An Interview With Charles Waldheim: Landscape Urbanism Now

Published in Scenario 01: Landscape Urbanism
Fall 2011

“With the birth of these new technologies and these new economic processes, one sees the birth of a sort of thinking about space that is no longer modeled on the police state of urbanization of the territory, but that extends far beyond the limits of urbanism and architecture… It was not architects, but engineers and builders of bridges, road, viaducts, railways, as well as the polytechnicians—those are the people who thought space… the technicians or engineers of the three great variables—territory, communication and speed.

                                                                 —Michel Foucault, “Space, Knowledge, and Power” [1]

 “Anybody wanting to grasp the originality of the era (20th century) has to consider [together]: the practice of terrorism, the concept of product design, and environmental thinking. With the first, enemy interaction was established on a post-militaristic basis; with the second; functionalism was enabled to re-connect to the world of perception; and with the third, phenomena of life and knowledge became more profoundly linked than ever before. Taken together, all three mark an acceleration in “explication.” In other words: the revealing-inclusion of the background givens underlying manifest operations.

—Peter Sloterdijk, “Gas Warfare—Or the Atmoterrorist Model” [2]

The High Line, New York City. Image courtesy of Jim Corner Field Operations.

Preludes and Positions 

At the dawn of the 21st century, landscape urbanism draws together the infrastructural intensities of “territory, communication, and speed” and the “explicit” deployments of ecological efficiencies. Current projects—like that of Clare Lyster, Alan Berger, Pierre Belanger, Keller Easterling, Infranet Lab, and RVTR—elaborate on the divergence of information flows and production chains [3]. Their analysis—of resource/waste webs, the spatial dross of consumption sites, and hybridized highway proposals—asks how, where, and what forms of aggregate agency and intervention might be grounded in today’s urban logistics.

At the same time, the research of those in geography and the social sciences, such as John May and Ulrich Beck, explores how the tools and techniques of environmental planning—satellite/Landstat infrared imaging, serial and statistical simulations—have evolved out of the atomic arms race and military models of risk [4]. Their excavation of MERC origins asks how our construction of ecology and environment, as epistemological and material formations, can balance social intimacy, economic development, and a bio-political potential for annihilation. Focused more widely than on “landscape” or “urbanism” specifically, landscape urbanist research has staked out these recent and broader spatial concerns for its discourse of design.

Throughout this period, Charles Waldheim has been a strong advocate for landscape urbanism. The current chair of landscape architecture at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard and former dean at the University of Toronto, Charles’ Landscape Urbanism Reader (2006) was instrumental in the articulation and promotion of the approach through the voices of practitioners [5]. Since then, his own articles and his advisory role on the GSD’s New Geographies Series (with Bruno Latour, Antoine Picon, and others) have engaged the adjacent fields of history of science, political and economic geography, sociology, and architecture in this complex spatial research. Thus, between discourse and deployments, Charles’ guidance and support has contributed to the emergence of landscape urbanism as a platform and “glocal” manifestation from which to query the territorial intensities, socio-economic flows, and environmental entanglements of globalized, capitalist governance and development.

I sat down with Charles to discuss how current events, in politics and economics, were inflecting and resonating with landscape urbanism’s operative models of environment and urbanism.

Megan Studer: I’d like to start by looking at the state of landscape urbanism today and how it differs from its initial formulations. A lot has happened—predatory real-estate and international high finance have mutually imploded, austerity has stalled and slowed the flow of resources and commodities, governments in general have been unable or unwilling to be the consumers of last resort (Keynes), and so on. How do you think the recession has refined the focus, alliances, and goals (if there are goals) for landscape urbanism and its relationship to capitalist development?

Charles Waldheim: Embedded in the origins of landscape urbanism is this idea that it applies or has relevance in places that are growing rapidly, but also in places that are shrinking rapidly. From its origins landscape urbanism has been a response to structural economic conditions, and while it’s true that the context for urbanization is very different now than it was in 1996 or 2006, the basic structural conditions haven’t really changed. I would argue that, in spite of the economic crisis, we still have the same global system—in a different phase. Because landscape urbanism sought to deal with both shrinkage and growth, it aspires to offer a response to the economic dynamics of the last forty years and to the embedded or structural crises of advanced or late capitalism.
MS: From 2008 on, the bandwidth (less lending, collapse of the credit market, and general poor conditions for speculation on top of the strain on public resources due to loss of tax-base and increased spending on unemployment, etc.) has shrunk for the extremes of accelerated growth and speculative developments of western real-estate finance. Can you think of particular projects or research initiatives that deal with that narrowing of bandwidth in general?

CW: I’d say projects or case studies in landscape urbanism are continuing apace, albeit modulated by economic conditions. Let’s look at New York or Toronto as examples. Park building, and the idea of park building, as a centerpiece of urbanism is continuing as a centerpiece; its aspirations are maintained. But it’s true that the driver of urban development has changed its tempo. I think it’s a cyclical as opposed to a structural change. On the other hand, there may be a third issue at stake: we’ve talked about shrinkage; we’ve talked about growth. But the “informal”—the informal economy or the informal sector—has received increasing traction in recent years. In the original manuscript of the Landscape Urbanism Reader, we proposed a section of the book that dealt with the informal city, but it was deemed too far ahead of our audience to be viable. Today, we can say that the informal is clearly a topic that has grown in relevance and deserves further attention.

MS: Spain is a great example of stable economies showing their cracks. Spain was both a functional member of the EU that we understand now was surviving on debt (much like Greece) and has always had a very active informal, tiered economy. Within architecture and landscape, Keller Easterling’s writings (“Tomato World” within Enduring Innocence) have explored how the Spanish market’s attempt to take advantage of ideal solar exposure, to catalyze Mediterranean trade and intensive agriculture, amplified the underlying social structures of irregular development—triggering informal work, massive (illegal) migrant labor, and even informal settlement, i.e. exaggerated strains of “under” development.

Now, given the recession, what was formerly buried in Keller’s acute examples of error or systemic exacerbation is seen on the surface of European economic structures and normative development. Is the LU’s interest in the “informal” driven by using it as an index of emergent (capitalist) use of externalities, secondary ecological flows, and resource manipulation, i.e. a key to the cracks and limits in those systems or some other relay between ecological efficiency and the aggregate “masses”?

CW: To the extent that landscape urbanism is a set of practices, then it is not connected to one particular culture or geography. It is available to various contexts and, if urbanism is the expression in space of relationships of capital or power, then any shift in the relationship of the structure of capital or power will impact urbanism. That said, I think that landscape urbanism continues to be of value because of its unique ability to reconcile contemporary economic systems with the underlying ecological conditions in which urbanism is situated.

Underworld, networked corridors in Boston, project by Allison Dailey, Harvard GSD student.

From its origins, landscape urbanism aspires to build an understanding of urbanism in which the ecological forces and flows that support urbanism are considered as part of the city as opposed to external to it.

MS: There are a lot of things that have been at the edge of the landscape urbanism research agenda. Some examples that come to mind are the Canadian oil sands mining; the logistic maneuvers of the Arab spring, like the Suez canal strikes and their impact on US/Chinese trade-routes or US/Middle East trade-routes; and the tsunami/nuclear crisis in Japan, including their single-stream, modernism approach to fail-safe mechanisms.

So, there’s been a lot of topical and timely interest in energy ecologies and energy resource management. So many of these have been showing up in the news and yet I’m not sure that I’d say they belong within an “urbanism” category. As someone involved in and supportive of this research, what sort of descriptor might you give these operational tactics, strategic strikes, or incidents in energy management?

CW: I think that one of the more interesting areas for research for landscape urbanism today is the question of energy, resource extraction, production, and flows in relationship to urbanism. From its origins, landscape urbanism aspires to build an understanding of urbanism in which the ecological forces and flows that support urbanism are considered as part of the city as opposed to external to it. This offers a response to and critique of older models of urbanism in which the city is distinct from the countryside or the continent. Often, in those old models, energy, as well as water and food and other sustenance, are viewed as externalities to the city problem, which made the city vulnerable. If landscape urbanism wants to reframe that model and place urbanism in relationship to those flows, it makes sense that there’s been quite a lot of interest in energy in schools of design and current discourse, finding ways to think about energy production in relationship to urbanism. Our challenge is to find models in which both the questions of sustainability and the renewability of energy sources can be explored, while also looking to reform and improve the global systems of production and distribution.

The prospect of finding renewable resources of energy and their impact on the city is one of the most interesting lines of work today. This past summer, the Bauhaus Institute in Dessau organized a summer school focused on the question of energy landscapes, and in many schools of design, GSD included, we’re looking at studios and research projects about renewable energy and technologies, but also thinking about energy more akin to agriculture—it is both renewable, locally sourced, and embedded in our cities as opposed to external to them. I think the topic of renewability does a couple of interesting things: Unlike our current dependence on vast reserves of coal or our global system of oil production, refinement, and distribution, renewable energy sources have a series of local impacts, a very different logic at many levels in terms of their production and distribution.

For example, wind and solar and hydroelectric based energy production: While they can be thought of as large mono-functional engineering systems, they can be thought about instead as distributed, embedded, highly localized conditions where each house or each block or each urban system are essentially both producing and consuming and feeding a larger system of supply and demand—which is a very different logic than the logic of consumption at the heart of our cities today. And if that research and practice continues, at the rate that it has, I think we’ll be seeing a very interesting approach to urbanism than the current consumption system that is externally extracted, refined and pumped in, where the entrained energy, waste implications, and carbon implications are viewed as external to the city.

MS: In many ways there’s an echo of that in Geddes’ valley section and how MacKaye develops that profile for Western Massachusetts in the use of lumber, timbering, and water power from the valley to Boston itself. [See Benton MacKaye, “The New Exploration: Charting the Industrial Wilderness,” in Survey Graphic 7 (May 1925: 153-157), reprinted in Planning the Fourth Migration, ed. Carl Sussman. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976)] How do you think that those shifts toward a more decentralized and localized energy economy will tie into the logistics that have developed through the divergence of industrial production and information production? For example, if we have more localized energy production, what types of formal echoes might appear in other consumption trends and values?

CW: I think it’s a really interesting question, especially if we include agriculture and sustainable food practices in landscape urbanism conversations. The model many are looking at in terms of both energy and food production is one in which renewability and sustainability are the goal. One of the implications is that latitude matters in a way that it hasn’t for the fossil fuel economy—for example, the north of Africa has enormous solar potential, as does the south of the US; at the same time, the North Sea and Massachusetts have a lot of wind—the latitudinal and geographic distinctions, among many others, enable the production of energy locally and will have an effect on patterns of urbanization.

Your reference to MacKaye and Geddes is apt and has relevance for landscape urbanism: Landscape urbanism is both a continuation of and dependent on the legacy of regionally informed planning practice, but it is distinct from the genealogy in a couple of ways. The genealogy of Geddes, MacKaye, and even McHarg, and other Anglo-Scottish, regionally-informed planning practitioners, produced a world view that has been quite important to the formation of landscape architecture, landscape planning, and landscape urbanism.

Where we differ is that they tended to be too invested in geological determinism; that is, either through empirical observation or by way of an evangelical zeal, urbanism was meant to be an expression of geological determinants, in the moralizing sense of McHarg used it. I think those lines of regional planning overstated the centrality of production and distribution of material resources, and they missed entirely the rise of consumption. And I think it’s like other forms of modernist planning in the west, where they thought urbanization would be largely driven by arable land, water resources, and certain resources predisposed to support urban populations, and [instead] patterns of urbanization are led by patterns of consumption and lifestyle. So, that is the important distinction where geology matters and geography matters, but they’re not ultimately determinant in the sense that many modernists hoped they would be.

MS: They also take production to be consumption, shortening transit to the closest available market and expecting stable production cycles. They miss out on the nuances of fiscal capital  (futures, speculation on supply and demand) as well as the different “speeds” and revised distances of multi-modal modernity. That or they take them as a negative. They miss tarrying (to play with, to mess about, to plumb their variables through experiment and observation) with them as a system that’s in place.

CW: I find much of the cultural disposition of landscape architecture, in its western origins, in Europe and North America; presume geological determinism as a default condition or as a desirable condition. I have enormous respect for the work of Geddes, MacKaye, and especially McHarg, particularly his desire to articulate ecology in service of planning. But unlike McHarg, our condition today is that while we have an abundance of ecological and scientific knowledge to inform planning, we seem to lack the political and economic models to plan our cities with that knowledge. McHarg and many of his modernist colleagues missed the rise of consumer markets, the political backlash against top-down planning, and the decentralization of decisions about urbanization.

Streamlines by Stoss LU.

Unlike our current dependence on vast reserves of coal or our global system of oil production, refinement, and distribution, renewable energy sources have a series of local impacts, a very different logic at many levels in terms of their production and distribution.

MS: Well, let me weave back a bit to the German context. They have been incredibly forward thinking and progressive on sustainability, but they’ve also been heavily state-subsidized. How do you see that model transferring to the privatized Anglo-American context?

CW: Landscape urbanism in America was stimulated in part by interest in brownfield sites, declines in industry, abandoned territory, and, in my own work, in places like Detroit and trying to come up with a model that could account for its de-development. We were really pleased that the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, in Chicago, funded that research on Detroit, but it was a tiny privately financed philanthropic undertaking. It was only when the German federal government and Cultural Ministry funded Shrinking Cities from a very high level that it began to have more traction as a research topic and a potential site of praxis.

The topic was always there, but the availability of this information, its dissemination, and the perception of its utility was changed dramatically by this funding and sponsorship. I think that one of the reasons the Germans took it up so explicitly was its applicability to issues and relevant challenges they were facing (East German de-densification).

MS: So instead of seeing the state as directly funding projects, it’s the discursive contribution. You can court anyone, anywhere, as long as they can understand the conceptual contributions made by these various lines of research and researchers?

CW: Well, there is a distinction to be made between research, the production of knowledge, and the making of projects. They’re not the same thing, but they inform one another. And it’s true that in the North American context, urbanization—its deterioration and shrinking population and moments of explosive growth—the dominant drivers tend to be private actors. I think it has been that way for a very long time and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. And so when you look at the exemplars of abandonment and decay—cities like Detroit—what you see are a series of private decisions being made that aggregate spatially. In that space, the public sectors and the universities have an important role to play. Having said that, I think private capital and private housing are likely to continue to be the dominant forces in growing cities. Look at the recent landscape urbanist projects in New York and Toronto for example. They tend to depend on robust population growth and demand for housing and upon fairly well developed capital markets; and they tend to be a combination of private development, brownfield remediation, and some form of political leadership.

MS: So how do you see landscape urbanism working in something like a Chinese context [of centralized governance and massive state funding for development], as opposed to the aggregate and distributed agency found within growing US and European contexts?

CW: I would say that much of the North American work has been at the scale of the remediation project—not quite a district scale—and this gives a certain size and scale to the typology. The scale and pace of urbanization in China is obviously very different, and it’s not surprising given the number of the cities that they’re building that they have some of the most interesting large scale experiments in landscape urbanism, for instance, the recent landscape urbanist projects in Shenzhen. But I think outside Shenzhen, across China there are many interesting examples of attempts to develop a model of urbanism in which ecological function and health can be embedded in or more integrated within the shape of the city, in spite of the enormous environmental, human rights, and political challenges that they continue to face.

MS: Okay; instead of steering towards resource conflict and scarcity which are the drivers behind many of the flows we see today, let’s move towards the scalar importance of landscape urbanism as a systematic practice, and how you see that relating to the current architectural interest in alternate units/scales of “environmental” development. Are there scales, particular materialities, or particular quantities or qualities you see each of these disciplines addressing?

CW: Over the long view, most innovations or paradigm shifts within urbanism tend to address a set of questions, a set of scales, a set of tools or methods particular to the place that they are responding to and, as a result, often end up working at very different scales.

So the origins of landscape urbanism, in landscape planning in the 1920s—coming out of regional planning, coming out of landscape architecture—led to questioning which scale is operative. Look at planning today as it operates in the context of China, at the particular scale where it seeks to be broadly synthetic and more inclusive. Urban design, as opposed to planning, as it emerged in the 1950s and 1960s here at Harvard, emerged to deal with the large project or the singular institution and its growth in the context of urban fabric. The European city under post-war reconstruction was one of its central topics, and so urban design and planning are different scales.

Landscape urbanism starts with a formal analysis that is informed by the regional history of ecological planning, analyzing the scale of the watershed, and the particular scale of the ecological system. However, the scale of intervention is different, and this is where landscape urbanism differs from regional landscape planning. So, while landscape urbanism studies the region or the valley section or the watershed, it takes that knowledge and applies it at the scale of the large building project—its sites of intervention. These tend to be the sites that are available in economic and industrial transformation—which in the North American and European context tend to be sites that are smaller than the city, but at their largest can become a district.

This speaks to landscape urbanism’s interest in ecological drivers, in the context of our current economic structure. And our economic structure tends not to produce comprehensive planning. All differences aside, this is a generalization—especially in North American and European contexts where urbanization tends to be planned and regulated to some level—but [landscape urbanism] is really project-driven, and therefore tends to occupy and develop sites that become available through an economic transition from industrial to post-industrial. And that can be slightly confusing at times, given the heritage of regional planning and study of regional ecology—but intervening in the system need not occur at the scale of the entire system or the entire city.

MS: And how would you differentiate an infrastructural urbanism from landscape urbanism? Do you see them as parallel?

CW: In the course of the last fifteen years, landscape urbanism has come to be relevant in a number of different contexts. I think it has become clear now that it is a body of practice, a set of strategies for doing work, and a way of thinking. Ecological urbanism is best understood as both a continuation of landscape urbanism’s aspirations as well as a critique of its dependence upon landscape and all the baggage that it brings. It would be fair to say that ecological urbanism aspires to a broader conceptual approach to a range of questions about the city from sustainability through architecture and design at various scales. I think what we have now is emerging through the umbrella of ecological urbanism which extends from the olfactory sensations and sense of the city to an understanding of energy and ecological flows. A broad theoretical framework for thinking about the city as an ecological construct and concept; and within that, landscape urbanism is a maturing body of practice that’s available to put into use. Ecological urbanism is a logical extension of landscape urbanism; it is the same project, rendered through more precise terms. A part of what ecological urbanism does is expand the palette of precedents beyond landscape architecture to embrace the phenomenological and experiential sense of the city all the way to sustainability at the scale of architecture.


Meg Studer is a designer, researcher, and visualization dilettante (see Siteations) whose work focuses on two strains of infrastructural thought. One, the territorial traces and impacts of post-war communications arrays and two, the operation and maintenance “ecologies” underlying seemingly static public works. In the forthcoming Third Coast Atlas, her data-driven mappings of Robert Smithson’s Concrete Pour, “Collapsing Divides,” draw out the productive agency of Smithson’s entropic materiality and its engagement with McLuhan’s theories of “electric immersion.” Her excavation of road salt procurement logistics, “NaCl:Operations Enabling Erasure” was recently displayed at Columbia University’s Studio-X in New York and featured on BLDGBLOG and Edible Geographies. (A version of the is project is forthcoming on this site). Current projects include exploring Walter di Maria’s engagement of atomic test sites, satellite imaging, and nascent petrol politics in the 3 Continent series (abandoned, 1969-71) and the on-going spatial overlays, energy implications, and secondary resource strains of Pennsylvania’s competition between natural gas fracturing/refining and long-wall seam mining.  

Trained in architectural histories and theories, modern art criticism, and landscape architecture and regional planning, Meg holds master’s degrees from the Architectural Association in London and Columbia University, as well as a master’s of landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently an associate at Stoss Landscape Urbanism, where she co-leads animation, research, and production teams on projects as diverse as planning Detroit shrinkage to designing Flanders interpretive routes.

Charles Waldheim is the John E. Irving Professor of Landscape Architecture and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. His teaching and research examine the relationships between landscape and contemporary urbanism. Read his complete bio here


Note 1: Interview with Paul Rabinow, translated by Christian Hubert, “Space, Knowledge, Power” originally appeared in Skyline, March 1982 and was reprinted in the Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. (New York: Random House, 1984) 244.
Note 2: Part of his larger “Spharen” research project, Peter Sloterdijk’s text, Terror from the Air, was originally published as Luftbeben (Frankfurt: Editions Suhrkamp, 2002). This section of the introduction is from its translation, by Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran, Terror from the Air (Los Angeles: Semiotext, 2009) 9.
Note 3: Articles under Charles Waldheim’s editorial or advisory purview (not a complete bibliography):
Clare Lyster, “Landscapes of Exchange,” in Landscape Urbanism Reader, ed. Charles Waldheim. (New York: Princeton Arch. Press, 2006) 219-238.
Alan Berger, “Drosscape,” in Landscape Urbanism Reader, ed. Charles Waldheim. (New York: Princeton Arch. Press, 2006) 197-218.
Charles Waldheim and Alan Berger, “Logistics Landscape,” in Landscape Journal, vol. 27, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 219-246.
Pierre Belanger, “Synthetic Surfaces,” in Landscape Urbanism Reader, ed. Charles Waldheim. (New York: Princeton Arch. Press, 2006) 239-266.
Pierre Belanger, “Power Perestroika.” in New Geographies 2: Landscapes of Energy, ed. Rania Ghosen. (Hong Kong: Harvard/Regal Printing, 2009) 119-124.
Keller Esterling, “Cable.”  in New Geographies 1: After Zero, ed. Stephen Ramos and Neyran Turan. (Hong Kong: Harvard/Regal Printing, 2009) 62-78.
(Infranet Lab) Lola Sheppard and Mason White, “Meltdown” in New Geographies 1: After Zero, ed. Stephen Ramos and Neyran Turan. (Hong Kong: Harvard/Regal Printing, 2009) 130-137.
Charles Waldheim, “Urbanism After Form” in Pamphlet Architecture 30: Coupling, eds. (Infranet Lab) Neeraj Bhatia, Maya Przybylski, Lola Sheppard and Mason White. (New York: Princeton Arch. Press, 2011) 4-5.
(RVTR) Geoffery Thuen and Kathy Velikov, “Conduit Urbanism” in New Geographies 2: Landscapes of Energy, ed. Rania Ghosen. (Hong Kong: Harvard/Regal Printing, 2009) 83-96.
Note 4: All articles under Charles Waldheim’s editorial or advisory purview (not a complete bibliography, especially givens Beck’s formulation of Risk Society originated in the 1980s):
John May, “The Becoming Energetic of Landscape,” in New Geographies 2: Landscapes of Energy, ed. Rania Ghosen. (Hong Kong: Harvard/Regal Printing, 2009) 23-32.
Ulrich Beck, “Rick Society’s Cosmopolitan Moment,” in New Geographies 1: After Zero, eds. Stephen Ramos and Neyran Turan. (Hong Kong: Harvard/Regal Printing, 2009) 24-25.
Note 5: Charles Waldheim, ed., Landscape Urbanism Reader (New York: Princeton Arch. Press, 2006) 219-238.