April 18, 2011 Edit
in Urban Design
The excesses of the "landscape urbanism" aside, Michael Mehaffy believes landscape architects are well positioned to lead the way towards positive change in the urban landscape. Here's why.
Not long ago in this forum I offered a rather pointed critique of a movement in landscape architecture known as "Landscape Urbanism." The critique focused on several remarkable claims: the magical belief that the form of open space by itself can generate good-quality urban form; the parochial conceit that ecological landscape by itself constitutes ecological settlement; and most seriously, the spurious rationalization of "horizontality and sprawl" as allegedly eternal and unchangeable facts of settlement, which must be accommodated rather than transformed.
As I argued, this latter view ignores the evident historical facts, namely, that modern suburban expansion did not arise spontaneously from immutable economic forces, but resulted from comprehensible policy choices, rules and, especially, modern industrial design strategies. (As a seminal example I discussed Le Corbusier's highly influential scheme for suburban expansion, documented in the 1935 book Ville Radieuse.) Designers, complicit in this defective scheme, share a profound responsibility to correct their own mistakes. You broke it, you fix it.
And indeed, the lessons from a number of disciplines (economics, game theory et al.) show that such corrections are possible and, in the age of peak oil and climate change, urgently necessary. (This is all the more urgent in view of the rapid development of China, India and other countries, which are in grave danger of repeating many more of the same mistakes, with profound consequences for resources and emissions.) The time is at hand for effective reform, and there is little place for the same colossal mistakes to be rationalized in a self-indulgent poststructuralism by artist-designers.
But here I would like to offer a more positive view of the role of landscape architects in the important work ahead to get our house in order. After all, while architects have often been over-focused on object-buildings, it is landscape architects who have been the champions of the best figure-ground urbanism in the past â€“ and they can be so again.
In particular, I suggest a number of key emerging topics where landscape architects are uniquely positioned to lead: