Working Definitions: Shift, Settle, and Buck

Originally published in Landscape Urbanism Journal 01: Indeterminacy and Multiplicity
Summer 2011
by Eliza Shaw Valk

View along the High Line in New York City.

The sun flashed in my eyes through the gaps between buildings, reflecting in the windows across the street as I walked west a couple weeks ago in New York City. Over the course of a few days, I had hightailed it up and down the length of Manhattan, across to Brooklyn and Queens in a flurry of activity. I had had a two-hour phone call with the editor of this site, trolled through Brooklyn Bridge Park with a friend, traversed the new section of the High Line with another, and was on my way to a conference on sea-level rise and waterfront design. With staccato blindness from the glinting light, I felt a sense of possibility envelop me, and while I wasn’t skipping, my thoughts scampered ahead, stopping to peer around a corner, flickering in and out of view.

For months, I’d been trying to define landscape urbanism—for friends, colleagues, my mom, myself—and was struck by how I stumbled in speech, how an explanation took so long to get out, how the words I chose occluded any relevance. At one point, I saucily decided that landscape urbanism was simply contemporary landscape architecture practice. Then someone pointed out that a trail in the woods far from any city had nothing to do with a city. I hedged, nimbly refining my definition to a branch of contemporary landscape architecture. But immediately, this tweak derailed my efforts: I could see my listener picturing a branch, and upon hearing the word landscape, his mind’s eye traveling down the trunk of a tree. My definition was stuck in the garden.

And then, as I walked, in and out of shadow, it hit me. The landscape of cities! Landscape urbanism is the design of the city’s landscape. The definition had been staring us in the face, and I was walking on it.

Cities are dense human settlements. But cities are not only building forms and closely packed populations, they are places of countless dynamics: economic exchanges large, modest and miniscule; cultural traditions and subcultural flourishes; social norms and deviances; commercial entertainment and experimental arts; maintenance and degradation; creativity and vice; construction and destruction; enforcement and illicit trade; education and debate—all human-derived identities, processes, and systems overlapping and colliding in a certain place. But this place is not discrete, no matter the growth boundaries, hard edges, or political purviews.

In cities, human systems are not independent of natural systems, but ensconced within them, subject to anticipated cycles and quixotic eruptions.

Place is subject to processes and systems beyond our control and sometimes even our comprehension. The ground underfoot shifts, settles, and snaps; rivers and seas swell rhythmically and suddenly; a hovering sky breaks apart or bears down. These geologic, ecologic, hydraulic, and atmospheric forces, among many others, play out in the huge moves of extreme events or in incremental dendritic twists, ones that we recognize, feel, and hear. Water flows into sewers and overflows, the sky casts a yellowing hue before a strange summer storm, headaches flare during barometric changes, a cool breeze blushes off the sound, spring buds emit musky odors. In cities, human systems are not independent of natural systems, but ensconced within them, subject to anticipated cycles and quixotic eruptions. How the city is designed determines how we contact and interact with the world beyond the one of our creation. How the city is designed is determined by choices.

Landscape urbanism—and landscape studies in general—are distinguished from architecture and modern art by their emphasis on the study of complex relationships and interactions between form and process. Here, form is not an isolated thing, honed to a notion of aesthetic perfection, but instead derives from a need that the form perform.

This need is culturally derived. Nature doesn’t have needs. As Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha have exhorted us to recognize, nature happens. Or, if you will forgive the turn, it events. Culture construes natural events as natural disasters. As populations grow, choices we make as a society and culture—to thrive, make money, escape, recreate, explore—can lead to increasingly dire consequences, unforeseen or unheeded, as natural events throw up in our faces, taking life, property, investment, history, and potential.

Landscape urbanism seeks to devise how to meet cultural needs while accommodating natural forces. Both needs and forces are composed of so many factors, variables, and unknowns that neither are clearly delineated nor fully understood, no matter how exhaustive an analysis. This does not mean that the study is futile or impossible, but it does mean that the task is worthwhile. Each answer, conclusion, or proposal generates more questions.

And this is what makes landscape urbanism so exciting as it tries to engage and integrate processes into form. What makes this enterprise so tricky is that we don’t know everything there is to know about processes—about the reactions, consequences, effects, and side effects of those choices. Cities are dynamic, mercurial, creative, headstrong, vapid, intense, frustrating, heady, and intoxicating. Cities are effective because so much happens in them. There are inefficiencies and impracticalities, but there are also endless evolutions and iterations that resist and buck determinism, predictions, positivist one-to-one conclusions, and binary resolutions. As designers, we have a charge to weigh factors and influences and to offer schemes and proposals that are responsive, flexible, cogent, and beautiful.

The quibblings of factions in the fields of planning and design, the derision and scorn, snobbery and anti-snobbery, these deflect and enervate our attention. There are needs to be met, injustices to right, hopes to nurture, revelations to uncover, and ideals to pursue. There are needs and there are choices. Let’s discuss the needs, the processes, the choices. Let’s figure out why something worked well. Let’s figure out what went wrong and how to make it better. Let’s be open to one another, to research, to ideas, to difference, to challenges and opportunities, to working definitions, and to working together. To sissy foot and posture is to miss not only the big picture, but to miss what’s flashing right in front of us, arousing our desire, appealing to our conscience, demanding our consideration.

Eliza Shaw Valk is a designer and writer with a background in dance and performance. 

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