I haven’t gotten involved in the blogosphere’s Landscape Urbanism v. New Urbanism debate because, frankly, I have not been able to understand what Landscape Urbanism is. When I first heard the term and looked it up on Wikipedia, it read, “Landscape Urbanism is a theory of urbanism arguing that landscape, rather than architecture, is more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban experience.” OK… I have no idea what that means. What does it look like? What do Landscape Urbanists hope to achieve? How is it different from other urban theories?
At the time I didn’t feel like investing much more effort into learning about it and figured it would go away soon enough. But after this article came out and detailed the appearance of Charles Waldheim, a leading proponent of Landscape Urbanism, at CNU 19 (available on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2) and the subsequent discussion between him and Andres Duany, founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I felt that I should finally try and understand for myself. I’ll start with my efforts to understand what Landscape Urbanism is, followed by my assessment of Waldheim’s presentation and Duany’s response.
What is Landscape Urbanism?
Unlike New Urbanism, the doctrines of Landscape Urbanism are quite opaque and academic, as is evidenced by one of the first results I got when I typed “Landscape Urbanism” into Google, the Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator (sorry, went for the direct quote there). However, one of the more useful results was The Landscape Urbanism Reader, a compilation of essays assembled by Waldheim to show the fundamentals of Landscape Urbanism.
One of the essays, “Terra Fluxus” by James Corner, was quoted almost everywhere else I looked as the closest thing to a doctrine of Landscape Urbanism. According to Corner, there are four foundations of Landscape Urbanism: “processes over time, the staging of surfaces, the operational or working method, and the imaginary.” Simple enough, right?
Corner goes on to explain the first principle by stating that the processes of urbanization are more important than the urban forms in themselves, and that urbanism must be thought of both in time and space, drawing from Louis Kahn’s idea for the development of Center City Philadelphia, in which he compared the movements of people to the flows of water.
The second is concerned with the horizontal surfaces of a city, including infrastructures. Corner discusses how the grid of a city allows for its future use without determining exactly what will fill the blocks created by the grid.
The third principle addresses the design process applied in cities today, and while Corner seems to not approve of how the utopian models of many designers seem to devolve into the dross of the contemporary urban world, he doesn’t seem to give a real, working alternative.
In expanding on the fourth principle, Corner says that “the collective imagination … must continue to be the primary motivation of any creative endeavor.”
The High Line, from thehighline.org.
Well, alright, that all sounds very nice, if not overly scholarly. But again I ask, what does it look like?
The images that accompany Corner’s essay are beautiful: the High Line and Fresh Kills in New York; East Darling Harbor in Sydney; The Botanical Garden of San Juan, and others. The problem is, they’re all parks—not complete urban developments. Many of the images used to describe Landscape Urbanism, both in the Reader and online, are also of parks, and very few of them really involve any urbanism.
One such development, later selected by Waldheim as a prime example of Landscape Urbanism, is West 8‘s Borneo-Sporenburg in Amsterdam Harbor.
Aerial image of Borneo-Sporenburg, from west8.nl.
Borneo-Sporenburg was developed on two piers on the east end of the Amsterdam Docklands. They happen to be just south of Java Eiland, another recent development that I raved about in an earlier post and which has a few marked differences from development at Borneo-Sporenburg. I will use some of these differences to highlight issues at the latter.
Borneo-Sporenburg, like Java Eiland, consists mainly of a mix of residential types, mostly townhouses and a few apartment buildings. The long, skinny nature of both developments lends itself to having a few long roads running parallel to the piers (or island, as is the case at Java) with smaller streets interspersed running perpendicular. They are both completely ringed by docks, almost all of which have a small (or sometimes not-so-small) boat moored at them. Both have narrow, cozy, tree-lined streets, with bikes locked up in front of nearly every building. The buildings form solid street walls, have entrances directly on the street, and generally maintain a similar cornice line. Both are served by a trolley.
The differences, however, are what make me want to live on Java Eiland—and not so much Borneo-Sporenburg.
On Borneo-Sporenburg, both piers are interrupted about halfway through by large apartment buildings set off from the grid and surrounded by plazas. While these do interrupt the view and help to create outdoor rooms and terminated vistas, the vista is often nothing too impressive.
The view along Seinwachterstraat. From maps.google.com.
The plazas created around the buildings are leftover spaces, and aren’t truly civic or public spaces. They are almost completely hardscaped and have very little greenery other than small trees in some of the plazas.
Plaza along Stuurmankade. From maps.google.com.
You would think that, being developed by Landscape Urbanists, that there would be more landscaping. Yet there are only two parks, one per pier, in the development: a linear park along Feike de Boerlaan:
…and one that cuts across the three main streets on Sporenburg:
Java Eiland, on the other hand, has a variety of green spaces, ranging from parks on the interior of housing blocks:
Kratontuin, from panoramio.com.
…to large open fields:
…to playing fields:
…to linear parks.
The West 8 website mentions that the houses at Borneo-Sporenburg are “strongly oriented to the private realm by incorporating patios and roof gardens.” This idea is strongly anti-urban. After all, one aspect of what gives a place a good urban character is having great, public green spaces. The idea of trading in public space for private green space is one that is suburban in character; people who strongly value private green space will buy a ranch house in the suburbs. Although the architecture and some of the public settings, such as the beautiful and highly sculptural bridges, are very attractive, I highly doubt anyone is moving there for a private patio.
West 8 also mentions that the development was built with “water-related activities” in mind, and some might suppose that these will replace some of the opportunities for recreation that are lost through the lack of significant public open space. However, those “water-related activities” are fairly limited. This isn’t a beach, this is a former working harbor, with deep water and heavy boat traffic. You aren’t letting your six-year-old jump in with their water wings. Pretty much the only water activity allowed is boating, which certainly limits those who can use this resource to a certain demographic. Even with that in mind, the design of Borneo-Sporenburg only really allows for those who front the edges of the peninsulas to have ready access to water (although there is a small dock between the piers).
In contrast, Java Eiland allows much greater access by providing traditional canals between blocks in the principally residential sections. This way, virtually everyone in these sections has access to water, as opposed to just those that front the edges.
Java Eiland canalscape. From panoramio.com.
Probably most troubling to me about Borneo-Sporenburg is the limited mix of uses. With the exception of a very few restaurants, the land uses are only residential and recreational.
Java Eiland, on the other hand, has a variety of residential, recreational, retail and office uses, with corner stores on almost every block in the principally residential sections. Again, if people are concerned about non-residential uses encroaching on their homes, they will move to the suburbs. Probably the principal joy of living in a city is having easy access to a variety of uses, such as on Java Eiland.
By maintaining a high density but not including significant public open space or mixed uses, the developers of Borneo-Sporenburg have kept something that drives people away from cities—without providing what draws people to them. Although the attractive, high-end architecture will attract people for years, I worry about the future of this development when the architecture goes out of style.
Java Eiland, on the other hand, while not claiming to be a New Urbanist development, provides a number of amenities associated with traditional urbanism: high-quality public open space, a mix of uses, and familiar urban design, which in Amsterdam includes canals.
If I had to pick a place to live, Java Eiland would win, hands down. If Borneo-Sporenburg is supposed to be one of the leading examples of Landscape Urbanism, I don’t think it’s a movement I want to be a part of.
Waldheim and Duany: the showdown
And now we come back to what spurred this whole thing; Waldheim’s visit to CNU 19. First, Waldheim said that Landscape Urbanists are not “apologists for sprawl,” as they have been characterized by New Urbanists, and that they support dense, low-emission development. As an example, Waldheim produced Lafayette Park, a development in Detroit built in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The plan for Lafayette Park includes a very large park with housing, in the form of large slabs designed by Mies van der Rohe as well as smaller townhouses, inserted into it, with no through streets. A small commercial area sits at the southeast corner of the development.
Waldheim argues that this development accomplishes many of the goals of New Urbanism—compact design, mixed housing types and land uses, and a connected street network.
For the most part, I would say he is wrong on all fronts. First of all, compact design is hard to measure. If what he means is that there are a lot of housing units, that is true, but it is accomplished by putting them up in the air, far away from the action on the street. Looking at Lafayette Park from the street, is doesn’t feel like a compact, urban place. There are multiple housing types, but they are all segregated in their different pods: towers here, townhouses there, duplexes somewhere else. Those of different incomes or tastes are still stratified from each other.
As for mixed uses, there is of course a small commercial development, but it doesn’t bring a lot to the table.
The commercial development at Lafayette Park. From wikipedia.org.
As is evidenced by the vacancies in this image from 2007, it isn’t exactly a desirable place. The auto-oriented development which lacks any sort of attraction has failed as a commercial enterprise, making it hard to say that the area is truly mixed-use.
The connected street network that Waldheim alludes to seems nonexistent. The entire development has no through streets. There are pedestrian connections, but these alone aren’t enough to get people out of their cars.
Waldheim’s point was that Landscape Urbanism “accomplishes” these New Urbanist goals while emphasizing green frontages, rather than the buildings found along major roads in New Urbanist developments. Duany countered by pointing out that density, which Lafayette Park has, is not the same as urbanism, which it lacks. He criticized Landscape Urbanist renderings which show pedestrians walking through their developments, saying that people usually won’t walk unless they have attractive frontage.
While some parts of Lafayette Park, especially the ones Waldheim showed pictures of, did have very nice, well-landscaped frontages, there are other parts of the park that have not been as well taken care of. Even more so, none of them really go anywhere. Unless you’re going to visit a friend on the other side of the park, there’s no reason to walk anywhere.
Waldheim took a shot at New Urbanist’s emphasis on a connected street grid, which I thought was very interesting considering that Corner seemed supportive of it. This emphasizes to me the lack of a real defining doctrine or unity in the movement. You can get different answers from different people about what Landscape Urbanism even means.
Duany subsequently brought up the Landscape Urbanist’s insistence on leaving streams and wetlands undisturbed. While this is in many ways an ideal situation, always leaving them alone would mean that we would have no Back Bay in Boston, made up of a filled-in wetland. We would have no Boathouse Row in Philadelphia, which exists because the dam used for the city’s original waterworks created a perfect boating reservoir. Manhattan, Duany points out, has 2,700 streams, and if all of them were daylit, the island as we know it would not exist.
Waldheim criticized New Urbanism for retro design tendencies. “There is still a latent and poor neoclassicism at the core of New Urbanism,” he said.
Here it becomes important to make a distinction between the urban design and the architecture of New Urbanism. In my mind, New Urbanism is an urban design movement, focused on creating connected street grids with mixed land uses so as to recreate traditional, pedestrian-oriented cities, towns and villages rather than auto-oriented suburbs.
However, there are still many people who see New Urbanism as houses with porches, picket fences, and throwback architecture. This second idea is based on the most visible New Urbanist developments, Seaside, Florida:
…and Kentlands, Maryland.
But this does not take into account more recent developments, such as Belmar and Daybreak, which are able to incorporate more contemporary architectural designs, while still preserving a traditional street grid with consistent building frontages.
Also, there is a problem with assuming that the designers could make all the calls. There are developers, builders and architects that all have their own ideas about what should be built in a given area. If you think about it, part of the reason Kentlands looks the way it does is because the market there is for people who can’t afford to live in Georgetown. By the same token, Belmar is for those who can’t afford to live in LoDo in Denver, but still want to sort of contemporary urban lifestyle available there.
This is also a part of a problem with those who deride New Urbanism; they assume that New Urbanists all draw their inspiration from Seaside. Although there are certainly many who do, the idea of traditional urbanism is much older—centuries older—and the goal of New Urbanists is to resurrect it. When I look for examples of good design, I don’t go to Seaside. I go to the village (Williamsburg, MA), town (Northampton, MA), and city (Pittsburgh, PA) that I grew up in. We have a near endless catalog of good urbanism in our traditional cities and towns. Why limit ourselves to things that have only happened since the 1980s?
Both forms of urbanism have a goal of reducing greenhouse gases. Waldheim presented a project, the Lower Don Lands in Toronto (yet to be built), saying, “I would put the density and carbon metrics” of that project “against any project in this room.” Let’s take a look at this project.
So, connected street grid, buildings fronting onto streets, distinct neighborhoods… Wait, are you sure this isn’t New Urbanist? In fact, the urban design on the project was done by Ken Greenburg, New Urbanist, under the project management of Michael Van Valkenburgh, Landscape Urbanist. So basically, it’s a New Urbanist development with a big Landscape Urbanist park in the middle. I could roll with that.
While Landscape Urbanism has yet to produce a good, full-scale development, they have created some of the best parks of the last couple decades. Mix that with New Urbanism’s ability to create urban, walkable neighborhoods, and you’ve got a killer pair.
New Urbanists and Landscape Urbanists certainly have different ideas about how cities should develop. However, instead of arguing, both sides need to play to their strengths. If we are able to take the best from both of our philosophies and combine them, we can create something great, like what the Lower Don Lands will hopefully be.