Landscape Urbanism…Decoded?

From World Landscape Architecture by Damian Holmes

The Master Plan for the Central Delaware reflects an increasingly mainstream acceptance of landscape as the framework for urban design. image © Kieran Timblerlake / Brooklyn Digital Foundry

The Master Plan for the Central Delaware reflects an increasingly mainstream acceptance of landscape as the framework for urban design. image © Kieran Timblerlake / Brooklyn Digital Foundry

“What is landscape urbanism? Is it a method, a practice, or a result? What does this term mean to contemporary practitioners of landscape architecture?”

These were questions that inspired the latest installation of OLIN’s Theoretical Symposium, which I moderated with my colleague Katy Martin. Katy and I both knew that this would be a daunting topic, raising all manner of opinions and added questions, so we broke up the discussion into a few key stages. In the days before the symposium even kicked off, we posed these questions to the studio and collected the answers. On the day of the event, we started things off not with the questions, but with a history of “landscape urbanism”—the people, projects, and practices that influenced the concept and led to the coining and popularization of the term itself. We then suggested four definitions of landscape urbanism and used each as a framework for the studio’s theories and questions:

1.) Landscape urbanism as diagnosis
2.) Landscape urbanism as framework and process
3.) Landscape urbanism as green infrastructure 
4.) Landscape urbanism as landscape + urbanism

Our format was straightforward, and our goal was clear: to see if our studio could help clarify a potent but increasingly elusive term in landscape discourse.


The development of landscape urbanism as a theory and practice is the result of an evolving body of work by a number of people. In the 1870s, forefathers of landscape architecture such as Fredrick Law Olmsted and Ebenezer Howard demonstrated how the many environmental problems that plagued American cities could be mitigated by planned open space which served both infrastructural and recreational purposes. In the 1960s, Ian McHarg wrote Design with Nature, the first book to describe an ecologically sound approach to the planning and design of communities. However, it was not until the late 1990s that Charles Waldheim popularized the term landscape urbanism. In his 2006 book, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, Waldheim defines the term as follows: “Landscape urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”

Landscape Urbanism as Diagnosis
Landscape urbanism as diagnosis relates specifically to Charles Waldheim’s academic analysis of post-industrial North American cities, described in many of Waldheim’s lectures and writings, such as his 2001 book Stalking Detroit. Waldheim describes the existing condition of metropolitan dispersion, which he argues has been caused by the decline of manufacturing, decentralization of transportation, and continued suburbanization. The term further recognizes the emergence of un-designed landscapes in the voids left by dispersion and questions whether the redevelopment of a dense, architecturally defined urban core is possible or even desirable in a declining, post-industrial city like Detroit.


A figure ground of Detroit’s increasingly porous urban core illustrates the reality of decline and dispersion to which early landscape urbanists like Charles Waldheim were responding. Source: Stalking Detroit, Waldheim et al, 2001

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