The schoolyard fight: New Urbanism versus Landscape Urbanism

In the Ideas section of The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh takes a fascinating look at the contention shaping up between New Urbanism and an academic challenger, Landscape Urbanism. Neyfakh says Landscape Urbanism is on the rise, intent on toppling New Urbanism and its focus on compact, walkable communities.

Neyfakh writes:

“A little over two months ago, some two dozen influential architects, urban planners, and academics from around the country gathered at a New Orleans cottage to spend a long weekend discussing strategy. The house belonged to 61-year-old Andres Duany, a leader in the movement known as New Urbanism, which originated in the late 1970s and has enjoyed decades as the dominant force in American city planning, urging Americans to reject suburban subdivisions in favor of denser, more diverse neighborhoods.

“The purpose of the summit was to talk about an enemy. A rival faction of urban theorists had begun to publicly challenge them, and declare their approach to city-making obsolete. Calling themselves landscape urbanists, these upstarts were promoting themselves as environmentally conscious, ecologically sophisticated, and uniquely suited to bring sustainability to America’s suburbs. Instead of talking about buildings, street grids, and parks, they spoke seductively about ‘living processes,’ ‘flows,’ and the importance of respecting ‘ecological infrastructure.’ Their ideas were being embraced in the architecture world as radical and new. Most disconcertingly, they were rising to power at one of the most influential architecture academies in the country: the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.”

Neyfakh examines the thinking of Charles Waldheim — “the intensely confident, spiky-haired leader of the landscape urbanism movement,” who is filling Harvard’s landscape architecture department with his allies — and says:

“At the heart of the landscape urbanist agenda is the notion that the most important part of city planning is not the arrangement of buildings, but the natural landscape upon which those buildings stand. Proponents envision weaving nature and city together into a new hybrid that functions like a living ecosystem. And instead of pushing people closer together in service of achieving density, as New Urbanism advocates, landscape urbanism allows for the possibility of an environmentally friendly future that includes spacious suburbs, and doesn’t demand that Americans stop driving their convenient cars.”

“For Waldheim and the landscape urbanists, what comes next is translating their ideas into real, built projects. As they do, they’ll be forced to contend with the normal difficulty of ushering theories into the world beyond the university gates. But there’s also something else waiting for them: Duany and his compatriots, bringing a schoolyard-style enthusiasm to the rivalry.”

“’What you’re seeing is the New Urbanism about to swallow the landscape urbanists,’ Duany said. His plan now, he said, is to systematically ‘assimilate’ the language and strategies that have made his opponents such a white-hot brand. ‘We’re trying to upgrade ourselves. I’m not gonna say, ‘We’re gonna flick ’em off the table because they’re a bunch of lawn apologists.’ I’m gonna say, ‘For God’s sake, these guys took over Harvard!’ ‘”