From the November 2013 issue of LAM:
Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City. Edited by Andrés Duany and Emily Talen. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2013; 316 pages, $29.95.
Charter of the New Urbanism, Second Edition. Edited by Emily Talen. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2013; 302 pages, $60.
Reviewed by John King, Honorary ASLA.
New Urbanism is in the throes of midlife crisis, and Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, is reaping the benefits.
As the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University, Waldheim champions a repackaging of the discipline into a school of thought that he and the like-minded call “Landscape Urbanism.” This vague term has been applied to a number of efforts that readers of this magazine will find familiar, such as CityDeck in Green Bay by the firm Stoss, as well as New York’s most-talked-about intervention of the past decade, the High Line, designed in part by James Corner Field Operations. The concept at a small scale often translates to urban parks that fold an abstract sense of nature into the built terrain; Corner has described the High Line with its wild-looking grasses amid train rails as “a combined or furrowed landscape surface.” Waldheim, meanwhile, presents Landscape Urbanism in much larger terms—no less than “a broad theoretical framework for thinking about the city as an ecological construct and concept,” to quote a 2012 interview.
Its ambitions aside, “Landscape Urbanism” remains a theoretical premise better known to design insiders than to the lay public. But it looms ominously large in the worldview of Andrés Duany, the architect who helped found the New Urbanism movement in the 1990s and now is eager to portray Waldheim et al. as the 21st-century equivalent of the modernist planners who uncorked such evils as blank-slate urban renewal after World War II. As far as Duany is concerned, efforts to restore ecological corridors within cities are nothing more or less than “green camouflage for…big box retailers, junkspace office parks, and residential high-rise clusters.” The same old formless sprawl as ever, but with bioswales instead of golf courses.
Duany has received considerable mileage from such attacks, including an invitation to be with Waldheim on the keynote panel of the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting (an appearance canceled by Duany the night before because of flight difficulties). Now comes Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City, a book-long salvo against Waldheim and his academic/ideological allies, a collection of essays that suggest many New Urbanists aren’t sure what to do now that the novelty of their crusade has worn off.