Charles Waldheim: Landscape Urbanism All Grown Up

The urban theorist argues that landscape, more than buildings, has fundamentally changed the way cities urbanize in the 21st century.

Book photography by Nicholas Calcott

For decades, New Urbanism was the only acceptable form of urban planning in the United States. In the past 15 years, however, several challengers have appeared on the scene, none bolder than the landscape urbanism movement. Spearheaded by Charles Waldheim, who chaired the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) from 2009 to 2015, the movement and its protagonists argue that landscape, more than buildings, has fundamentally changed the way cities urbanize in the 21st century. Waldheim’s new book, Landscape as Urbanism (Princeton University Press, 2016), reflects on the origins of landscape urbanism and theorizes about its continued cultural relevance. Metropolis’s Samuel Medina spoke with Waldheim about stepping back from the style wars, revisiting Modernist planning, and making cities better places to live.

SM: Frederick Law Olmsted, whom you quote more than once, lamented the “miserable nomenclature” that has always haunted the field of landscape architecture. Have some of the same semantic shortcomings migrated to the term “landscape urbanism”?

CW: When I was being trained as an architect and stumbled into the field of landscape architecture, I didn’t understand it. I misrecognized it because I had been led to believe that it had primarily to do with plant material. It’s sort of like thinking that architecture has primarily to do with bricks. You can do that, but it’s not really representative of the field’s value as far as I’m concerned. I was led to believe that because of the way the history of the field played out.

I’ve never been an advocate for new academic degrees in landscape urbanism, or in defining the professional identity of the landscape urbanist. It’s a bundle of practices, and it’s a set of discourses. It’s maturing, it’s operational. I sometimes say it’s now in its middle-age phase. You can do things with it, you can drive it around. It may no longer have the frisson of a new set of ideas, but we also benefit from having some things built and a body of practitioners who have matured. My New Urbanist colleagues have essentially responded to my work by arguing that landscape is really external, or in opposition, to the city as such, so I decided to step back from that kind of partisan, ideological kind of style war, and to try to do something slightly more durable, and with more of a singular voice—which is to say that what we call this movement matters.

SM: You edited The Landscape Urbanism Reader a decade ago, which, going by the footnotes alone, forms the substratum of the new book. But a global recession separates the two volumes, as does the more recent but less dramatic faltering of the Chinese economy. There’s also the material devastation precipitated by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. How have you had to conform or update your theory to these events?

CW: The Reader was primarily aimed at a disciplinary audience—people working within architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture. My goal there was to assemble a group of people who weren’t all saying the same thing while giving the project enough coherence so that you could say something is happening.

Over the course of the last decade, practices, by and large, have moved into a kind of operational phase, whereas in ’06, most of the work was speculative and unbuilt competition-based entries. But now we’re in this phase where landscape architects are winning major urban commissions—such as Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Lower Don Lands project [2007–15] for Toronto. That reality, on the one hand, reflects the success of the movement, while on the other hand, we have to acknowledge that there have been a whole series of other, global transformations, many of which you cite. I don’t spend a lot of time in the book dealing with individual crises, but I tried instead to revise our received definitions of and understandings of the terms themselves. What does “landscape” mean? What does “landscape architecture” mean? Where does it come from?

The other dominant thread of the book is the economic structural analysis. It’s not a coincidence that landscape has just “emerged” in the last ten or 15 years, but in fact there’s this structural relationship between changes in the industrial economy and the spaces that they produce that has led landscape to be called upon by cities today.

Illustrations from Charles Waldheim’s Landscape as Urbanism, which plots a history of landscape as a medium from the 18th century to the present and polemicizes the contemporary role of the landscape architect.

SM: But do you think that these disasters have proved favorable to the extent that they have brought to the surface urgent issues of ecology, environmental maintenance, sustainable food production, etc.?

CW: Generally speaking, it’s true what you’re saying—that there is now a broader environmental awareness and a deeper set of commitments among the donor class. There is an increased desire for urbanization among cities that are growing especially rapidly, that have a mix of economy around the creative class, that have fairly robust housing markets. In some ways, that explains Bloomberg’s New York, and Toronto in the past decade. I think there’s a structural reason why those kinds of cities have had an interest in commissioning landscape architects to lead big urban districts, and it’s because of a precise configuration of philanthropy, donor culture, the arts, and environment.

SM: You say landscape practices were stepping into a sociocultural void; it appears that architects stepped into that same void. You discuss this at some length, not just with OMA and Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette competition schemes [1982] but also their proposals for Downsview Park in Toronto 20 years later. It seems, then, that you inadvertently privilege architects in your account over landscape architects.

CW: Over the course of my career, I’ve been quite ambivalent on one level about the relationship between disciplinary identity and the work. One thing that characterizes this new book is that I’m touching on a range of different fields. I deal with planning, urban design, and architecture, but the through line that connects it all is really the medium—landscape. I know many of my colleagues in landscape architecture have, for a long time, felt as though they needed to defend or protect the field, which they feel can often be undercapitalized or in the shadow of architecture. I understand that. But I don’t have a particular stake in that game.

My book is more interested in the medium of landscape, and in disciplinary formation since 1968. As planning schools went more and more toward policy, architecture retreated into its own autonomy, and urban design committed to the kind of European model of 19th-century urban form—New Urbanism. There was this generation of landscape architects that, it’s true, was working after a generation of architects, such as those you mention. But the field of landscape has been enjoying a kind of renaissance in the last two decades not because people have been lobbying Congress or have been defending professional identity. It’s because it’s been useful in really solving a set of problems, and that to me is always more interesting than defending or propping up one discipline or another.

SM: The book comprises several histories, from the conception of landscape in the 17th century as a category of painting to the Modernist planning regimes of the mid-20th century. The time frame is bookended by Rome and Detroit, cities that lost half of their populations. Why did you focus on regional abandonment rather than on growth and expansion?

CW: You only really need something like a landscape urbanism or an ecological urbanism in a context where you have the need for an urban model. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts; it’s downzoned to zero because the city is not growing. There’s a great demand for growth, but it will not grow because of its self-identity around a certain configuration. Cambridge doesn’t need an urban design theory, you know? It’s not growing, it’s not shrinking.

Growth and shrinkage are really two extremes of that economic condition. It’s the delta, it’s the change over time. Places that are changing very drastically by virtue of economic transformations, either positively or negatively, tend to be sites where landscape urbanism is found more relevant. I have been dealing with this theme for some time in my work, as a way to explain and to situate [German planner and Mies van der Rohe collaborator Ludwig] Hilberseimer and talk about midcentury Modernist planning.

SM: I think that’s one of the most valuable aspects of your work, your recuperation of Hilberseimer as a significant player in 20th-century planning. Why do you find him—someone who was reviled for the better part of the last century—such a redeemable figure?

CW: Part of what I like about Hilb is that he was a committed socialist—and as such, his social-political credentials are not in question—who argued for a structural relationship between industrial economy and urban form. Not that he proposed the demolition of the traditional urban fabric—his argument was that, in fact, the mature economy of the postwar period was doing it already. It wasn’t an act of urban renewal, it was an economic process. He was always very clear that his project and his role as a planner were never going to be strong enough to overturn the economic conditions that were structural to the situation that he had to work in. Yet he became the poster child for the failures of Modernism and the whipping boy for attacks on Mies. That was in part because of a misreading of his work. He built one project, Lafayette Park in Detroit, which is to my mind the most successful piece of public urban renewal housing we have. When I say in the book we need to revisit this history of Modernist planning, the idea would be to look back at the era’s most successful examples, like Lafayette Park. Because while there were mistakes made, at least there was a social project. At least there was an explicit environmentalist position.

SM: But Modernist planning also reflected and concretized the prejudices of its time. Wasn’t that also partly the case at Lafayette Park?

CW: It’s a really interesting ethical question, right? This was the best product of the New Deal, which spearheaded urban renewal that was fundamentally racist, without a doubt. Demolish the housing of 6,000 working-class African Americans— if that were the whole story, I wouldn’t be interested in it. It’s that the site then sits empty for four years. So you have this condition where, by the time Hilberseimer gets a phone call from progressive developer Herbert Greenwald, it’s been years after the demolition and the site has been abandoned. Do you take the project or not? That’s a really interesting case study, because you can argue it from either direction, and I have done so very effectively with my students. Ultimately, I think Hilb [with Mies van der Rohe and Alfred Caldwell] produced a place that was not just socially and environmentally redemptive, but had an explicitly progressive mixed-race, mixed-class program. A part of what I like about that story is that it imbricates a kind of environmental position—he removed the old street grid and turned the property into a lush tabula verde—but also a set of social and political conditions that I find absent today.

SM: Hilberseimer is your counter to other, more canonical landscape practitioners like Ian McHarg. Why did you spend less time on McHarg?

CW: I think it’s good to have alternative traditions and histories. McHarg and the tradition of planning that he came out of were absolutely essential but ultimately insufficient. On the one hand, McHarg’s work [such as his 1969 book, Design with Nature] promoted a professional technoliteracy around ecology that was remarkably successful and changed the field globally. On the other hand, it also depended upon certain political and economic conditions [such as the support of the state] that didn’t persist for very long. So we ended up with the irony that we now have more ecological literacy and practical skill than we’ve ever had but not the political will. McHarg’s layered maps of Staten Island predicted precisely where Staten Island would flood after [Superstorm] Sandy. And yet we seem to lack the political and economic conditions to be able to enact that kind of preventive planning. I don’t mean to be cynical about that. I just think that’s a reality of our condition. That’s why I write Kongjian Yu [who founded one of the first private landscape architecture firms in China that helped develop a national ecological security plan] into the book, because it seems that given China’s particular political configuration, they seem to still have the aspiration to plan on a great scale, whereas in New York or Chicago or Toronto we work almost exclusively on the scale of the brownfield industrial site.

SM: You emphasize landscape urbanism’s critical capacity—it’s part of the reason for your privileging it over other competing flavors of urbanism, such as ecological urbanism or New Urbanism. Have you seen this critical position weaken as landscape urbanist proposals have been increasingly implemented in cities around the world?

CW: That’s a good question, and it’s fair to acknowledge. I view this as really a generational choice that a generation of urbanists have made. These were people who were educated in an era of landscape ecology and planning [in the ’60s and ’70s] and were trained according to a model that assumed the state would be there to decide, say, in the case of McHarg, where not to build up Staten Island. But they find themselves working in a very different cultural and political economy, right? They find themselves working in a place where to work as urbanists—that is, to work to improve cities and their health, ecological function, and cultural vibrancy—they have to make a choice to urbanize in the way that we urbanize today, that is, through neoliberal market-based models. For some people a much more ambitious social project belonging to landscape urbanism has been lost, and I share some of their sentiment. Having said that, I do think that it’s important to get on with the work of making cities better places.

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