Originally published in Landscape Urbanism Journal 01: Indeterminacy and Multiplicity
by Shanti Fjord Levy
Introduction: Extending Landscape Urbanism’s History
In practice, landscape and urbanism have been held apart by professional boundaries, which are reinforced by divergent tactics and working scales. Joining these two terms into a hybrid methodology, as landscape urbanist practitioners have recently done, has sparked new ways of approaching the condition of cities as vast horizontal networks. Landscape urbanism promotes a “disciplinary realignment where landscape supplants architecture’s role as the basic building block of urban design.” (note 1) This collision of terminology and methodology has contributed greatly to current design discourse. At the same time, the prevailing effort to present landscape urbanism as a new, emergent discipline obscures a substantial lineage of thought that bolsters its credibility, if not its claim for originality. Prioritizing landscape as the foundation for a sound urbanism, and doing so through synthetic, interdisciplinary practice, has strong roots in the work of the earlier urban theorists Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, and Benton MacKaye. While landscape urbanists mention these important thinkers who broke the molds of top-down planning methods, they offer little discussion of the continuities between landscape urbanism and this history of urban critique based in the landscape.
Australian landscape architect Peter Connolly refers to the “default” understanding of landscape urbanism, as defined in North America by Charles Waldheim and James Corner in The Landscape Urbanism Reader (note 2) and Praxis 4: Landscapes (note 3). In these texts, Waldheim and Corner seem invested in a perception of their work as a break from past practices, as a unique praxis poised to address new urban situations. This emphasis on newness allows their work to be appreciated as emergent, in connection with the same ecological spontaneity landscape urbanists hope to nurture in practice. Stressing the newness of their approach, however, isolates it as an intellectually autonomous body of thought, rather than a flexible, historically integrated working method. I will be responding to this “tacitly agreed upon idea of what landscape urbanism is,” (note 4) questioning the need for the field to be developed as an “ism” linked to a particular self-proclaimed genealogy and practice, rather than as an open set of principles that can guide the current practice of landscape architecture, urbanism and architecture.
Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism (note 5) presents a collection of historical essays that inform landscape urbanism. Yet this history only goes as far back as Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature in 1969. Setting the stage for McHarg, however, Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, and Benton MacKaye foresaw the need to approach the city with new vision and strategies. Central to their approaches to what Mumford termed “living urban tissue” (1969), and Geddes called “conurbation” (1923), is an understanding that landscape underlies urban order.
As a city disperses, it loses its complexity and charge. Geddes, Mumford and Mackaye offer ideas for how to recapture this vitality in the new, expansive urban form. These historic writings suggest how landscape urbanism might be strengthened by greater attention to cultural and ecological landscape identity. Rather than focus on an essentially architectural understanding of urbanism-as-program and landscape-as-surface, these theorists recognize how landscape can generate infrastructure and how urbanism is formed by cultural interaction in the landscape over time.
Geddes, Mumford and MacKaye support a synthetic, interdisciplinary approach to a hybridized city. A hybrid approach can deal with current urban conditions where distinctions between urban and rural have blurred. James Corner writes that landscape urbanism “is a proposition of disciplinary conflation and unity, albeit a unity that contains, or holds together, difference—difference in terms of the ideological, programmatic, and cultural content of each of those loaded and contested words, ‘landscape,’ ‘urbanism’.” (note 6) In their descriptions of the urban condition and the approach it calls for, Geddes, Mumford, and MacKaye all support conflations of disciplines and categories traditionally held distinct. Their writing and suggested methods disrupt binary understandings of city/country, urban/rural, and human/nature. Much like landscape urbanists, these three promote new images of an interconnected city-landscape rather than viewing cities as a corruption of nature. They stand apart from tendencies that posit environmentalism as the conservation of designated wilderness areas, instead seeking to integrate natural forces and human settlement. They each, at least rhetorically, also eschew top-down planning methods that seek to apply abstract, rational means of ordering urban dynamics. Instead, they look to systems of order that pre-exist in the landscape and underly a heterogeneous cultural cohesion within particular regions. They pursue an urbanization that maintains the identity of place by effectively integrating these categories and preventing homogeneous and clumsy settlements.
Above a buried stream channel, a hedgerow colonizes the parking lot, reclaiming a lush, biodiverse link to the forest.
Patrick Geddes: Synthetic Thinking and the Regional City
Patrick Geddes applied his background in botany and the natural sciences to the study of cities. He advances an idea of the new, synthetic city as a concentrated expression of the rural area around it, rather than distinct or opposed to it. Geddes develops his idea of the “Valley Section” out of his analysis of how bounded cities were diffusing into what he termed “conurbations,” or interconnected city-regions. (note 7)
The Valley Section, which traces a diagrammatic slice from a river’s source in the mountains to its mouth at the sea, attempts to convey how human adaptations have developed in relation to their position and reveal how the zones of a landscape are linked by a common waterway. This method, which applies botanical concepts of plant distribution (note 8), explores a region’s potential while revealing elements of landscape as ecological and cultural markers of identity. His method emphasizes the importance of an interrelationship between settlement, culture, and landscape, and communicates this relationship between people and place through a section cut. The section is able to illuminate particulars of geography and how it affects culture—information that would be lost in the flattening qualities of a plan.
Instead of suggesting a boundary or limit to growth, Geddes suggested a reverse rural-urban colonization that is less nostalgic than opportunistic, sharing qualities with landscape urbanism’s hope of reintroducing complex ecologies in degraded sites. In Geddes’ “synoptic vision of Nature,” nature is preserved not through separation from humans, but rather through a heightened relationship developed by cultivation (sylviculture, arboriculture, and park-making). Geddes suggests that when landscape is cultivated as the foundation of urbanism, a durable, complex integration between city and landscape becomes possible. Creating the synthetic city “is more than engineering: it is a master-art; vaster than that of street planning, it is landscape-making; and thus it meets and combines with city design.” (note 9) This hardly seems far from James Corner’s claim that “landscape drives the process of city formation.” (note 10)
Akin to current landscape urbanist thinking, Geddes’ work encourages what he calls a “synthetic form of thought.” His “polymathic wanderings between disciplines” are influenced by a commitment to “the reconciliation of science, morality and aesthetics.” (note 11) Within his overarching goals of cooperation, he sees the value in connecting theoretical inquiry with practical application. Geddes’ desire for synthesis translated into the development of graphs he termed his “thinking machines” which sought to codify all arenas of life into thirty-six categories of interrelationship.
While Geddes’ goal of synthesis remains compelling, his attempt to grasp complexities within such a defined format curtailed the potential scope of his work. Mumford, Geddes’ reluctantly critical student, identified what he saw as a contradiction in Geddes’ hope for a synthetic form of thinking and his vision that such a synthesis would arrive at an end point, rather than at a productive instability or flexibility. Mumford writes, “the possibility of constructing such a ‘final’ synthesis was, in terms of [Geddes’] own most vital insight, a delusion. Synthesis is not a goal: it is a process of organization, constantly in operation, never finished. Any attempt to produce a single synthesis for all times, all places, all cultures, all persons is to reject the very nature of organic existence.” (note 12) Underlying Mumford’s unease with this approach is his strong conviction in the necessity to honor situated knowledge and distinctions of identity. While Geddes’s developed intellectually in a period of hope, Mumford’s outlook was tempered by the infusion of war-torn despair. (note 13,14) This difference, perhaps, explains Mumford’s deeper discomfort with totalizing theories and methodologies.
Lewis Mumford: A Search for Urban Complexity
Geddes and Mumford both value the importance of the region as a place defined from within and they create new vocabulary and methodologies to address it. In his book, The City in History, Mumford introduces the idea of emergence as key to understanding how a city develops:
In emergent evolution, the introduction of a new factor does not just add to the existing mass, but produces an over-all change, a new configuration, which alters its properties…. The old components of the village were carried along and incorporated in the new urban unit; but through the action of new factors, they were recomposed in a more complex and unstable pattern than that of the village—yet in a fashion that promoted further transformations and developments…. Out of this complexity the city created higher unity. (note 15)
In defining the city as a “complex and unstable pattern” and the basis for ongoing “transformations,” Mumford sets up the characteristics of mutability and fertile, complex tensions as both essential to a city. He describes the transformation of the city as a walled entity to its current state of fragmentation as an explosion: “the city has burst open and scattered its complex organs and organizations over the entire landscape. The walled urban container indeed has not merely broken open: it has also been largely demagnetized, with the result that we are witnessing a sort of devolution of urban power into a state of randomness and unpredictability.” (note 16, 17) The cultural productivity the walled city was able to foment was lost in urban dissolution. This obsolete, bounded city, “through its very form held together the new forces, intensified their internal reactions, and raised the whole level of achievement…. As with a gas, the very pressure of the molecules within that limited space produced more social collisions and interactions within a generation than would have occurred in many centuries if still isolated in their native habitats, without boundaries.” (note 18) Here, Mumford makes an argument that the interactions generated by the spatial qualities of the bounded historic city must find a new impetus in the “exploded” city. While the bounded city eventually became too limited and lost its productive efficacy, dispersed cities have yet to find comparable catalysts for the needed collisions, interactions, and reactions. Yet, as the landscape urbanists who follow, Mumford valued a horizontal tapestry of interspersed urban and rural characters, what he called a “green matrix.” He does not set urbanization, generally, opposite an archaic image of nature as untangled from human settlement. Rather, he argues against the sort of urbanization that is unresponsive to the particularities that compose a region as both ecologically and culturally unique.
To pursue viable urbanism, we must look at the scale of the region. A region is large enough to hold heterogeneity and small enough to support distinct, but shared values. Its diversity and values develop from of culture’s actions on its geographical substrate. In this view—which tightly links social and ecological aspects of a place—ecological influences prevent the human tendency to oversimplify, a tendency exemplified by the suburbs. (note 19) Mumford points out that suburbs were a critique of over-engineered, cramped urban space. They offered a type of settlement where domestic requirements could respond to landscape qualities, favoring minimal built intervention instead of maximized engineered efficiency.
The problem is not in the suburb’s lower density, but rather in that this type of urbanization over time became decreasingly responsive to the regional landscape while also recreating rural problems of isolation, problems met only by coarse transportation infrastructure. Consequently, this heavy-handed infrastructure recreated the rigid control characteristic of urban order that suburbia sought to escape. (note 20) Therefore, Mumford rejects suburban development for lacking the complexity that he regards as necessary in a city. He writes that the suburb is the “anti-city” and its development “annihilates the city whenever it collides with it.” (note 21) As opposed to his view of the city as complex and alive with emergent social conditions, in the isolation fostered by the suburb “nothing can happen spontaneously or autonomously—not without a great deal of mechanical assistance.” (note 22) In order for a dispersed city to gain viability, then, it will have to support multiple scales of space and time. Further, it will have to regain the fertile tensions and collisions that Mumford claims the city has lost in its “demagnetization” by creating greater diversity in its extended “green matrix.”
Benton MacKaye: Geotechnics, Revealing Infrastructure in the Landscape
Benton MacKaye’s strategies of “geotechnics” explore how the landscape itself can provide organization for the city as a charged field. As Mumford distinguishes between the regional inflections of a “green matrix” and the non-responsive character of “low grade urban tissue,” MacKaye sets apart development that is “genuinely urban, which furthers an active community life and produces a good environment, and metropolitan growth, which wipes out a good part of community life and produces a deteriorate environment of both town and country.” (note 23) For MacKaye, metropolitan growth follows the lines of least resistance, while “genuinely urban” growth is a mosaic of integrated urban and rural elements particular to a region. Geddes labels MacKaye’s practice “geotechnics” presenting it as an alternative to technocratic principles, as MacKaye embedded technology into geologic order. Geotechnics, itself a hybrid term, combines “geography, forestry and conservation, engineering colonization, regional planning, and economics.’” (note 24) Though MacKaye’s proposals address the political, economic, and cultural aspects of the landscape, they develop out of his background in natural sciences, particularly his study of dynamic geologic processes. In this way, the multi-disciplinary scope of his regional projects favor a “composite mind” to address complex issues.
MacKaye saw the city and surrounding countryside through their connective flows rather than as a bounded urban figure set in a separate, uniform rural field. For example, he diagrams Boston as a “mouth” of flow, or a consumer of the region’s economies, while showing its link to its surrounding countryside as a “source” of population flow. With his emphasis on flows, MacKaye could leap easily across scales, mapping the landscape infrastructures of a locality or expressing the world as an interconnected system of traffic. In focusing on the connections between city and its surroundings, MacKaye’s work confounds neat distinctions between the urban and rural, while his conflation of hydrological processes with human movement confronts the propensity to set people apart from the mechanisms that drive natural systems.
MacKaye hoped to cultivate viable urbanism by activating landscape as the underlying structure for a heterogeneous urban mosaic. Characteristic to his approach is that, rather than proposing extensive building projects, he suggests new ways of seeing the potentials that already exist and are offered in a landscape’s structure, so that it may be culturally activated. For MacKaye, the work of a regional planner is related with that of a civil engineer in how “he does not create his own plan, he discovers nature’s plan; he reveals a hidden potentiality which nature’s laws allow.” As such, a planner is “a man who finds rather than plans a region’s best development: one who builds on the actualities disclosed by exploration.” (note 25) Rather than looking for an abstract order, MacKaye understood that many systems of order are latent within the landscape itself, and that, often, a shift in vision alone makes these systems operative. In terms of sustainability, this approach is highly relevant, as it involves little material expenditure or heavy construction to enforce a change, but rather is tactical in that it focuses on the most minimal intervention to spur the most fundamental re-ordering. As Charles Waldheim writes, an approach centered around landscape is more viable than the “‘weighty apparatus’ of traditional urban design [that] proves costly, slow, and inflexible in relation to the rapidly transforming conditions of contemporary urban culture.” (note 26)
Mumford also forecast the necessity to respond to changing, collapsing urban conditions with more adaptive strategies. He voices a concern that is later echoed by the landscape urbanists’ emphasis on adaptability: “the more the energies of a community become immobilized in ponderous material structures, the less ready it is to adjust itself to new emergencies and to take advantage of new possibilities.” (note 27) In accordance with MacKaye, Mumford denounces infrastructural and urbanization efforts that neglect the opportunities of a site in favor of elaborately engineered means of accommodating poor initial choices. The priority that Mumford and MacKaye share, to maximize the potential of the landscape and minimize dependence on permanent, built solutions, offers a regionalist precursor to landscape urbanism’s current intentions.
Landscape Urbanism: Veering Toward the Formal Field Operation
Though Charles Waldheim professes a desire for landscape to replace architecture as the fundamental building block of urbanization, (note 28) much landscape urbanist work makes little effort to draw out the systems of order inherent in the landscape that would make this possible. Rather, these practices paradoxically seem to suppress differentiations existing in sites in favor of promised overlays of future order. Current North American landscape urbanists express faith in abstract systems, such as the grid, for finding order in the vastness of the “mat city.” James Corner writes optimistically:
…the grid has historically proven to be a particularly effective field operation, extending a framework across a vast surface for flexible and changing development over time, such as the real estate grid of Manhattan, or the land survey grid of the Midwestern United States. In these instances, an abstract formal operation characterizes the surface, imbuing it with specificity and operational potential. This organization lends legibility and order to the surface while allowing for the autonomy and individuality of each part, and remaining open to alternative permutations over time. This stages the surface with orders and infrastructures permitting a vast range of accommodations and is indicative of an urbanism that eschews formal object making for the tactical work of choreography, a choreography of elements and materials in time that extends to new networks, new linkages, and new opportunities. (note 29)
Mumford’s call for local variation leads him to a very different conclusion about the organizational grid, noting its effective use toward singular, economic ends. Mumford denounces speculative grids as “spectacular in their inefficiency and waste” due to the standardized scale of its units, which end up causing equal infrastructural resources to be allocated, regardless of the scale of occupation. In this way, this abstract order neglects the particularities of site, such as wind, light, soil and topography, in favor of formal consistency.
Corner trades the “formal object,” rejected by landscape urbanism, for a field he proclaims to be an “abstract formal operation.” The grid’s very abstractness as an applied order challenges the claim that it might be capable of “imbuing” a place with “specificity.” Implicit is a conception of sites as devoid of “operational potential” until the designer applies it, or, as Koolhaas writes, directs the “irrigation of territories with potential.” (note 30) In light of the landscape urbanist effort to value the landscape as the primary medium for structuring cities, the idea of infrastructure as something added or overlaid on the landscape seems counterproductive. This application of an external order becomes an act of obfuscation of the landscape rather than a revelation of the landscape’s specificities. The first step to a landscape urbanist approach might instead account for the landscape as infrastructure, and then find ways to plug in to it, expand, and adapt it to accommodate the activities and settlement of people. The orders already present in the landscape—even those obscured through histories of human disregard—provide the urban structure, the field becomes operative.
As the application of abstract order reflects a disconnection from larger landscape systems, it also allows for arbitrary limits to be drawn on a site. A focus within the outline of a parcel prevents the potential to elucidate what Robin Dripps describes as a site’s “special repository of clues,” or indications of larger systems too expansive to be contained in a small parcel. As fragments, these “clues” offer opportunities for potentially vital diversity “in their ability to be combined, reconfigured, or hybridized without the formal or intellectual compromises suffered by a more complete or closed entity.” (note 31) .
By not acknowledging the sites’ already dense potential, sites are represented as neutral and without agency. This tendency follows Koolhaas’ lineage by developing systems of order through applied programmatic possibilities rather than found site qualities. As landscape urbanists are acting in a landscape carved by the engines of undifferentiated urbanization that Mumford, Geddes and MacKaye fought against, it becomes even more difficult, but no less important, to see the links between these places and the stories that lace them with cultural significance and ecological richness. Peter Connolly takes issue with this tendency in landscape urbanism, exemplified in Alex Wall’s idea of the “urban surface.” Wall equates areas of extended, horizontal urbanism with abstract space. Abstracting the specifics of landscapes becomes a liability, where, in contrast to claims of landscape shaping urban interventions, the “very abstractness of this surface seems to liberate architects into the landscape.” (note 32) Ensuing applications of abstract order suggest a certain degree of determinism that landscape urbanists critique in common planning practices.
Complementing a map: a notational system conveys experiential qualities of a forest perceived in a walk—that of wind, sound, enclosure, and ground.
In Support of Middle Scale, Subjective Methods
One danger in such abstraction is the distancing of not only techniques for understanding and representing the landscape, but the ability of the landscape, structured by abstract orders, to foster stronger connections with its inhabitants. The representational distance, epitomized by the aerial view and the seeming authority of digital site representations, suppresses the subjectivity of a site and hence the communication of its identity.
This tension also underlies the sense of authority a map confers and its true subjectivity. James Corner’s mapping techniques and theories, which do embrace the map’s subjectivity, have significantly shaped current landscape architecture practice. At the same time, Corner’s maps connote a sense of power by hiding their subjectivity, allowing them to maintain an aura of authority. Corner celebrates this authority as a map’s key means of agency. Yet, because maps are, as Corner writes, “extremely opaque, imaginative operational measurements,” maps must be accompanied by other, experiential forms of notation and description. (note 33)
Mumford critiqued Patrick Geddes’ abstract, inflexible graphic method for a similar guise of authority. Despite Geddes’ claim to the universal applicability of his graphic method, it was, in fact, a deeply personal approach developed to compensate for a temporary blindness. Mumford was bothered by a disjuncture between the rigidity of Geddes’ graphic analysis and another method Geddes also practiced: walking and experiencing a city first hand. Geddes, an avid supporter of walking as a way of knowing, called for lived experience as the primary means of understanding the city. Mumford’s own belief in the vitality and value of cities derived from personal observations made during his systematic urban walks. Mackaye, as an adolescent, began to develop maps of the forests based on his observations of their character and terrain. His idea of regional planning, then, began with an experiential cartography. (note 34)
Walking has been pursued and discussed as a practice that addresses many of the same problems landscape urbanism tackles, that of modernism’s totality and universalistic tendencies. Walking addresses alienation by valuing a vantage point on the ground, one rejected by the predominant methodology and scales so far employed by landscape urbanist practitioners. Walking offers an embedded understanding of a place, as the “city is sliced and exposed by a walk, constructing a grounded view rather than the remote, overhead, ‘all-seeing’ vantage point of a traditional map. The eye in the sky is so detached that the…[city] is shown devoid of citizenry.” (note 35) From this perspective it becomes clear that “the city might best be understood and designed in section—the plane of perception—rather than in plan, the plane of construction. The walk, here, constitutes a pop-up sequencing of the city in four dimensions.” (note 36) A complex understanding of a place made possible through walking argues for the necessity of situated, notational methods to accompany aerial mapping techniques.
In Waldheim’s discussion of West 8’s work, he argues that their strength, and a characteristic he values in a landscape urbanist approach, lies in a de-emphasis on “the middle scale of decorative or architectural work and favoring instead the large scale infrastructural diagram and the small-scale material condition.” (note 37) In leaping back and forth between the total intimacy of the individual condition and the large scale, “latent” relationships that exist outside of the range of human perception this bipolar expression of landscape urbanism reinforces—rather than challenges—the experience of living in an undifferentiated horizontal city. On the ground, the experience of the “mat city” is characterized by both intense isolation as well as the disorientation that results from being overwhelmed by a scale larger than a person can conceptually grasp. Jumping from the individual scale to the synoptic totality skips over the middle scale where interactions occur. For urbanism to be landscape urbanism, it must engage this experiential human scale, the subjective scale in which relationships between people and between people and place occur. This is the middle scale of public interaction in which Mumford’s “social collisions” occur and where community is expressed. The scale of experience, therefore, beyond merely “decorative,” is actually the scale at which we develop and communicate both meaning and identity in the landscape.
Conclusion: The Garden City Revisited
While Lewis Mumford, Patrick Geddes and Benton MacKaye are all remembered for their roles as urban theorists and planners, they contribute to current landscape urbanist principles not only the vocabularies and methodologies they developed in response to shifting urban conditions, but also a fundamental consideration that the creation of real cities relies on the existence of a shared, locally situated landscape identity. Both the scale of human experience and the concept of the garden come into play as means for creating cultural traction in changing landscapes. The garden, as a site where shared cultural and natural authorship is undisputed, is a useful analogy for the aims of landscape urbanism. Culture may be linked to the cultivation of landscape, generating new overlapping social and ecological sources of productivity. Lewis Mumford makes the claim that the creation of a viable urbanism will depend not on the preservation “of the primeval, but extending the range of the garden, and introducing the deliberate culture of the landscape into every part of the open country” (emphasis added). He recognizes that “the culture of the environment” is not entrenched enough in our consciousness. (note 38)
While historical urban thinkers are often dismissed by landscape urbanists—perhaps because the alarm these theorists express seems antiquated in a post-industrial urban realm—a re-examination of their views reveals a legacy that values interrelationships between culture and landscape, urban and rural. These writers bolster landscape urbanism’s potential to develop key strategies of urban sustainability, drawing on relationships embedded in the landscape to cultivate vital, rooted cities. I echo Chris Macdonald’s hope that, as the discipline of landscape urbanism “emerges, it might take delight in matters of subtle consequence alongside those of strategic insight.” (note 39)
Shanti Fjord Levy joined Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture as a designer in 2009, after working for Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and D.I.R.T.studio. She seeks ways for design to reveal landscape identity and to serve as a catalyst for engagement—with one’s senses, the passing of time, natural forces, and public life.
Shanti earned a Master of Landscape Architecture and Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia, where she was awarded the top academic honor from both programs and served as editor for two volumes of the academic journal lunch. As recipient of the Pelliccia Traveling Fellowship, Shanti investigated layered edges in the city of Rome. Through design research, she has explored how water infrastructure can multitask as public space and developed tools to reclaim the suburban landscape. She has an undergraduate background in Latin American Studies and Visual Arts from Brown University.
Image Credits: All photos and work by Shanti Fjord Levy.