The Standard Model of Urbanism and How to Argue Over It: Part One of a Review of Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents

For about the same half-century during which physicists have been developing their "standard models" of both elementary particles and cosmology, urban designers, architects, planners, historians and others (I'll call them all "urbanists") have been developing their standard model of how cities work and how they should be built.

Ever since the radical urban plans of the modernists came under attack half a century ago by the likes of Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Venturi, urbanists have come to agree that conventional suburban development is bad, and cities are good when uses are mixed and people can walk around and bump into each other, when people of all demographics have access to urban benefits, when resources are used sustainably, and when public spaces are plentiful and protected.

The fact that sentiments along these lines are common currency across the urbanist spectrum has not stopped bands of urbanists with different strategies and emphasizing different parts of the model from arguing over differences that to outsiders seem subtle at best.

It would be easy, then, to characterize the book under review here, Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City, edited by Andrés Duany and Emily Talen, as simply another less-than-edifying salvo in the continuing war between those urbanists known as New Urbanists and their detractors and those from whom they detract. After all, the book is without apology written by and for New Urbanists about a movement, Landscape Urbanism, whose principal theorist, Harvard professor Charles Waldheim, has explicitly identified his movement as important because it can be a counter to New Urbanism. Yet if you can get beyond the contentiousness, the writers of the essays in the book, or many of them, have important things to say.

To begin with, many of the essayists in the book, including New Urbanist co-founder Andrés Duany in his introduction, focus on a fundamental dispute in how people view the city. Simply put, does the unbuilt world of nature structure the city, or does the city structure itself, and include landscape where appropriate for its purposes? While based on the work that Landscape Urbanists do in cities, which isn't much different in real-world cases from what any traditional city designer might do, this distinction may not have practical implications in terms of design, it does speak a lot to the philosophical differences that have impact on both urbanist ideologies and the politics of urban development.

As discussed by Michael Dennis and Alastair McIntosh in their essay, "Landscape and the City," in 500 years we have gone from the sacred medieval city walled off from the profane countryside, to the opposite, where the city and the landscape mingle at their edges, and where nature is celebrated as pure and sacred and the city denounced as polluted and profane. Much of this switch in attitudes occurred when the ills of the crowded industrial city inspired various alternatives, from "the low-density Garden (non) City and its cousin, the (non) City of Modern Architecture."

Landscape Urbanism is to a significant degree a successor to these nature-is-sacred attitudes, even though, in defense of the Landscape Urbanists, they believe they are responding to reality when they say we need to design cities to take into account, for instance, what they call "automobility." There is, however, a basic misunderstanding at the heart of the anti-urban construct, namely that the human impact on the natural landscape has been much more brutal outside the city than in it. Agriculture and now sprawl have changed the landscape much more than cities have. (Ironically enough, while New Urbanists in the book criticize Landscape Urbanists for cooperating with sprawl, the same criticism has often been leveled against New Urbanists for enabling greenfield development.)

Having begun this review by dismissing the backbiting between New Urbanists and Landscape Urbanists, it's fair that I mention that many contributors to this book understand the uselessness of this approach and take pains to analyze what the two urbanisms have in common (positively and negatively), or even how they complement each other, before identifying the differences. Included in this group are Douglas Kelbaugh, Neal Payton, Daniel Solomon, Kristina Hill and Larissa Larson, and Nan Ellin. Others, including Duany himself, are free with criticisms of their movement. (To Duany, New Urbanism is precluded "from becoming the paradigm for a sustainable urbanism" because it needs, politically, to justify the persistence of the single-family house to implement its otherwise sustainable ideals.)

Much of the dispute over which is primary, the built or the unbuilt, is theoretical, as most of the real work of Landscape Urbanists has focused on the redevelopment and reintegration into the city of abandoned industrial sites left to decay in post-industrial cities. It's not for nothing that the best-known project from a designer identified as a Landscape Urbanist is the High Line in New York, designed (to a great extent) by James Corner (who does not now identify himself as a Landscape Urbanist but who was instrumental in the movement's theoretical development).

While these sites are well-suited for interventions by the landscape-minded, because they typically exist separated from a city's network of streets, it's important to acknowledge that these sites do not exist as unbuilt nature, but as a product or residue of urban development, and their re-use is part of a city's evolution, not a landscape's renewal.

It so happens that the city I live in -- Santa Monica, California -- is undergoing change in its former industrial lands, and in Part 2 of this review I will attempt to apply some of what this book tells us to a real situation of urban complexity.

Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City, Edited by Andrés Duany and Emily Talen; New Society Publishers (2013); 315 pages; $29.95.