – as there is a good amount of ambiguity in the word landscape that seems to stir up the already muddied theoretical waters – which definitely need to be addressed in LU as well as ecological urbanism and environmentalism in general.

Many offered ideas for ways of placing LU within larger theoretical frameworks such as New Urbanism, the work of Kevin Lynch (Image of the City), Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac), Ian McHarg (Design with Nature), to a sprawling commentary (which I cannot begin to paraphrase in a meaningful way) covering foundations in philosophy from Aristotle & Plato, Copernicus & Aquinas, and Wittgenstein & Merleau-Ponty – attempting to place the concept and utility of themes in search of a Good Maxim in which to direct us. 

Many were and are intrigued by concepts within LU that attract many to the dialogue, such as process & systems thinking, catalyzation and staging, ecological thinking, focus on infrastructure, as well as interdisciplinary synthesis.  An overall theme however, which is the point of the reading and will provide some clarification, is that there are still a lot of questions and frustration about specifically what LU is proposing.  People mentioned: “…beyond simply describing urban processes as one-dimensional fields, LU theory would be better served by formulating a working framework for also analyzing the character of those phenomena.” or “ways that these concepts can be applied for more useful ends that promote urban density and vibrancy rather than fetishizing their demise” or simply a desire to find “the positive side” of LU.

There was a strong desire for specific viewpoints on things like specific urban issues, a search perhaps for a working methodology of landscape urbanism. While some of these answers may be found in the text – there will also, like this chapter, result in more questions than answers… but then again, isn’t that the point of urbanism?

Obviously this is a vast paraphrased oversimplification of many of the multivalent discussions at play  (even for a chapter so utterly lacking in real content) – so apologies for misrepresenting or missing any key points – so participants feel free to shoot an email or comment to clarify or expand on any of these points.

Next Steps…
We’re currently wrapping up week 2, where we discussed Terra Fluxus (Corner) and Landscape as Urbanism (Waldheim) – so an update on both of these will be coming soon by members of the group.  Stay tuned for more.

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