Monday, January 31, 2011

Landscape Urbanism vs. The New Urbanists

Let me get this straight.  A group of landscape architects are claiming that the road to urban sustainability can only be found if we place primary importance on protection of the natural environment (i.e. leaving the land as undisturbed as possible).  They claim that suburbia (sprawl) has a greater potential to achieve their vision because of it's dispersed settlement patterns.  In their minds they are in opposition to the New Urbanists' led by architect Andres Duany, who say that the built environment's form should mirror walkable town center's to enable a denser, more compact and social development pattern. The relevant point here is that we have landscape architects and architects each devising "systems" that are anything but systematic or holistic in their scope.  Is it any surprise that the landscape architects are yelling "it's all about the landscape stupid" or the architect's screaming, "it's all about the buildings stupid!"  Of course it is about both, and there are plenty of enlightened planner's who have grasped this reality for a long time.

To me, the one truly valuable contribution brought by the landscape urbanists' is their fundamental questioning of the long-term ecological viability of our over-engineered, mechanistic storm water infrastructure.  They wish to see a more cohesive melding of human settlements and the natural functioning of land.  This is not a new idea, and it is one that can be brought into urban settings, bringing the life enhancing benefits of living in close proximity to naturally functioning landscapes to urban dwellers.  But to think that this implies that suburban development patterns are superior ecologically is to live in denial of the fact that human populations have already swelled beyond the capacity of our land resources to support a completely dispersed population,  it also denies the devastating waste and environmental toll wrought by sprawl in terms of the very land resources they wish to protect, not to mention,  the vast about of infrastructure and fuel needed to support the exclusively private automobile transportation system.  I cannot agree with their assertion that suburbia is "what Americans' want".  As we all know, cheap land, and federal subsidies to the oil industry and mortgage business have fueled this so-called "choice".  Young people today do not seem to be making the same choice, whether it is because of shifting economics or lifestyle choice, the demand for walkable urban housing is growing drastically.  The landscape urbanists'  "anti-urban" urban vision also denies the fundamental fact that humans are social creatures who thrive on live exchange of ideas and shared experiences.

There are familiar "holes" in the New Urbanists' theories too.  From the very beginning it has been pointed out that just building the "bones" does not a living, thriving community make.  In other words, just because a newly planned community contains office space or retail space there are no guarantees that there will be a "match" between these jobs and goods and the nearby residents.  Expensive, "faux" neighborhoods do not make a real neighborhood, where people care about the place and look after one another's interests without the modern planned communities' regulatory deed restrictions and covenants.  Yet, the New Urbanists' insights were a leap forward; they helped us understand the role of walkability, street grid patterns, pedestrian scale and mixed use in creating livable places.  These lessons are still just as valuable today.  Are these lessons all that we need to create sustainable communities?  Of course not.  But then, neither is the Landscape Urbanists' theory of land protection.  There are still the fundamental questions of life support systems, such as fuel for heat, electricity, water, food, transportation, the economy, family life, community and all the other basic necessities. 

The fact that these two "camps" consider themselves in opposition is laughable.  Both make interesting and valuable points.  Both have huge blind spots and holes in their theories.  Neither one of them is good in isolation and neither one of them is an appropriate blue print for future action in the real world.  Since we can't wipe the slate clean and apply either one of these theories on a large scale in a pristine setting, I suggest that both camps get busy working on real world applications.  Better yet, how about talking directly to each other and to others who have been thinking systemically for a long time?  I have a great deal of tolerance and even delight in research and theorizing when it comes to urban planning.  After all, how would we ever get new ideas if we focused only on the here and now.  But in this debate, we see the ivory tower run amok. 

It's amusing that their testosterone fueled debate has vaulted this spitting match to the pages of the Sunday Boston Globe. I can't remember when I last saw an article in a major newspaper covering an academic debate between two "competing" theories of urban planning.  Perhaps this is due to a growing awareness that the tools and techniques of urban planning are useful mechanisms for helping us navigate the challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.  More of the general public has an interest in urban planning than ever before it seems.  It would be nice if that attention didn't get dissipated by watching a school yard wrestling match.  Rather, the time has come to collaborate and apply all the good ideas we can find to the massive problems we face.

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Great analysis. I had many of the same thoughts when I read the article. It's amusing and sad how different viewpoints always have to be set up as opposing each other. Both camps in this case have very valid points that could be easily blended together into a comprehensive solution. Incorporating the natural landscape and sustainable ecological practices is a good thing, and it certainly doesn't have to be at odds with new urbanism. We're seeing cities innovate all the time, with traffic calming curb extensions that also collect rainwater for example. Harvard had a proposal in Allston to daylight a stream that is currently running underground. That doesn't mean it can't be part of an urban mixed-use walkable environment.