A tire in the park

Emily Talen, New Urban Network

It’s easy to poke fun at landscape urbanism. If it weren’t currently at the forefront of what passes for sophisticated thinking, this movement which seeks to capitalize on the “lyrical play between nectar and NutraSweet” might seem fun. Unfortunately, the crusade for “fuzzy clusters of rhetorical positioning” not only has very little sense of humor but it is strangely uncritical of its own self-inflated propositions. That’s like throwing down the gauntlet, in my book.

I have tried to ignore landscape urbanism for some time now (my main encounter with it being the popular “landscape urbanism bullshit generator”), but the rapid growth of literature, academic appointments, and conference themes associated with it forces a more serious appraisal.2 Thus on a recent trip through China, I took along a copy ofThe Landscape Urbanism Reader and, in between my attempts to appreciate Chinese urbanism, I attempted to appreciate landscape urbanism. As the landscape urbanists are very fond of analogies, I used the trip as a way of framing my own “speculative thickening of the world of possibilities,” using the occasion to probe “the dialectical nature of being and becoming.” I was hoping a trip through China would help me figure out what that could possibly mean.

The main conclusion I had after reading the 15 essays in the Reader is that landscape urbanists are really, really good at describing things. Using terrific words like “rhizomelike” and “extensivity,” they have developed a keen ability to read a site’s potential, reaching new levels of understanding through their impressive command of vocabulary. I’m grateful for their contributions to the lexicon of the damaged American landscape. And if it’s true that landscape urbanism ”refrains from the superficial reference to sustainability” — it is much appreciated. Yet the landscape urbanists seem reluctant to admit that just because they can describe complex things – like emergence, scale, fabric, indeterminacy, exchange, biotic context, and the like — it doesn’t mean they’ve actually accomplished anything. It is possible to admire their over-intellectualizing, but that’s as far as it goes.

In my darker moods I read landscape urbanism as nothing more than a series of restatements — in a hundred different ways — of the same issues that have been reframed, reconceptualized, and rewritten for the past 150 years. Landscape urbanists seem not to know this. Do they really imagine that they are the first to hope for ecological balance, the ability to see “parts in relation to the whole,” the merger of process and form, or in fact “the union of landscape with urbanism”? Do they not see how unoriginal it is to find structure out of chaos, or to view cities like ecosystems?

All this historically oblivious rebranding might be merely entertaining if it weren’t for the fact that the task of deciphering their “ever-diversifying” resourcefulness is distracting everyone, believers and critics alike. Think of the energy wasted by students trying to make sense of how “birdsong and Beastie Boys” might translate into a better world. Their talent would be better spent finding ways to implement what we already know to be true: that cities need to be fashioned into walkable, well-serviced, socially diverse, and environmentally benign human habitats.

Beyond the jargon and the wasting of everyone’s time, by far the most serious problem with landscape urbanism is that it completely leaves out of the discussion something many of us consider to be pretty essential: humans. This oversight makes landscape urbanists immune to social objective — the attempt to give as many urban residents as possible access to what they need for a happy, healthy, just, productive life. They seem not to understand, nor care about, people going to work, looking for jobs, riding the bus, raising families, buying groceries — all those mundane, overly programmed predictabilities of everyday life that nevertheless need constant attention. There simply are no people in the world of landscape urbanism.

This might seem like an overreaction, but I read every essay in The Landscape Urbanism Reader carefully, hoping to find some indication that people actually matter in this field. I couldn’t find one author who cared about how design might advance social justice, or even help people function in their daily lives. Not a single mention of how people might participate in the task of creating an “emergent urbanism,” or how they might benefit from these new conceptualizations and metaphors. No serious attempt to address the problems of social exclusion, food deserts, pollution, concentrated poverty, traffic congestion, bad schools, affordability, safety, or accessibility.

Those omissions might be immaterial if landscape urbanists weren’t so intent on claiming such an inflated role, Yertle the Turtle style. If only they would stick to the task of designing better public spaces, cleaning up brownfields, and reprogramming industrial sites. there might be little reason to reprimand their insensitivity to social problems. But instead of being content to advance the worthy goal of creatively reclaiming industrial land, they allege nothing short of a revolution in citymaking, a new way of “shaping and shifting the urban settlement.” They attempt to do this not by trying to understand what people need but by exploiting tensions, teasing out contradictions, and pinpointing scalar complexities. Those are the stuff of art and poetry. They are not the stuff of building better cities.

How do landscape urbanists claim such self-importance, to have found the window to a renewed urbanism, without touching on the basics? Perhaps it’s strategic. If they can avoid the obvious — i.e., that urban form, static as it is, plays a role in determining whether cities are equitable or diverse, or that the location of sidewalks, schools, and grocery stores matters, or that those tiresome elements of “traditional space making” actually mean a great deal to people — perhaps they can forever hover in the exalted, untouchable world of the designer-hero-genius.

Ironically, though, the approach of landscape urbanism seriously underplays the possibility of change. Rather than staying focused on the urgent task of injecting more civility in the “fragmented and chaotically spread” city, their solution is to throw in the towel, denounce “placemaking” as dated and irrelevant, and declare that cities are landscape. Uncovering the urban voids of discarded industrial capitalism, landscape urbanists offer us nothing more thanreprogramming — performative, open-ended, strategic models, an “ad hoc emergence” of “performative social patterns” that will eventually “colonize” the voids. Forgive me for spoiling the metaphor, but I can’t help wondering where, and under what conditions, those colonizers will live.

I have no doubt that the landscape urbanists’ dismissal of the central importance of pedestrianism, “projects,” and even social diversity is a matter of professional boredom. To the outsider, it seems to have happened like this: having reached the limits of their own profession’s bag of tricks, architects reached over to co-opt “landscape”, flicking away any limits and boundaries that landscape architecture may have tried to impose. This had the added benefit of keeping the academic side of the discipline churning. This strategy worked, at least in the academy. The result has been a growing, cultish worship of “indeterminacy and flux”, “instability,” “process and scaffoldings,” a “system of emptiness,” a “resilient structure of voids,” and a “layered, non-hierarchical, flexible, and strategic” landscape. This is all quite interesting. But what does any of it have to do with justice, equality, or the day-to-day lives of urban dwellers? Do the landscape urbanists consider those things to be unimportant when it comes to urbanism?

In the end, landscape urbanism will be frustrated by its avoidance of politically realistic strategies. Landscape urbanists distrust “the measurable and the known,” but the constituency for what is unmeasurable and unknown is not likely to be very organized. So I’m ready to appreciate landscape urbanism as a creative body of ideas to draw from for retrofitting brownfields, reprogramming “seemingly banal surfaces,” getting internet access in the wilderness, and generally demonstrating how to read cities as “dynamic systems of flux.” But I urge the landscape urbanists to stop over-reaching.

If they don’t, their indeterminacies will eventually collide, no doubt unhappily, with “the simplistic traditional aesthetics of objecthood,” like walkable streets, playgrounds, corner bakeries, and well-designed transit stations, all of which play a much bigger role in urbanism than they might ever want to admit. To get them on the right track, we shall have to find a way to keep them from being bored.

Emily Talen is a professor in urban planning at Arizona State University.