Gardens as models for landscape urbanism, urban design and city planning.

As the above and below photographs show, it is a good idea to test ideas at the small scale and the human scale before building them at full scale. This also applies to city building: ideas should be tested at the garden scale before being built at the city scale. There are three advantages to this procedure. First, city building is immensely complicated and therefore requires even more testing than engineering design. Second, working with garden-scale models creates an opportunity for piecemeal planning, working from details to generalities and from small to large (see post on gardens and landscape urbanism). I argued for this in an essay on The Tradedy of Feminine Design and, though not happy with the method being described as ‘feminine’, I remain convinced that the small-to-large design process is a necessary counterweight to the far-too-popular Master Planning approach. It is also very well suited to the garden-and-landscape way of thinking. Detail decisions can be conceived as planting ‘seeds’ which will grow into cities. This is, let us not forget, both the way most of the worlds cities began and also the way they have grown. The third advantage of using gardens as laboratories for city design is that gardeners always and instinctively deal with ecological, hydrological, recycling and climatic issues.

Above photo of wind tunnel testing of a model of a plane courtesy QinetiQ Group.

16 thoughts on “Gardens as models for landscape urbanism, urban design and city planning.

  1. Tian Yuan

    Many thanks, Tom. It is also a way of opposite thinking about the idea of Landscape Urbanism, but it sounds closer to the landscape architecure profession. My personal view about the term of landscape urbansim is:
    (1) The explaination of landscape urbanism on Wiki is confusing and lacks system or theory. It makes me think landscape landscape urbanism is like a “UFO”
    (2) I think the idea of landscape urbanism provides a chance to rethink landscape architecture at a modern urban “scale”. In this case, the terms “design with nature” ,” garden city”, and ” ecology” might adapt to the new” scale.
    (3) “From garden to Landscape urbanism “could help the countries which have long histories, especially garden histories develop their own ” Landscape urbanism” theories. Therefore, different countries will have different result which may be interesting.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Yuan, you have given a good example of an old principle ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’. It comes from the first European to adopt ‘landscape architect’ as a professional title. Patrick Geddes was also, in my view, the most inspiring urban and landscape planner of the twentieth century. He was (1) a wild Scotsman (2) a passionate believer in using geographical and sociological knowledge to guide the planning and design proceses (3) the man who inspired Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg (4) the author of an early book on sexology (4) a great believer in the connection between garden design and urban planing – he wrote of ‘City improvers, like the gardeners from whom they develop‘ (5) a founder member of the Royal Town Planning Institute in the UK.
    Geddes spent the years of the First World War in India and if the Indians had followed through with his ideas and plans they would now be making much better cities than they are in fact making. Sadly, his wife died in India – and I always think of this when deciding that persuading my wife to come to India with me would be a bad idea (she does not have the stomach for it).
    With regard to China, there is obviously no going back to the old system of imperial parks and aristocratic gardens (I hope!). But I believe there are principles embeded in the tradition which have continuing relevance for twenty-first century Chinese urbanism. They include (1) the geographical aspect of feng shui (2) the sacred respect for nature (3) courtyard planning (4) the idea of south-facing buildings (in northern China) with shades and roofs to deflect summer sun and welcome winter sun. (5) extensive use of Lang 廊 in garden and urban planning (6) extensive use of 花园 in Chinese urban and landscape planning (!).

  3. Tian Yuan

    Re the landscape urbanism idea, what do you think about describing your theory as ‘a feminine approach’ as I describe myself,what do you think?

    Re Chinese landscape urbanism idea from you, I think if you write a book in the future in this kind of view, CHLA will be really grateful! It is a shame shame shame and shame that you cannot come to the Chinese Landscape Architecture Education Conference ( held by my university next year. I am sure, many people will shake your hands warmly, including me!

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    One has to be careful, because many men have a ‘a feminine approach’ and many women have ‘a masculine approach’ – and most feminists have strong views about everything! It would be better if we could keep sex and gender out of it and I am attracted by the idea of using Landscape Urbanism in this way. It would then describe an approach which (1) began with ecological, hydrological and other natural processes (2)worked from details to generalities (3) retained a focus on the human scale and on the way in which the individual interacts with outdoor space (4) emphasises that the planning and design of outdoor space should take priority over the planning of roads and buildings.
    I see the Landscape Urbanism Approach and the Master Planning Approach as complementary procedures. For the Chinese market one could describe them as Yin and Yang (阴 陰) and represent them by Taijitu (太極圖). If you would like to read a paper along these lines to the Chinese Landscape Architecture Education Conference then perhaps I could write some text and source some illustrations. Even if I worked hard at learning Chinese, I think your spoken Chinese would still be better than mine in 2011 (!).

  5. Tian Yuan

    Yes, I defined the “feminine approach” without sex and gender.Thank you for revising the points,which looks more formal and mature.And I will ” borrow” them for the lecture next week.Very welcome for your text, if you write in English, I am gald to translate them, If you write in Chinese, I will be glad to do copy-edition. In the end, I shake my own hands warmly!

  6. Thomas Mickey

    Gender and garden design is an interesting relationship to examine. Here in the US men take care of the lawn. women garden, of course, but the percentage is equal to that of men. do women take care of the flowers and vegetables, trees and shrubs? I am sure but they certainly are not ‘lawn’ keepers. strange connection. I think there has always been a link to gender when we speak of gardening.

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    I think so too – and it is old. In the days of Hunter-Gatherer societies the men did most of the hunting and the women did most of the gathering. So when horticulture began, it was probably women’s work. So what you may be seeing in the US is a 12,000 year old tradition.

  8. Christine

    What can I say: should we speak first of the siting of cities before discussing their planning?

    If you were to found a city how would you choose the site?

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    If I was Chinese or Scots, I would look for a site with a mountain to the north and a water to the south – and in fact I think this goal has very wide application. The fishing villages on the north shore of the Firth of Forth are much more enjoyable than the cities on the south shore of the Firth. So if building on the South shore, one should design a settlement with a southward aspect and a northward prospect. This comes before ANY consideration of circulation or layout.

  10. Tian Yuan

    It is Chinese Fengshui. Although it is not scientific, the traditional Chinese method is to choose good sitesites for living, design and planning. Nowerdays, GIS will probably make it easy to get the land analysis maps.

  11. Christine

    Niko Lapsenen in his study of ‘placiality’ wrote of the siting of the Caribbean city of Roseau;

    “Throughout history of the Caribbean, coastal locations have been preferred for siting cities. Some of the earliest towns, such as Trinidad in Cuba, Spanish Town in Jamaica, and St. Joseph in Trinidad, were exceptions. They were established inland mainly to avoid the unhealthy conditions of swamp areas on the coasts. Even though any of them was far from the sea, their importance was greatly reduced after establishing coastal cities, the location of which was more suitable for commercial activities (Hudson 1998: 77). Roseau, as do most of the major cities in the Caribbean region, has a coastal location. It is situated on a round headland in the SW part of Dominica. Unlike many other Caribbean capitals, e.g. Castries in St. Lucia, or St. Johns in Antigua, Roseau does not have a sheltered harbour. It is. however, situated on the Leeward (West) coast of the island, which is more sheltered than the Windward (East) coast facing the trade winds (see Figs. 8 and 9).”

    Major concerns when siting the city were health and commerce. Health concerns giving priority to inland locations (avoiding swamps) and commerce promoted by coastal locations which afford a sheltered harbor.

    In a contemporary context other concerns are important. As Peter Daughtery Tyson suggests in ‘Global-regional linkages in the earth system’, the siting of cities in coastal locations makes them particularly vulnerable to sea level rise due to climate change.

  12. Tom Turner Post author

    It is estimated (1) In 1800, 3% of the world’s population lived in urban areas (2) In 1900 it had risen to 14% (3) In 1950 it was 30% (4) In 2008 it reached 50% (5) In the US, 80% of the people live in cities – which occupy 2% of the country (6)China’s urban population rose from 12% to 46% from 1985-2010 – and it will probably rise to US levels.
    My conclusions from this rattle of stats are that (1) more effort should go into the creation of entirely new settlements, so that more old settlements can conserve their former character (2) the art and science of locating and designing New Towns requires a great deal more attention that it has received hitherto.

  13. Jay Brauneisen

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic as I’m pursuing it for my architectural thesis.

    I think you are all missing the main point and that is city building is a never ending process and there is no perfect design and final solution. Cities constantly adapt (Read Ken Greenberg “Walking Home”) This one of the reasons why new cities such as, Chandigarh or Brazilia fail. Historically you can’t really build from scratch no matter how much up front design you put in.

    You also can’t design and test completely from a “garden scale” either and cities are too complicated to test for everything. I would also argue today cities are too large to develop organically. You can also never account for every individual actor imprinting their own desires at different times. Therefore cities must be flexible and this is where modernist master planning with universal zones is weak.

    I agree there is a scale gap between master planning and “garden scale”. I talk about this in my thesis in terms of planning for the pedestrian, and there is critical theory (involving density, mixed use and how these are organized) that come together to create the pedestrian environment. Which I consider a prerequisite for ANY and ALL urban sustainability to begin.

    After that you can look at PLEA (passive low energy architecture) and alternative energy technologies.

    Pedestrians have needs that must be planned for but these needs must be examined from both perspectives of the master plan looking down and from side walk level looking up. It involves both architecture and planning.

    Fengshui is interesting and I believe courtyards are good but again there is no universal answer as these are culturally and climatically specific, and must be adapted to local conditions.


    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree that ‘city building is a never ending process and there is no perfect design’. This is also true of garden design, which is one of the aspects which makes it such a good model for the urban development process. Regarding cities:
      – ‘planning’ them in two dimensions, on plans, is a great mistake
      – ‘designing’ them in three dimensions, perhaps as digital or physical models, is a lesser mistake, but still a faulty procedure
      Cities should be conceived in four dimensions, with TIME being the fourth dimension. This is more than a matter of scale. It is a deeply inter-generational conceptual framework for decision making. And it is intrinsic to the practice of garden design.

  14. Jay Brauneisen

    @ Tom Turner

    -If all those methods of planning are a mistake then you have basically just dismissed the entire architectural profession and a few others as insignificant. I’d be surprized if that is your intention. You have to start somewhere, 2D and 3D designs are useful and do address time. When an architect designs at the very least they should be thinking about how the building is used, interaction with sun light and the movement of people. There are also some existing ideas on how to make new construction flexible for adaptive-reuse in the future, but I admit more research needs to be done in this area. Flexible buildings, and by extension the city would be adaptable to changing use and therefore conceived in your fourth dimension of time. Keep in mind this is also never the product of a single individual.

    -Without knowing more about your “garden design concept” I will not continue to comment but I would ask yourself to consider if you have not collapsed the idea of city building too quickly and over simplified the issues.

    -I would like to see how garden planning is going to solve all our problems. You have some suggested readings?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Much of the best urban design has been done by architects and I certainly see them as key contributors. But I also see urban design as an activity which should not be over-professionalised, because it needs contributions for lots of different kinds of experts. You are also right that one has to start somewhere and one of the logical routes is 2D>3D>4D. I set out my own views at greater length in a book on City as landscape: a post-postmodern view of planning and design (1996). I am sorry that some illustrations are missing and some links are not working but you can find much of the text here:


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