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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.


  1. Kevin Heatley says:

    Amen to Keith and his response to this frivolous clashing of egos. As Keith adeptly points out, both New Urbanists and Landscape Urbanists miss the point entirely. Neither of these design professions has an adequate understanding of ecology or environmental ethics to be able to move our society in a sustainable direction. As a professional landscape ecologist who often works on design and planning projects, I have minimal tolerance for grandiose, pompous, and vacuous language. Unfortunately, what we consistently get from the upper echelon of design professionals is the misappropriate use of scientific terms and token concessions to "ecology" while simultaneously putting great focus on "topology". I have seen this repeatedly while working with many nationally recognized design firms – the aesthetics trump the basic survival needs of non-human organisms. At first I was dumbfounded, now I anticipate this inevitable project focal shift right from the proposal phase. The flowery and artistic prose masks a ubiquitous deficient in sound science along with a myopic focus on anthropogenic site ‘improvements”.

    Keith did a great job of listing some of the cascading ecological disasters that we face due to both rising human population and runaway consumption. What he failed to bring to the forefront, and what both New Urbanists and Landscape Urbanists continuously ignore (or perhaps do not understand), is the basic ecological principle of carrying capacity. There is only a finite amount of energy and materials per unit area and how that is divvied up between competing biological organisms is a fundamental environmental justice issue. What the design professions fail to acknowledge, and what is anathema to our consumer-based economic system, is the idea of constraint. What is the biological carrying capacity and where to we say "Enough!' You will not displace this forest and it's biotic citizens and install luxury second homes for the economic elite! Regenerating stormwater and landscaping with native plants does not offset the loss of thousands of years of site evolution!" Where does the inherent right of other species to pursue their own biological trajectory supersede our disproportionate consumption of resources?

    Don't get me wrong, many of the design ideas behind both Urbanist camps provide strong ecological and societal benefits in heavily anthropogenic landscapes. However, what we frequently see is the application of these ideas to greenfield development, a landscape conversion process that is inherently not sustainable. Even on urban infill or brownfield sites what the Urbanist design features really amount to are nothing more than Best Management Practices that will only slow our velocity as we head towards the cliff threshold. Neither of these ego-centric movements really addresses the core issue that needs to be dealt with in order to assure a rich, viable future for both human and non-human residents of planet earth. As such, the whole debate is a useless distraction. You can not build or site design your way out of carrying capacity. That is a perpetual motion

  2. John Moyer says:

    Here in Pennsylvania and other states in the Marcellus Shale region we are dealing with an Oil & Gas industry that could care less about long-term sustainability because the short-term (10-20 years) profits loom so large in our current economic situation. How do you deal with engineers who are looking at jobs and profits over anything else?

  3. Kevin Heatley says:

    OH NO, not the Marcellus! Just like in the old Abbot & Costello skit, mention the Marcellus and, “…slowly I turned, step-by-step, inch-by-inch…”. The Marcellus gas play in PA. is a classic example of a 19th century economic model being applied to a 21st century situation. A typical boom and bust, the Marcellus is a finite resource expected to last perhaps 40 to 50 years. It will produce a short-term infusion of cash but will leave a devastated landscape and impoverished communities for generations. Pennsylvania saw the same type of resource extraction occur with timber and then with coal. Yet they are blindly repeating the cycle (how apropos given it is Groundhog Day today). What is the definition of stupidity – doing the same thing again and expecting different results?

    John asks how do you deal with engineers who are looking at jobs and profits over everything else? The answer – you don’t. The engineers and oil & gas multi-national corporations have no vested interest in community or ecosystem sustainability. If they did, they would cease chasing after another climate-damaging fossil fuel like a junkie looking for a quick fix. To the energy industry, the communities and forests of PA are nothing more than overburden, something to be removed and worked around at the lowest possible cost.

    The way to address the environmental disaster that is developing as a result of the Marcellus, along with other unconventional gas plays across the globe, is to inflame public opinion with aggressive exposure of the impact this industry produces. Massive swatches of North America are projected to be converted from rural to industrial if this industry is allowed to develop as projected. The visuals are shocking and the personal stories frightening.

    You can not fight the money and political influence of the oil & gas industry directly, it is too substantial. The science behind the negative ecological, environmental and economic impacts of this activity is strong but will be ignored as entrenched economic interests play to false “controversy’ and delay regulation until the damage is too far advanced.

    An informed, and vocal, citizenry is what will halt the devastation. A simple example will suffice to demonstrate – why is it that New York State has a moratorium on drilling and Pennsylvania does not? Even within PA, why are drilling permits issued by the thousands by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and none by the Delaware River Basin Commission? Are there differences in geology? No, but there are differences in socio-economic clout, namely New York City and Philadelphia.

    Anyone interested in this issue should connect with one of the many citizens activist groups that are uniting in the interest of community self-determination. The Responsible Drilling Alliance in Williamsport PA. is a good start.


    Anyone not interested in this issue should not be on the Rhizome blog and should just go back to shopping, eating and surfing the internet. The Marcellus is a defining environmental crisis of our time, not a local NIMBY exercise. The energy multi-nationals intend to transform millions of acres of land across the globe into industrial sprawl zones. They have the money and have the political power. If we fail to respond our grandchildren will want to know why. What are you going to tell them, “I was too busy to pay attention”?

  4. ben says:

    When Waldheim and Duany descend from the shelter of their ivy league keeps long enough to exchange blows over whose theory concerning urban design and planning is most relevant, the result is both underwhelming and forehead-slappingly-ignorant. Waldheim's vision for landscape urbanism advocates and defends sprawl while Duany's stomps with pouted lip its rejection of the now vilified cul de sac (while all the while eating up precious open space with arrogant greenfield development).

    As the way of any good overly thought out idea, both are inordinately idealistic and naturally detached from reality. Both would benefit from admitting that development and sprawl are a direct consequence of the availability of two things: clean water and more importantly cheap energy.

    If energy is cheap, sprawl will continue. If energy is expensive, a dense urban environment will be not only desired, but necessary. Dictating what is best for the masses is a hold over of modernist classicist dogma when the simple action of the demand and supply curve will more importantly dictate how we live. Whether in Greece where the size of the city was dictated by a days horse and cart ride from the nearby farm, our cities are limited only by our access to cheap gasoline.

    When I listen to the prattling from the detached vestibules of our so called elite universities, I am reminded of a succinct Hardy quote: (The dog) …"was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o’clock that same day–another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise."


  5. Judy V. says:

    I must say that proclaiming that Landscape Urbanism promotes sprawl is a rather blanket statement. It does not examine the reality of built LU visions that have re-utilized abandoned landscapes, brought communities back to enjoy and appreciate natural resources, and tried to address previously polluted and derilict land rather than ignoring the elephant in the room.

    I agree that as long as we have cheap energy, we will have sprawl. Unfortunately, the cat is already out of the bag. We have sprawl whether we like it or not. New Urbanism was dependant on developers and an upper middle class willing to accept a pre-ordained life style. By letting the ecology and natural systems of a place inform the location of the public realm, we not only have the potential to heal the land and perform a cleansing function for future development, but to re-engage the public in that environmental process. As has been shown in more than a few realized LU projects, "if you build it they will come." In this way, Landscape Urbanism focuses on the economic realities of today.

    It should also be noted that many LU projects are sited on the periphery of lower income residential areas. Drawing development to these areas has the potential to create an urban plan much more like the dense, idiosyncratic accretions of ancient European cities that many still admire today.

  6. […] Landscape Urbanism vs. New Urbanism: Who cares? Both are missing the point!:: This post from the Rhizome blog weighs in on the debate, saying that both arguments are lacking a thorough understanding of ecology. […]

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