introduction: Extending Landscape Urbanism’s History
In practice, landscape and urbanism have often been held apart by the professional boundaries between them, which are reinforced by divergent tactics and working scales. Joining these two terms into a hybrid methodology, as landscape urbanist practitioners have recently done, can be generative, sparking 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.”1 This collision of terminology and methodology has contributed greatly to current design discourse. At the same time, what seems to be a prevailing effort to present landscape urbanism as a new, emergent discipline obscures a lineage of thought that would only bolster its credibility, if not its claim for originality. In fact, 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.
Particularly, this essay will respond to what Australian landscape architect Peter Connolly refers to as the “default” understanding of what landscape urbanism has been, as defined in North America by Charles Waldheim and James Corner in The Landscape Urbanism Reader2 and Praxis 4: Landscapes3. In these primary 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. At the same time, in contrast to the spatial, infrastructural flows advocated in their design work, stressing the newness of their approach potentially defines it as an intellectually autonomous city 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,”4 questioning the need for the field to be developed as an “ism” linked to a particular self-proclaimed genealogy and practice, rather than be seen as an open set of principles valuable to current urban conditions that may guide practice today in landscape architecture, urbanism and architecture in important ways.
The most recent North American text about landscape urbanism, Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism5, begins to amend these gaps, presenting the recent history that has informed landscape urbanism in an expanded collection of essays. Yet, this history only goes as far back as Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature in 1969. Building a foundation for McHarg’s work, but distinct from it, Lewis Mumford, Patrick Geddes and Benton MacKaye, as well as earlier urbanists whose work they drew upon, foresaw the need to approach the newly dispersed and more intensely interconnected 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 as a cultural product underlies urban order.
Geddes, Mumford and MacKaye express an understanding of how the dissolving city has lost its complexity and charge, and offer ideas for how this vitality might find replacement in the new, expansive urban form. Their work suggests an important extension of the ancestry of landscape urbanist thought, reinforcing key definitional concepts and introducing salient vocabulary. At the same time, these historic writings suggest how landscape urbanism as a practice might be strengthened by greater attention to cultural/ecological landscape identity. Folding these historic urban ideas into the current practice of landscape urbanism has the potential to strengthen the discipline’s regard for both landscape and urbanism. Rather than focus on an essentially architectural understanding of urbanism-as-program and landscape-as-surface, these theorists’ insights encourage a greater recognition of how landscape can be the generator of infrastructure, and of urbanism as necessarily formed by cultural interaction in the landscape over time.
One key way that Geddes, Mumford and MacKaye build a foundation for current landscape urbanist theory and practice is in their common support of a synthetic, interdisciplinary approach to the city as a newly hybridized phenomenon. As landscape urbanists express, a hybrid understanding is important in approaching a new set of urban conditions where distinctions between urban and rural need to give way to the disintegration of categories. 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’.”6 In their descriptions of the urban condition and the approach it calls for, Mumford, MacKaye and Geddes all support conflations of disciplines and categories traditionally held as distinct. Their writing and suggested methods disrupt binary understandings of city/country, urban/rural, human/nature. Much like the landscape urbanists, these three forward new images of an interconnected city-landscape rather than view settlement as necessarily a corruption of nature. In this sense they (to varying degrees) violate tendencies to posit environmentalism as simply conservation of designated wilderness areas. They each, at least rhetorically, also eschew top-down planning methods which seek to apply abstract, rational means of ordering urban dynamics. Instead, they look to the systems of order already existing in the landscape which have cultivated a heterogeneous cultural cohesion within particular regions. Each author offers an early definition of the city as a weave of urban and rural categories whose entanglement they see as more productive than polarization would be. They pursue urbanization that maintains the identity of place by effectively integrating these categories and preventing the destructiveness of homogeneous settlement. I will elaborate now in more depth on the vocabulary and methodology each of these authors specifically presents in addressing the dispersed city.
Patrick Geddes: Synthetic Thinking and the Regional City
Patrick Geddes brought his background in botany and the natural sciences to the study of cities. He expressed 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 developed his idea of the “Valley Section” out of his analysis of the fraying of bounded cities into what he termed “conurbations”, or interconnected city-regions.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 relay how human adaptations have developed in relation to their position in this section, as well as reveal how the zones of a landscape are linked by a common waterway. This method, which applies botanical concepts of plant distribution6, explores the potentials of a region while seeking to elucidate elements of landscape as both ecological and cultural identity. His method is useful first in that it emphasizes the importance of an interrelationship between settlement, culture and landscape, and second in how it communicates this relationship between people and place that is not easily expressed through the flattening qualities of a plan, but linked to the particulars of geography better shown in section.
In 1915 Geddes had already rejected the concept of the suburb as a “garden village”, as something that emerges from the city and extends out into the countryside beyond. Rather, he saw the need to extend the character of the rural into already formed “conurbations”. 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 the “synoptic vision of Nature” Geddes supports, nature is preserved not through separation from humans, but rather through a heightened relationship developed by cultivation (sylviculture, arboriculture, 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.”9 This hardly seems far from James Corner’s recent claim that “landscape drives the process of city formation.”10
Akin to current landscape urbanist thinking, as well as landscape architecture itself as a hybrid discipline, Geddes’ work encouraged what he called a “synthetic form of thought.” His “polymathic wanderings between disciplines” were influenced by a commitment to “the reconciliation of science, morality and aesthetics”11 and his resistance to disciplinary specializations. Within his overarching goals of cooperation, he also saw the value in connecting theoretical inquiry with practical application. Geddes’ desire for a synthesis of life’s complexities translated into his development of the graphs he termed his “thinking machines” which sought to codify all arenas of life into 36 categories of interrelationship.
While Geddes’ goal of seeking synthesis remains valid, his overall vision of this synthesis taking such a definitive and holistic shape is limited. Mumford, Geddes’ reluctantly critical student, had trouble with what he saw as Geddes’ contradiction between his hopes for a synthetic form of thinking and his proposition that synthesis could be characterized by an arrival at a steady end point, rather than a productive instability or flexibility. As such, Mumford’s understanding of the city forecasts later developments in ecosystem ecology, shifting from a search for equilibrium or static balance to a recognition of the richness of dynamism and change. 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.”12 Underlying Mumford’s unease with this approach is his strong conviction in the necessity for situated knowledge. He was fiercely resistant to false unities borne of generalizations which he saw as a form of violence in their suppression of vital distinctions of identity.13 In a letter to Geddes, Mumford points to the key distinction in their approaches as deriving from a generational rift. While Geddes developed intellectually in a period of hope, Mumford’s outlook had been tempered by the infusion of war-torn despair.14 This contrast, perhaps, explains Mumford’s deeper discomfort with totalizing theories and methodologies.
Lewis Mumford: A Search for Urban Complexity
While key conceptual differences set Mumford’s take on the character of the dissolving city apart from those of his proclaimed “master”, his urban theory is consistent with Geddes’. Particularly they share an emphasis on the importance of the region as a place defined from within, and an effort to introduce new, hybrid vocabulary and methodologies. Setting the stage for his book, The City in History, Mumford traced the development of cities back to their initial processes of growth and decay, hoping to understand the history that underlies current conditions. He introduces the idea of emergence as key to understanding how a city develops:
The city came as a definite emergent in the paleo-neolithic community . . . 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.15
In defining the city as a “complex and unstable pattern” and the basis for ongoing “transformations”, Mumford sets up the characteristics of mutability, “unstable and fluid emerging forms”16 as well as fertile, complex tensions as essential to a city. He describes the transformation from 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.”17 The cultural productivity that the bounded form of the city was able to foment by ensuring social interaction has been lost in urban dissolution. Mumford writes that 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.”18 Here Mumford makes an argument that the interactions that were able to be generated by the spatial qualities of the bounded historic city form need to find a new impetus in the “exploded” city. While, as his book goes on to exhaustively chart, the bounded city eventually became too limited and lost its productive efficacy, dispersed cities have yet to find comparable instigators of the needed collisions, interactions and reactions.
Not that Mumford sees urban dispersal as a bad thing. In fact, as Geddes before him and the landscape urbanists after, Mumford valued a horizontal tapestry of interspersed urban and rural characters. What he called a “green matrix” was the model of the city he most sought. He writes in support of an idea that the “maintenance of the regional setting, the green matrix, is essential for the culture of cities. Where this setting has been defaced, despoiled, or obliterated, the deterioration of the city must follow, for the relationship is symbiotic.”19 Here it is again important to distinguish Mumford’s stance from an anti-urban polarization of city and country, nature and culture. 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 forms “low grade urban tissue” or “formless exudation” unresponsive to the particularities that compose a region as both ecologically and culturally unique. For Mumford, this type of problematic urbanization is directly linked to mechanization and its driving infrastructures which he sees as heavy-handed and oversimplified to maximize efficiency in transportation at a high cost to regional viability.
In Mumford’s view, the region is a key scale at which to pursue viable urbanism. A region can be understood as large enough to have heterogeneity but small enough to have distinct shared values. It develops directly out of a relationship between culture as the “social emergent”, which acts upon the substrate of geographical characteristics. In this view, which tightly links social and ecological aspects of a place, natural influences prevent the human tendency to oversimplify – a tendency exemplified in what the suburb has become.20 Mumford points out that initially, though, suburbs acted as a critique of over-engineered, over cramped space. They offered a type of settlement where domestic requirements could be more responsive to landscape qualities, favoring minimal built intervention over maximized engineered efficiency.
The problem, then, occurs for Mumford not in the suburb’s lower density, but rather in that, first, this urbanization over time became less and less responsive to the qualities of a regional landscape and second, that it recreated rural problems of isolation, only to be met by the clumsy apparatus of built transportation infrastructure. Simultaneously, its heavy handed infrastructure recreated the rigid control characteristic of urban order.21 In this way, Mumford rejects suburban development as lacking the complexity he understands to be necessary in a city, seeing it as the “anti-city” which “annihilates the city whenever it collides with it.”22 As opposed to his definition 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.”23 In order for a dispersed city to gain viability, then, it will have to support multiple scales of space and time, encouraging a maximum of interactions. Further, it will have to regain the fertile tensions and collisions that Mumford claims the city has lost in its “demagnetization” through creating greater diversity in its extended “green matrix,”
Lewis Mumford’s account of Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” is a telling portrayal of what Mumford sees as the discrepancy between his idea of a magnetized urban constellation and the horizontal city as it has become. Mumford notes that what gets lost from a reading of Howard’s proposals is an understanding of the density Howard advocated, which is often five times greater than common suburban settlement. Most often, Howard’s ideas are dismissed as suburban without a careful look, and garden is given weight over city in its name, reducing the effectiveness that arises specifically from the tension between the two terms. “But the garden city, in Howard’s view, was first of all a city: a new kind of unit whose organic pattern would in the end spread from the individual model to a whole constellation of similar cities. It was in its urbanity, not in its horticulture, that the Garden City made a bold departure from the established method of building and planning.”24 As such, Mumford’s case for the value in Howard’s term is much like the argument Kristina Hill makes for “constructive oxymorons” as a way of disrupting our “outdated assumptions, linked to unquestioned and outdated mental categories” which “cloud our perception of these landscapes” of extended urbanization. Hill puts forward terms related to Howard’s such as “Habitat City” and “Wilderness City”, hoping to jolt our neat perceptual divisions between cultural and ecological categories.25 The tension of these charged terms of association recalls landscape urbanism’s efforts to create a hybrid practice and name.
While Howard’s neat diagrammatic organization of this settlement into rational patterns and defined limitations is inadequate, his refusal “to be tied down to a particular image of the city or a particular method of planning or a particular type of building,” instead arguing that “the specific forms of such a city would be a resultant of the landscape and the climate” remains valuable. Howard, as a strategic designer of a backbone of essential qualities rather than particular forms, offers a useful precedent to landscape urbanists who stress the performative over the formal aspects of design.26
Howard’s underlying concept of de-densifying by distributing the magnets of urban necessity begins to answer Mumford’s call for a means of countering the isolation of a horizontal city. Magnets take the place of the bounded city’s walls in sparking social collisions and interactions. Mumford’s description of the city’s shift from a walled entity to an extensive “tissue” forecasts a shift in the metaphors used to describe and study ecosystem ecology. An organismic concept of an ecosystem as an individual entity bounded within a skin has been exchanged for a systems metaphor, which instead focuses on flows, seeing places through the relative intensity of interactions they foster as nodes in larger, overlapping networks.27 As Mumford calls for the replacement of those fruitful “social collisions and interactions” lost in the obsolescence of urban boundaries, it is possible to see that, in the city as matrix, the impetus for these vital interactions might, borrowing from ecology, be highly charged or magnetized nodes within a larger boundless network or system. Rather than Howard’s codified magnets, the city becomes distributed into a field of variously scaled and charged magnets as nodes in the larger urban-ecological “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.”28 For MacKaye, metropolitan growth is that which follows the lines of least resistance, while the “genuinely urban” is a mosaic of integrated urban and rural elements particular to a region. Geddes’ word for MacKaye’s practice, “geotechnics”, expresses it as an alternative to technocratic principles, as MacKaye set technology against a background order derived from geology. Geotechnics itself is a hybrid term, combining “geography, forestry and conservation, engineering colonization, regional planning, and economics.’”29 Though MacKaye’s proposals address political, economic and cultural aspects of the landscape, they developed out of his background in natural sciences, particularly his study of dynamic geologic processes. In this way, the multi-disciplinary scope of regional projects he suggests invokes a “composite mind” to address complex issues.
Applying his understanding of geologic processes, he 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 instance, he diagrams Boston as a “mouth” of flow, or a consumer of the region’s economies, while also showing it to be linked to its surrounding countryside as a “source” of population flow. MacKaye shows how an area might be delineated with a topographical boundary if its watershed is considered, while an equally important “industrial watershed” will define the same area with different bounds. His work reveals how allegiances, orientation, and tactics can be organized and re-organized around landscape systems depending on the issues on the table, yielding potentially useful conditions of overlap. 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 paths of connection between city and surrounds, MacKaye’s work confounds neat distinctions between the urban and rural, while his conflation of hydrological process with human movement confronts the tendency to set people apart from the mechanisms that drive natural systems.
MacKaye hoped to cultivate more viable urbanism by integrating and preserving the landscape’s figures as underlying structure, creating a heterogeneous mosaic of urban patchwork. MacKaye writes, “these definite lines of open landscape between towns and villages–these wild lands, and near-wild lands, and wastelands–form together the ingredients of a system. It is a system of crossing, flanking, and interlocking with another system–that, namely, of the motor ways and the lines of metropolitan flow.”30 Characteristic to his approach is that, rather than extensive building projects, he simply suggests new ways of seeing the potentials offered in the landscape structure that already exists, allowing it to become culturally activated. For MacKaye, the work of a regional planner is connected 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.”31 Rather than looking for an abstract order, MacKaye understood that many systems of order are latent in the landscape itself, and often it is only a shift in vision that makes these operative.
This methodology is perhaps best exemplified in his proposal for the Appalachian Trail as an infrastructural, organizational system. The strength and viability of this type of landscape infrastructure lies in its emphasis on changing one’s vision or understanding of the landscape rather than changing the landscape itself. Keller Easterling writes on MacKaye’s Appalachian Trail proposal:
It was a void or a line of force, not a construction. This largely invisible physical alteration, however, effected a simple but radical reversal in the flows of commerce and population migration. Without vastly changing the physical arrangements, but reversing the protocols of its use, this ‘supertrail’ remagnetized and recentered development in the territory through which it passed, remotely affecting areas at some distance from the spine.32
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. In this way, the minimal nature of a path has resonance with landscape urbanism as a practice that posits landscape as the fundamental ordering system in the contemporary urban condition of dispersal and fragmentation. As Charles Waldheim expresses, 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.”33
While Mumford critiqued MacKaye’s work for its focus on infrastructural systems at the cost, at times, of the people and places they connected, Lewis Mumford also forecasted the necessity to respond to changing, decomposing urban conditions with more adaptive strategies. In a chapter entitled “Flexibility and Renewal,” he voices a concern that is later echoed by the landscape urbanist’s emphasis on adaptability. Mumford writes, “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.”34 Based in this concern, Mumford denounces infrastructural and urbanization efforts that neglect the opportunities of a site in favor of elaborately engineered means of accommodating bad 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.
The Regional City: A Challenge to Delineated Boundaries
In addition to a focus on activating existing landscape structure, Geddes, Mumford, and MacKaye’s ideas are linked in their view that cities must emerge as continuities within this overall landscape structure, inseparable from the cultural and ecological systems that compose it. This concept of cities as woven within extensive regions problematizes notions of political bounds. For Geddes, rather than boundary lines, unique plant associations and shared cultural production act as ways of defining a region–two systems of categorization which make fuzzy edges. Volker Welter writes on Geddes:
Natural regions in biology do not necessarily have clear boundaries, but this is not so much of a problem for biologists concerned with plant or animal distributions. Habitats can be mapped, and the regions of various species can yield zones of transition or even overlap without creating a problem for the theoretical concept as a whole. But using regions to distinguish among human societies and cultures puts the question of boundaries at the forefront, especially if regionalism attempts to reorganize existing administrative units. In such cases the regionalist deals with the distribution of power and zones of influence of various local elites, which find their limits at the boundaries.35
As such, it is difficult to translate regional concepts into definitive political divisions. MacKaye’s organizational strategies, based in systems, also challenge the relevance of political jurisdictions. Keller Easterling notes how at a time when “. . . the design professions typically tried to frame the boundaries of an organization and control the territory inside those boundaries, MacKaye often adjusted organizations by indirect or remote activation of sites.”36 In putting forward a definition of geography as unintelligible through political boundaries, these urban theorists point to a still potentially crippling disjunction between understanding place through its landscape identity, and the role of boundaries as active mechanisms of political control. Mumford claims that political boundaries are only useful toward exacting (the pretense of) political and economic command over an area. As such, they have the potential to damage the places themselves. For example, in the process of drawing political boundaries, rivers, which otherwise play a connective role, become appropriated as divisive lines of separation. This idea of a territory divided for control has much more to do with tactics of warfare than with efforts of sound urbanism, as it undermines existing relationships between people and places that make settlement viable. As a critique of these political practices that prove divisive to regional identity, Mumford also calls for a decentralization of political power in an effort to give voice to disparate, local constituencies.
An expression of the region as a powerful scale for landscape infrastructure contributes toward a critique that North American landscape urbanists are not making–regarding how current political structure undermines efforts to truly develop an urbanism based on landscape systems which transcend units of political power. Kelly Shannon points to this limitation in North America in contrast to Europe, where environmental, public space, and public transport agendas have become established, mainstream priorities. She sees this as underlying the fact that, while landscape urbanist theory predominantly comes from North America, its practice here remains sparse. She notes that, “unless and until there is a significant change in the politics and policy surrounding public work in that context, North American landscape urbanists will no doubt look longingly at the opportunities now available in Western Europe.”37
Landscape Urbanism: Veering Toward the Formal Field Operation
Though Charles Waldheim offers his hope that landscape will replace architecture as the fundamental building block of urbanization,38 current North American 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 already existing in sites in favor of promised overlays of future order. Landscape urbanists express faith in abstract systems, such as the grid, as means of 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.39
Mumford’s call for local variation leads him to a very different conclusion about the grid as an applied means of organization, noting how it has been an effective tool used toward singular, economic ends. In his chapter entitled “The Speculative Ground Plan,” he denounces the grid as part of the “speculative adventure” of commercialization and capitalism, employed because it simplifies territory into units that are “regular and calculable” for ease of transaction. The city is cut up into “abstract units for buying and selling, without respect for historic uses, for topographic conditions, or social needs . . . If the layout of a town has no relation to human needs and activities other than business, the pattern of the city may be simplified: the ideal layout for the business man is that which can be swiftly reduced to standard monetary units for purchase and sale.”40 Furthermore, 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”, as Corner proposes. Implicit in his statement 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.”41 In light of the landscape urbanist effort to value the landscape as the primary medium for structuring cities, the concept 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 revelation of the landscape’s specificities. It would seem that the first step to a landscape urbanist approach would 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, are then able to perform as the landscape structure, the field operation.
As the application of abstract order reflects a disconnect from larger landscape systems, it also allows for an arbitrary limitation to be drawn at a given site’s edge. Competitions such as those for Downsview Park, Toronto, and the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, reveal a tendency to focus on systems of indeterminacy within the bounds of a parcel. At Fresh kills, beyond the exception posed by Anuradha Mathur, Dilip da Cunha + Tom Leader’s submission, Dynamic Coalition, little exploration is presented that engages the terrain beyond the legal limits of the sites in question, in plan or related to the sectional qualities of the site as landfill42. At Downsview Park, the larger view is equally limited. A regional approach would see such large infrastructural projects as linked to extensive systems of landscape order. Kristina Hill discusses how, in all but Tschumi’s entry for Downsview Park, rhetoric of programmatic indeterminacy derived from ecological metaphor overrides imperatives for local ecological function as drivers for the designs.43 A focus within the outline of a parcel further prevents these projects from elucidating what Robin Dripps describes as a site’s “special repository of clues,” or indications of larger systems too extensive 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.”44 By focusing within a site’s legal bounds, especially in these sites with long histories of degradation, the systems of order which form the backbone of the site’s future events are constricted, curtailing the effectiveness of these proposals in an urban sense.
By not acknowledging sites as already dense with 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.”43 Ensuing applications of abstract order suggest a certain degree of determinism that landscape urbanists critique in common planning practices.
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 also the ability for the landscape itself, molded after this abstract view, to foster stronger connections with its inhabitants. In this representational distance, epitomized by the aerial view and the seeming authority of digital site representations, the subjectivity of a site’s design and hence, its ability to communicate, becomes suppressed.
The veil of authority offered in this distance has much in common with what Mumford critiqued in Patrick Geddes’ overvaluation of an abstract, authoritative graphic method, lacking the flexibility and potential layering of language. He saw Geddes’ graphic “thinking machines” as more insidious for their claim to objective authority. Mumford reveals how, despite Geddes’ claim to the universal applicability of his graphic method, it was, in fact, deeply personal. In a period of temporary blindness, Geddes developed these folded graphs as a way of supplanting his missing sight, finding a tactile order in his perceptions. Long after regaining his sight, Geddes stressed the importance of a graphic method which privileges visual thinking over all other forms. Similarly, Kristina Hill makes an observation about Ian McHarg’s work, as she realizes a connection between his methods of visualizing landscape overlay and his personal experiences reading the grayscale x-rays of his own lungs.46 Hill claims that exposing the personal nature of this method gives it more strength, offering it as an example of how our own subjective stories will direct our vision of the landscape. Both Geddes’ and McHarg’s methods were proselytized by their authors as unquestionable, universally applicable methods for understanding the complexities of culture and place. Notably, both were also methods developed out of highly personal experiences, moreover, corporeal experiences of contact with a sense of mortality.
Due to tension between the sense of authority a map confers and the true subjectivity that underlies it, mapping practices are similarly poised. James Corner’s mapping techniques and theories, which break from McHarg in their embrace of the map’s subjectivity, contribute significantly to landscape architecture. At the same time, like Geddes’ and McHarg’s methods, Corner’s maps have power because there is little evidence of the subjectivity underlying them, allowing them to maintain an aura of authority. Corner celebrates this as a map’s key means of agency. Yet, because maps are, as Corner writes, “extremely opaque, imaginative operational measurements,”47 maps need to be accompanied by other, experiential forms of notation that can be more easily accessed by others.
Mumford took issue with a similar opacity and distance that characterizes the graphs made by Geddes’ graphic method. He was bothered by a disjunction between the rigidity of this method and another method Geddes also practiced: walking and experiencing a city first hand. Mumford writes:
When asked to replan an historic city, he would first ramble about it for days at a time, soaking in the entire milieu, without reading about its history, or getting current information about its economic or political institutions, or even consciously directing his thoughts anywhere . . . he allowed feelings, emotional urges, ideas, institutional ideas, remembered images of other villages and towns to float into his consciousness by the most random route possible. And if actions speak louder than words, Geddes’ actions likewise spoke louder than his graphs . . ..48
Geddes, a constant supporter of walking as a way of knowing, called for lived experience as the primary means of understanding the city.
Like Geddes, Mumford and MacKaye advocated a new type of synthetic regional planning tightly linked to the ways they learned of the dynamics of places through lived experience. Though Mumford studied in New York universities, he accrued his first education in the workings of the city while he was “. . . introduced to nearly every part of Manhattan on weekend walks with his German grandfather. By the time he was 20, he was systematically exploring the City on foot, making notes on its neighborhood life, studying its buildings, bridges, and street plans, and taking specimens for an amateur geological survey of Manhattan.”49 Much like Jane Jacobs, whose knowledge and guiding principles about cities derived from her own life in a New York city neighborhood, involving the fine grain of relationships inscribed in it, Mumford’s ideas of cities, their vitality and value, derive from his own embedded observations.
Mumford also discusses MacKaye’s formative walks in the landscape. In his introduction to MacKaye’s book, The New Exploration, Mumford makes the point that MacKaye’s life of “explorations” can be traced to his childhood walks in the New England forest. MacKaye was frustrated by the fact that his walks were “just walks,” that he didn’t “do anything with them”50 and, 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.
Walking has been pursued and discussed as a practice that addresses many of the same problems landscape urbanism tackles, of modernism’s totality and universalistic tendencies. Yet, it addresses alienation by valuing a vantage point on the ground, one rejected by the predominating 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.” 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.”51 The 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 part of the strength of their work, 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.”52 In leaping back and forth between the total intimacy of the individual and the large scale, “latent” relationships, that exist outside of the range of human perceptual scale, 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 something much larger than a person can grasp. Leaping from the individual to the synoptic totality skips over the scale where interactions occur. For urbanism to be landscape urbanism, it must engage this experiential human scale, a subjective scale in which relationships between people and between people and place occur. This is the middle scale of public interaction at which Mumford’s “social collisions” occur and the scale at which community is expressed.
While the examples Mumford, MacKaye and Geddes offer regarding the importance of walking are far from definitive in a wide body of literature surrounding walking as a subversive practice53, they are relevant here for they reveal how, underlying the resistance to the application of top-down planning techniques shared by these three figures known as regional/urban planners may be their own value of the “middle scale” of knowing and understanding landscape in all its subjective complexity. Their examples suggest that the scale of experience, beyond merely “decorative” is actually the scale at which we develop and communicate both meaning and identity in the landscape. The importance of this middle scale queries landscape urbanist fixations on large scale aerial views, privileging those landscape relationships that exist outside of human perception, neglecting those that are experienced.
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 scale of human experience and the concept of the garden come into play as means for creating cultural traction in changing landscapes. Chris Macdonald, in his essay “Machines of Loving Grace” resets landscape urbanism’s imperatives to focus on a “matching of the intricacies of nature and city life.” In setting up a critique of the legacies of modernism, Macdonald uses “the motif of the garden as a challenge to the modernist planning precepts that cultivate social fragmentation and disjunction.”54 Likewise, Richard Plunz and Inaki Echeverria, in attempting to address the issues facing Mexico City, write of a “gardener’s logic” as a way of situating human actions and dwelling within “the complexity of cities and territories as entities in constant flux.”55 The garden, as a site whose shared cultural and natural authorship is undisputed, is a useful analogy for the aims of landscape urbanism. Culture can in this sense be linked to a new idea of cultivation of the 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.56
While historical urban thinkers are often dismissed by current landscape urbanists, perhaps because the alarm these historic theorists express seems antiquated in a post-industrial urban realm, it is useful to re-examine their views to decipher a legacy of value placed on viable interrelationship between culture and landscape, urban and rural. These writers bolster landscape urbanism’s potential to develop key strategies of urban sustainability, drawing on the relationships already 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.”57
1 Charles Waldheim, “Landscape as Urbanism” in Waldheim (ed)The Landscape Urbanism Reader, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006) 37.
3 Amanda Reeser and Ashley Schafer (eds), Praxis 4: Landscapes (2002).
4 Peter Connolly, “Embracing Openness: Making Landscape Urbanism Landscape Architectural” in Julian Raxworthy and Jessica Blood, The Mesh Book: Landscape / Infrastructure, (Melbourne: RMIT University Press, 2004) 76-103, 200-214.
5 Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).
6 James Corner, “Terra Fluxus” in Waldheim, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, 23.
7 Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution, (Reprint London: Knapp, Drewett and Sons, Ltd., 1949. Originally published 1915) 14.
8 Volker M. Welter discusses the influence of biologist Charles Flahault’s plant survey work on Geddes, which used plant associations to identify economic possibilities of a region. Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
9 Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution, 52.
10 James Corner, “Terra Fluxus”, 24.
11 Ian Boyd Whyte in Foreword to Welter, Biopolis, xvii.
12 Lewis Mumford, “The Geddesian Gambit” in Frank G. Novak, Jr. (ed) Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: the Correspondence. (London and New York: Routledge ,1995), 362.
13 Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1938) 311.
14 Lewis Mumford, letter from March, 1923, in Novak, 171.
15 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969) 29.
16 Ibid, 33.
17 Ibid, 34.
18 Ibid, 34.
19 Ibid, Graphic Section IV, 58 “Green Matrix”.
20 Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 320.
21 Ibid, 510.
22 Ibid, 505.
23 Ibid, 513.
24 Ibid, 519.
25 Kristina Hill “Visions of Sustainability” in John F. Benson and Maggie H. Roe (eds), Landscape and Sustainability (London and New York: Spon Press) 307.
26 Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 521.
27 Kristina Hill “Shifting Sites” in Carol Burns and Andrea Kahn (eds) Site Matters (New York: Routledge, 2005) 137.
28 Benton MacKaye, The New Exploration. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962) 39.
29 Benton MacKaye qtd in Keller Easterling, Organization Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999) 14.
30 Ibid, 181.
31 Ibid, 33.
32 Easterling, 28.
33 Waldheim, “Landscape as Urbanism” 37, 39.
34 Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 441.
35 Welter, Biopolis, 72.
36 Keller Easterling, Organization Space, 16.
37 Kelly Shannon, “From Theory to Resistance: Landscape Urbanism in Europe” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader, 159.
38 Charles Waldheim “Landscape as Urbanism” in Waldheim, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, 37.
39 James Corner, “Terra Fluxus” in Waldheim, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, 31.
40 Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 421-422.
41 Rem Koolhaas qtd in James Corner, “Terra Fluxus” in Waldheim, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, 31.
42 Competition finalists published in Praxis 4: Landscapes (2002).
43 Kristina Hill “Urban Ecologies: Biodiversity and Urban Design” in Julia Czerniak (ed) Case: Downsview Park, Toronto. (London, Munich: Prestel, 2001).
44 Robin Dripps, “Groundwork” in Kahn and Burns, Site Matters, 71.
45 Peter Connolly, “Embracing Openness,” Raxworthy and Blood, 82.
46 Kristina Hill, “Visions of Sustainabiilty,” in Benson and Roe, 302.
47 James Corner “The Agency of Mapping” reprinted in Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism, 171.
48 Lewis Mumford “The Geddesian Gambit” in Frank G. Novak, Jr. (ed) Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: the Correspondence. (Routledge: London and New York, 1995), 369.
49 From a brief biography of Mumford at the Lewis Mumford Center website: http://www. albany.edu/mumford/about/about1.html.
50 Mumford quoting MacKaye in his Introduction to The New Exploration, ix.
51 Anthony Hoete, Reader On the Aesthetics of Mobility (New York: Black Dog Publishers, 2003) p.56.
52 Charles Waldheim “Landscape as Urbanism” in Waldheim (ed). The Landscape Urbanism Reader, 45.
53 For instance, see recent books by Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: a History of Walking (2000); Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice (2002); as well as a broad bibliography compiled at www.walkinginplace.org
54 Chris Macdonald “Machines of Loving Grace” in Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism, 205-211.
55 Kelly Shannon, “From Theory to Resistance,” 153.
56 Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 448.
57 Chris Macdonald “Machines of Loving Grace,” 211.