This is the inaugural post in a series that responds to informal lectures on urbanism hosted by Professor Maria Arquero de Alarcon at the Taubman College. These lectures offer an opportunity for faculty and visiting experts to share their insights on urban planning and design while engaging students in contemporary discourse.

Sometime in the last year, the Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator became very popular among my urbanistically-inclined friends. For the uninitiated: with a click of the "make bullshit" button, the website generates a three-word imperative; on my most recent visit, I was instructed to “transition unassigned experiences,” to “disintermediate granular rhizomes”, and to “curate fluctuating grids.” Its purpose, of course, is to satirize the verbose-verging-on-obfuscatory tendencies of the group of landscape architects and urbanists that together comprise the emerging (emerged?) school of landscape urbanism.

In the same spirit, though with a contrasting dour humorlessness, Andrés Duany and Emily Talen recently published an edited volume, Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents[1]. If landscape urbanism aims to “undermine [New Urbanism's] certainties, explode its limits, [and] ridicule its preoccupations,”[2] the agenda of this volume is to argue that landscape urbanism represents nothing more than a new coat of paint on high modernism (except, of course, where its elements are judiciously applied by new urbanists). Worse still, according to this critique, is landscape urbanism's disingenuous use of the language of sustainability and its orgiastic visual lexicon of rooftop greenery, enlisted to sell what is basically deconstructivist formalism. Indeed, James Corner's indeterminate terra fluxus[3]  is, to Duany and Talen, nothing more than window dressing on a relativistic stance that owes more to Koolhaas and Hadid than to Muir and McHarg.

Sprawl in a green dress? Photo by author.

Sprawl in a green dress? Photo by author.

Douglas Kelbaugh argued as much in a recent informal presentation to urban planning students. Kelbaugh, former dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, founding New Urbanist, and contributor to the above volume, accused landscape urbanists of reengineering Le Corbusier's tower in the park for a contemporary audience, promoting “sprawl in a green dress”, and advocating for what he claims will become an anti-urban dystopia of underused park space and unmaintained greenery.

The criticisms brought to bear by Professor Kelbaugh and Duany and Talen's book are incisive, if reductive, and should provoke reflection on the part of designers (though as someone sympathetic to the ends of both landscape and new urbanism, my goal is not to endorse one or the other combatant). However, I would suggest that this and similar feuds are disputes over rhetoric and fashion more than merit. In fact, the combative nature of this discourse doesn’t reflect the value of any particular urban scheme as much as it does the oversimplification inherent in the academic tendency to conceive of city building as bound to a doctrinaire “urbanism”. The city is not an urbanism, but is urban, a cumulative layering of every practiced mode of urbanity that is often better for its internal incoherence. The pressure exerted on each emerging paradigm to reactively explode the assumptions of all others is neither productive nor reflective of the actual process of urban formation.

Planning magazine ran a tongue-in-cheek article in 2011 entitled “A Short Guide to 60 of the Newest Urbanisms.”[4] By compiling an extensive list of presently-active “urbanisms”, it got at a very simple truth – that when urbanists begin describing every desirable combination of urban elements as a different mode to be replicated at the scale of the city, “the process negates itself.”  In the United States, where what we desperately need in so many of our cities is the restoration of any urbanism, be it landscape or new, perhaps we should focus less on the explosion of assumptions and more on constructive advocacy for the agency of design in our cities.

Header photo by Joe Chemello. 

[1] Duany, A., and Talen, E. (Eds.). (2013). Landscape urbanism and its discontents. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

[2] Koolhaas, R. (1995). Whatever Happened to Urbanism? Design Quarterly, 164, 28-31.

[3]  Corner, J. (2006). Terra Fluxus. In C. Waldheim (Ed.), The Landscape Urbanism Reader (pp. 22–33). New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

[4] Barnett, J. (2011, April). A Short Guide to 60 of the Newest Urbanisms. Planning, 19–21.