Interview With Jason King: What’s Next For Landscape Urbanism?

Published in SCENARIO 00: Power
Fall 2011

Jason King, a landscape architect and urbanist living in Portland Oregon, is both the author of the well-known blog Landscape+Urbanism and the principal and founder of TERRA.fluxus, a practice that works in landscape, urbanism, and vegitecture. His blog shares a proliferation of analytical thinking and evolving focus. Through his writing, Jason emerges as a leading thinker on landscape urbanism—however unintentionally. He freely admits that the site provides a platform to record his thoughts and musings, along which a reader can follow his extensive network of research and collected resources. As a writer, scholar, and practitioner—the convergence of all three is a rarity in our profession—his documentation and exploration of ideas and his vigilance to apply the theoretical to the practical make him a compelling figure to watch. Jason took time from his multiple roles to talk about landscape urbanism, the debate between new urbanism and landscape urbanism, and his vision for the future of landscape architecture.

You describe Landscape+Urbanism as a sifting centered largely on the intersection of landscape and urbanism. As urbanism is a term used heavily these days, what would you consider your definition of the word?

I take a more traditional approach to what urbanism means. To me, there is a lot of confusion about the difference between inquiry versus planning and design. The idea [of urbanism] is that you’re actually looking at the function of cities in their social, ecological, and economic situations rather than thinking about it [as an opportunity to impose] a strategy for action. I think we should study and research cities to find out what actually happens in them and how they work, in order to understand them better. We also need to acknowledge that urban is not just the dense agglomeration of downtown areas anymore. And while I still think that urbanism is defined spatially, this space no longer refers to just the traditional downtown or even the political boundary lines of past, but must accommodate the messiness of the modern condition. Through understanding and studying the phenomena first, we can use this knowledge to inform design and planning decisions.

In a recent meeting of our book group Reading the Landscape, we had an interdisciplinary group tacking the essays in Waldheim’s Landscape Urbanism Reader with the idea of getting to the core of some of the main issues behind the theory. There were a lot of people who were mystified by the lack of direction within landscape urbanism, wondering how it was supposed to guide decision-making. While many were looking for a guidebook, I had to keep reiterating the point that landscape urbanism—and any urbanism in general—is a study of processes and systems and cultural interactions, each of which educates and informs on-the-ground practice. [Urbanisms] are the ideas and the research about how things work, which the landscape architect, urban designer, [or] architect can then use to inform their practice. So urbanism is about studying and understanding cities and developing the information and research that we need to make better choices when we’re actually doing things on the ground.

Phytoremediation area: Emerson Street Garden, Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jason King.

There are some schools of thought that expand this definition of urbanism to “anthropogenic occupancy”— including nearly everything urban, suburban, and rural. Do you agree with this definition?

I would completely disagree. This brings up too many questions: Is urban also suburban? Is suburban urban? How much does the urban influence the rural? I think we need to make a clear distinction between what we mean by urban and urbanism—[the former] as dealing with dense collections or agglomerations of people in settlements—as opposed to the [latter’s] wide view that incorporates all of the processes, flows, and trades that influence the urban setting.  [This distinction] this lets us focus our ideas and research, and, ultimately, actions.

Furthermore, what is urban studies if you’re not talking about cities? It then becomes the study of everything: where do you begin? The ability to be specific, to pull out differences between the entire world and the unique factors in dense human settlements, especially those that have changed in the last 100-150 years in our collective movement towards a much more urban industrialized society, is what will help us learn what makes cities work.

Of course, cities don’t exist in a vacuum—I’m not suggesting that they aren’t connected to wider contexts and phenomenon. However, if you focus on social interaction and social theory, which is a big part of my approach, there’s a very specific subset of topics that are unique to cities. Same goes for economics, or ecology. Being able to focus on [these unique phenomena] is imperative.

You mention that urbanism is defined spatially, but that cities are no longer just these dense urban cores. What, then, do you think defines the urban space or the urban setting?

What we’re calling urban now has already changed dramatically. It’s no longer this dense, urban core.

The terms metropolitan and urbanization are testament to these changes, because we now refer to broader areas that are no longer necessarily defined by specific political boundaries. Much of our work is also trying to determine where this distinction lies and how much this matters.

So, the question becomes, what is the urban landscape within which humans occupy? We recognize that there are extents of cities—far beyond what people experience in their everyday urban lives—but this is not what you are concerned with, correct?

Exactly. In some regards, there are two camps: those that look at cities through the social lens and those which take a framework of understanding the larger economic or environmental systems interconnected within and beyond the city. But if you focus on where the people are, the city is spatially defined by what happens on the ground, where people are.

Ultimately, defining urbanism comes back to the question: If you’re trying to define it with broad generalizations and theory, then that’s one way of looking at it. If the question is how are we going to do things better, here, on the ground, then it becomes a different way of looking at it. As a landscape architect, my lens is site specific, and these interventions are enriched by a broader context of social, economic, political factors that exist beyond the site boundaries.

Bonneville Power Administration Headquarters Building Green Roof, Portland, Oregon.

You perhaps deliberately don’t use the term landscape urbanism for your website—is this intentional?

The only reason I didn’t use landscape urbanism was because it wasn’t available. At one point, I broadly defined my topics as landscape, urbanism, and vegitecture, but ultimately I branched off and created a separate space for vegitecture on a different blog. I think rather than make it specific to a theoretical viewpoint of landscape urbanism, I was able to have a bit more flexibility by making it landscape and urbanism, which better reflected the dual viewpoints in which I was interested in approaching theory and practice. It continues to work as a broad yet focused approach.

Let’s return to the idea of urbanism and its relationship to the term landscape. This is a bit of a philosophical question—what does landscape mean to you?

This is one of those terms that has a lot of baggage—and is an essential key to the whole debate. I don’t look at it as just ground or open space. I think of it as the wider area that we’re interacting with that includes buildings, surfaces, and the spatial realm, making it more akin to the environment rather than being about greenery.

So, in contrast with your definition of urbanism above, it’s an intersection of the spatial with the larger environmental framework, perhaps.

Exactly. While James Corner may say that greening a roof or implementing vegetation into buildings isn’t what landscape urbanism is about—I believe he says something to this accord related to the concept of the current trend for “surface continuities” in his essay Terra Fluxus—I would disagree somewhat with his focus that it is more about urban infrastructure.  I think that this is the fundamental core of practicing landscape architecture—at all scales and in all spaces. Landscape architecture is about putting into the real world the ideas and theories that are put forth by landscape urbanism.

“Landscape urbanism—and any urbanism in general—is a study of processes and systems and cultural interactions, each of which educates and informs on-the-ground practice.”

When we talk about fields of action, or the space in which we operate and execute the principles of landscape urbanism, this is where people start to get confused. What you define as the “field of action” creates a lot of confusion. People try to define it—oh you’re talking about parks. Or green roofs. Or suburbs. Or streets. The answer is really no, it’s not one of these things in particular. It’s more of a state of mind—about how you make decisions, about the process of design, and how you approach the development of solutions that are appropriate to the broad context.

Landscape urbanism is not as black-and-white as being “anti-buildings” or “anti-new-urbanism”—but it is a separate point of view that changes the perspective on how architecture fits into cities, how design is done, and what the collective affect of a group of buildings is on the outdoor-indoor environment and the social realm within which human interactions occur.

Let’s tackle another tricky term at our fingertips—I promise I won’t ask you to define sustainability next—what does “nature” mean to you?

Well, this is good stuff! It’s important. I’ve been reading William Cronon’s 1996 book of essays Uncommon Ground where a number of authors tackle this idea of “nature” and it’s fascinating. Nature is really about our cultural and social interpretation of the word—and it’s almost become more cultural than physical, in some sense. The way we define it—rather than it being something on its own—is incredibly interesting. Just like landscape, it’s very different depending on who you are, your background, your experience.

In some ways, like sustainability, it’s become a word without any true meaning because we don’t have a shared understanding of what we mean when we talk about it.

Interesting. In all of these ideas—sustainability, landscape, urbanism, even nature—you speak extensively about the personal experience or the cultural frame. Humans are at the core of each of these ideas, then? Does that makes sense—humans are at the core of “nature” or what’s “natural”?

While it is much more accepted that humans are integrated into nature, there is still a lot of resistance to this concept and leads us back to some form of untouched, uncultured nature. The idea that we, as designers of new, challenging urban environments, can only plant native plants to be truly “natural” and override the aesthetic, human, and cultural needs of the site and place—this is absurd. The very act of intervening becomes a cultural act. Instead, we should consider all of the elements at play on the site that help the place perform and also achieve cultural needs and expectations. Native purists, perhaps, think that nature is good and that’s the only thing that should be re-created. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and our interventions need to span a continuum of options and not be reduced to this binary mode of thinking.

Design is definitely framed in this cultural lens and understanding. Nature perhaps gets bastardized into “being pure,” which is appealing theoretically, but in practice, is very difficult to pull off.

Some would say if not impossible, because the very act of inserting yourself into a space to influence and create it erodes the purity of this perspective.

Precisely. The more humans interact with something—cities, each other, landscapes—the more impossible it gets to define something from the viewpoint of purity. If you’re actively involved—and the emphasis is on human action—then what’s the distinction between the natural and the man-made? And can we, through creative innovation, come up with solutions that are analogous or even—I’m afraid to say it—superior than what existed before? Actually, I’m not afraid to say it—what if we can do one better than nature? And create solutions and ideas that replicate natural processes but fit within a cultural framework? We may have to. This is, in some ways, what landscape architecture and design is all about, and what I feel gives the profession so much potential.

Wilshire-Rodeo Roof Terrace Retrofit, Los Angeles, California.

What do you think the role of the designer is in bridging human and natural systems? In understanding and shaping urbanism, if we can truly shape urbanism?

The designer as interpreter is a good metaphor. You, the designer, are standing in between this really strongly crafted landscape history, rich with environmental history and with larger ecological systems at play; and on the other side, you’re also standing in the context of the city, with clients, constraints, desires, human history, intervention, construction; and both of these things on each side are influencing what we will be creating. We, then, are interpreters and try to pull from the “natural” landscape and the “cultural” landscape and create something that is the best of both.

Of course, this changes depending on context and each project, but that’s a simple way of thinking about it.

Landscape, in many regards, is the defining element of urban areas. Designers recognized this centuries ago—I am reminded of Frederick Law Olmsted as I’m just reading a new biography of his life and works. In many ways, the process of shaping urbanism and landscapes through form has not changed. The differences, however, in how we understand landscape and its performative functions today are quite different than a century ago. Whereas the idyllic, picturesque forms that sought to “recreate nature” drove much of Olmsted’s work, I think what we are doing now is a hybrid form with more emphasis on context and process, and takes advantage of our technology and understanding of natural systems. Then again, his work in Boston, on the Back Bay Fens project, would still hold up today as an innovative example of green infrastructure.

Let’s focus on this debate that’s been going on between the new urbanists and the landscape urbanists. In the recent Metropolis Magazine article “New Urbanism: The Case for Looking Beyond Style” Duany again positions New Urbanism as a larger framework that will ultimately bring landscape urbanism under its wing. Do you agree with Duany’s position?

To me the Landscape Urbanism–New Urbanism debate is somewhat humorous although it does get me riled up like everyone else. Waldheim really took on Duany when he suggested that “[Waldheim’s] program is ‘specifically’ and ‘explicitly’ meant to dislodge the New Urbanists from their perch in the American planning world.” (here) This binary positioning fueled this perception that we’re not just discussing ideas and theories, but that instead we’re going after the problems of New Urbanism. It certainly makes for great rhetoric and conflict and, ultimately, PR—but that’s not what the dialogue is about.

To me, landscape urbanism is compelling because it tackles issues that New Urbanism is not dealing with—indeterminacy, flexibility, temporality—these things that many people are drawn to because they reflect the current madness that is the modern metropolis. These ideas are necessary to explore because our world is very complex, and the patterns of human settlement, of urban spatiality, are still very much in flux. This new approach is an acknowledgement that we still need to do something (in our design implementations), but we might not have all the answers before we begin to study the problem.

In contrast, if you look at the practice of New Urbanism, it tends to put some people off because of its focus on specific, solution-driven approaches and claims that it has the answers to all of our urban problems. I’d say most critical new urbanists would agree that we need to address wider issues, but now that it has become a polarized “fight,” then it’s devolving into who can shout the loudest. My biggest critique of New Urbanism is not what it is—it does some forms of design and planning very well—it is the claim that New Urbanism is the answer to everything, when in fact they really have a very specific answer to a very specific problem.

Just as we don’t want to oversimplify the strengths of New Urbanism and the contexts in which new urbanist design is actually quite successful, I think that much of the—somewhat erroneous—debate stems from a second criticism of the “New Urbanism Camp”—that they don’t understand landscape urbanism and have made up their mind, because they have been challenged, to find any leverage to dismiss it. They are reading an essay here and there and criticizing what they think it is and not taking the time to understand it, which I find is the most frustrating part.

Right. All over the news recently are headlines that suggest landscape urbanism is about dressing up the suburbs, covering up sprawl, it’s just avant-garde art, it’s not about people—what was the title of the recent article?—“sprawl in a pretty green dress.”

I want to ask these writers: where are they getting this stuff from? What are they reading? I admit the rhetoric of some of the landscape urbanism writing can be a bit tough to get into, primarily as it evolves from academic and not professional roots—but where is the writing that says anything close to the assertions being made? These aren’t the ideas of landscape urbanism at all, and this spin is really an entirely inaccurate depiction of what landscape urbanism is.

I don’t think landscape urbanism is “right” and New Urbanism is “wrong.” I doubt there can even be right or wrong in this case. I think there’s certainly a place for New Urbanism in the toolkit. It’s appealing because it’s a very clear path and model of what to do, on the ground, and it is easy to package. Unfortunately, however, not everyone can afford what New Urbanism is selling—it’s selling a model, an idea of urbanism that’s very desirable, but also radically oversimplified and tends to read as formulaic. It just won’t always work in all contexts. That isn’t to say that the concepts are not evolving with the times, and there are a number of interesting ideas emerging from New Urbanism, but I have serious doubts that a normative approach is going to be able to address the complexities of the present and future.

Landscape urbanism, in many respects, is about the ideas and theories that educate and inform our on-the-ground practice. Landscape urbanism is about understanding the forces and systems at work that shape our rapidly expanding urban environments—it’s not necessarily about the specific, prescriptive solutions that solve all of these problems.

If you’ve been following the debate, it’s fascinating. While it has typically become a Waldheim versus Duany debate, it’s interesting to see the overall lack of critical analysis from either side. I think a big question for critics of both camps that is fundamental to the misguided dispute in the first place is: How can landscape urbanism be a refutation of New Urbanism if they are essentially offering very different things?

So you’re suggesting that landscape urbanism is more of a theoretical practice, without a toolkit necessarily?

Yes. And this is the beauty of landscape urbanism. For better or for worse, in our profession, the idea of landscape—and to a large extent the world we live in—is somewhat undefined and it always will be because it is not fixed. To create a box of tools or design solutions that say, “here, this is what landscape urbanism is” would essentially limit the ideas of landscape urbanism—in fact, they would contradict it. And this is where we begin to confuse people, especially new urbanists who crave specificity. Landscape urbanism is an idea—or set of ideas—that informs our work as designers.

Doesn’t this present a problem—a problem we’ve long had in landscape architecture, before the invention of the term “landscape urbanism”—that of communicating what we do to the public?

Yes. New Urbanism has succeeded quite well, and will continue to do so, because it is, in some regards, a fascinating, giant, marketing engine. It has concrete ideas and specific, visible solutions that define what the practice of New Urbanism is, in the real world. And it’s something that people can understand.

Landscape urbanism, in contrast to New Urbanism, is not necessarily a unified, mainstream movement (which could be counterproductive to the ideals of the philosophy, if you call it a philosophy). With the exception of a few main people, there hasn’t necessarily been a lot of response from the formulators of landscape urbanism to much of the recent dialogue. For example, we haven’t heard from Corner much after his seminal essays on landscape urbanism that defined the theoretical underpinnings. Is he hard at work, or is he distancing himself from the term and aligning himself with other emerging terms, such as the ecological urbanism proponents at Harvard and Penn? I, for one, would love to see some exploration of recent work, such as the High Line, in the framework of whether or not it is, in fact, landscape urbanism.

What are the next steps for landscape urbanism? Where do we go from here? How do we tell people what we’re talking about?

This begets several bigger questions about landscape urbanism:

Is landscape urbanism something that’s going to continue? Does it have staying power? Or was it a necessary and useful thing that got us to where we are, and we’re not sure yet what the next iteration of design thinking is? Is ecological urbanism the next iteration? Or is it some series of “fill in the blank” urbanisms that build on the foundations of previous exploration to create more of a directed agenda for action?

That leads to the second question concerning the debate about what the “works” of landscape urbanism will turn out to be. Will there be definitive landscape urbanism projects? Will these focus on a specific type of context such as large parks, or will it merge into larger discussions of infrastructure that are less typologically distinct but more widely applicable? Or will this unravel the philosophical underpinnings of the theory, as we translate these ideas into practice? Or will they be diffused out into other professional directions such as landscape architecture, urban design, architecture, and planning?

“Isn’t our major strength as communicators to be able to capture complexity and interpret it to the wider public in a way that is authentic? I don’t think there has been an attempt to truly pin down what landscape urbanism can be and how it fits into the wider perspective, and perhaps that is still work to be done.”

What’s your vision for landscape urbanism? What do you think is the biggest potential of landscape urbanism? Where (in the world, in practice, in cities) will we have the greatest impact?

I really want to see it as something that’s more cohesive, if only to give us a foundation for further inquiry that is grounded in something more tangible. Otherwise, we will just continue to chase down the next hot “urbanism” and attach ourselves and our work to it. It’s an opportunity for landscape architecture to define our own agenda in a specific way. I want people to look at it and say, wow, I totally get it. Or if they don’t get it, they can at least understand and react to it in a way that yields constructive debate and dialogue.

This brings up the essential paradox: that of describing and formulating—let’s call it distilling—the essence of a multi-faceted and complex theory like landscape urbanism into something that is approachable without losing the original conceptual underpinnings that made it appealing. Perhaps it is impossible, but isn’t our major strength as communicators to be able to capture complexity and interpret it to the wider public in a way that is authentic? I don’t think there has been an attempt to truly pin down what landscape urbanism can be and how it fits into the wider perspective, and perhaps that is still work to be done. In doing so, we will be able to use that message and that medium to teach people about what we do, and also better explain the strengths of the approach and how it fits into other approaches. If we can’t achieve that with landscape urbanism—or with some other term, or body of communicating what we do—then I’ll be very disappointed.

Jason A. King ASLA CLARB LEED AP (BD+C) is the principal of TERRA.fluxus LLC, a Portland, Oregon based practice focused on design and research at the intersection of landscape and urbanism. He is a landscape architect, urbanist, educator, and writer with 14 years of experience in environmental design strategies and a diverse portfolio of built work throughout the region.  In addition to his practice, Jason currently attends Portland State University in the PhD. program for Urban Studies, where he continues to investigate the potential of landscape architecture and applied research, with a focus on infrastructure and ecological urbanism.

Sarah Kathleen Peck works in the spaces between landscape architecture, technology, communications, and strategy, and is the editor and founder of this site. Read her complete bio here

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