Friday, February 4, 2011

The Urbanism Wars: AD v. CW

Turns out you have to read and write a bit in doctoral studies - which sometimes cuts down on the time for blogging... who knew?  But glean and collect I still do, and lots of good reading since the last dispatch on the ongoing dispute/feud/discussion/turf-war on who controls urbanism - aka the LU/NU debates (which should actually be the AD/CW debates for Mr. Duany and Mr. Waldheim). 

My google alert for landscape urbanism has literally blown up in the last couple of weeks - mostly due to the debate emerging from some more mainstream media - which is an interesting twist... bringing a smallish academic squabble out into the open.

:: image via Boston Globe

I make my bias clear as a landscape architect, I find much of LU compelling in both the potential to expand the practice of landscape architecture (process over product) and in larger ideas of dealing with modern cities (flexibility in responding to rapid change).  I like the concept of NU, but also take issue with some tenets (level of control for instance, determinism, generic transects, equity issues) feeling it's a great formula for a certain problem type that will continue to be relevant, but in it's present form is ill-equipped to handle many urban issues that need to be addressed.  Both will evolve through discussion, not through 'swallowing up' or destroying the other.  Others think differently - and dialogue is the generator of new ideas and solutions.  Unfortunately, we are not witnessing or participating in a dialogue, and  neither Waldheim or Duany is the prophet to lead us out of this. 

LU comes from an academic base, and is attempting to refine the inherent conversation (or add to it) by recognizing the need to acknowledge (i.e. accept, not promote) that cities are different, people are different, there is sprawl, there are lots of roads and cars, some people don't like density, the line between 'city' and suburb is not longer clear, etc.  Right now it is theory and discovery (i call that urbanism in the true defintion which should come from academia) that is trying to expand a conversation.  Thus there is not charter, and there are no rules or regulations in which to critique at this point, and there are few built works to evaluate as well.  This may come, or more likely it will assimilate into professional practice in a number of disciplines - not emerge as either a professional position (i.e. I am a landscape urbanist) or become codified into a system (such as NU).

NU comes from an established professional base that has a body of work and a well-tended methodology that produces good results for walkable, mixed use, community plans.  The successes and limitations are well documented, and the proponents have much sway of many types of developments (and many vocal adherents).  So, the questions are:   Does it have a wider relevance in cities, retrofitting suburbs, attacking rapidly expanding global mega-cities?  Can it apply to a wider demographic?  Can it adapt a transect model based on a monocentric model to the reality of messy, polycentric cities?   What it is is method and application (i call that planning, urban design, architecture) resulting in work but in need of new, wider discussion about how to deal with our changing cities and spaces.  How does this discussion take place if the response to any new idea is to hunker down and fight.

That said, neither is a panacea, and believe there is much to be found in a dialogue.  The conversation and media has been mostly to misrepresent the LU agenda (i'm sorry but that's what it is, plain and simple - hint - despite Waldheim's claims, there isn't an agenda).  Thus the reaction is not to reality and disagreement with a position, but knee-jerk, uninformed reactions to a constructed version by people feeling threatened by a different (note I didn't say opposing) viewpoint and wanting to tear it down.  The similar practice is done and has been for a while by those in opposition to NU (i am as guilty as anyone else of this) - oversimplification of complex issues.  This need to stop on both sides.  Criticism is one thing.  Uninformed criticism is useless, or worse, moves the discussion backward instead of forwards.  
Sidebar:  Can any other LU proponent beyond Waldheim out there (i know you are there, now hiding behind 'ecological urbanism') step up to this conversation, or are ya'll all too busy now getting high profile commissions?   Conversely, can we get some response from the West Coast school of NU, particularly from Calthorpe et. al?
 I blame the word 'landscape' which is just too loaded with preconceptions for people to get over the fact that we're not talking about sprawling density with green spaces and parsley in the urban sphere (just look at the image from the Boston Globe article - buildings and cars draped in greenery.  People think of landscape as landscaping, not the opposite of building.  Thus in looking at a fundamentally different way of approaching cities in an 'un-architectural' manner the word landscape detracts from what is fundamental (an un-architecturally driven urbanism).  This doesn't preclude buildings and density, and sidewalks and people - but rather isn't driven by building and then filling in the spaces in between.  Ecological urbanism, I daresay, is an even worse title.  Then again, the oxymoronic use of 'new' in New Urbanism has shown much success by focusing on the exact opposite of their name... so maybe there's hope. 

Or wait.  Better yet, let's all take a time out for a sec. 

Let's sit down and read each other's stuff rather than making stuff up. 

Or, rather than perpetuate this dueling - perhaps we can look at the larger issues of urbanism that could draw from many urbanisms, rather than the drama of a cat fight. 

Then again, our culture of reality TV and polarizing politics seems to appreciate a cat fight and drama over an informed conversation... on that note...  or your reading pleasure:

Recent Dialogue

Green Building by Leon Neyfakh (Boston Globe) with the sidebar Where its Happening
(yields another class Duany quote... that really gets to the heart of the debate)...

"“What you’re seeing is the New Urbanism about to swallow the landscape urbanists,” Duany said. His plan now, he said, is to systematically “assimilate” the language and strategies that have made his opponents such a white-hot brand. “We’re trying to upgrade ourselves. I’m not gonna say, ‘We’re gonna flick ’em off the table because they’re a bunch of lawn apologists.’ I’m gonna say, ‘For God’s sake, these guys took over Harvard!’ ”
A actually had a really great email exchange with Mr. Neyfakh prior to and after publication about some aspects of landscape urbanism, which is echoed in a follow-up piece discussing the historical development of the Back Bay Fens by Olmsted as a prototype for modern LU:  'Boston's long history with landscape urbanism'

A Tire in the Park  by Emily Talen (The New Urban Network)

Landscape Urbanism: sometimes an enemy is good to have by David Sucher (City Comforts)

James Howard Kunstler on Landscape Urbanism by Sam Newberg (CNU)
I can't find the actual article on Orion so if anyone has a link... anyway per this quote he's just parroting what others are saying in his 'clusterfuck' lens... for what it's worth.

The War Over 'Landscape Urbanism'   by Tim Halbur (Planetizen)

New Urbanism, Landscape Urbanism and the Future of Settlements by Christopher Ryan (Post Carbon Institute)

Landscape Urbanism vs. The New Urbanists (Brookline Perspective)

Discussion on Cyburbia from the Boston Globe Article

Isms, Ideology, & Landscape: Boston Globe Edition (Eric Papetti)
(a landscape architect's perspective)

Landscape Urbanism, New Urbanism, and the Future of Cities (Alex Steffen)

As you see, these aren't all anti- or pro- positions - but are reacting more to the war than the point of the war... which I think will happen with time.  Next year's CNU conference may be the biggest ever due to Waldheim & Duany there together.  Good for ratings.

Along a similar timeline, the Minneapolis Riverfront competition is definitely infused with a landscape urbanist perspective with teams from Ken Smith Workshop, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, Tom Leader Studio and Turenscape as mentioned by Archinect - 3-1/2 of the proposals hint at landscape urbanism. 

Another article from the WSJ talks with Adriaan Geuze of West8, making ample references to LU...

There's also some great dialogue about the concept of urbanism and the role of urban design in the book 'Urban Design' by Krieger and Saunders - a look back at the origins and development of modern urban design since 1956, and well worth exploring (stay tuned for a book review here) and giving some perspective on our constant ability to disagree, which will continue well past this debate and others... 

A related but not specific to LU story on Slate by Witold Rybczynski entitled: "A Discourse on Emerging Tectonic Visualization and the Effects of Materiality on Praxis: Or an essay on the ridiculous way architects talk"  revisits the tired metaphor of professional language to exclude, given the fact that most of this language emerges (yes i said it) from academic discourse (said that too) and not from praxis (again, guilty!).   Any journalism that uses Ted Mosby as an architectural model is suspect.


Also we kick off Reading the Landscape with timely discussions of 'The Landscape Urbanism Reader' later in February, which is sure to yield some great discussion from a diverse group of folks from all backgrounds, regions, and discplines... entry for the group is closed, but there will be dispatches at points to capture the conversation... stay tuned.


  1. Well said Jason. I think the fact that both sides (again AD, CW and cronies) seem to feel that their school of thougt is right and the other is wrong is the surest way for both to become irrelevant. As you note NU has its place, however, like LU it is not a cure all. The outlandish comments from folks like kunstler, duany (see cnu congress video) do nothing to bolster their position and simply make me (and I am sure others) want to ignore them (just as the overtly academic nature of LU turns off many) I would love to hear educated comments and critiques about LU from practitioners of NU (calthorpe would be one) however, the comments only seem to be made up of a few facts mixed liberally with overblown drama about planting flowers and returning to sprawl. As much of the writing of late seems to prove, the common perception is that LU (which is really just urbanism through the lens of landscape architecture) is simply 'greening'. I have yet to come across a single writing or project within LU discourse that would suggest this. Which would seem to indicate that these are attacks not against its possibilities but rather a protectionist reaction. It is interesting to me that the most sober and intelligent comments in the debate are coming not from those who make their living by having their opinion heard in the media, but by those who practice the ideas founded in the academy out in the field - read practitioners. At the end of the day there are a lot of intelligent people trying to apply new ideas to increase the liveability and resilience of our urban environments in very exciting ways. If it happens that many of these people are trained as LA's and this upsets some people sensibilities, I say good, because the solutions will only be found by trying something bold.

  2. At the heart of the debate is a style war that has little to do with the goals of either movement. There clearly is room for both approaches- sometimes in tandem. I find it funny that the High Line is the most successful LU built project, yet it is in the middle of Manhatttan- hardly indicative of the sprawl-embracing characterization that has been ascribed to the LU movement by Duany.

  3. Per Markasaurus.

    I think it is totally inaccurate to say that the High LIne is an "LU built project."

    Just not even remotely true.

  4. Here we go again...NU vs LU. Its like choosing between different operations for a certain type of ailment on the human body. You choose what's more appropriate. I studied LU at the AA, and hey, there's also the Regular Urbanism course there and there's no war. The way I see it in my humble opinion, is that territories differ, therefore, in some cases LU will be better than NU and vice versa. Does anyone see a LU project solving housing shortages in a dense city? Or does someone see an NU solving the problems of a coastal city facing pollution, flooding and landscape consumption? Interior Design doesnt solve urban problems, just as urban design doesnt solve interior design problems.
    How is the High Line LU? Well, because Corner has his hands in it, it's considered LU. There are LUish things about it, like its temporal qualities and staging of different phenomena using existing infrastructure. But if you are to pin-point a successful base for LU its Olmstead's work, or the Guadalupe River Park by Hargreaves, hell even the Seatle Sculpture Park by Weiss/Manfredi.
    Me? I'll take LU over NU anyday, again, I'm one of those that feel that architecture has failed as the basic building block of well, look up Pruitt-Igoe.

  5. Pruitt Igoe is a rather bizarre and overly specific example of how architecture has failed cities. Cities like New York, London or Hong Kong are completely structured by architecture and they are thriving. I agree with most of your comment but you've completely lost me there.

  6. Mike - i agree that there's a disconnect with the perception of LU which seems to make the discussions disconnected from this reality. In the examples - I'd say the High Line mentioned by Markasaurus is high profile (and has been criticized by the anti-LU crowd, but probably not an example of landscape urbanism even with Corner, one of the leading LU theorists, leading the project. I can pick a few elements out of the project that fit LU principles - but i think there's still a struggle to define what a 'work' of LU is, or if one exists.

    That said, David, we cannot be too quick to dismiss elements of the project (any project) as useful to the dialogue in either defining LU or more appropriately defining good urban principles. So how is the High Line not remotely a work of LU? What is the rationale that it is or isn't LU?

    The parallel I had in a recent conversation regarding a paper I am working on, is how to define a work of New Urbanism versus projects inspired and shaped by NU principles? The research is mostly aimed at evaluating the work and success of NU in a demographic and geographic lens, thus defining if something is or is not is semantic at best, and hybrids abound, but in studying these works it is important if we are to evaluate the efficacy of any approach.

    The bigger question is, where is the perception of LU as pro-sprawl, anti-density, etc. that seems to be consistently coming from in terms of the criticism, as I can't for the life of me extract this sentiment from the literature or the built work and no one has main a convincing case for connecting these - (if you read some of it you'd think that, even with little to now built work, LU seems to have created sprawling suburbia). It just doesn't make sense. And no one to date has giving a shred of evidence to make these claims. I'd really like to hear them.

  7. Jason,

    It's a factual matter.

    The genius of the Highline Park was that, (through persuasion and politics by local activists and high-profile  millionaires,) it was saved to be made into a park.

    THAT is the brilliance of the Highline. The design itself is secondary. The Highline story is about politics and the designer's work, while excellent, was merely tactical.

    The big strategic decision was simply to save it.

    And that decision was made long before Corner ever entered the story. Corner was not ever involved in the politics of saving he Highline.

    Did Corner do an excellent, professional job of doing the task set before  him? Yes.

    But is there anything particularly "LU" about his design? No. And his design work also has to be shared with the architects involved.

  8. Hmmm. Not sure I agree with your reasoning or at least making it 'fact'... which requires some proof beyond what you have articulated. Separating the execution of a project from the genesis that made it happen is kind of missing the fact that the two are inextricably linked by context... whether there was involvement from the designer or not.

    The equivalent would be saying that the context and design of a new transit oriented development isn't actually the agency of the designer because they were not involved in the planning and siting of the light rail station or system in the first place. That rationale may confound a few new urbanists... and smart growth urban designers I imagine.

    I'd counter also that the act of saving the high line is more an act of landscape urbanism than the design per se. That said, the fact that corner won the design competition for the project, which was initiated by and therefore an extension of the previous process of preservation... determined by those very people that envisioned the future use, who chose the winner due to its merits, gives it a relevance due to the design responding to the history and context of the site, and its potential as linear green space that could activate this area, as one and the same.

    The use of any LU principles may come more from the specifics of the project context and the conceptual frame of the organizers than from corner and his theoretical stance?

  9. And what would Corner's "theoretical stance" be? In relation to the Highline Park?

    I assume you the visited th Park? And spent some time on it? I have and I liked it very much and I can tell you that it is a fine park and great to be outside on a beautiful day, enjoying the sun and chatting with friends, and observing the city.

    But I wonder what LU principles or ideas the Highline expresses.

  10. The overview of their competition entry his found here (along with the rest of their team) which outlines their theoretical stance.

    "Inspired by the melancholic, unruly beauty of the High Line, where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure, the team retools this industrial conveyance into a post-industrial instrument of leisure, life, and growth. By changing the rules of engagement between plant life and pedestrians, our strategy of agri-tecture combines organic and building materials into a blend of changing proportions that accommodates the wild, the cultivated, the intimate, and the hyper-social. In stark contrast to the speed of Hudson River Park, this parallel linear experience is marked by slowness, distraction and an other-worldliness that preserves the strange character of the High Line. Providing flexibility and responsiveness to the changing needs, opportunities, and desires of the dynamic context, our proposal is designed to remain perpetually unfinished, sustaining emergent growth and change over time."

    I haven't sat down and connected the dots between this and LU theory, but ideas of reclamation of post-industrial remnants, response to the wild character of what had emerged on it's own up on the site, "flexibility & responsiveness to changing needs" and design that "is designed to remain perpetually unfinished, sustaining emergent growth and change over time" seems to embody many of the landscape urbanism tenets (at least the ones you can find in the literature).

    I haven't been to the High Line yet, so I'm not making claims to it's realization (aside from following it from afar and hearing from folks that have first-hand experience)nor do I need to in order to gather many of it's lessons. Maybe it is just a good piece of landscape architecture/ design - and perhaps the design was secondary to the context (what good design isn't?).

    The project and design can't be dismissed as unrelated to LU as the principles are 1) defined prior to the project being built and not applied afterwords, and 2) are not standard fare in landscape architecture practice. Thus it was purposeful and adhering to a different approach - which is part of the appeal to many (more so than it's somewhat misguided claim as a direct assault to NU). For me, what is most compelling is the ideas and applications that make it relevant to changing the approach to landscape architecture and urbanism - by infusing elements of flexibility, indeterminacy, and change into things (landscapes, cities) that are inherently ever evolving - processes and not products.

  11. Very interesting Jason but I think that the key point is as you say "not standard fare in landscape architecture practice."

    I believe that the Highline Park is very much standard.

    I recommend you see the Park and while it is great, it is also quite ordinary (and nothing wrong with that) and many many good LAs could do similar work. In fact my bet is that most of the LAs did something very similar.

    The most unique thing that Corner did is to allow elements of the old rail line to remain, amidst lovely plantings. It's fine but nothing unusual. Just a good choice.

  12. I find it interesting that you take issue with the transect in particular. Not so much The Transect in the sense of one diagram that says tall buildings shall go here and short buildings shall go there (which more sophisticated New Urbanists would see as a simplification in any case) but transects in the sense of a legible gradient of variations and trade-offs between the natural and human environments. That kind of transect seems precisely the tool to create a constructive conversation between LU and NU. It's not a question of which is primary, nature/ecology or buildings, but where, to what degree and at what scale. The other very relevant item that New Urbanists tend to bring to the discussion that often seems lacking outside those circles is the discussion of scale. Perhaps at the regional scale natural features take precedence but at a finer grain they do not.

    If Landscape Urbanists cannot enter into that conversation, if they must claim that landscape takes precedence in every case then it's no wonder we have a conflict. I can't find it but there was a quote I remember, probably from Waldheim, that Landscape should be primary. And that's where I would have a serious difficulty. No single item should be privileged over everything else. Urbanism is always a game of mediating conflicting needs.

    I have to confess to being one of the undereducated re: LU, relying on a handful of quotes, but am trying to get more information. I guess the upside of all this publicity at least is that some normal people are thinking about urbanism at all.

  13. Thanks for the comments. I am not saying I'm against the transect (the concept is really compelling as a way of visualizing the gradients at work and the role of density in building and dissipating - much from its origins in ecology and natural science research).

    My point is it's based on a very distinct (idealized? generalized?) concept of cities as monocentric, revealing a nice gradient from dense core to adjacent hinterlands. That isn't to say it isn't useful and no one is saying that it's not just an abstraction, but it's more of a diagram than a tool for making decisions. Much like economic models that rely on a monocentric form (and have for the last century) - we're now understanding the limits of this modeling technique (mostly because it's hard to abstract a variegated, poly-centric model) I'd be surprised if there's many (any?) cities that actually fit remotely into a monocentric form.

    I think many people within LU would be more than happy to enter that conversation but it also has to be framed in a way that acknowledges the reality of our existence (note: acknowledgment does not tacitly mean support and or wanting to perpetuate this)

    Maybe a study of cities with multiple transects - real ones that look much more like actual cities (at various scales) would be a great combined NU/LU (let's call it 'urbanism' project) applied to a wide sample of cities - as it would allow some of these discussions to be focused on a beneficial purpose and context. I think the questions of scale would become evident, and also determine strengths and shortcomings in both approaches (maybe even some that are remedied by the other?)

    My landscape bias is probably showing, but I'd disagree that natural features are only a macro-scale phenomenon - and would argue that they should take precedence at every scale because they are contextual (the strategies for protecting, incorporating, engaging them will of course change with scale). Thus, there starts to become a thread connecting everything from a single detail up to the entire region. We incorporate natural features and landscape context on site design scale as landscape architecture - but the methods of achieving this changes as scale and context changes and the interventions on a site scale should be based on the larger connection to the region.

    The criticism of the work of McHarg is a great example - the approach is more regional and deterministic in macro-scale analysis (which is where it is best suited) - but didn't apply to a finer grain of site. Many people point to that as a 'limit' to landscape analysis - but it's merely a limit to 'McHargian' process - which ironically was influenced by Geddes 'valley section' which is one of the precusors to the modern transect.

    Again to reiterate the point of all of this - it's not 'landscape' in a traditional definition we're talking about (greenery) but rather implying 'non-building' or interstitial space. That's the same definition from the massive density of Manhattan to the sprawl of Atlanta - although it probably looks and functions differently in both cities. This includes everything exterior (sidewalks, parks, streets, parking lots, vacant lots, waterfronts, post-industrial remnants, etc. - and I would make the case that it also starts to permeate the building skin, roof and interior).

    So i don't see it as sprawling and filling up cities with open space and greenery (that's one of the pretty common refutations thrown about as a critique of LU) - but rather looking at the 'leftover' urban fabric in a variety of ways. Or more succinctly, thinking of it less as 'leftover' space after 'building' is done and more as the place that is a generator of contextual urban form.

    Sorry for the long and rambling reply - avoiding writing a paper!

  14. To clarify an often confused topic: at least as the guardians of the SmartCode would have it, the commonly known Transect diagram is intended to describe a gradient from high to low within a specific neighborhood, not the gradient within a region. So it implies many centers at the scale of the metropolis or region. Certainly we could document regional (and even city/metro) transects as well; we probably should if for no other reason than to alleviate the confusion.

    There have been efforts to document transects in existing places (though perhaps not multiple transects in one place). Here are some:

    One of the most interesting recent interpretations of the transect has been as a tool to analyze ecological and agricultural interventions. The implication is that lower density development has a higher duty (and ability) to be self-sufficient or give back (its inhabitants tend to use more resources in terms of land, water and carbon), whether solar panels or vegetable gardens or on-site stormwater handling, on a building by building, site by site basis. In contrast, for higher densities in the right location the regional ecological value is too important to discourage with extra cost burdens of heroic environmental measures as a pre-condition for (re)development (this doesn't preclude civic interventions like Cheonggye Freeway). This kind of thinking is incredibly important as the US government proposes new stormwater regulations that risk making redevelopment, which is the most ecologically friendly form of development, more cost prohibitive.

  15. Sorry I guess I hit the word limit but I'd already written. Also a long post! So continued:

    Re: the definition of landscape. When you talk about leftover space, I wonder how this fits with the urban design idea of using architecture to shape urban space (a la figure/ground diagrams). When architecture fails to shape space in a legible way in a walkable setting New Urbanists would typically, and I think justifiably, view that as a failure (you could say "respond to the space" if the spaces are defined first). I don't know that the definition of those spaces should be wholly given over to architects either but to call such a broad swath of the urban environment 'landscape' without caveat seems awfully muddy. Insofar as staking claim to a broader view of the urban environment is intended to give landscape architecture a broader understanding and sense of responsibility and context then I think that larger claim is good. Insofar as it is (or appears to be) a claim to a superior understanding to other disciplines, I would say it is questionable and will be challenged from many sides. Though actually your description of interstitial spaces and parking lots sounds a bit timid, opportunistic. Nothing wrong with being opportunistic but urbanism has a bigger mandate too. I know I am mixing LA and LU here, but I think you are too.

    By the way I commend you on starting the LU Reader group to get the conversation rolling. Several of my acquaintances are on it so I'll look forward to the debrief.

    re: "I'd disagree that natural features are only a macro-scale phenomenon"
    We agree. The regional comment was intended to be a "for example" though that was not clear.


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