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Landscape Urbanism is a relatively new movement, which takes the stance that the best way to approach urban design is through shaping the landscape, not the architecture.  Its origins can be found it’s the works of Ian McHarg, Kenneth Frampton and Charles Waldheim.  It’s currently primarily focused on the urban landscape of North America due to the prominent errors of the 20th Century approach to designing American cities. However, as this suggests, you therefore have to be careful when grouping sweeping policies into one movement, given these policies might not take into account the abnormalities of the urban environments around the world.(Whitten 2019)

Some of these problematic key policies are:

  • The rejection of division between landscape and city’ (Whitten 2019), which suggests we should aspire to an ‘amalgamation’ (Whitten 2019) of both as shown in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City.
  • ‘Landscape should replace Architecture as a building block of the city’ (Whitten 2019)
  • Makes the invisible visible’ (Whitten 2019), suggesting that all city interventions should be a result of top down analytic mapping, as opposed to grassroots movements.

The rejection of division of land and city

We all know the problems our cities face; overcrowding, pollution, loss of character, lack of pedestrianisation etc. But is the merging of land and city going to solve these issues or is it simply an out of date idea?

In Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden cities of to-morrow’, he paints the picture of an ingenious answer to the woes of the city; ‘slums’ (Howard, 1898, p . 323) and ‘foul air’ (Howard 1898, p . 323)  and the plights of the countryside ‘deserted villages’(Howard, 1898 p . 324). His simple solution is a combination of both, with the assumption that the unification of the two will cancel out the flaws of each other… that’s how all relationships work isn’t it? Let us examine this proposal further in the context of modern Britain.

Howard’s ideal Garden city was based on the concept of a series of zones of residential, industrial, recreational and agricultural radiating around a core. When each city reaches the maximum population, a new garden city will leech off the first one and sprawl out into the countryside.

Diagrammatic proposal for the Garden City by Ebenezer Howard, image provided by SPUR (2019)

Should we merge Landscape and City?

The reality is, as much as Howard’s thinking was groundbreaking and exemplary for his time, it simply doesn’t take into account all of the contextual differences of our era.

Howard was born in London,in the mid 19th century, during the tail end of the cholera outbreaks and in the midst of the typhoid epidemic. This was also a time of social reform in which the Laissez Fare attitude was questioned and new policies and understandings of the spread of disease resulted in dramatic changes such as the 1875 Public Health Act. Howard’s time in England, and exposure to the changing politics, aided in his good intentions which were directed at creating a new city free of ‘foul air’ and ‘overcrowded slums’ (Howard, 1898, p . 323).

Garden cities of To-morrow was written in 1898 as a reaction to these circumstances and the works of Henry George. Howard starts off stating surely everyone must see that ‘overcrowding’ is ‘deplorable‘ (Howard, 1898, p . 345). Admittedly yes, overcrowding is no-one’s cup of tea, however he then follows through on the incorrect premise that a dense city centre must result in poor living conditions.

Etching of Cholera infested streets, image by Ronan (2019)

In the context of today’s understanding of health and welfare, we can create dense cities (whilst implementing the correct infrastructure and regulations) which manage overcrowding whilst creating a relatively healthy living environment. Admittedly there is still issues of smog in cities like central London, but not at the historic levels we were facing in the time of Howard. In addition we shouldn’t choose the easy option of sprawling into the countryside otherwise our carelessness may lose the precious landscapes which make Britain so beautiful.

Which should we prioritise? Landscape or Architecture design?

As we are all well aware our country is beginning to get overcrowded and there is therefore a great need for density in our cities land(ONS, 2019) .  Landscape design is all well and good, but this alone cannot solve problems such as the housing crisis. Attention must therefore be paid to the Architectural design.  We cannot be careless and let our cities sprawl across the countryside as shown in the Garden city proposals. An example of the careful Architectural consideration which is required, is the work of Peter Barber.

His work combines context and architecture seamlessly on both small and large scale. For example the Donnybrook quarter housing accommodates mixed use whilst also creating a piece of landscape in itself. However the key marvels in this design are the considerations paid to the occupants and density, not just the space outside. Donnybrook is a series of efficiently organised, low level units with a density of up to ‘400 rooms per hectare’ (Barber, 2014).  Each occupant is provided with a triple aspect dwelling, with access to a private garden and fun features which they can personalise. This increase in density also increases the chances of interaction and therefore community (Gehl,1971) this is an important factor in this day and age given lack of community has been correlated with depression (Wittchen et al, 2010).

Image of Donnybrook Quarter taken by Von Sternberg (2019)

On a bigger scale his proposal of the ‘100 mile city’ takes a stance against the previous policy of integrated town and city and instead proposes a firm inhabited barrier which prevents further sprawl, but instead encourages density to be radiated back into the centre (Barber, 2017). This proposal is somewhat radical but the use of architecture to dictate the landscape suggests an inhabited and domestic scale approach, after all…we are human.

‘100 Mile city’ Edge condition model, image taken by Von Sternberg (2019)

Top down or Bottom up?

As identified earlier, a key Landscape Urbanism policy is the identification and implementation of landscaping opportunities. A common tool for this is a Geographic information system which works on a larger scale, identifying layers of data at a birds eye level and overlaying them in order to propose optimum areas for development. However again this misses out the human element of development; what do the locals want and need? Whilst the integration of landscape into city is ideal for a vibrant city, this does not necessarily work as an extensive sprawl suburbia or the mass patches of park commonly associated with landscape Urbanism. Sometimes small select pieces of greenery organically developed by the community are far more effective.

For example, Burgess Park in South London is a piece of landscape created using a ‘top down’ approach. The lack of attention paid to the surrounding architecture and connection with the local community results in a dead and unsafe space.

Burgess Park by Google Streetview (2019)

In contrast, the Calthorpe project in North London is a piece of landscaping organised purely by the local community. A project in which they ‘view themselves as a being with full cultural and political responsibility’ (Krier, 1984: 42). This grassroots approach creates a landscape which is defined by and enhances the surrounding architecture, whilst focusing primarily on the needs of the community. (Calthorpe Project, 2019)

Calthorpe Project Volunteers, Calthorpe Project (2019)

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m still yet to be convinced by Landscape Urbanism. The majority of policies praised by its supporters,  appear to be lacking in contextual sensitivity and awareness of the people who will have to live with their proposals.




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Planning and Landscape
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