What is landscape urbanism?

Charles Waldheim Landscape urbanism reader

Charles Waldheim's Landscape urbanism reader

[See notes on Urban design and landscape urbanism]

London’s Architectural Association has picked up the term landscape urbanism and come near to draining it of meaning. The programme’s ‘rationale’ states that landscape urbanism is understood as ‘a model of connective, scalar and temporal operations through with the urban is conceived and engaged with: the urban is conceived and engaged with: the urban is diagrammed as a landscape; a complex and processual ecology’. In social science, ‘processual’ means ‘of or relating to a process, especially to the methodological study of processes’. In physics ‘A scalar is a quantity with a magnitude but no direction’. So I would describe the above ‘rationale’ as profoundly vague.
Wikipedia defines landscape urbanism as ‘a theory of urbanism arguing that landscape, rather than architecture, is more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban experience’. This definition comes from The landscape urbanism reader edited by Charles Waldheim (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). Waldheim associates the term landscape urbanism with James Corner’s essay Terra Fluxus. Corner, in turn, associates the term with a conference organized by Waldheim in 1997. But Corner’s essay, unlike the AA statement, is cogent and useful and has a simple underlying message: buildings and landscapes must be considered together, planned together and designed together (my phrasing). They comprise a ‘field’ on which we operate. Corner works with an architect (Stan Alan) and their firm has the name Field Operations. Corner’s essay allows one to understand what the AA means by processual. City planning should rest on an understanding of the ecological and social processes which underpin Ian McHarg’s Design with nature approach. The term Terra Fluxus is therefore a contrast with Terra Firma: the world is not firm – it is a flux (as Heraclitus observed). I commend James Corner for his clarity and abhor the AA’s obfuscation of the term.

For more discussion see Jason King’s landscape + urbanism blog. It is an important debate and I have provisionally added Charles Waldheim’s reader to the list of 100 Best Books on landscape architecture.

See also: the definition of landscape urbanism

17 thoughts on “What is landscape urbanism?

  1. Christine

    Interesting defintion. Re privileging landscape in a defintion of landscape urbanism….

    Here is my understanding of how the differences in landscape and architecture can be helpful to each other.

    Ignoring the AA’s attempt to distance landsape urbanism from the sceneographic would you agree with these distinctions?

    Architecture is fundamentally object oriented. The compositional aspects are similar to sculpture. While landscape is planar (usually focused on the ground plane). The compositional aspects are similar to painting.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Re the difference between architectural and landscape design, I agree with you 100% and would add the following qualifications:
    (1) with regard to interiors, I would say that architecture is as much concerned with the composition of space as is landscape architecture with regard to exterior space. It is only when it comes to elevations that architects tend to be object-oriented and of course this does not apply to all architects. Similarly, some sculptors are much concerned with relationships between objects and sites.
    (2) the objectives of landscape architecture are as much social and ecological as they are ‘scenographic’ but, yes, they are very much concerned with composition in a painterly sense. The aim is to compose: landform, water, vegetation, paving and structures. These five ‘compositional elements’ are equivalent to the three primary colours used by painters.

  3. Christine

    Yes I agree the both architecture and landscape are ‘more’ than scenographic…however to deny the visual aspect of these arts seems nonsensical…perhaps like denying dance is about movement!

    Interiors are perhaps more closely related to the novel or film. Compositional aspects are narrative, highly anthropomorphic, emotive and structured.

    Saying this I believe;
    1) there is something fundamentally important about the way we respond to both landscape and architecture visually. The interrelationship of object to context and context to object included.
    2) there is something fundamentally important about the way we inhabit and experience the space of landscape and architecture. And how we construct the edge and transition between the two.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    American historians date the origin of ‘landscape architecture’ to 1858 – for reasons of pride and parochialism (and some ignorance!). I date the origin of landscape architecture to the Neolithic period. When humans became settlers they HAD to plan settlements with regard to the characteristics of the landscape for BOTH functional and visual reasons.
    So I very much agree with your use of the word ‘fundamental’ with regard to the architecture:landscape relationship. Visual perception and pattern recognition are immensely complicated. I remember reading an article on travel safety which advised that travelers in difficult parts of the world ‘must learn to rely on instinct’. I agree: it is often possible for the eye+brain to interpret complex phenomena which cannot be done by through rational analysis. So this is another respect in which visual considerations are ‘fundamental’.

  5. Ian Thompson

    Tom, you’ve hit the nail on the head as usual! I’m trying to write something about LU at present. It’s good to see that we agree once again.

    All the best – Ian.

  6. Isla

    The AALU’s aren’t fooling me. Megastructures are their project. They will make everything into it.

    The AA views Landscape Urbanists as a fresh term for the same old, tried and true, metabolic, ‘archi-gram-ish’, type of megastructure that all the diploma kids at the AA are producing. This is not the same thing as American Landscape Urbanism.

    They use ‘multi-scalar’ to mean ‘system’, or kit of parts, that starts small on an ‘architectural scale’ and grows to a totallising ‘urban scale’. The term ‘landscape’ simply comes in as a clever way to say ‘the project will be developed in phases’. Oh, and since they are erasing ‘declining’ areas of cities, they dash a few plants on top as a ‘social-space’ token.

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    Thank you very much for explaining ‘multi-scalar’. I entirely share your view of the AA’s approach to landscape urbanism – while also thanking you for further explaining its character.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Here is a short definition: landscape urbanism is an approach to urban design which emphasises the technical, aesthetic and functional aspects of the compositional elements which make cities: landform, vegetation, water, vertical structures and horizontal structures. This is done with full regard to the context, traditionally described as the Genius of the Place.
    And here is an even shorter definition:
    LANDSCAPE URBANISM is an approach to urban design in which the elements which form cities (water, landform, vegetation, vertical structures and horizontal structures) are composed (visually, functionally and technically) with regard to human use and the landscape context.

  9. bs

    As far as I’m concerned Landscape Urbanism is nothing but vain formalism veiled with cloudy phrases. A shorter definition is it is: a faddist sub-genre of urban planning.

    Another definition is that is a catch word that is meant to attract distract young, impressionable urban planning students from real urban and social issues and policy.

    The proposals of parametric Landscape Urbanism mean nothing to the struggling working classes. It is insulting to propose some godforsaken parametric solution that costs $XX,XXX,XXX to the nomadic tribes of X.

    You cannot tell me the simple formalism of ‘Landscape Urbanism’ actually contributes to the well being of the proletariat any more than the dreams of Saint-Simon, Fourier, or even the lunacy of vertical farming.

    Look at the AALU itself. It has been infiltrated with corporate interests – EDAW, ATKINS, ARUP. Look at what these companies have done to Dubai. Towers in the sand without plubming, where infrastructure comes second, and the people third to financial gain!

    Landscape Urbanism contributes nothing but hype and speculative imagery to lure in a new generation of students into mills – working for these corporate beasts for nothing. How can it be anything else?

    It would be naive to assume that urban planners had previously ignored “water, landform, vegetation, vertical structures and horizontal structures”. These are merely the elements of the city itself– lets not forget people–they count too. The socialists and activists of the 1880s gave a shit about the fact that several families were living in basements amongst dead babies and pigs in the fowl streets of East London.

    It is naive to assume that generations upon generations of planners did not care about social issues. They were dealing with much more than computational formalism.
    Urban plans were then were anything but a fixed vision. Lets face it; urban planners were dealing with intellectual and industrial revolutions simultaneously not some computer ‘script’. Computer scripting will not solve the real issues and therefore nor will anyone at the AA/ landscape urbanism. It is nothing but corporate propaganda.

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    The fact that the AA has tried to seize the concpet of landscape urbanism, and trashed it, does not make landscape urbanism a dud concept. Similarly the concept of national self-defense is not invalidated by the fact that many armies have gone on unjustifiable rampages of aggresive destruction.
    You are of course right that the urban planners of the late nineteenth century had strong social objectives. They came partly from the public health movement and partly from Ruskin and Morris. But it is also the case that twentieth century urbanisation had a terrible impact on the landscape and that ‘landscape urbanism’ could be a useful banner under which to right this wrong.

  11. rblack

    Generally I would argue that landscape urbanism is validating individualism, which is detrimental to the environment. Unless landscape urbanists are encouraging higher densities and walkable cities –which they are not– then they are causing more harm than good. By my readings of Charles Waldheim’s work and that of the AALU Landscape Urbanists, they are all about the private automobile. They give no concern for the immediate future, or generations to come. They may have their multi-phased mega projects but what does that do for anything but capitalism?

    We must consider that this ‘academic’ affirmation of sprawl is coming from America, the most wasteful country on the planet. Is this really what we, as a society need? Do we really think we can continue on this path of not caring about anything but personal liberty of using as much petrol and space as we care to waste? Esp. with all other industrial countries coming to the fore (India, China, Brasil, etc)?

    New Urbanism, or even Urbanism rarely condones the kind of rampant ecological indifference that the landscape urbanists are worshiping. And with America –via Obama– now tempting to ween the US off foreign energy, who will be to blame in the end when it all fails? My bet is that the ignorant ‘landscape urbanists’ will go down as entirely anti-ecological morons in their promotion of sprawl. All I see in the Landscape urbanists is progressive cartography. Nothing else other than ‘awesome’ maps. And the texts are hardly legible, or appreciated other than as utterances of corbusian megalomania.

    I’d say landscape urbanism is dead – a selfish, whinny little brat nonsense of the 90s – with little to show other than ‘catalogues’, ‘indecies’, ‘compoenets’ and ‘prototypes’ of nihilism that hardly support the common good.

  12. Tom Turner Post author

    I know that New Urbanism is concerned with raising densities but, so far as I know, landscape urbanism is density-neutral. I thought it was about taking landscape considerations seriously, which should be done in high-density, medium-density and low-density cities. Am I wrong?

  13. Christine

    The debate over densities – and what it means for urban form, built and landscape, is very important. The consumption, population and equity aspects are not simple. Geography, cultural histories and city forms differ.

    There is not a single answer. And yes, at its heart, urbanism must be concerned with quality of life issues (for all classes/societies) which are sometimes considered under ‘liveabilty’, rather than our ability merely to sustain biotic life (and lifestyles) into the future.

    It is worth looking both at the best urbanism can offer (enhancing what some might consider already privileged lifestyles) and the worst that it must address (the contemporary equivalent of families living in basements amongst dead babies and pigs).

    It this emphasis on the upper end as well as the lower end seems strange, consider Ancient Egypt: even at the upper end of society by the standards of today they would have been considered to be ‘underdeveloped’. [ http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/people/index.html ]

    Ancient Egypt with the agricultural, intellectual and governance capacities of the day reached
    an overall population of seven plus million, even so (with infant mortality at 50%) there is said to have been difficulty in feeding this population consistently.

  14. Tom Turner Post author

    Density is important but it cannot be separated from other factors. One can draw an analogy with the weight of an individual. It is very significant but it has to be related to many other factors: age, height, fitness, occupation, health etc.
    One of my concerns about density is that it is so often constrained by out-of-date regulations. In the UK, for example, the traffic engineers are constantly driving DOWN densities by requiring too much land to be devoted to roadspace. For example, I have been watching the re-development of the Greenwich Peninsula for the past 15 years http://wikimapia.org/#lat=51.4978968&lon=0.0024891&z=15&l=0&m=b&search=greenwich%20uk
    They have been treating it like New Jersey, not like part of London, and most of those big roads are empty for most of the time. It was a terrile waste of land. At thte same time, ‘they’ have done a terrible job of the landscape development: too much grass, too much paving, too few pedestrians, too few cycles, hardly any habitat development (except around the Millennium Village). The result is not New Urbanism and it is not Landscape Urbanism: it is “Mediocre Suburbanism”.

  15. Tom Turner Post author

    The landowners’ objective was to make as much money as possible. The local authority’s objectives were much as usual: homes, jobs, ‘biodiversity’ (probably) and a wider tax base. I do not think there was anything which I would call ‘vision’. The best idea, which came from Richard Rogers’s office, was to put a dome at the tip of the peninsula – and it was not a wonderful idea because they did not plan the after-use of the building (ie after the year 2000 exhibition) and neglected its surroundings.


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