Saturday, November 13, 2010

More on the Urbanism Wars

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."

The response from Alex Krieger (soon after) captured a less reactionary tone of a natural progression of ideology over time (something the CNU may consider a valuable lesson).  He mentions:

"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.

Voices of Reason

A couple of readings from both sides of the argument give a much clearer ideological breakdown and are much less divisive - which I think is much more useful than name calling and stereotyping based on simplied notions of either NU or LU theory (both sides are guilty of reducing for the purposes of denigrating the other).  These two voices seem to offer a useful discussion of the merits.

The first, from Tim Stonor from The Power of the Network, questions the divisiveness of the debate, recognizing both positive and negative overlaps between the two and understanding the potential of these to reinforce each others.  From the post.
"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."
Stonor does go on to adopt the same 'grey versus green' assumption of NU critics of LU, stating that "The Landscape Urbanism projects that separate the green from the grey do not therefore do enough, if anything, to change the paradigm of “you can have either local or global but not both together” that the New Urbanism inherited from Buchanan." and goes on to use the New Urbanist 'transect' as a replicable model. "It should be to see the “grey” city, in itself, as an ecological object. To acknowledge that the grey city – as a network of streets and spaces that are simultaneously landscape corridors and conduits of human movement, community relations, commerce and ideas – is the green city. New Urbanism offers the concept of the “transect” as one means of doing so. This is a powerful start. One that Landscape Urbanism ought to be able to embrace."

:: Broadacre City - image via Discovering Urbanism

The transect is an interest metaphorical model, again worthy of discussion (and I know for a fact that many LU folks are intrigued by the ideas - at least until it becomes a mechanism for Smart Codes).  It is not, however, to be translated into a one-size-fits-all solution (unless you can find me a great monocentric model city where the categories work).  Much like economic city models that use monocentric principles (simplified versions of city dynamics), they are fine for analysis, but not necessarily for action because they don't capture the complexity of the reality of cities - because no code is that smart.  

I also wonder, somewhat, where these 'projects' are that are the basis of some of this criticism (as I've mentioned previously, this is still a very vague notion - and I would love some specifics, if only to evaluate what is being evaluated). I don't think there's agreement on what is a work of landscape urbanism (if it exists at all), so using project specific criticism seems a bit hollow.  Is it site based?  Aggregations?  Districts? or just viable at a city scale... I'm slowly amassing some ideas from readers, and it's leaving me with more questions than answers - so LU proponents and NU critics - let's look for a shared understanding that at least is a point of departure for philosophical differences we can debate.

:: Crossroads Project from LA Dallman

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." 
:: Green Networks in Olmsted Bros planning - image via Heaviest Corner

Birnbaum reaches to Waldheim, Czerniak, Pollack, and even Martha Schwartz for some of the recent thinking on the emergence of landscape architecture, who collectively provide a range of ideas in practice and academia.   Perhaps for those not excited about Martha Schwartz as our defender, can look to folks like Mark Rios (both and architect and landscape architect) who offers a great perspective:  
"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."
The 'we' in this case is all of use collectively, and divisiveness only furthers the gulf, to the deteriment of our collective impact on cities.  Only with an understanding of each side can we compare and contrast - so those with issues with New Urbanism (or parts of it) need to learn what the concepts and results are.  Those who aim to dismiss Landscape and Ecological Urbanism may do everyone a favor and do the same.  It's a simple case of knowing thy enemy. 

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.  

:: Transect - image via Think of Thwim

I've even heard folks in the urban design realm (and landscape architects as well) starting to get their hackles up, criticizing LU by either saying it's irrelevant or that it is what we're already doing.  This misses the point, as you are fundamentally talking about a key different between design and urbanism - which seems lost on most folks.  Thus I can be an urbanist (landscape, ecological, or other...) while also being a landscape architect - not having to trade one in for the other because they are fundamentally different modes of operating in cities.

Comparing Apples to Apple Trees

The analogy that comes to mind, instead of saying these are comparing apples to oranges, is that the comparison is closer to comparing apples (NU) to apple trees (LU).  One is a discreet product, the other a complex system.  One is small and decipherable, the other larger and more complex.  One yields understandable forms, flavors, colors and textures, while the other is more varied (not containing an inherent 'taste' or 'style') but forming an armature for myriad possible differences in its fruit.   Yet they both coexist and are reliant on each other... much as the apple and apple tree are.  

:: Apple Trees on the Chantemesle Hill - (Monet 1878) - images via monetalia

I think perhaps to take the metaphor a bit further let's call a city an apple tree, and the Landscape Urbanism a larger-scale, complex, rooted, system and each individual apple is a context-based product yielding a specific result.  Cities, through urbanism, have a generalized structural focus on the 'how things are', while sites have a specific programmatic and spatial configuration determined through urban design, planning, landscape architecture, and architecture.  I believe this is why it is so difficult to pin down 'works' of landscape urbanism - because the concept doesn't operate at the scale of works, but rather at a larger scale (what that is is undetermined), one concurrent with a true definition of urbanism. 

The Future of Urbanism

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.  


  1. Great post! I share your opinion on this debate.
    I study Lanschape Architecture in Wageningen and we make a clear distinction between Landscape architecture and urbanism. There is even a Design studio of 8 weeks dedicated to Landscape Urbanism in the batchelor part of the study.
    I think the Dutch Landscape Architecture practice is quite more metropolitan/urban based because of the population density.
    A study like Harvard's Urban Planning and Design should focus on teaching different ways of designing in stead of choosing for one particular way.

  2. Great post. Learning a lot here.

    Birnbaum and others in the ongoing LU-NU cage fight have reduced part of the debate to be a question of whether architects or landscape architects are better suited to tackle urban design. The emphasis should rather be placed on the need for broad, multidisciplinary design teams. More emphasis should also be placed on the need to broaden university programs -- for example, integrating a series of ecology and ecological design courses within the civil engineering degree program.

    I'd like to hear your opinions sometime on form-based vs euclidean codes.

  3. Thanks Erik.
    US based landscape architecture is so broad and diverse, it makes it difficult to pin-down a consistent agenda (I'd say versus many of the design disciplines). Much of the profession isn't working in cities, or if they are, are doing so in a range of scales (residential to infrastructural) - so I doubt there will be consensus anytime. I've heard that the profession is different in Europe, but would love to hear more about these distinctions.

    The entire focus on all of these discussions of LU is definitely not to minimize - but as it is an 'urbanism' to channel the focus and the strategies specifically into cities - purposely disregarding other facets of the professional practice and contexts of inquiry. Thus for an urbanism - the context (in a broad sense) is the city - for an architecture - it is less distinct - but still require a certain set of skills and often specializations (for instance, residential, medical, industrial).

    I believe the same theory of specializations (or foci) are necessary in urbanisms (maybe leading us to a lot of them, besides just LU/NU... because of the complexity of the problems in cities.

  4. This requires us to look at it, as Carter mentions, as an interdisciplinary approach - guided by some accepted methods and theories. This has changed, but there is still persistent turf wars between architects, landscape architects, civil engineers into scope - and landscape architects in the US have typically played third fiddle to the two above, and still harbor a lot of resentment - which leads to the desire for us to occupy a bigger spot at the table.

    I don't think any one discipline can solve the problems at hand, but there are definite strengths to certain folks leading certain aspects - which will yield different results (echoed by Rios' comments). For instance, when I started practicing, I was shocked that we were often handed a site plan, developed by the architect and engineer, for a site - with the express goal of shrubbing it up.

    This of course is dependent on clients and collaborators, but this has changed quite a bit even in 14+ years of working in landscape architecture - which is reassuring. Just being involved in the process earlier is often enough to get a better end result due to overlaps and synergies.

    From a technical side, while I would not claim to design a building (maybe a chicken coop), or perform civil engineering calcs, I do have knowledge of many of the systems and strategies, and namely how they interface with the site ecologies and landscape scope... thus am able to speak the language and collaborate more effectively.

    This is twofold. First is, like Carter mentions, getting educated on a broader perspective. Second, it is having opportunities to work with other disciplines in school, which is beneficial to everyone. Many schools don't have this opportunity (or don't take advantage of it) and now and into the future it will become much more vital as integration, in design and urbanism, is always the key.

  5. Really awesome analysis of all of this, much appreciated! I agree that its not a fair comparison. LU is essentially a lens or mode of inquiry (a way of seeing and analyzing) rather than a codified planning methodology as NU has become. I think a helpful point of departure for categorizing and analyzing urban scale projects and proposals would be to explore the relationship between Form-making, Form-taking, Form-giving. In contrast to the visual bias of parametric, intuitive, or overly proscriptive processes of form-making (NU) that threaten to stifle, cheapen, and marginalize the role of the "design", the alternative processes of form-taking and form-giving allow design solutions to be radically pragmatic translations of unique regional, socio-economic, or site forces that are capable of producing unexpected yet radically appropriate and incredibly rich formal, programmatic and material effects that are subject to change over time. It's the difference between proclaiming "I have the answer!" and embracing the messy, projective and flexible condition of the "What if..."

  6. One of the things I've always appreciated by NU is it's falsifiability. There's a whole charter of principles that take a definite stance on propositions. People can, and often do, poke at each of these ideals, or assent to them. There are models that exist, such as Kentlands, that can be either liked or not liked.

    If LU has taken any such stances about the reality of things or values, I'm not able to interpret what they are. Therefor, any criticism of LU can easily be dismissed as a simplification or a lack or comprehension of its true nature. Some may find this level of mysticism to be a virtue of LU, but I find it a tedious way to shut down any real conversation beyond bickering about the relative profundity of the theories being espoused.

  7. Why not simply believe Waldheim when he says, "Landscape Urbanism was specifically meant to provide an intellectual and practical alternative to the hegemony of the New Urbanism"?

    "A pox on both their houses" can be as blinding as any other ideology.


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