Urbanism and the Landscape Architect

A thoughtful and seemingly realistic appraisal of the influence and position of Landscape Architects, although based in USA I think it would be fair to say that this would apply in many other places, definitely here in South Africa – it would be interesting to have others voice their opinion and views. I certainly agree with his views that the Landscape Urbanism formalism and rhetoric has caused more confusion and  hype than real results – I mean Landscape Urbanists never speak of the City in integral terms of people and built places and spaces – the actor-networks of humans and non-humans it is composed of, but only its green spaces! From Planitzen  by MARK HOUGH

Landscape architects are not given nearly enough recognition for being urbanists.

This is not because we don’t get enough work in cities but, rather, it is the types of projects we get or, more importantly, don’t get. We have always been the go-to designers for parks, waterfronts and streetscapes, but have had a tougher time finding seats at the table alongside (or instead of) planners and architects when broader planning decisions are being made. Because of this, we are usually forced to respond to change orchestrated by others rather than direct it ourselves. Exceptions to this certainly exist, but aside from landscape architects working as planners in public offices, there aren’t many.

I’m not whining. I’m just trying to establish a benchmark in relation to the more optimistic direction I see things headed. Urban design is changing, and it is changing fast. Due in large part to environmental and climatological crises that are translating directly into quality of life issues, cities are focused on their urban landscapes as perhaps never before. This is not groundbreaking news, and I’m not the first person tobring it up, but it is still a worthy discussion.

Urban landscape is a tricky term that is often misunderstood and incorrectly used by people who don’t really know what to do with it. Architects, for instance, whose preference for a top-down, figure-ground approach to urban design that lets buildings alone dictate urban form, relegates the landscape to a series of insertions fitting within the pattern of buildings. Planners, whose sensibilities are typically more in line with landscape architects, don’t really get it either. Their habit of treating landscape as generic green shapes on land use maps or as elements to standardize within form-based codes isn’t much better.

The problem with these approaches (both of which I, of course, grossly generalize) is that they address landscape as just one of many components that make up a larger urban whole, an additive piece that may be needed, but is not required to make things work. Landscape architects, on the other hand, don’t see it as a stand-alone thing; we understand that it is the underlying and unifying framework upon which everything is built. It is not about buildings and landscape, but buildings within landscape – an important distinction to recognize.

The urban landscape is essentially the overlay between a city’s natural systems – the water, trees, air quality, open space, and biodiversity – and its human systems – the sidewalks, bike lanes, fields, transit systems, infrastructure, etc. The two systems are intertwined to the point they are inseparable, and combine to make up what we commonly refer to as the public realm. Even if you disagree with my definition, it is hard to argue that the public realm is the main arena in which cities are competing against one another these days in order to attract rent-paying residents and businesses. The demand has been made very apparent in New York CityChicago,St. LouisLos Angeles, and many other cities, where parks and open spaces – not the skyscrapers – have become the main attractions.

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