Design Against Disaster

Mariana Mogilevich

What is to be done? We are the hapless victims of rising temperatures and tides, droughts and superstorms. Infrastructure buckles and the water is full of lead. Of course all urban ecological disaster is of our own making, but that doesn’t change the fact that the future looks bleak. Yet our narrowing horizons for joyous survival are an opportunity for landscape architects, who find themselves playing a growing role in urban design. As designers are wont to do, it is now for them to imagine and propose “alternative urban futures” for us. Could landscape architects, historically seen as pleasure gardeners or accessories to the master builders, be our saviors?

Recently, they have accelerated their efforts to adapt to our mess and to envision a way out. It won’t be the first time they have tried. In 1966, a small group of landscape architects issued a “Declaration of Concern.” “We are concerned,” they wrote, “over misuse of the environment and development which has lost all contact with the basic processes of nature. Lake Erie is becoming septic, New York City is short of water, the Delaware River is infused with salt, the Potomac River with sewage and silt. Air is polluted in major cities and their citizens breathe and see with difficulty.” In the face of unprecedented environmental crisis, the landscape architects claimed they were best equipped to find solutions. They were, as signatory Ian McHarg would later call them, “stewards of the earth.”

Their combination of ecological knowledge and formal design abilities should have been persuasive. Yet in the following years, the ecological design of McHarg—and others with similarly scientific, empirical approaches to the landscape—made little headway in the popular imagination. A metropolitan growth plan for exurban Maryland is unlikely to excite anyone going about one’s daily life. Similarly, there is little that is sexy about common reeds sucking heavy metals out of the ground. Such indifference is understandable; but, in the meantime, environmental damage has accumulated and compounded. All told, it is hard to argue today that the earth is better off than it was half a century ago. In advance of a recent summit—to chart a course for landscape architects for the next 50 years—one prominent landscape architect looked back at the previous 50 years and asked: “Has landscape architecture failed?”

<i>Downtown Manhattan in the distance, viewed from Staten Island’s Freshkills Park, 2010</i>. Photograph by H.L.I.T. / Wikimedia Commons

While the previous cohort did not save us from environmental cataclysm, a newer generation of landscape architects has developed a powerful new hold on our ideas about the future of cities. Over the last 20 to 30 years, a wave of new urban landscapes from Seattle to Madrid, Shenzhen to Brooklyn, have garnered widespread attention and praise. One reason for the ascendance of landscape in our urban imagination is that new parks compare favorably against the developments in contemporary architecture. Today’s money-laundering tower, misguided museum, and unwarranted stadium mostly serve to remind us of the depressing parameters of our contemporary existence. Meanwhile, the proliferation of imitation High Lines is simply a sign of the enthusiasm—from city governments and private funders—for brownfields turned into pleasure gardens and, with any luck, into generators of economic activity.

“Landscape urbanism,” as the practice has become known, is a label attached to work like that of James Corner, the designer behind New York’s High Line and Freshkills Park. These two projects—along with earlier, theoretical proposals, as well as current work underway for the Toronto waterfront and elsewhere—share a number of characteristics that unite the new field. Sited on obsolete infrastructure such as landfills, decommissioned airfields, and postindustrial waterfronts, the designs of landscape urbanists ostensibly eschew aesthetics in favor of “program” (design-speak for what people actually do in a place). Plans for these spaces are long-term and open-ended. By highlighting the evolution of the space over time, such projects often put the designer’s authorship in question: Is the adding of new plants the work of the original landscape architect, or of the seeds the birds choose to distribute over the site? Wind, water, and ecological systems seem to take control.

It is on behalf of these practices that Charles Waldheim builds a history in Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory. Waldheim first coined the term “landscape urbanism” in the 1990s. The goal for this term was to brand a new form of design intervention that was developed for the postindustrial landscapes of the American Midwest, a form opposed to the anodyne coastal villages that architect advocates of “new urbanism” claimed were the future of American cities. The neotraditional stylings of new urbanist architecture has always offended the sensibilities of aesthetes, and has little to offer environmentalists. For all the celebration of walkable streets and downtowns, such environments are planned for previously undeveloped land, thereby consuming fresh resources. In opposition to the “new urbanists,” landscape urbanists tackled “formerly urban” zones—now abandoned, contaminated, or functionally obsolete—and reinvented them. Waldheim has been a principal advocate of this growing practice; and now, as his new book makes clear, the time has come for a general theory.

Is the choice between landscape architecture and environmental annihilation?

For Waldheim, a general theory is inseparable from a master narrative, one that myopically focuses on great men heroically attempting to organize the decentralized landscapes of the 20th century’s mass production and mass consumption. For Waldheim, landscape urbanist practices “emerged directly in response to structural transformations in the industrial economy of urbanization.” By this he means that, as the century’s economy shifted, a few brave men dared to fight back with their own vision of an alternative urbanity. There was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City in the mid-1930s—where new transportation and communication infrastructures allowed settlement to extend across a semi-agrarian landscape—and, more recently, Italian architect Andrea Branzi’s proposals for the distribution of agricultural production across a featureless and limitless geography. But Waldheim’s primary focus is on the work of the lesser-known Ludwig Hilberseimer. The German architect made some terrifying urban designs in the 1920s, endless rows of housing that seemed to express the worst of mass society and technocratic urbanism. He later disavowed these schemes to advocate for a form of dispersed regional settlement in the 1940s. He is the great hero of Waldheim’s theory.

Hilberseimer’s partially realized masterpiece is Detroit’s Lafayette Park. This urban renewal project has the usual dodgy history of residential displacement and racist redevelopment, but its beautiful results seem to belie everything we expect from that city. The project mixes residents of different races and incomes, townhomes and apartment towers, all in a verdant setting, and it has been praised in Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies, a fine-grained publication that celebrates Lafayette Park’s residents and daily life there. That book conveys a sense of a complex, diverse ecology: from college students and retirees to herons, pheasants, and possums. Yet although Waldheim proposes Lafayette Park as a model of social justice and ecological performance, he never illustrates how this is the case, or the process by which it came to be. The success of a project cannot be willed but only drawn out in the relationships between the space and the society of which it is a part.

<i>Lafayette Park in downtown Detroit</i>. Photograph courtesy of Michigan State Historic Preservation Office / Flickr

Throughout Landscape as Urbanism, Waldheim expresses a desire to shape not just urban territory but urban culture as well. Urbanism, after all, refers not only to the professional shaping of cities, but also to city living “as a way of life.” Yet despite references to its relationship with “architecture culture”—as well as with the “donor culture” behind so many megaprojects, whose wealthy patrons have replaced the welfare state in the realm of open-space planning and management—what the culture of landscape urbanism actually is remains frustratingly unexplored. Landscape urbanists find fixes for the detritus of industrial urbanization and reorganize space to adapt to postindustrial urbanization. Yet this fascination with fixes seems to preclude the landscape urbanists from proposing alternative forms of urban life.

Landscape is not just about organizing physical space and economic activity; it also structures the realm of political culture. In Waldheim’s account, landscape urbanism has neither users, nor a social project. Is the city a system to be managed, or a society to be improved? Are landscape architects artists critical of the phenomena of flexible accumulation and contemporary urbanization, or the phenomena’s stewards? In Waldheim’s vision, landscape urbanists come across as more technocrats than urban visionaries. One suspects that their visions of ecology-as-urbanism are an easy way of naturalizing the contemporary culture of cities. For the most part, landscape urbanists create spaces that promote development and serve urban branding in competition for business and tourism. They cast nary a critical glance at the relationship between capitalism and the ecological destruction it wreaks on the urban landscape. Why would they? After all, it is the landscape architects who will get hired to remediate it.

Waldheim’s focus on the past means landscape architects are doomed, or bound, to perpetuate a cycle of destroy-remediate-destroy. In contrast, the work of Kate Orff and her firm SCAPE looks “toward an urban ecology.” Waldheim’s and Orff’s works provide two very different outlines for the production of the urban landscape. Where one author constructs a grand narrative drawn from history, the other looks to the future. In one account, heroic men make claims to ownership of projects and ideas; in the other—polyvocal and feminist—credit and expertise are shared. One is solidly “inside baseball,” as the men like to say; the other is practical and accessible. The most striking difference is that Orff’s Toward an Urban Ecology is incredibly hopeful. Orff and SCAPE find beauty in our profoundly fucked-up world and paint a future we can still be excited about.

SCAPE is best known for its “oyster-tecture” proposal, a scheme displayed at the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition of urban adaptations to rising sea levels in New York’s harbor. The widespread damage wrought two years later by Superstorm Sandy made these proposals more relevant than initially imagined. The SCAPE proposal is now being implemented in an expanded version as part of a series of federally funded projects to design a more resilient region. The original proposition could hardly be more attractive: if we seed oysters in New York City’s polluted waterways, the new oyster reefs can clean the water, break swelling tides, and engage residents as stewards of local environments. Oyster-tecture takes all the theoretical flavors of the day—the anthropocene and the animal turn, vital materialisms and  political ecologies—and mobilizes them in an urban landscape intervention that is practical, jargon-free, and even fun. One illustration shows New Yorkers of 2054 hanging out at the “Shuck Shack” on the Gowanus Canal, a region that is today simultaneously toxic and gentrifying. It’s a small jab at our urban culture of hedonistic consumption that lets us eat oysters, too.

<i>An image of the proposed archipelago that would support oysters and filter-feeding shellfish, 2016</i>. Image courtesy of SCAPE / The Monacelli Press

SCAPE has been up to much more than seeding oysters in the last 10 years. Toward an Urban Ecology is a catalogue of projects that are notable not only for their sensitivity to natural processes and systems, but for their engagement with ethics and the wide range of urban publics connected across an ecosystem. For SCAPE, urban ecology is “a mode of transformation where an infrastructural system is overlaid on and connected with a unit of engaged citizenry.” Orff has previously written of how landscape architects might create “cosmopolitan ecologies” across species, in which people and mollusks produce a new form of urbanity together. This is a vision illustrated by Safari 7, an audio tour that let riders along New York’s 7 subway line get to know their nonhuman neighbors and see how they share their urban infrastructure. This project was expanded to other cities, including São Paulo and Beijing. These may seem like merely local projects, but many are actually models to be tested, refined, and expanded elsewhere. Together they also show how the landscape in the city is more than a matter of parks, but also touches on the subway, the sidewalk, and the water’s edge.

Orff points out that “you can’t love what you can’t see.” This is at the heart of Orff and SCAPE’s aesthetics of engagement, a necessary new outlook that runs counter to the impulse for distant autonomy haunting so much advanced architectural design. Architects often design with an eye toward what’s most impressive to their colleagues, as opposed to what’s most effective, or engaging, for a broader public. In SCAPE we see the opposite, landscape architecture as an activist practice. In her contribution to Toward an Urban Ecology, art historian Emily Eliza Scott makes a connection between SCAPE’s work and art as “social practice.” Through public events and processes, the firm’s work engages with specific users and producers of urban space, rather than addressing an urban public merely in the abstract.

<i>The proposed Karst Commons, a space that exposes rock formations and an underground stream to visitors</i>. Image courtesy of SCAPE / The Monacelli Press

Scott is also coeditor of Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics. The book is a wonderful hybrid, both a collection of essays and a catalog of projects by artists engaged in contemporary land use. Unlike landscape architecture, land use—according to the book’s editors—more directly engages the relationship between environmental and economic structures, not to mention demands for spatial and environmental justice. As the title implies, artists working the land are more critical than designers can afford to be, and less utilitarian.

In the book, Scott relates SCAPE’s work to the “maintenance art” of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. The artist, who emphasizes the importance of caretaking in the urban environment, makes an appearance in both Critical Landscapes and Toward an Urban Ecology, and is the subject of a timely retrospective and catalogue by the Queens Museum. Ukeles guided the transformation of Freshkills Park, before James Corner made it a seminal site of landscape urbanism. As Artist in Residence at New York’s Department of Sanitation, Ukeles individually thanked each sanitation worker in the service for their overlooked heroism in keeping the city alive. Previously, she performed her own maintenance art by scrubbing the steps of the Connecticut museum where she had been invited to exhibit. At that time, Ukeles identified two basic life systems—development and maintenance—and highlighted the gendered dimensions of environmental care. A similar point is raised here by landscape historian Thaïsa Way, who places SCAPE’s work within the under-recognized lineage of ecofeminism. From the settlement house to Silent Spring, women planners, landscape architects, and ecologists have long engaged in transforming the urban environment. They have done so in a manner that places the relationships between social practices, and those of individual and group experience, above the imperatives of development.

The challenge for all maintenance artists is to move from the realm of symbols to the world of systems. For all the power of the individual woman artist or solitary oyster as environmental scrubber, there is a lot of cleaning to be done. SCAPE’s “optimistic approach” is promising in this regard. The title of the SCAPE “monufesto” (the book is part monograph, part manual, and part manifesto) pays homage to “Toward an Urban Landscape,” an essay in which Kenneth Frampton called for designers to attend to the environmental consequences of our patterns of urban settlement. Frampton was, in turn, referencing Le Corbusier’s 1923 manifesto Toward an Architecture. That architect famously concluded his book with the formulation “Architecture or Revolution.” Revolution, the architect then added, could be avoided.

Compared with a modern city made safe for development, revolution might have been preferable. But when it comes to ecological crisis, we do not want to see the inherent contradictions of our approach to urban life—our emphasis on production at the expense of maintenance and care—explode in our faces. Mierle Ukeles wrote a manifesto too, in 1969, in which she asked: “After the Revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” Fixing the world is a matter of both dramatic and incremental measures. SCAPE’s proposals offer a very welcome way forward. If we now find ourselves between landscape architecture and environmental annihilation, let’s give the landscape architects a try.