Landscape Urbanism: Definitions & Trajectory

Published in SCENARIO 01: Landscape Urbanism
Fall 2011

Landscape urbanism emerges

Perhaps the time has come to state, definitively, that landscape urbanism has in fact emerged. Described for so long as an “emerging” practice, landscape urbanism—with all of its ambiguity and complexity—represents a significant twenty-first century design and planning ethos. Several prominent universities promote and support its principles, design firms include it in their firm names, and the term has even begun to enter national media and press,  (note 1) in fields outside its usual currency.

While its landscape urbanism’s raised profile is undeniable, an actual definition or common methodology remains elusive. Even describing landscape urbanism as a practice is at times regarded as a stretch, while it is commonly characterized as an approach, study, or way of thinking about the contemporary city. (note 2) Furthermore, built examples of landscape urbanism are still rare, if only because projects set to test its principles are still under construction.

Aerial view of the London Olympic Parklands. Image from London 2012.

Yet the predominant use of landscape as a restructuring process, in parallel with infrastructure and ecology, is evident in a slew of prestigious recent works, from the heavily remediated site of the London 2012 Olympics (note 3) with its sensitivity to existing watercourses, to Brooklyn Bridge Park’s careful accommodation of storm events and tidal flows in an urban space. (note 4) While the attention given to landscape urbanism may be a response to a confluence of factors—an uncertain or stagnant economy, a pressing need to re-evaluate our environmental policies and aging infrastructure, and a growing interest in the visibility of ecological processes and design—it suggests that we are beginning to tolerate and even embrace the ideas of uncertainty, process, and design complexity in already intractable and attenuated urban settings.


Landscape urbanism appears to offer a way to consider the complex urban condition; one that is capable of tackling infrastructure, water management, biodiversity, and human activity; and one that asks and examines the implications of the city in the landscape and landscape in the city. (note 5) This framework and scholarship ranges from straightforward to abstract research, but generally stems from a sense that landscape can be used as a model and basis for urban initiatives, and a lens through which to examine our cities. (note 6) On that basis, more esoteric and theoretical theories hang—such as the concern for the field over the object and the move to consider the operative (i.e., the processes of nature and culture) over purely representational or static landscape. The changing relationship between the contemporary city and the territory within which it sits has shaped these perspectives: boundaries between city and country are dissolving, forming a homogeneous continuum that has inspired the recent influx of “insert-adjective-here urbanism,” with no one method yet prevailing.

These multiple perspectives and hybrid “-isms” have evolved from this shared critical context; some may be considered parallel practices to landscape urbanism, while some are quite different. Infrastructural urbanism (note 7), for instance, shares a concern for flexible ordering principles to accommodate yet unknown future activities, but promotes the creation of artificial ecologies rather than integrating existing environmental conditions. Mat urbanism (note 8 ) and Foreign Office Architect’s phylogenesis (note 9) suggest that underlying forces in the landscape can be abstracted and made manifest, to create “thick” surfaces and hybrid building forms that may be interpreted as both building and landscape. Ecological urbanism suggests that design is the key to balancing the conflicts between ecology (uninfluenced by humans) and the overt consumption of urbanism.

While these terms share a common background and theoretical foundation, they appear formulated to address very specific concerns rather than serve as an approach for multiple and diverse landscape issues which underpin the contemporary city. Landscape in these terms appears as a burden to be solved by mechanisms, rather than a complex and essential part of these dense areas we call cities, a fundamental which needs to be sifted and nurtured.

Retrieving special meaning

Part of the strength and depth of landscape urbanism comes from the use of two words that previously might be held in opposition, suggesting a hybrid discipline. As landscape urbanism is not a neologism or amalgam—such as landurbanism or urbanlandscapism—the compound term carries the respective complexities and critical baggage of each word. Powerful subtleties in interpretation of both words have been recovered over the past decade to strengthen and augment them; what distinguishes landscape urbanism from parallel practices is the nuanced meaning of the word landscape. Its rich etymology has been written about extensively the earliest Dutch usage to describe a picture representing scenery has evolved into a term in which human influence (even if it is simply the act of viewing) is key. Landscape literally describes the state of altered land, as distinct from virgin land before human influence: “all landscapes are constructed … they are phenomena of nature and products of culture.” (note 12) Landscape in this definition is very much about the representational, the pictorial and (at least historically) the painted.

“In pairing landscape with urbanism, landscape urbanism seeks to reintroduce critical connections with natural and hidden systems and proposes the use of such systems as a flexible approach to the current concerns and problems of the urban condition.”

Cosgrove (note 13) and Corner, amongst others (note 14), have sought to reintroduce contemporary landscape associations: with scale beyond visual limits, with depth below the surface and with processes across the field. Recovering meanings from the German landschaft (note 15) and territory (note 16) acknowledges human impacts on land, a crucial and contemporary move from object to active field and recognizes that “[landscape] is organized by a multiplicity of forces without obvious formal unity.” (note 17) This final distinction is critical: the importance of deep, even invisible, rules which govern the fields that they describe, defines more readily the potential of landscape urbanism practice. It is the creative and poetic opportunity of these hidden forces that Corner proposes as a unique theme of landscape urbanism practice: where “earlier urban design and regionally scaled enterprises [failed] was [in] the oversimplification, the reduction, of the phenomenal richness of physical life.” (note 18)

Dynamic Systems, materiality and program: Image and project by MVVA

Specific practices

The compound term landscape urbanism offers a way to regain references to people, place and nature within the design field and urban context. In pairing landscape with urbanism, landscape urbanism reintroduces critical connections with natural and hidden systems and proposes the use of such systems as a flexible approach to the current concerns and problems of urban conditions. This flexibility has allowed landscape urbanism to resolve into different perspectives, the two most distinct modes of which can be described as the machine landscape mode as defined by Mohsen Mostafavi and the field operations mode as set out by James Corner.

As directed in The Machinic Landscape and the Landscape Urbanism course of the Architectural Association (note 19), the machinic landscape mode undertakes a very specific survey and analysis of the site to identify underlying forces. These are then fed into an abstract mechanism (usually a form of computer algorithm) that creates architectural forms, often of large scale and organic geometry. Often, those outside the profession grasp this particular perspective of landscape urbanism because the end result is a recognizable architectural form, albeit an abstract one.

Alternatively, the field operation mode seeks a less determined end product. Its design and construction utilizes complex and intertwined “soft” natural systems based on ecological communities and hydrological patterns. A fixed outcome is rarely envisaged at the outset, but the potential scenarios for the site are forecast to explore the multiple processes at play across the wider area. The ultimate aim is an active landscape that repairs and improves what are frequently ravaged natural systems, but with an eye to drawing out meaningful and often poetic landscape elements.

“The landscape urbanist’s long-term view and mode of careful analysis is perfectly suited to the retrieval and manifestation of a site’s meaning, feeding into a design process which starts the course of growing a real and authentic landscape response.”

Why is it critical now?

So why has landscape urbanism appeared to grow so strongly over the past decade, and why is it critical now? A number of reasons are apparent, relating to economy, collaboration, and authentic design.

Economy. In light of the recent economic downturn, traditional economics of construction are severely challenged, resulting in numerous stalled developments within and on the edges of cities. They range in scale from gap sites to district-size wastelands, and are weighed down by debt and unrealizable value—their function and usefulness appear lost.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, plans to transform post-industrial waterfront land into high-density neighborhoods have foundered: the sites repossessed by banks from bankrupt developers and left to quietly recover. These are places which appear quite different from the ideas of the polished and different “new towns” of the post-war period, yet are critical to the future evolution and consolidation of the city. If it is no longer economically viable to create new cities and towns, nor feasible to abandon cities with shrinking densities, what, then, is to be done with these stalled sites?

Reflecting a scenario all over Europe, these stalled sites are actually located in the heart of culturally dense and landscape rich areas and are a vivid and graphic expression for those living around them of the changing nature of our cities. These are the types of places where landscape urbanism should be engaged, reclaiming and restructuring the landscape cannily and efficiently in advance of financial recovery. Where building and development is not economically viable, landscape urbanism in the interim is a valid proposition. The landscape urbanist’s long-term view and careful analyses are perfectly suited to the retrieval and manifestation of a site’s meaning, feeding into a design process which starts the course of growing a real and authentic landscape response.

Collaboration across disciplines and communities. The ever-increasing pressure on other, natural, forms of resource also dictates a change in the way we think about urbanism and buildings. A renewed environmental responsibility has arisen, but we must translate these into significantly different approaches within the traditionally conservative construction and development sector. The current inability or unwillingness to consider the impact of unconfined development on natural processes must be challenged; better engagement on these issues across disciplines and across communities will be critical. The past era of nonchalance with regard to the environment is returning to haunt us, with the impacts increasingly becoming visible. Construction on floodplains, escalating surface runoff due to increased impermeable surfaces, and an increasingly homogeneity of amenity plantings cumulatively impact our city’s hydrological systems, ecological habitats, and our ability to identify and associate with natural elements in our built environment.

Landscape urbanism offers an approach which draws from multiple disciplines to promote a forum in which these consequences are understood and avoided. This collaboration extends into the communities that are directly affected, through visual education highlighting the positive impact of design. Efforts such as de-culverting a poorly constructed urban waterway or improving the biodiversity of our public open spaces through habitat enhancement make these innovations explicit. Instead of the automatic adoption of technical “solutions” or ineffective policies that hide impacts, landscape becomes the “modern glue that holds the modern metropolis together.” (note 20)

Drawing out the invisible. Beyond the prosaic and constructive side of landscape urbanism—and perhaps the strongest rationale for its longevity— there is the imaginative and poetic side to landscape: the ability to tease out invisible systems and make them part of our consciousness .

As design professionals practicing in the twenty-first century, we must reduce the energy demands of our designs, increase efficiencies, and integrate renewable energy. But beyond these planet-saving technical measures, we must ensure that new and revived urban areas are still places that g celebrate the intrinsic qualities of a site: landscape urbanism has the potential to bring out the hidden, the unknown and the delightful for those who inhabit these places. These abilities and processes will make landscape urbanism an ethos that appeals to professionals and people beyond the field.


For an ethos that celebrates uncertainty, underlying complex processes, and the grey areas of contemporary urban conditions, a clear definition is difficult to distill into a fixed statement. Regardless of the shades of meaning or abstraction adopted, landscape urbanism tries to understand the massive complexity of the world that we live in, to work collaboratively with other disciplines to produce solutions that are respectful to sites and inhabitants, and also create new urban spaces that contribute to the wider natural and cultural territory. In its unique potential to take a poetic gauge of environmental processes, landscape urbanism differs from other practices. The ability to recognize, embrace and transform such subtle but powerful forces suggests a way to design authentic, yet newly imagined places that immerse us in the richness of landscape.

Chris Gray is an architect and landscape architect who works at the boundary between the two disciplines. His professional experience ranges from complex urban projects with tightly integrated architectural interventions to large scale development frameworks and masterplans. Chris has a strong interest in contemporary landscape design, the development of the modern city and authentic design within sensitive landscapes.

Note 1: Leon Neyfakh. “Green Building,” Boston Globe. 30th January 2011.
Note 2: James Corner. “Landscape Urbanism,” in Landscape urbanism: a manual for the machinic landscape, eds. Mohsen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle. (London: Architectural Association, 2003) 58.
Note 3: [Illustration: The waterways around the industrial area where the Olympic Park is situated were among the most polluted in London (and the UK) and an approach was taken to remediate the whole area based on their treatment.]
Note 4: [See second illustration, next page: An excellent image of the park which shows dynamic systems, programme and materiality at play together by MVVA]
Note 5: James Corner. “Terra Fluxus” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader, ed. Charles Waldheim. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, June 2006) 25.
Note 6: Stan Allen. “Mat Urbanism: The Thick 2-D” in CASE: Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital and the mat building revival, ed. Hashim Sarkis. (Munich; New York : Prestel, 2002.) 124.
Note 7: Stan Allen. “Infrastructural Urbanism” in Points + lines : diagrams and projects for the city, ed. Stan Allen. (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).
Note 8: Alison Smithson. “How to recognise and read mat-building” in Architectural design 44, 9, 1974. 573-590, reprinted in CASE: Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital and the mat building revival, ed. Hashim Sarkis. (Munich; New York: Prestel) 2002.
Note 9: Foreign Office Architects. Phylogenesis: foa’s ark. Actar. March 2004, 11.
Note 10: Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty. Ecological Urbanism. (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Pub. 2010)
Note 11: See James Corner, ed. Recovering landscape: essays in contemporary landscape architecture. (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) for a collection of essays that supply various definitions of landscape beyond the representational.
Note 12: Anne Winston Spirn. “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. by William Cronon. (New York; London:W.W. Norton & Company, 1996) 113.
Note 13: Denis E. Cosgrove. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. (Kent: Croom Helm, 1984) 13.
Note 14: Sanford Kwinter. “American Design?” in Praxis: journal of writing + building, no. 4, (2002) 6.
Note 15: James Corner. “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” in Recovering landscape: essays in contemporary landscape architecture, ed. by James Corner. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) 154.
Note 16: Sanford Kwinter. “American Design?” in Praxis: journal of writing + building, no. 4, 2002.
Note 17: Ibid., 6.
Note 18: James Corner. “Terra Fluxus,” 32.
Note 19: Mohsen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle, eds. Landscape urbanism: a manual for the machinic landscape. (London: Architectural Association, 2003)
Note 20: Alex Krieger. “Territories of Urban Design.” in Territories of Urban Design. GSD, Harvard, Feb. 2004. Web. 13 Aug. 2011.