The War Over 'Landscape Urbanism'

Reporter Leon Neyfakh digs deep into the architectural battle between New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism, saying it is a war for the future of our built environment.

Andres Duany speaks openly about the threat he sees from the growing influence of Landscape Urbanism, which aims to prioritize the natural ecology of a site over the built environment. Duany and the New Urbanists say this approach leads to greater sprawl. Charles Waldheim at Harvard is leading the Landscape Urbanism side, and has admitted that it is intended to unseat New Urbanism as the leading thought of the day:

Neyfakh writes:

"The underlying argument between the groups goes beyond the relative merits of density, or the question of whether you should start a planning project with the buildings or with the watershed. It's an argument about whether human beings should adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves, or try to change them. Is sprawl inevitable, or isn't it? At what point does it make sense to come to terms with it and try to find pragmatic, incremental solutions that don't rely on any paradigmatic cultural shift."

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NU ignores natural ecology? I don't think so.


You claim that LU asks us to "prioritize the natural ecology of a site over the built environment."
I'd question that characterization.

These days no one in any group could rationally call for ignoring natural constraints or even lessening their importance. And I've never heard anyone in NU say anything like that. By now, I think that all rational people recognize that the earth is too big to argue with and that we have to look and listen very carefully before building.

For what it's worth, I just wrote a review of the Duany/Speck Smart Growth Manual and (while Smart Growth is not New Urbanism, there is enormous nesting of ideas) the Manual puts enormous emphasis on respecting natural systems.

And would that the issue be so simple. Part of the problem is that LU's claims are extremely unclear, almost impossible to follow and filled with big, fancy words. About the only thing one can be sure is that LUers — at least Prof. Charles Waldheim — seem to have contempt for walkable urbanism and prefer suburban sprawl.

Landscape Urbanism Respects Natural Ecology?

Because landscape urbanists defend sprawl, their plans are bound to damage the natural ecology. More sprawl means more development of open space, more energy consumption, more acres paved with asphalt and concrete, more natural resources used to build automobiles and roads, and so on.

I think there is room for a fusion of some of the principles of landscape urbanism and new urbanism. Begin by protecting the key features of the ecology of a site, as the landscape urbanists say, and then develop the remaininig land with walkable neighborhoods in the new urbanist style.

Unfortunately, landscape urbanism is not working toward this sort of constructive fusion, because it has the two bad habits of most current academic theory. It uses impenetrable language, being intellectual pretentious rather than conveying ideas clearly. It tries to be hip by being contrarian, in this case, by defending sprawl.

Its defense of sprawl proves that it does not really prioritize the natural ecology over the built environment.

Charles Siegel

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum


Charles and David-

Thanks for writing. My sole goal in writing the summary was to present the Landscape Urbanists in their own language. We strive for objectivity in all our journalism on Planetizen. I express my personal opinions through the blog and other commentary, and I feel, like you, that the Landscape Urbanists are heading in the wrong direction. But my beliefs aside, their stated priority is to let the natural ecology of the site be the driving force of their designs.

Respectfully, Tim

Anyone remember Decon?

I went to architecture school when Deconstructivism was the rage. Decon used similarly obtuse language (and mental acrobatics) which disengaged it from any meaningful impact with non-avant-garde professionals, not to mention lay people. The built products of Decon are so few and far between, and so fantastically expensive and impractical as to be of no more than "gee-whiz" interest to the general public, and self-obsolescing. The best examples work maybe as urban sculpture, only barely as architecture, and not at all as urbanism.

Even though LU's environmental premise is more laudable and relevant than Decon's literary criticism one(!), it locks itself in the ivory tower, (albeit one covered with a hydroponic trellis and topped by a wind generator that powers only the elevator).

New Urbanism's strength is that it uses ordinary verbal and architectural language, understandable and interesting to laypeople, practitioners and academics alike. It produces extraordinary places using ordinary means, accomplished by the 98% of the world that doesn't employ professional architects or landscape architects.

I am frankly surprised that anyone (particularly Andres) feels this latest fad of the avant-garde is a credible threat to New Urbanism. In the marketplace of ideas and in the economic realm, these precious buildings and landscapes can not be justified, especially by arcane language.

What? Me worry?

Frank Starkey.

I also wondered why Andres Duany had so dramatically raised the viisbility of Landscape Urbanism.

I, personally, hadn't even heard of LU until just a few weeks ago when I heard Duany's CNU talk. And once anyone actually reads what the LUers say, it's very thin gruel indeed — "no there, there."

However, besides the obvious utility of having an external enemy to rally the troops, I do think that Duany is rightly concerned about LU for the same reason as Startchitecture (Koolhaas, Hadid et al): fashion.

Consider the vast, often silly yet damaging built works of Starchitecture. Like them, the LUers may not have much to say but they are great at marketing. And now LU has the bully pulpit at Harvard where even more mischief can be made. So no, Duany's concern is legitimate and he is right to try to put LU in its proper place: at best, out in the far, far distant suburbs and, maybe, in parks..

And sunlight is the best disinfectant. So I urge Duany to read aloud some of the key texts of LU so people can hear for themselves that, as I believe, LU just doesn’t have much appeal, once you can tease out its very few ideas of substance.

Landscape Urbanism

There are two dissertations on the subject of Landscape Urbanism that could contribute to this bickering, or perhaps answer a few questions--- the first in Europe and the second in USA- there are no other dissertations listed on the subject

Rhetorics and realities addressing landscape urbanism: Three cities in Vietnam by Kelly Shannon
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), 2004.

Landscape urbanism: Building as process and the practice of indeterminism Diss. Effie Bouras
Arizona State University, 2010.

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