Landscape Urbanism vs. New Urbanism: Who cares? Both are missing the point!
by Keith Bowers
(Response to this article in the Sustainable AEC Dispatch)
We have both worked on New Urbanist neighborhoods with Andres Duany and our firm is currently working on Fresh Kills Park with Field Operations (a ‘landscape urbanist’ project?), among others. The problem I have with this debate is that both factions are right, both are wrong…and both are missing the point! This argument is analogous to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Instead, we are rearranging our development patterns while our ecosystems are crashing and burning. Marine ecosystems are collapsing, we have lost 90% of our freshwater wetlands, forests are becoming more and more fragmented, we continue to foul our air and water and topsoil, the true measure of wealth, is eroding out from underneath our feet at an alarming pace. All of our top carnivores have been either extirpated from the landscape or are such low numbers that they are no longer viable keystone species; a trophic cascade of epic proportions. As we enter the 21st century, we are witnessing the fastest and largest mass extinction of flora and fauna the planet has ever experienced – the 6th Great Extinction claim scientists the world over.
Meanwhile we have architects, landscape architects and planners arguing about development patterns where concentrating densities, energy conservation or green buildings seem to be ‘the’ answer. What is missing from this picture?
First, ecology is the underpinning of everything, yet we seem to continue to ignore basic ecological principles and concepts in land development. While landscape urbanists talk about living processes, flows and ecological infrastructure, my experience is that these concepts are only superficially incorporated into many projects – when it is convenient and when it works aesthetically. And for New Urbanists projects, the same can be said. Landscape ecology, conservation biology and restoration ecology need to take a prominent and equal role in the planning process. If we continue to compromise, or worse yet ignore our basic life support systems, then sooner or later we will begin to pay the consequences.
Second, as our population continues to head for 7-9 billion people in the next 50+ years, mixed use, high-density towns and cities will become not only necessary, but critical for our survival. And it will become critical that cities not only are sustainable, but also regenerate ecological processes, flows and functions. So we need both New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism to make this work. We will also need wide expanses of wild lands, wild rivers and wild oceans in order to sustain healthy and resilient ecosystems that support keystone species and a full array of biodiversity. Prioritizing the natural landscape, as advocated by landscape urbanism, is like prioritizing your heart in lieu of your kidney. It is not about prioritizing; it is about maximizing all ecological processes, flows and functions, within a whole-systems framework – using a living systems approach. New Urbanism absolutely needs to seamlessly integrate ecological processes, flows and functions throughout its infrastructure.
Third, sustainability and place making is really about rediscovering the true ‘essence’ of a place. It is more about processes, connections and flows then it is about things and stuff. How did this place come to be; where is this place now; what is the unique identity of this place, and what is the potential of this place to enrich, give meaning and purpose to the ‘whole’. While both landscape urbanism and New Urbanist developments often give a shallow definition to the essence of a place, they often and conspicuously miss is the ‘whole’. By whole, I mean the social aspects of land development. Where and when is social and environmental justice taken into account? I would argue that landscape urbanism and New Urbanist land development, no matter how well conceived, is neither sustainable or regenerative unless it fully embraces social justice.
Finally, what both movements need to do more then anything else is reconnect us (and all living things) to the life giving processes that sustain us. Without this reconnection, without understanding the true essence of a place, and without a clear vision of where we want to go, we will continue to objectify the landscape in an abstract and unsustainable manner.