Cities in their landscape setting

The landscape setting of cities is a vital component of their character which can often be overlooked. This is particularly so for designers when they are considering contributions to the design of the skyline. Hong Kong with its harbour and mountainous surrounds benefits from the scenic amenity of its setting. And because of the physical and visual strength of these geographic characteristics the setting is able to support a dense tall city.

The relationship between building and landscape is worthy of considerable design attention. The name Hong Kong literally means ‘fragrant harbour’. Victoria harbour is one of the deepest natural maritime ports in the world. Reclamation projects dating from the late 1842 (1890, 1930, 1960, 1980 and 1990) have progressively advanced Hong Kong’s shoreline.

In Hong Kong they recognise some of the benefits of landscape saying that the landscape is an asset which contributes to well-being, helps define the identity of the city, provides habitats for wildlife and is part of their culture and heritage.

29 thoughts on “Cities in their landscape setting

  1. Carolflowerhillfarm

    I have never thought of Hong Kong in this way. I can see from the clean and simple boardwalk, the lighting and planters/seating that one can easily look towards the cityscape nestled in the mountains and harbor. Though the skyline still looks very cluttered in such a beautiful landscape. It is a city after all. I guess that has to be. Interesting post. ;>)

  2. Tom Turner

    I like the idea of City Fathers and City Mothers in the sense of wise people with a long-term vision of ‘what is good’ for a city. It seems right to put the control of cities in democratic hands but people who live and die by the ballot suffer from short-termism. Care for a city:landscape relationship a very-very long term affair. So I would like to have City Parents charged with looking at least 300 years forward and at least 300 years backward. I don’t suppose this was ever done for Hong Kong but the dramatic site, with sea and mountains, has made the landscape an eternal part of the planning context.

  3. Christine

    The city in the landscape is a very different concept to the Garden City where garden and city are integrated. In Ebenezer Howard’s concept the garden city (max pop 32,000) was located beyond the green belt of the central city. (In the US and elsewhere this concept translated into an idea for suburban development.)
    [ ]

    Yet the Garden City ideal is perhaps more closely related to the New Towns concept?

    The Garden City of Letchworth (pop 33,600) [ ] was Ebenezer’s showcase for his ideas which have been highly influential in planning.
    [ ]

    How would Howard evaluate the success of his ideas of integrating city and country in contemporary Letchworth?

  4. Lawrence

    A lot of Hong Kong’s natural landscapes are undevelopable and this is probably why they are still there. The historic urban fabric does not share this advantage and very many marvelous buildings, markets and quays, particularly from the inter-war period, have been and are being systematically swept away for new high rise. There is a listing system [ ] but “monuments” are favoured over buildings from the colonial period and listing is by no means a full protection from demolition. Land values are astronomic and the economic standpoint can easily become the political standpoint: I wonder which way Tom’s “City Parents” would spring?

  5. Tom Turner

    Will Self is an English novelist, reviewer and columnist ‘known for his satirical, grotesque and fantastical novels and short stories’ and also for slagging everybody off with enviably sardonic wit. He wrote an article for the Spring 2010 Journal of the Landscape Institute. His opening and closing remarks are ‘I always think of British landscape architecture as the bastard offspring Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier…’ … ‘… but how much worse to be prettyfing ruins waiting to happen’. Perhaps landscape architects don’t get enough criticism but I still don’t think it was worth paying Will to punch us in the solar plexus. Nor is he right – Europe had no landscape architects in 1899.
    There is a line of descent from Picturesque cottages to garden cities to New Towns and the landscape architects who worked on the British New Towns had an admirable concern for the city:landscape relationship. They wanted to conserve hills and create greenways – and they did it pretty well.
    If Hong Kong were to have City Fathers they would have to be Confucian, and if it were to have City Mothers they should be Daoist. If, however, Hong Kong was to have City Parents, then I would recommend Buddhists. Certainly they should come from the faith community. American history shows that democracy is a poor basis for city planning. Most of the world’s great historic cities come from the fusion of Spiritual Power with Temporal Power. Capitalism substitutes for temporal power but, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, nothing substitutes for Spiritual Power – not even the Chinese Communist Party. Which is best:- CCP urban design or USA urban design – or Australian urban design? I can’t say. But if Temporal+Spiritual power could still produce good results then Saudi Arabia should be a world leader. I have not been there – but this has not stopped me from criticising Riydah.

  6. Christine

    In principle it is a shame all the monuments and marvels of Hong Kong aren’t accorded protection because they are all worthy of being treasured regardless of the era they are from. It is possible to do this while still maximising urban property values if you apply clever planning and design principles. It is very good that the natural assets of Hong Kong are ‘undevelopable’ and are now starting to be valued highly for their own qualities.

    I was not opposing the ‘city in the landscape’ (Hong Kong) to ‘the landscape within the city’ (Garden Cities) but rather pointing out they are different city/landscape relationships which are equally valid and valuable. Sometimes they may even co-exist as principles to a greater or lesser degree. I am very interested in these ideas and am sure there are a greater range of these relationships to be described/explored.

    Landscape architects are deserving of as much encouragement as possible as they contribute so much already and could contribute infinitely more. I agree with Tom that the profession isn’t yet accorded its proper place in the process of thinking and imagining the landscape and the city either at the macro or the micro level.

    A friend just emailed to say he has left me a CD of the vulnerable glossy black cockatoo [ ] It is imperative that their habitat is preserved for them to survive. They have already become regionally extinct in some areas. They are fussy eaters [ ] so their range is quite small. (The trees that the Black Cockatoos live in and feed on are botantically and aesthetically important in their own right too!)

    Landscape architects are potentially the very best friends of wildlife and their habitats.

  7. Tom Turner

    I wholeheartedly agree about the need for a variety of city:landscape relationships. Diversity is a wonderful thing and one of the horrors of twentieth century urbanism was its ‘lets make everywhere the same’ ethos (for which I think modernism deserves much of the discredit).
    Re your comment that ‘Landscape architects are potentially the very best friends of wildlife and their habitats’, I am glad that you included the word ‘potentially’. I wrote a comment on the 2012 London Olympic Park in 2005 and, as a reason for optimism, noted that ‘The quality of the existing site is truly remarkable. It is rich in water, vegetation and industrial artifacts.’ The site is still hidden behind the Blue Fence but so far as I can tell the existing ‘vegetation and industrial artifacts’ have gone the way of the dinosaurs. This is probably not what the the landscape architects wished but there were, and are, loads of them working on the project. The prevailing ethos of the park is going to be modern/postmodern: ‘lets prove we can make a wonderful new world’ NOT ‘lets see how conserving the best and most interesting aspects of the Lea Valley’s history can contribute to a better tomorrow’. Let’s hope I am utterly and completely wrong.

  8. Lawrence

    I can think of several beautiful cities where Spiritual Power is not a major element. Hamburg is one. It doesn’t have City Parents but it does have the post of Oberbaudirektor whose incumbents tend to sit at their desks not for 300 years but usually for well over a decade. The present incumbent is Joern Walter, in office since 1999. His predecessor, Egbert Kossak, held the post for 18 years. The Oberbaudirektor is personally responsible both for the development policy of the city and for every single architectural competition within it. Developers of high profile sites will do well to sit with the Oberbaudirektor before they appoint an architect. The powers accruing to the post are real, and sufficient to ensure that the incumbent has the freedom to massively influence city development both in terms of its long term planning and in terms of its contemporary architectural direction. It is a hands-on post and anyone taking regular part in Hamburg’s architectural life will sooner or later sit at the Oberbaudirektor’s desk to hear his views. I would much rather put my money on German pragmatism than on spiritual trust. And because it’s only one person, everyone knows who’s responsible.

  9. Tom Turner

    Spiritual Power differs from Religious Power.
    The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg enjoys a degree of self-government which is rare in modern cities, deriving from its history as a member of the Hanseatic League and as a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. I think this gives Hamburg characteristics in common with a Capital City. And I think capital cities do better than non-capital cities. As the word ‘capital’ implies, they are expected to embody the Spirit of a Nation and therefore have a degree of Spiritual Power. Also, and however pragmatic they may be, there is a strong spiritual aspect to German culture. (I know it is not fashionable to talk about blood and soil but the love of trees and forests remains respectable). One other point: from which century do Hamburg’s best qualities derive?

  10. Lawrence

    Hamburg was the one of the last independent states to hold out against joining Bismarck’s federation, preferring to pin its colours to the mast of the Hanseatic League. Coercion and not persuasion was finally required. As you say, its political structure has remained a special case ever since (like Bremen, Luebeck and Berlin it is a “City State”) and its self-image tends thus to insularity. Joern Walter’s office, like Kossack’s before, is only “spiritual” in that it is a demonstration of good governance. It is mainly a monument both to the extraordinary quality of education that Germanany’s architects (and landscape architects) receive in the schools and afterwards in practice, and to the modernist tradition. Hamburg’s best qualities derive not so much from a time as from its geographical position in the middle of the Elbe: this spectacular river with its traditions of trading, dockyards, travelling, ship-building and fishing combined with its sheer natural power is the cultural heart of the city in a way which the Thames maybe once was but no longer is. But my point about the Oberbaudirektor was, why can’t this model be exported? A mayor of Architecture and Planning – politically independent – for every major conurbation?

  11. Tom Turner

    ‘Slow food’ gets its meaning as an opposite to ‘Fast food’ and, when thinking about human motivation, I use ‘Spiritual’ as a companion to ‘Spiritualistic’ and an opposite to ‘Materialistic’. So we have two types of motive and two groups of objective in city planning: material and spiritual. Materially, we want more possessions and better possessions. Spiritually, we want aesthetic pleasure, a good reputation, a sense of achievement, love etc. Politicians focus on spiritual matters and the church, in theory, concentrates on spiritual matters. Good parents have a balanced view of the lives of their children: they want them to be good, healthy, happy, as well as wanting them to live in reasonable comfort. So what can we conclude from this? That it is a very good idea for every city to have politically independent ‘Parents’ with a role in architecture, planning and landscape – particularly with landscape, because it has a crucial role in the ‘health’ of cities.
    Regarding Oberbaudirektor, I am not familiar with the nuances of its translation but the job description sounds masculine to me and I believe that cities need both ‘the way of the hunter’ and ‘the way of the nester’. See essay on The Tragedy of Feminine Design.
    PS: I do not like this Wiki definition: ‘Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or immaterial reality;[1] an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.’

  12. Tom Turner

    Despite having used the word in the title of an essay, I am not a big fan of a ‘feminine’ approach to design either. But what I do believe, fervently, is that there are two fundamentally different ways of setting about a design project (and many intermediate positions). They are (1) start with a master plan and work towards the details (2) start with the details and work towards a final design which is complete only when the design is complete. Not liking ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as names for these approaches, I sometimes call them ‘the way of the hunter’ and ‘the way of the nester’. Any ideas for other names?
    I did not know about E1027 and was very intereted to read about the project.

  13. Christine

    Can you tell me a little bit more about a ‘hunter’ approach to design and a ‘nester’ approach to design and I might be able to suggest alternative names.

  14. Tom Turner

    I am referring to points made in an essay on The tragedy of feminine design. It was written about 15 years ago and if re-writing it I would scratch my head for a better title. As a believer in equality of opportunity, I was a supporter of feminism. It now seems to me that, like most good causes, it has been taken over by militant fanatics.

  15. Christine

    Oh. I am not sure that I would agree with even that degree of gender specificity. Most aspects of gender I would subscribe to are physically biological in nature. I am undoubtedly both female and feminine.

    The act [prudently] /wait [patiently] dichotomy is a particularly frustrating stereotype! Here is a stereotypical example: If the hunter did not know how to wait he would never catch the fish etc. If the female did not know how to act their child would walk into the fire.

    Professionally I have found gender to have little influence. The only time I have experienced ‘femininity’ in design was contemplating the possibility of designing jails. (Definitely not for me.) However, this is not an empirically feminine response because American Architect Louise Blanchard Bethune did design Erie County Penitentiary. See ‘Architecture: celebrating the past, designing the future.’p63.

    The differences you describe in my experience could be applied to task orientation (focus) and experience (the ability to handle complexity).

    Hunter designer
    1)I aim to do whatever I do very well, better and better yet.

    Nester designer
    2)As I see connections between different aspects of knowledge I have a greater desire to follow through on the process and ensure continuity of (design)intent because of the benefit to the final outcome this brings.

    Hunter/Nester designer
    3)Nearly always there is someone who knows more and better. Wisdom dictates that if you are able you discuss/consult with them do so. If not trust what you know yourself and recognise there will be limitations.

    Females definitely need supporters as old stereotypes persist. Perhaps a good question to test the rigour of any assumption is….Does this idea support a tradition view of the reproductive good? If so why?

    Is it intrinsic? Why? Or could it be socially or culturally conditioned?

    I suspect gender (sexual reproductive difference) needs to be considered differently from gender (masculinity and femininity as difference) generally. What is truly female? [ ] What is truly feminine? [ ]

    I don’t think I have the answers…Male and females seems to be closer to a biological absolute. Whereas there seem to be a degree of relativity in attributes of masculinity and femininity.

  16. Christine

    ps. To understand this dichotomy perhaps it is necessary to reappraise the views of Socrates and Locke?

    Socrates is said to have concluded:

    ‘that none of the occupations which comprehend the ordering of a state belong to woman as woman, nor yet to man as man; but natural gifts are to be found here and there in both sexes alike; and so far as her nature is concerned the woman is admissible to all pursuits as well as man.’
    (quoted by A R Humphreys in ‘The rights of woman in the age of reason’, The Modern Language Review Vol 31, No 3 p257.)

  17. Tom Turner

    I don’t agree with the gender specificity either and, although my essay suggests otherwise, I never did. I agree with Socrates. See the comment on the Emperor Penguin. However, I did and do believe there are two markedly different approaches to design: (1) Type 1: start with single details and then take a long series of decisions which results in a completed project (2) Type 2: start with a Master Plan and then take a long series of decisions which ends with the construction.
    I think they are distinct procedures and also that they suit different types of personality. In architecture, I would classify Zaha Hadid as a Type 2 designer and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin as a Type 1 designer. In garden design I would classify Gertrude Jekyll as a Type 1 designer and Reginald Blomfield as at Type 2 designer. The classification is not linked to sex or gender. But stereotypes do exist. For example, men are often physically stronger and more intrested in mechanics than women – with a great many exceptions.

  18. christine

    I still disagree with the theory.

    My designer strengths are in the imaginative and communicative aspects, but the lawyer in me is analytical, a good project manager and negotiator = Excellent design + happy clients.

    If I ‘had to’fit within the gender categories then:

    I would fit generally more within the ‘previous’ hunter category – but I am only a fan of mathematics and the hard sciences out of necessity. ie. If I am going to put all that effort into designing something beautiful, elegant, astonishing etc I want to know that it will be rock solid excellence from surface to core.

    I am also hands-on perhaps the ‘previous’ nester category, but not in a manual arts way, rather in a dramatic arts way. My kinetic sensibility is more related to dance and movement so I have a heightened sense of spatial embodiment. I am also highly visually aware, shadow, light, colour, texture from the macro to the micro.

    And although I may not like to crunch numbers and dream in physics equations I like talking to people who do. (Some of my best friends are engineers.) Why?

    Think Seidler – if you slice through his buildings [ ] they are like a piece of rainbow cake – design all the way through not just a facade hung on a grid of concrete slab and column.

    Design approach: either analyse (design context) and imagine (concept) to refine iteratively or imagine (concept) and analyse (design context)to refine iteratively. All depends on when the aha moment kicks in.

  19. Tom Turner

    An individual might do one project from general -> particular and another from particular -> general (just as individuals can have ‘a masculine side’ and ‘a feminine side’). I think there is both a logical and a practical difference between the two procedures and that they produce different results. I can well believe that some individuals are equally capable in both approaches but I do not think all people are – and I think design schools greatly and wrongly favour the master-plan-before-details approach. Planners make the distinction between Blueprint Planning, as condemned by Karl Popper, and Piecemeal Planning, as advocated by Christopher Alexander.

  20. Christine

    Oh, I think this is a different question altogether, one rather of discipline, theory, scale & boundaries.

    Rather than relating to design the question relates to a transition in thinking that occurred in planning which roughly co-incided with the beginnings of the profession of planning as a social science discipline rather than a design activity.

    Process planning was advocated as “the systems view of planning derived from a concept of the environment as system.” Melvin Webber described planning as “a system for reaching decisions.”

    Piecemeal planning as derived from Popper in ‘the Poverty of Historicism’ attempts to make incremental improvements by small adjustments and readjustments.

    So as not to confuse (process) planning and design:

    Design excellence can contribute to planning by demonstrating underlying principles which were not otherwise evident. However, it does not originate with planning but rather informs planning.
    Potentially disrupting ideas of process planning.

    Master planning as a design activity (not unlike blue print planning) is design on a larger canvas. It is similar to the foundational activities of town and country planning where designers produced plans which were often protected by covenants prior to planning regulations coming into existence.

    So to Christopher Alexander:

    Christopher Alexander from his work on the University of Oregon campus rather than producing a masterplan advocated developing a pattern language and then applying it ‘piecemeal’ when the situation arose.

    This could be similar to Seidler’s approach, he developed rather a personal design language, which he applied and reinterpreted to new and varied design problems as they arose. He did this with his architecture…perhaps he also adopted this approach with his masterplans?

  21. Tom Turner

    I think the piecemeal approach can apply to small projects, medium projects and large projects, and suspect it is the process Harris used to design his clock and Eddison the light bulb, both of which were small items. But is not an approach which is taught or encouraged in the architecture and landscape design schools I know of. Instead of traditional craft-design they like to go research->concept->design->design details->specifications and I see this as a ‘blueprint/master-planning/way-of-the-hunter/’masculine’ approach.

  22. Christine

    The distinction that needs to be made between physical planning and process planning is this:

    * physical planning seeks a physical outcome ie. a masterplan for a site, a precinct or suburb plan for a group of sites or cityplan for an arrangement of sites both individual and grouped.

    * process planning however seeks to set textual guidelines for desired outcomes ie. protection of the environment, the creation of communities or the promotion of economic development.

    The success or otherwise of the implementation of the guidelines can only be measured once a designed response to them has been a) proposed b) evaluated c) built d) lived in.

    So to piecemeal planning:

    In Sydney in the late 1950s Mcmahons Point Redevelopment Scheme was proposed by Harry Seidler. Only Blues Point Tower was actually built.

    Associated with the project is this poem by TS Eliot (1934) ‘Choruses from the Rock’

    ‘When the stranger says: ‘what is the meaning of this city?’
    Do you huddle close together because you love each other?
    What will you answer?
    We all dwell together to make money from each other?
    ‘Or is this a community?’

    A newspaper article in 1957 used the scheme to illustrate how a ‘Clean and Atomic Powered’ Sydney would look in 50 years.

    Piecemeal planning is an example of the proposal and the vision for the future it was supposed to represent.

    Perhaps incremental planning is the correct title for this phenomena?

    Incremental planning is illustrated by what actually occurred – the zoning change (of the area), the construction and subsequent influence of Blues Point Tower (the first strata titled block of apartments).

    This is what I mean by the notion that design excellence disrupts process planning. It can also disrupt physical planning.

  23. Tom Turner

    I like the distinction between physical plannign and process planning. But I think it can work at the small scale as well as at the large scale. Humble examples are badly routed footpaths. It is common for blueprint designers to stare at a plan, often for as much as a minute, and then route the paths. Years later, the poor managers are still trying to stop ‘heedless’ pedestrians from walking on the actual desire lines. I think a Popperish-Alexanderish approach could avoid this problem. For example,on a university campus one could put down temporary routes, see where people walk and convert them to permanent routes. But this approach is not taught in schools (inc not by me!).

  24. Christine

    I suppose this is different than the traditional masterplan approach which tends to think in block form and then colours in the blocks with buildings and landscape. I suppose this is a way to refine that thinking at the stage beyond heights, areas and forms.

    As a physical planning approach to urban design I might imagine how an aesthetic or ambience might be created for a place through musing on both the surroundings of the site and the general feel of the architecture.

    Perhaps like a story board approach to the site. Something between
    [ ] and
    [ ].

    This exploration would give me the a way of finding the opportunities of the site and how the various components might complement, contrast, enhance, juxtapose etc as well as link back to connecting elements outside the site.

    These could then be explored and mapped in the traditional way [ ] and
    [ ] and [ ] and [ ]

  25. Christine

    Oberbaudirektor translates in English as director of construction? If this is the correct interpretation, no, unless there is a construction fault at issue any responsibility for the arrangement would lie with the designers. [Perhaps it was not well co-ordinated?]

  26. Tom Turner

    ‘Building’ is a pleasantly more practical word than ‘planning’ but it is also more short term. One of the things which appeals to me about a parental concern is that it is longer term, and one of the things which appeals to me about a spiritual concern is that it is very very long term.

  27. Christine

    Mmm. Long term is a good reference frame for cities. Would be interesting to know what is the average age of street patterns, buildings, gardens etc in different cities.


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