The Prophet’s Motive

New Urbanists vs. Landscape Urbanists

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.

“Landscape Urbanism could not be successfully analyzed as a design movement, or even an environmental reform strategy,” Duany and his coeditor, Emily Talen, write in a rather odd chapter supposedly set in the future, after the fever has broken. “Its peculiar combination of agendas would be finally understood as a campaign to amass power.”

Belligerent insecurity is the dominant tone of the collection, starting with the transcript of a 2011 dialogue on Landscape Urbanism between Duany and others in his philosophical camp. Much of it fixates on the perceived flaws of the High Line, such as the $150 million budget for the first two phases: “You could convert 40 miles of bad streets to very good (and green) public realm for every mile of High Line,” Paul Crabtree says. Duany dismisses the New Urbanists in the room who actually like the elevated pedestrian way as “terminal vanguardista” and suggests that it would be better with “more sittable grass, less prissy rusticated landscaping, hundreds of Adirondack chairs….” Instead, alas, we’re stuck with “the usual designer self-indulgence…. It is so twentieth century!”

That pugnacious chat is followed by one of Duany’s solo chapters: “An Album of Images, 1950–2010.” It too is written in supposed hindsight, a conceit that allows him to consign spaces he doesn’t like to the dustbin of (future) history. When we’re shown an image of the rain garden at Washington, D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School, Duany tells us that the courtyard should have been used for recreation “rather than as an inaccessible demonstration of technically-assisted natural drainage”—and then he adds, parenthetically, “(Demolished and replaced by a playing field ca. 2022).” He is dismissive of West 8’s competition-winning design for Governor’s Island but credits it by mistake to Corner and locates it at Liberty Island. He also misspells the name of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, twice, while presenting him as a landscape architect worthy of respect.

If Duany were making a methodical case that Landscape Urbanists don’t create spaces for humans to use and enjoy, that would be one thing (especially if he got his facts right). But the only tools he employs here are mockery and condescension—and when you’re familiar with the setting being ridiculed, the extent to which Duany distorts reality is obvious. For me, the most glaring example involves Mission Creek Park in San Francisco’s new Mission Bay district. Duany shows a photo of an adult and child on a path framed by native grasses (“note the children gazing rather than playing”), then explains to us yokels how the “perennial problem with native planting was that the humans must be contained. But human activity on turf was not originally, conceptually, within the Landscape Urbanist discourse,” either not knowing or not caring that in real life, the next section of the small park features a smoothly mowed amphitheater tailor-made for lounging in the grass (and, for the record, one short block away will be a playground that has been in the plans from the start).

I was also surprised to see Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway depicted by Duany as “an early instance of the emerging alliance between NIMBYism, environmentalism, and [poorly located] biophilia, which came to be brokered by Landscape Urbanism.” Make no mistake, there’s plenty wrong with the decision to place a series of (not very good) parks atop the path of the city’s former Central Artery/Tunnel, but the journey down that unwise path began in the late 1980s, when proponents touted a chance to bring Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace downtown and to create new neighborhood parks. There was no talk then of weaving naturalistic landscapes back onto the Shawmut Peninsula.

Not all the essays are as snide as Duany’s screeds, or the ever-irascible James Kunstler’s essay on how Waldheim and his tenured peers are driven by envy of New Urbanism’s success: “When all was said and done, the Landscape Urbanism project was a lame defense of the bankrupt old mandarin ideology that had corroded into little more than a never-ending exercise in status-seeking, especially at Harvard.” But there’s enough to sour the more thoughtful analyses and leave you wondering about the larger purpose of the collection, a desire to attract attention.

Which brings us to the midlife crisis.

New Urbanism has raised the level of discourse about our cities in profound and welcome ways, starting with its backing of pedestrian-friendly streets and options in getting from place to place. It also has shaped places of soothing beauty, such as the Seaside resort community in Florida. But since 1993, when Duany and six others founded the Congress for the New Urbanism, there has been an element of empire building by Duany and his closest supporters—they want to be both provocateurs and rule makers. You see this in Duany’s vaunted rural–urban transect model, complete with its own Center for Applied Transect Studies, as if the American urban landscape was a blank slate to be arranged in gradational bands imposed from above.

The result of this “quest for formulaic universalism” can be “minutely prescriptive, compulsive codifying.” These quotes are not from Waldheim or some other tenured academic foe but from Daniel Solomon, another Congress cofounder and the author of one of the collection’s more entertaining essays, “Why Dogs Should Not Eat Dogs.” Subscribers to LAM may not appreciate Solomon’s description of Landscape Urbanism as a “brave and long overdue attempt to rescue landscape architecture from the abyss of irrelevance into which it flung itself decades ago,” but he grasps the perils of placing decrees above creative design.

Another result of this quest can be simple blindness, the refusal to view the ever-changing urban world with open eyes. At one point in Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents, Duany pauses to aim scorn at Tanner Springs Park in Portland, Oregon, an artistically naturalistic block within the Pearl District designed by Atelier Dreiseitl, by contrasting it with Peter Walker’s Jamison Square nearby. Duany calls the former a “well-known failure.… Jamison is usually packed with people of all ages, while Tanner is virtually devoid of humans whose feet and posteriors would crush the prairie grasses.” Yet when we turn to another new collection of essays and movement building, Charter of the New Urbanism, Second Edition, Portland is championed as a place that other cities should emulate, and the concluding image is of Tanner Springs Park—a photograph that shows a well-populated and enticing space where, yes, humans are lying on the grass.

What Duany and his most ardent acolytes miss, or ignore, or do their best to deny is that cities are strengthened by diversity, surprise, and the accumulation of layers. If kid-friendly Jamison Square fills one block of a dense fast-changing neighborhood, why not have a space like Tanner Springs Park that summons up a vision of a remote untouched terrain? Why not juxtapose native grasses and durable sod, or large-scale folded landscapes and a fine-grain rectilinear grid? Or, for that matter, why not restore the occasional creek—another example of urban environmentalism that Duany mocks on such occasions as when he asks “how many thousands of square miles of actual, functioning, wilderness” would have to be sacrificed if we were to restore Manhattan’s natural streams and wetlands.

Duany is only one voice in New Urbanism, thank goodness; the second edition of the Charter of the New Urbanism shows us not only stylistic disagreements over landscape design but also the methodical breadth of the movement’s ambitions. The 62 contributors to the handsomely illustrated collection explore regional transit systems, the reclamation of public housing, and the virtues of community land trusts, as well as more basic design issues. The former New Yorker staff writer Tony Hiss celebrates the continued success of Bryant Park, and the current CNU president and CEO John Norquist reminds readers that “The twenty-first century has enormous environmental and economic challenges.”

But if Duany is obsessed with gaining academic respect, or at least using a defiance of academia to shore up his bad-boy status, the second edition of the charter is a prolonged exercise in looking over one’s shoulder, trying to stay ahead of design innovation while stressing that hey, we’re hip and au courant as well as new. The importance of bicycling is a recurring theme. There’s a two-page section on pop-up parks, seasonal markets, and other examples of tactical urbanism where low-cost, low-risk insertions are made to try to stimulate activity in plazas and along streets. The short chapter by Thomas Comitta, ASLA, on the charter section involving parks and conservation areas is followed by a description of “Light Imprint”—billed as “a Transect-based stormwater management system that…uses natural drainage, traditional engineering infrastructure, and infiltration practices collectively at the sector, neighborhood, and block scale.” Yes, we’re talking pervious paving with the New Urbanist seal of approval—environmentalism ain’t all bad.

Yet even as the Congress works to maintain relevance to younger designers and green-minded urbanists, another faction recoils at the very notion of now. This is made abundantly clear in an updated chapter: The CNU cofounder Peter Calthorpe declares in an afterword that “with its often-stated bias against high-rise development,” the movement “is missing an opportunity to help redefine the modern urban paradigm at a global scale.” But not so fast. Calthorpe is followed by a postscript in which Léon Krier—whose claim to fame is having master planned Poundbury for the Prince of Wales—warns that “the concept of a ‘sustainable city’ is a metaphysical ideal, a utopian fabulation.” Instead, he says, climb no higher than three to five stories, preferably constructed with traditional materials and methods. Take that, 21st century!

Landscape Urbanism still is more about talk than terrain, and its real-world successes are such medium-scale insertions as the High Line. But I’ll say this for Waldheim and his supposed crew: They aren’t as self-absorbed as Duany and his true believers. But then, in our world, who is?

John King, Honorary ASLA, is the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. In the late 1980s he was a development reporter at the Boston Globe.

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