A Look at Landscape Urbanism

TEXT Graham Livesey

The landscape urbanism movement emerged following the Landscape Urbanism Symposium and Exhibition coordinated by Charles Waldheim in Chicago in April 1997. While there were key forces at play prior to this, this event signalled the emergence of a reasonably coherent group of theorists, designers and apologists, including James Corner, Stan Allen, the Dutch firm West 8 (with Adriaan Geuze), the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and Foreign Office Architects (FOA), operating under the banner of landscape urbanism. The movement has been largely centred in places like the University of Pennsylvania, the Architectural Association in London, and Toronto, although these are not necessarily where the best examples can be found. The movement has been strongly motivated by the important design competition held in 1982 for the Parc de la Villette in Paris. The winning scheme by Bernard Tschumi was influential, but probably even more so was the scheme submitted by Rem Koolhaas and OMA with its provocative ideas about the organization of functions and landscapes. What are the theories behind this movement, and what have been the accomplishments of its proponents so far?

We will begin by briefly examining the theories of James Corner and his firm Field Operations; Corner is a landscape architect who is probably the key figure in landscape urbanism. A reading of his text “Landscape Urbanism” is a useful starting point into the subject. Corner begins by stating that this new discipline is a hybrid merger of landscape (understood as a broad cultural condition) and urbanism. Landscape urbanism is an interdisciplinary approach that, in theory, amalgamates a wide range of disciplines including landscape architecture, urban design, landscape ecology, engineering, etc. It is also committed to addressing the many challenging issues and conditions facing contemporary cities. He argues that it is an approach that focuses on process rather than a style. He writes that landscape urbanism “marks a productive attitude towards indeterminacy, open-endedness, inter-mixing and cross-disciplinarity.” Ultimately, the landscape urbanist recognizes no singular authority.

In the essay, which reads like a manifesto, Corner identifies five general themes that characterize the practice of landscape urbanism: horizontality, infrastructures, forms of process, techniques, and ecology. In his discussion of horizontality, Corner writes that it “maximizes opportunities for roaming, connecting, interrelating, assembling and moving–while allowing differences to commingle and proliferate.” In the text there is a strong emphasis placed on the earth as surface and a number of references made to the field of landscape ecology. The targeting of urban infrastructure systems has been an important legacy of the movement, infrastructural systems that include transportation networks, utilities, code systems, and the like. Corner, describing the role of this new process-oriented professional consultant, stresses a collaborative and anti-heroic approach that employs a panoply of design techniques from cartography to diagramming. Probably the most significant aspect of the approach is the recognition of the vital role of ecology in design. This refers to Corner’s own connections to the work of the influential landscape architect/ecologist Ian McHarg and to prominent landscape ecologists such as Richard T.T. Forman. In summary, we can suggest that Corner and his colleagues in the landscape urbanism movement are supporting complex design processes, and engaging ecology and contemporary urbanism.

According to Waldheim, who continues to be an important polemicist for the movement, landscape urbanism is engaging with the “renovation” of the postindustrial or contemporary city, as he writes in The Landscape Urbanism Reader:

James Corner’s projects for Downsview (with Stan Allen) and Fresh Kills are exemplary in this regard, illustrating mature works of landscape urbanism through their accumulation and orchestration of absolutely diverse and potentially incongruous contents. Typical of this work, and by now standard fare for projects of this type, are detailed diagrams of phasing, animal habitats, succession planting, and hydrological systems, as well as programmatic and planning regimes. While these diagrams initially overwhelm with information, they present an understanding of the enormous complexities confronting any work at this scale. Particularly compelling is the complex interweaving of natural ecologies with the social, cultural and infrastructural layers of the contemporary city.

The ideas, and many of the early landscape urbanism projects, are highly evocative. However, when we begin to examine projects produced over the last decade under the landscape urbanism title, it would seem that landscape urbanism is stuck in the history of grand park design, while remaining well outside the history of urban design. Despite claims for the “renovation” of the contemporary city, many of the noteworthy projects by landscape urbanists tend to involve either isolated brownfield sites on the extreme periphery of the city (such as Downsview Park in suburban Toronto, or the Fresh Kills site on Staten Island) resulting in large parks on one hand, or fairly conventional and discrete landscape projects, typically along waterfronts, on the other. From a formal point of view, the most convincing landscape urbanism projects to be completed are schemes by FOA, including the Yokohama International Port Terminal, the South East Coastal Park in Barcelona, and the recently finished Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle by Weiss/Manfredi Architects. The FOA projects demonstrate significant topographical complexity, while the Seattle park fuses together a complex set of site forces, supports a remarkable set of sculptures, and replicates various local ecologies.

What is missing from landscape urbanism is how the projects re-envisage the city in ecological terms; much of the work is tentative at best. Exceptions include a small handful of projects such as James Corner’s provocative drawings for the radical greening of lower Manhattan for the World Trade Center “Biopolis” competition sponsored by The New York Times, West 8’s competition-winning Markeroog (U-Meer, Markermeer, 2006) project, and Stan Allen’s Taichung Gateway Park project in Taiwan, each of which attempts to address urbanity in a significant way. Similar and ambitious projects by those not directly linked to landscape urbanism include Will Alsop’s Bradford City Centre Master Plan (2003) and various provocative projects by the Michael Sorkin Studio (some of which date from the early 1990s). A project that begins to capture the full scope implied in the landscape urbanist position is Dominique Perrault’s Ewha Womans [sic] University Campus Centre in Seoul, Korea. Completed in 2008, the project, while not extensive, demonstrates a compelling inter-relationship between landscape, architecture and urbanism that is not found in many of the park projects listed above.

Toronto has become something of a hotbed for landscape urbanism, partly due to the fact that Charles Waldheim taught at the University of Toronto until recently, but, mainly due to the Downsview Park competition held in 2000, probably the most celebrated demonstration of landscape urbanism’s principles (see CA, October 2000 and November 2003). The current status of the project, which was won by a team involving OMA, Bruce Mau Design and Oleson Worland Architects, is somewhat uncertain. The Waterfront Toronto initiative is an ambitious group of projects that includes a number of projects by design firms associated with landscape urbanism. These include the Central Waterfront project by West 8 (in association with DTAH), Lake Ontario Park by James Corner and Field Operations, and the Don River Park by Michael van Valkenburgh Associates (with the Planning Partnership and Ken Greenberg). American landscape architects Michael van Valken
burgh and George Hargreaves have produced many notable large urban projects, but they remain somewhat peripheral to the landscape urbanism effort. When completed, these projects will give a general coherence and continuity to much of Toronto’s waterfront, and will also restore a number of vital lakeshore eco-systems. Unfortunately, they will do little to connect the city itself to the lakeshore, or provide answers to the many larger environmental issues facing contemporary cities.

Has landscape urbanism created a new mode of practice? The short answer to this question is no. Ultimately, landscape urbanism would be more provocative if it embraced interdisciplinarity with greater conviction. Further, the movement must actually address urbanity in all its complexity, moving beyond the strictures of landscape architecture. As in the Garden City movement, the dichotomy between the “country” and the “town,” or, as Waldheim proposes, the “natural” and the “infrastructural,” remains largely unresolved in the landscape urbanism movement. There is no doubt that the movement has invigorated landscape design with its provocative schemes that blend landscape, digital processes, ecology, and various ideas drawn from recent philosophy. The attempt on the part of some landscape urbanists to incorporate the potential design strategies inherent in landscape ecology is also a significant development.

The use of long-term or “scaffolded” planting strategies is a good idea, and was used extensively in the winning project for the Downsview Park project. The emphasis placed on the ground surface as a stage for future “appropriation” is also intended to allow for a general design to evolve over time, rather than existing as a static pictorial composition. While landscape urbanists justifiably criticize the failings of much of recent urban design, they are not actually proposing an alternative that embraces the full complexity of the contemporary city. This brings us to the “large park” notion which is the historical category into which the movement most comfortably fits, a tradition going back at least to Central Park in New York, or even further back to the London royal parks and the 18th-century picturesque park tradition.

Landscape urbanism, with its emphasis on landscape ecology, is consistent with what Galen Cranz and Michael Boland suggest as a new park typology that has emerged since the early 1980s–what they label the “sustainable park,” which places a strong emphasis on ecology. As Cranz and Boland wrote in Landscape Journal in 2004, characteristics of this new type include “the use of native plants, restoration of streams or other natural systems, wildlife habitat, integration of appropriate technologies or infrastructure, recycling, and sustainable construction and maintenance practices.” The policies associated with this new park type include resource self-sufficiency and integration into larger urban systems; challenges include issues of infrastructure, land reclamation, health and alienation. Cranz and Boland identify a number of recent parks that fit this typology, including a number of landscape urbanism projects.

The proponents of landscape urbanism focus on process over form, and on striving for complex proposals for complex problems. There is an abiding commitment to the surface of the earth as a field of operation, to engaging ecologies, and to designing infrastructure as ways of producing non-deterministic projects, or the striving for open-endedness. This is refreshing compared to the tired efforts of the New Urbanist movement. Nonetheless, landscape urbanism is most strongly realized in the theoretical writings of Corner, Allen, et al, and is much less convincing in practice. Most examples of landscape urbanism projects are restyled examples of landscape architecture or large park design, with an emphasis placed on new programming possibilities (extreme sports, skateboarding, etc.) and the digital manipulation of topographies. The tenets of landscape urbanism remain very compelling, particularly the notion of marrying ecology and urbanism. However, as suggested above, the “landscape” component of the movement has been established, but not the “urbanism” element. CA

Graham Livesey is Associate Dean (Academic-Architecture) and Associate Professor at the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.