Urbanism and the Landscape Architect

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Landscape architects are not given nearly enough recognition for being urbanists.

This is not because we don’t get enough work in cities but, rather, it is the types of projects we get or, more importantly, don’t get. We have always been the go-to designers for parks, waterfronts and streetscapes, but have had a tougher time finding seats at the table alongside (or instead of) planners and architects when broader planning decisions are being made. Because of this, we are usually forced to respond to change orchestrated by others rather than direct it ourselves. Exceptions to this certainly exist, but aside from landscape architects working as planners in public offices, there aren’t many.

I’m not whining. I’m just trying to establish a benchmark in relation to the more optimistic direction I see things headed. Urban design is changing, and it is changing fast. Due in large part to environmental and climatological crises that are translating directly into quality of life issues, cities are focused on their urban landscapes as perhaps never before. This is not groundbreaking news, and I’m not the first person to bring it up, but it is still a worthy discussion.

Urban landscape is a tricky term that is often misunderstood and incorrectly used by people who don’t really know what to do with it. Architects, for instance, whose preference for a top-down, figure-ground approach to urban design that lets buildings alone dictate urban form, relegates the landscape to a series of insertions fitting within the pattern of buildings. Planners, whose sensibilities are typically more in line with landscape architects, don’t really get it either. Their habit of treating landscape as generic green shapes on land use maps or as elements to standardize within form-based codes isn't much better.

The problem with these approaches (both of which I, of course, grossly generalize) is that they address landscape as just one of many components that make up a larger urban whole, an additive piece that may be needed, but is not required to make things work. Landscape architects, on the other hand, don’t see it as a stand-alone thing; we understand that it is the underlying and unifying framework upon which everything is built. It is not about buildings and landscape, but buildings within landscape – an important distinction to recognize.

The urban landscape is essentially the overlay between a city’s natural systems – the water, trees, air quality, open space, and biodiversity – and its human systems – the sidewalks, bike lanes, fields, transit systems, infrastructure, etc. The two systems are intertwined to the point they are inseparable, and combine to make up what we commonly refer to as the public realm. Even if you disagree with my definition, it is hard to argue that the public realm is the main arena in which cities are competing against one another these days in order to attract rent-paying residents and businesses. The demand has been made very apparent in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and many other cities, where parks and open spaces – not the skyscrapers – have become the main attractions.

This phenomenon is not lost on landscape architects. In fact, when we gather together it is like a big group-hug celebration of the privileged knowledge we share that we are uniquely qualified to deal with critical urban and environmental issues. “The future is ours!” we say, along with stuff like that, not discouraged by the fact not everyone agrees with us, or even understands what it is we do. We recognize that most of these issues can only be effectively solved through multidisciplinary collaboration, but also know we are the best to lead on many types of projects, including:

  • Providing for Public Health. The physical, exercise-related benefits that go along with access to open space, such as recreation facilities, trails and bike lanes, are obvious. Recent studies have also pointed to the holistic benefits, including mental health, provided by landscape in cities. Landscape architects are certainly not the only ones who get this but it something we have been advocating and designing for since the 19th century days of Olmsted and the urban parks movement. As urban life continues to attract people with legitimate expectations for a high quality of life, cities will face increasing pressure to provide access to well-designed open space.
  • Managing Water. Unfortunately, it has taken a series of water-related disasters to make people see that status quo engineering standards – the pipes, walls and levees – may not be the only or best way for handling water, whether it be too much or too little. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the floods in the Midwest and droughts across the southern half of the country have each shown the need for innovative ways to manage water. Cities are looking toward green infrastructure as a means to not only better deal with stormwater, but to also mitigate flooding, increase biological diversity, and provide cleaner water and air. This is bread and butter work for landscape architects.
  • Reimagining Infrastructure.  The ubiquity of the High Line as an urban design topic demonstrates the far-reaching impact it has already had. This idea of creating dynamic spaces out of abandoned industrial wastelands has captured the imagination of cities across the country, as is made evident by examples of reclaimed industrial piers, steel yards, rail yards, and upcoming High Line wannabes in Chicago and Philadelphia. Until we run out of such places in our urban cores, these will remain important projects led most effectively by landscape architects who are best at responding to the contextual, ecological, cultural and aesthetic opportunities these sites hold.

I should point out what will be obvious to some: there are other landscape architects out there who make similar arguments, but do so under the guise of landscape urbanism. While that theory (discipline?) has generated a lot of good debate and discussion over the past decade or so, it remains more relevant to the classroom than to broad professional practice due, in large part – at least in my opinion – to the overly intellectualized, unnecessarily complicated and, frankly, pretentious rhetoric often used in conveying its message. So instead of strengthening the position of landscape architecture in the marketplace, the confusion created by people trying figure out what landscape urbanism means has just muddied already murky waters. Why complicate something people already don’t really understand?

At the end of the day, however, who gets credit for the work, or what they call themselves, is far less important than the work itself. Landscape is more valuable than ever in cities these days. And it is about a lot more than just parks. A great example of this is the fabulously redone Queens Plaza in New York City, designed by Margie Ruddick, who was recently given the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Architecture for her “pioneering, environmental approach to urban landscape design, forging a design language that integrates ecology, urban planning, and culture.” Her work in Queens – completed with a team of landscape architects, urban designers, architects, engineers and artists – transforms what had been a dense and confusing mare’s nest of roads, parking and rail infrastructure into a site that expertly incorporates healthy living, green infrastructure, biodiversity, safe and complete streets, multimodal transit, social responsibility, and sustainability of all shapes and sizes.  And, importantly, it does so with an emphasis on beauty.

Welcome to the 21st century urban landscape.

Mark Hough, ASLA, is a landscape architect, writer and teacher. He lives in Durham, NC, where he works for Duke University.

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