The Landscape Urbanism: Sprawl in a Pretty Green Dress?

The latest in a series of academic challenges to the New Urbanism turns out to be weak in all the areas that matter most, argues author Michael Mehaffy.

Some years ago, Harvard architecture professor Alex Krieger made one of the most memorable and withering critiques of the New Urbanism: in too many cases it was, he said, "sprawl in drag." What he meant was that the underlying patterns of sprawl were still dominating, and no mere repositioning of colorful traditional buildings on streetscapes would be enough to change that. While the Charter of the New Urbanism was much more thoroughgoing than Krieger suggested, the criticism was all too valid for a number of projects.

Since then, many New Urbanists – whether thus self-identified, or merely following the same set of Charter principles – have tried to do more to combat sprawl and its profligate waste of resources. And indeed, they've had notable successes building new urban districts in formerly declining inner cities, HOPE VI mixed-income housing projects, and new LEED-ND projects with good transit, district energy and other resource-conserving features (a new certification they helped to develop). While the magnitude of success is a subject of debate, there's clear evidence that these efforts are beginning to make a measurable difference on factors like carbon emissions.

The New New Urbanism

But the New Urbanism surely has its remaining flaws. Moreover, no good attempted deed goes unpunished among competitive designers nowadays. Thus a long series of competitors has arisen to the New Urbanism, each with their own attempted critiques – and each usually with some variation of the moniker "X" Urbanism: Everyday Urbanism, Real Urbanism, Now Urbanism, and so on. The one thing they have in common is the backhanded respect they pay to their competitor, suggesting that it's "the team to beat."

Most recently, Krieger himself has come forward with a number of colleagues, offering a new alternative that could better meet the design standards of the avant-garde: "Landscape urbanism." What is it? Krieger's associate Charles Waldheim, one of the originators of the concept, made clear its competitive nature: "Landscape Urbanism was specifically meant to provide an intellectual and practical alternative to the hegemony of the New Urbanism."

Charles Waldheim speaking to the UNC College of Arts and Architecture, Feb. 17, 2010.

More specifically, Landscape urbanism, according to Waldheim, rejects the New Urbanist idea that urban design can reform the auto-dominated patterns of the Twentieth Century, and their negative social and ecological consequences. It seeks to provide an alternative to the "prevailing discourse" that sees "a kind of 19th century image of the of the city, that said if we could put the toothpaste back in the tube of automobility, we could all get out of our cars, and live the right way, the kind of moral and just way, we could somehow reproduce some social justice and some environmental health that we feel as though we've lost."

Instead, according to leading LU theorist James Corner, we are to embrace surface, not form – and especially, the surfaces of sprawling cities: "Horizontality and sprawl in places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, San Jose, and the suburban fringes of most American cites is the new urban reality. As many theories of urbanism attempt to ignore this fact or retrofit it to new urbanism, landscape urbanism accepts it and tries to understand it."

How does this new understanding manifest itself? The LU schemes are often characterized by long fingers of lush green spaces forming fanciful abstract shapes. The designers are very clear that these shapes are not the product of such factors as walkability or transit or mixed use – the usual aspirations of New Urbanism – or of any other urban precedent. In fact they are soaring new fantasies, based on the most fanciful and arbitrary of generative forces. Here is Waldheim describing a scheme by Corner:

What I want to draw your eyes to are these lozenge shaped, weird football shaped public open and park spaces. Corner's proposition here would be that the shape of the public realm, the shape of the parks and the plazas and the open spaces, would not be derived by urban precedent from models of the 19th century, would not be derived by walking radii of transit oriented oriented development or other principles. It would be derived from a mapping of the plumes of the toxicity subsurface onsite.

Plumes of toxicity? Weird football shapes? Non-designers might be forgiven for wondering why designers would employ such arbitrary, even perhaps deranged forces, at the apparent expense of requirements for walkability, social interaction, access to transit, dynamics of public space – perhaps even social justice and equity. After all, there is no reason to suppose, say, that a frail or poor or elderly person can navigate such a vast no-man's land of space to access transit or other daily needs.

But the Landscape Urbanists accept horizontality (Corner), accept auto-dominated patterns (Waldheim) – accept sprawl. Hence the vast stretches of empty green space, obeying no laws of organization save the designer's fantasies. Here is Alan Berger, in an essay in Waldheim's book The Landscape Urbanism Reader:

The phrase "urban sprawl" and the rhetoric of pro- and anti-urban sprawl advocates all but obsolesce under the realization that there is no growth without waste. "Waste landscape" is an indicator of healthy urban growth.

There is more than a faint echo here of Le Corbusier, in his highly influential 1935 book The Radiant City:

The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work enough for all.

Le Corbusier's Radiant City.

Art Uber Alles

The Landscape Urbanists, like many free-market defenders of sprawl, seem to think that sprawl is the result of inexorable forces, and did not arise as a result of comprehensible historical choices – choices that can be understood and thereby, to some extent, changed. Indeed, both groups share a remarkable consistency in their laissez-faire attitudes to what is, and what cannot be changed through concerted public action.

Yet the historical record is clear, in the writings of Le Corbusier and others: sprawl was the result of designers' visions of their future, working with industrialists (or, less charitably, as apologists and marketers for industrialists).

Indeed, the Landscape Urbanists' shallow "understanding" of the forces that generated sprawl seem more aimed at constructing a "grand narrative" that declares that nothing is to be done, except to create art. History, precedent, typology – all of these are irrelevant now, and the only relevant force is their own imagination: "avant-gardist architectural practice, an interest in autonomy authorship."

This is a kind of artistic "magical thinking": we will draw a beautiful deer on the wall of the cave, and tomorrow we will surely have a wonderful dinner. We will make our cities into magical art, and tomorrow they will be wonderful to live in. As they say, good luck with that.

Jane Jacobs famously warned that the city must not be treated as a work of art. But a century of avant-garde designers has done exactly that – to the detriment of cities. By doing so, they've confused visual order with a deeper, intrinsic kind of order. That's the order that people create around them every day when they form social spaces, create small acts of ordering, solve small human problems.

From those small acts of ordering, larger urban patterns have emerged and evolved, forming clusters of re-usable information. Those are the patterns of the traditional city: not mere stylistic contrivances, but evolutionary adaptations to the transcendent needs of human beings. For New Urbanists, these patterns may re-used usefully today, under the right adaptive conditions. They should not be eschewed simply because they have been used in the past. This evolutionary problem-solving principle transcends human culture: a porpoise does not reject a dorsal fin pattern merely because the shark used it 300 million years earlier.

There is surely a place in our built environment – a privileged place, even -- for imagination, fantasy, and soaring works of art. But it must surely be integrated into the everyday evolving fabric of human life, and moreover it must accommodate and respect that fabric, in a way that is beneficial for quality of life – and in a way that serves to avert looming disaster. This must surely be the essential professional responsibility of any architect-urbanist.

The New Urbanism is a long way from perfect – stipulated – but it is taking seriously the need to advance and learn, and to incorporate more of the bottom-up approaches championed by Jacobs, Alexander and others. Moreover, it is taking seriously the causes of waste and unsustainability, and the steps designers – working in concert with others – can take to learn from and reverse their own and others' mistakes. Most importantly, the New Urbanists refuse to let the complexity of urbanism be reduced to a mere question of artistic style and novelty of imagination.

New Urbanists assert, especially, that the work of architect-urbanists must be informed by nature, and evolution, and history; and that this engagement must serve our well-being and perhaps even our survival, at least as a viable civilization. To believe otherwise seems dangerously close to the magical thinking of a dying culture. Let us hope such a dying culture is only a trendy but quickly passing one within the schools, and not a more global one.

Michael Mehaffy is the executive director of the Sustasis Foundation. Michael is the author of many journal papers and popular articles, as well as eleven book chapters, and he is a member of the editorial boards of three international research journals in sustainable urbanism. He serves as a consultant to governments, university research projects and others.



Contextuality is not just another item on the list..

I continue to be appalled at the global penchant for "isms' of any kind. They are in my view a lazy man's approach in a world desperate for formulas instead of a more basic willingness to embrace the harder task of applying understanding, common sense and wisdom.

Sadly, we continue to allow the alchemy of design to dominate instead of insisting that design respond to an understanding of the contextuality and unique setting in which it is asked to play a role. It follows that no one dogma or "ism" can universally retain or substitute for the uniqueness of time and place. The last 100 years of design manifestos do not stand up well against the social scientists (Mumford, Jacobs et al) of the same period.

No surprise then that we continue to struggle with identity, social and environmental equity.

Timely thread

Both the original piece and comment thread are timely and provocative. My ruminations are contained, inter alia, in a couple of the related posts which inadvertently appear below (hill towns, new ethic for urban reinvention), and all of the above has been good to read. Kudos to all for the principled discussion.

I generally agree, Arun

I make an important exception in the case of New Urbanism, in spite of its weaknesses (which I tried to note), because its charter does advance a set of important propositions about urbanism, which have otherwise been in drastic decline: mixed use, diversity, street connectivity, walkable scale, etc. As the name implies, it's a new attempt to bring urbanism back into the discourse, and into practice - and I think we can applaud the extent to which this has happened. In that sense it's the right set of questions if not necessarily all the right set of answers. It's a work in progress, and most advocates I know will admit this, and concede the weakness and even stagnation, while arguing the importance of the general project. Good for them.

Indeed, the problem you note with "isms" I think reflects the dominant tendency to reduce all of settlement-making (buildings, landscapes, cities) to one of a series of fairly narrow and abstracted fine art projects, each with its own relatively exclusive ""ism" movement (or brand?): parametricism, neo-modernism, landscape urbanism, etc etc. I love ambitious art as much as anyone, but as Jacobs noted, to confuse art with city-making is to get neither good art nor good cities, but taxidermy.

This is not a good thing when, as they say, Rome burns.


Michael Mehaffy

Is there not room for both...?

What's wrong with lozenges and footballs that create interesting landscapes and communicate past attitudes and impacts on the land (i.e. the industrial plumes) in a context of well-informed urban design? I agree that the danger of forgetting lessons of the past exists in the mantras of LU but your article seems to suggest it has no redeeming qualities. I prefer to consider that both approaches have merit and also risks. Not to defend or speak for Corner, but perhaps he meant that the forms of said park weren't derived (generated) from transit and other principles, but rather generated from industrial processes and then integrated with transit and other principles. If this is the case, then I think the idea of using site specific processes, industrial or otherwise, is a very compelling way to generate authentic form that can and should also satisfy standard urbanistic principles such as walkability, density, heterogeneity, transit, mixed use, etc. If he didn't mean this, then the approach seems almost reckless...

The shapes are harmless, and

The shapes are harmless, and plume remediation is certainly necessary. But long after the pollution has been cleaned up, what purpose will these football/lozenge greens serve? Plume memorial greens? One would hope that urban form -- post-remediation; inclusive of park space - be based on long-term needs (e.g. transit access, ped-sheds), rather than a short-term cleanup effort.

Landscape Urbanism

according to leading LU theorist James Corner, we are to embrace surface, not form – and especially, the surfaces of sprawling cities: "Horizontality and sprawl in places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, San Jose, and the suburban fringes of most American cites is the new urban reality. As many theories of urbanism attempt to ignore this fact or retrofit it to new urbanism, landscape urbanism accepts it and tries to understand it."

Hasn't he heard that California has a law (SB 375) that requires cities to promote smart growth and rein in sprawl, in order to control global warming? Los Angeles is already changing its form dramatically to become more walkable and transit oriented, we can look for cities all over the state to do the same, and I think we can also look for the rest of the US to follow California's lead.

Horizontality and sprawl is the old urban reality. Smart growth and walkability is the new urban reality. (Note: I am following the lead of this brilliant theorist, who mangles grammar by saying: "horizontality and sprawl ... is the new urban reality.")

It seems to me that James Corner is the one who is looking backward and refusing to face the new imperatives of the coming century.

Charles Siegel



You seem to have a misunderstanding of what the word "reality" means: "the state of the world as it really is rather than as you might want it to be".

I agree with you that there is hope for the future that we will be able to find new sustainable patterns of development, and there are signs that this is happening. But there is nothing untruthful about saying:

"Horizontality and sprawl in places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, San Jose, and the suburban fringes of most American cites is the new urban reality. As many theories of urbanism attempt to ignore this fact or retrofit it to new urbanism, landscape urbanism accepts it and tries to understand it."

Do not confuse the word "accept" with "endorse". Acceptance is the first necessary stage if we are to truly make a change. While I applaud positive changes toward walkability and transit-orientation, cars are not going away. Electric cars will replace internal combustion engines and the advantages that cars have given in terms of freedom and autonomy to working and middle class Americans will continue to be attractive. It is a mistake to pretend that the past 100 years have not brought any positive changes and that we should try to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle.

Let's accept the current reality, understand it, and move on from a position of clarity: not put our heads in the sand and imagine that we think we know how things "ought to be"


Clearing the Air

Agree. Alain Bertaud, in "Clearing the Air in Atlanta", points out that trying to achieve the necessary density in Atlanta to make mass transit viable, would require the existing population to pull back to 1/3 or less of the current footprint of the city. This kind of abandonment of capital, and the reconstruction to higher densities, even over a 20 year time frame, would be many times more costly, even in terms of construction-related emissions, than the status quo.

Bertaud makes a number of practical and realisable suggestions for immediate and cost-effective gains.

By assuming a 2-choice scenario, planners are actually foregoing these gains. the 2 choices are kind of like "utopia or nothing". That is, if we cannot build the ideal, walkable, transit-oriented metro as our immediate "next step", we will do nothing to actually ease auto congestion.
This actually results in much worse emissions and fuel consumption than building a few more lane-miles of roads while putting in the regulatory framework for structural change on the "century", "natural life of capital" time scale.

I also keep saying that sprawl and urban renewal were planned-for outcomes that the planners of the day thought were the right thing to do. How were they to know what our priorities would be? I think we are arrogant to assume that a future generation of planners will never have grounds to condemn what WE are setting our minds to.

The 1950's priorities included getting families and children out of the Dickensian gloom of the city. Health benefits, including psychological, must be considerable. As Joni Mitchell sang, "you don't know what you've got until it's gone". She was talking about paving over paradise, but paradise has never looked better now that we are over the top of the Kuznets curve and can grow our economy AND improve the environment.

Rolling Back Sprawl

As I once mentioned before, there is a great image in the book Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones, which shows the Atlanta metropolitan area as it is now and as it could be 100 years from now, if the sprawl were rolled back and replaced by New Urbanist development.

There is a video based on the book Retrofitting Suburbia at and the images of Atlanta are at 16:18 in the video.

It rolls back Atlanta to about one-third or less of its current area. It looks great to me: more convenient transportation, more nature close to the city, easier living with less of the burden of paying for your car; a more sustainable global environment. And the walkable suburbs that New Urbanists are building are obviously very, very far from Dickensian gloom. (Wodehouse, it is time for you to stop worrying about the problems of the nineteenth century and start worrying abut today's problems. It is hard for me to understand how someone can worry endlessly about Dickensian gloom but deny global warming.)

Over the course a century, those suburban houses and freeways will become obsolete, and we will have to make decisions about how to rebuild our cities. In addition, population will probably be declining 100 years from now, so we will have to selectively demolish some existing neighborhoods. We will get the greatest benefit - both in environmental terms and in terms of livability - by demolishing the worst sprawl.

Charles Siegel

Ah, a 100 year realist at last.

I am pleased to find a "densification" planner talking about 100 year time frames. That is realistic, provided that the tools used are positive incentives rather than negative restictions that drive land values up and self-defeat the objectives. More HERE:

I wonder if Ellen Dunham-Jones and Alain Bertaud (author, "Clearing the Air in Atlanta") have shared their findings?

I would have no problem at all with a range of incentives aimed at achieving the Dunham-Jones objective in 100 years. I have every problem with blunt instrument restrictions that do not work and do serious economic and social damage in the process of not working.

Charles, my postings should be quite clear that I am talking about the Dickensian gloom that planners of the first half of the 20th Century wanted to get families out of - and we should credit them with the best of intentions for that. Far too many people assume malicious motives driven by auto makers and oil companies. If there are valid grounds on which to criticise them, it is Jane Jacobs' grounds - they were far too technology-pessimistic. All that urban renewal and large-scale zoning was really unnecessary. The extent to which we could be better off today, is pretty much the extent to which we COULD have allowed people MORE freedom. Europe's cities maintained high levels of walkability by giving urbanites the freedom to STAY.

Generally, people will choose efficient locations at which to live, if they have the best options available to them. Likewise, businesses will also locate efficiently relative to their customers and clients and employees and suppliers and freight providers if they have the best options available to them. Auto-dependent sprawl has a lot to do with these best options being withheld from people by planners of the past.

And I am pleased to see other contributors here raising the question about whether we too might be assuming far too much about the future. But as I say, I have no problem with "incentives" that are designed to work WITH, not against, land markets; with the intention of bringing about gradual change over a time frame of 100 years plus. There would therefore be less chance that future generations of planners will be frustrated with the damage we did in the light of changes in priority with which THEY are faced.

It might be surprising in 100 years, to see just WHICH parts of our existing urban structure have been abandoned. Isn't lack of absolute foreknowledge a perennial bummer for us poor mortals?

Freeways and Fuel Consumption

That is, if we cannot build the ideal, walkable, transit-oriented metro as our immediate "next step", we will do nothing to actually ease auto congestion.
This actually results in much worse emissions and fuel consumption than building a few more lane-miles of roads

Sorry I missed this one last time. Do you have any evidence that building more roads reduces fuel consumption? I didn't think so.

Of course, there is an obvious next step that would ease congestion and reduce emissions and fuel consumption: market pricing of road use.

Charles Siegel

Infinite increases in induced traffic? How come?

Charles, let's see if I can outline a framework of points on which we can agree.

I regard it as self-evident that cars flowing freely along roads use less gas than cars crawling along bumper-to-bumper. They also take a lot less time to get from A to B.

There might be conditions under which increasing road capacity would still lead to increased fuel consumption; however, it is this which needs justifying by analysis - it does not alter the self-evident nature of what I said. There must be other factors in the highly complex real world, that are "inputs" into the equation.

What your argument assumes is that an increase in numbers of autos travelling from A to B will always negate the increase in roading capacity. My big problem with this argument is that it assumes infinite growth in the number of people who might potentially wish to get from A to B.

There are several ways around this, apart from the fact that these numbers of people are NOT infinite. I think the LEAST valid approach is the one that is currently the most popular with the planning profession. That is, that public transport, especially Transit, is automatically a more efficient use of resources and a reducer of emissions, ESPECIALLY if we leave roading capacity inadequate and indeed worsen it by planned increases in population density and monocentricity.

The best approach has to incorporate planned decreases in monocentricity. I regard monocentricity as the main problem here, not people's "auto preference". If increases in road capacity are always overwhelmed by extra autos travelling that way, I suggest you have a problem with a kind of "gravity" effect of monocentricity. It would frankly be impossible to overwhelm a sufficiently well-planned multi-nodal, mixed-use, "edge cities" type of metro with "induced traffic". The point is to dis-agglomerate the congestion as well as increase land miles.

I also suggest that NON monocentric metros like Atlanta have congestion simply because their lane miles of roading are inadequate. The "total value of trips" to the economy is far in excess of the total utility value to the drivers of autos, and far in excess of the revenue that drivers are prepared to contribute to the cost of provision of roads by whatever means. I agree that road pricing will provide efficiencies. I like the idea of a broad base of driver contributions, based on the potential for efficiency gains. I think gas taxes could be supplemented with road pricing of several different kinds, all of which would improve the efficiency of road usage.

But I along with generations of economists in the past, regard it as self-evident that roads are the source of so much external benefit to the economy, that to restrict provision of roads to the revenues able to be captured from DRIVERS, is to forego substantial economic growth and wealth creation. I strongly favour targeted property taxes as a source by which revenues of "adequate" levels can be secured for genuinely wealth-creating roading networks. There is a very sound case to be made on equity grounds here. Metro growth, and mobility (and access), lead to rising property values; the more efficient the location of the property (and the more expensive it ALREADY is), the greater the rise in value. The owners of such property effectively have the wealth of drivers transferred to them, because drivers pay for their own "access" and mobility; but the "capitalisation" of the efficiencies paid for by drivers, are realised mostly by the owners of efficiently located property.

This argument also applies to "impact fees" paid directly or indirectly by households. These fees are also a wealth transfer to the same people.

Property taxes actually AUTOMATICALLY capture the most revenue from the people who gain the most from the provision of roads - or even of Transit infrastructure. I actually think the NJ-Manhattan Rail tunnel could be paid for by this means.

It is actually in the interest of these property owners, to get the funding impasses broken. Free loading as they have done for decades now might be attractive, but I have come to believe that ultimately whole economies are going to die from the sheer inadequacy of funding of "transport" via auto drivers.

Decreased monocentricity has serious consequences for the viability of Transit. This is just an unfortunate reality. Alain Bertaud analyses the former USSR's Transit system in more than one of his papers. it is quite clear that this system, even with planners being all powerful and dictating where and how people were to live; was a disadvantage in terms of economic efficiency relative to Western economies with property rights, freedom of choice, and mobility. If one line would sum it up, it is that "20 minutes by car" is far more efficient than "1 hour by train". It is not just the direct resource and emissions comparisons, there are considerable knock-on effects throughout the economy.

A low congestion roading network would benefit "buses" just as much as autos. It is already well established that van pools and dollar vans are by far the most efficient forms of public transport. I think the true way to the future is "small and flexible", not "big and inflexible". Also, walking and cycling for transport are far more likely to be enabled in NON monocentric metros for simple reasons of land values and the "affordability" of efficiently located homes. I analyse this in more depth HERE:

Reality and SB 375


As I said above, in California today, SB 375 is the reality: it is the law that determines what shape development will take.

Just as people in the mid-twentieth century who believed that they knew how things ought to be passed zoning laws that required sprawl, people at the beginning of the twentieth century who believe that they know how things ought to be have begun to pass laws that require smart growth.

"not put our heads in the sand and imagine that we think we know how things "ought to be"

An excellent example of a mixed metaphor. Apart from this literary failing, do you seriously believe that people should not pass laws based on how things "ought to be"? That would mean no civil rights laws, no laws protecting freedom of speech, etc.

Charles Siegel

"SB 375 is the reality: it

"SB 375 is the reality: it is the law that determines what shape development will take.

A law is not the physical urban reality. It is an idea, an expression of a given desired outcome (but not the outcome itself) and certainly not the current situation.

"Just as people in the mid-twentieth century who believed that they knew how things ought to be passed zoning laws that required sprawl, people at the beginning of the twentieth century who believe that they know how things ought to be have begun to pass laws that require smart growth. "

Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding you, but I believe this statement just proved my point. People envisioning that they knew what "ought to be" brought about the problem, and so people imagining what "ought to be" is the proposed solution?

Creating a specific urban form through regulation is a much more complex problem than legislating civil rights or freedom of speech, especially in the current political environment. And the potential effects of the law of unintended consequences is much greater. Thus, any attempted approach must be flexible enough to accommodate the indeterminacy.

And finally, I'm not against finding opportunities to develop new sustainable patterns of development. I am arguing that the problem needs to be approached as honestly and soberly as possible and that Landscape Urbanism proposes valuable contributions to this process.

Acting Honestly And Soberly

I would be interested to hear some specifics of that honest and sober approach that could move us toward more sustainable patterns.

But I think you are out of your depth when you make the dogmatic statement that people should not act based on what they think ought to be - and then waffle by saying that people should understand the issue before they act honestly and soberly based on what they think ought to be.

Supporters of New Urbanism and smart growth also claim that they understand and have analyzed the issue and now are acting honestly and soberly to move us in the direction of what they think ought to be. Or do you claim that you are the only honest and sober guy in town?

Rather than saying anything specific about why their analysis is wrong and yours is right, you have just distracted us from the specifics by talking in vague abstract terms about the nature of what is and what ought to be.

"A law is not the physical urban reality."

Try breaking a planning law, and you will see it is a reality. You are redefining the word "reality" so it only refers to physical realities. Apparently, you think that legal realities, political realities, ecological realities, and so on, are not realities.

Charles Siegel

My argument is not about my

My argument is not about my own theory of urbanism, it was a critique of the above article -- which we have now moved far away from. I've not proposed any analysis from which to claim superiority, nor claimed that New Urbanism, as a whole, is wrong, nor that Landscape Urbanism, as a whole, is right. My issue is with the incomplete assessment given to the topic and with the misrepresentation of certain aspects of Landscape Urbanist theory. Hence, when I say "A law is not the physical urban reality", I say this in reference to the original Corner quote which was talking about the physical reality of urban form in certain cities.

If you'd like to discuss the merits of the above article and your own opinions and critiques of its topic, I'd be happy to. But if you keep rolling out a new straw man every time you post, count me out.

Definitely time for some re-thinking

It's good to see these honest and perfectly valid concerns emerging, DMeehan. More and more of us are having these thoughts. You would probably agree with a lot of what I say HERE:

Placemaking, New Urbanism, and Landscape Urbanism

New Urbanism is way beyond Landscape Urbanism in substance and in achieved community outcomes. Landscape Urbanism is a facade for designers wanting to control outcomes with no perceived benefit other than to their own ego. They use ecology as a way of justifying and giving it stature among the environmental community. It operates under the guise of Harvard University and their design school. Graduates of that school then go out into the world and we see their stamp emerging in cities around the world. Then those cities, seeking to be in the forefront, glum onto it thinking they are "with it". Existing examples include, Chicago's Laurie Gardens in Millennium Park. It is walled off, uncomfortable on every level and an enormous expense to maintain. Brooklyn Bridge Park is another new example where a perched wetland may soon be a signature feature and "anchor" on the main pier at the end of Atlantic Avenue. The image conveyed by the designer shows a child frolicking among massive grasses. The community, which had no input into the design, saw it as a scary and uninviting place. Again there is no income to support it, unless you build high-rise apartments next to it...which will further privatize the Brooklyn waterfront. In Manhattan, the Highline is the most recent example where the prime attraction are a variety of grasses and uncomfortable benches. The view down to largely empty streets show how removed it is from real urban life. Recently, Seattle has selected a Landscape Urbanist to design their new waterfront. It will be another lifeless disaster that will do little to add to the existing attractions along the water. Toronto has fallen into the same trap, and so has Singapore, and Sydney may soon follow.
Landscape Urbanism has nothing to do with Placemaking. New Urbanism is a natural partner to creating places. Landscape Urbanism is defining a world where human life will not flourish.

Michael, I suggest you go


I suggest you go and really read what landscape urbanists are saying rather than cherry-picking quotes out of context and presenting the resulting mash-up as a unified theory.

James Corner does not suggest that we embrace surface over form, he suggests we embrace process over form. He writes:

"...the projection of new possibilities for future urbanisms must derive less from an understanding of form and more from an understanding of process - how things work in space and time."

I also suggest that you reread Jane Jacobs. You may be surprised at what you find. In an interview in Architecture magazine about her book "The Nature of Cities" Jane Jacobs writes:

"All living things, including things we would regard as inanimate, like communities, form and re-form themselves and become what they are, and then become something else, and so on, because of process. I don't think this is as understood or acknowledged as it should be. In [The Nature of Economies], I mention the fallacious "Thing Theory"--of development, of community, of everything--which pervades far too much of our thinking. Look at city planning. The idea we encounter so often is that things can be made perfect; you try to make a thing, and that's it. Whereas at best, all you can make is the site for processes to happen, and the processes will inevitably affect the thing, too. I wonder a little about why Architecture readers would be interested in this, but I'm glad if they are, because my book is concerned with building habitations for processes."

If you are intersted, I can send you a papers worth of other similar thoughts from Jacobs.

It is interesting that while your introductory paragraph is filled with quotes from landscape urbanists, your main thesis paragraph "Art Uber Alles" contains no supporting quotes. Is that because your argument is a straw man?

The environmental and economic complexities of the modern urban condition will require a variety of ideas from a variety of disciplines. There are good ideas and not so good ideas contained within the containers of "New Urbanism" and "Landscape Urbanism". Your lazy examination of the differences between the two only serves to detract from the overall goal.

Re: Landscape Urbanism

As a landscape architect, New York City resident and occasional user of the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park, I have to address Fred Kent's comments. The article above was primarily about different design responses to sprawl, but Kent has used it as a pretext to attack two projects that converted existing urban fabric into park space. Kent feels the High Line is too disconnected from the city below - would he have it lowered to street level? And is he aware that there are vendors now operating on the High Line? I think they might even have a few movable chairs. Clearly something is attracting the crowds I see every time I visit. Might it be the experience of walking above the streets in an environment quite different than a city sidewalk?

As for Michael Van Valkenburgh, he is only a "landscape urbanist" in the sense that Frederick Law Olmsted was. Central Park also happens to have some expensive high-rise apartments adjacent and, as far as I know, was designed without much community input. Styles change, but the idea that there is a public, human benefit to having open places in our cities with plants, water, and places to sit down endures.

Sprawl, planning, and demand

".....Yet the historical record is clear, in the writings of Le Corbusier and others: sprawl was the result of designers' visions of their future, working with industrialists......."

Thank you, Michael. This is not EXACTLY the same as what I have argued on other threads, but it is pretty close. That is, that "sprawl" had quite a lot to do with what the planners of the day wanted, for a variety of reasons. I believe public health had a lot to do with it, even including psychological health. Children really do grow up more healthy in green, spacious surroundings.

The inner city residential areas of the past were actually a far greater hazard to human health than autos and their emissions. Succeeding generations tend to forget this, and concentrate on the "bad news".

Europeans tended to be a lot more reactionary against these "sprawl promoting" planners, which is why so many walkable old communities were preserved, to the envy of US planners today. Colin Clark comments in some of his seminal works, that walking or cycling home to lunch was an inviolable tradition in many European cities, and "renewal" plans nearly caused riots. Jane Jacobs was actually a distinguished opponent of renewal only in the context that she was a rarity in the USA. She would have been just one of the crowd in many European cities.

Having said that, European cities do have their renewal and their sprawl too; it is just a question of the degree of difference. It is also just a question of degree, just how much sprawl was "planned" and how much it is the result of "demand". Arguing as I have, was not intended in any way to underestimate demand for low density, green suburban lifestyles and automobility. My main point was really that planners priorities CAN change from one generation to the next, and that a future generation of planners may well have reason to condemn what TODAY'S planners are trying to achieve.

THIS young fellow is an extraordinary "thinker" who deserves to be noticed - read this essay to the end:

(Bear in mind that he is not at all a specialist on this subject - he writes about all sorts of things on his blog).


The phrase "urban sprawl" and the rhetoric of pro- and anti-urban sprawl advocates all but obsolesce under the realization that there is no growth without waste. "Waste landscape" is an indicator of healthy urban growth.

This is actually very different from what Corbusier was saying. It is a difference between an astute observation of current reality ("what is") and a projection of possible futures (what "ought to be").

Once again, it would be useful to look back at what Jane Jacobs actually said to find the parallels:

"Societal advances occur in cities that are overabundant in creativity to the point of being inefficient and impractical...."

"...I do not mean that cities are economically valuable in spite of their inefficiency and impracticality but rather because they are inefficient and impractical...moderate sized cities - what now are deemed to be 'cities of practical size' - are practical only because problems were solved in the past in cities that had grown to 'impractical' size. To limit the sizes of great cities as is often advocated, because of the acute problems arising from size, is profoundly reactionary. Cities magnify an economy's practical problems, but they can also solve them by the means of new technology." [Economy of Cities]


Jane Jacobs, technology optimist

Jane Jacobs was SO right. European urban planners did not succeed in enacting "renewal" plans to nearly the same extent as the US's ones did, because the resistance to these plans was so much stronger in Europe. Walking home to lunch was a very strong tradition.

I do not think that Europe consciously chose to "wait and let technology solve the problems of inner city health", but it certainly did happen that way in many cities. And as Jane Jacobs was astute enough to realise, technology always was an option.

I actually worry that the same mistake is being made today, and that a future generation of urban planners will be frustrated at how technology-pessimistic WE were. With the very blunt "tools" that we are trying to use to force increases in density and transit-orientation, I am concluding more and more that we are doing more harm than good.

Technological Optimism

I am a technological optimist in this sense: I believe that, if technology is used wisely, it can bring bring economic comfort and abundant leisure to everyone.

This sort of optimism was common in the early twentieth century. For example, Keynes wrote in his famous essay "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" that "From the earliest times of which we have record ... down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth." But now, because new technology has made production more efficient, "mankind is solving its economic problem," and "a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes." When that time comes, "man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem - how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."

That seems to me to be an optimistic view of the future.

By contrast, conservatives today who talk about new technology solving problems, seem to have a fairly bleak view of the future. There will be series of problems - beginning with those we are facing now, such as global warming, traffic congestion, and peak oil, but presumably continuing indefinitely - but don't worry, because technology will come up with a solution to each of these problems before it becomes a disaster.

There is no vision of a better future. We just continue the same consumerism we have now, but on a larger scale, even though international comparisons have shown that we in the United States have gone far beyond the point where consuming more makes you happier. We will keep promoting waste, even when it is an economic burden: for example, we will defend sprawl neighborhoods where people cannot leave their houses without driving, even if it means that people have to spend 20% of their income on their cars.

Conservatives consider this optimistic only because environmentalists have an even bleaker vision of either disaster or extreme austerity.

Environmentalists need to recapture some of that old optimism of Keynes and to start saying that our lives could be much easier and much more satisfying, as well as more sustainable, if we worked shorter hours, moderated our consumerism, spent more time on our families and our own interests, and learned how to occupy our leisure to live wisely and agreeably and well.

Charles Siegel

(Note: I am not really responding directly to your post - and certainly not to Jane Jacobs. I am expanding on some of the larger social and economic issues that you and Wodehouse talk about. I think New Urbanism is a radical challenge to our economy precisely because it gives one very convincing example of how we can live better by consuming less: neighborhoods where you can walk are more livable than neighborhoods where you have to drive. These are issues that I discuss at length in my book The Politics of Simple Living

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