Ecological Urbanism and the Landscape

It is always a bit of a dilemma to write about the landscape’s role in sustainability. How do we sound relevant when our basic training and ethos have been conjoined to the ideal of sustainability even before the word ‘sustainable’ became common parlance? Learning how to site buildings so they sit softly upon the landscape and operate passively to conserve and generate heat; to shelter them from winds; to control and harness water and protect a site’s permeability; to create and protect habitat and encourage bio-diversity; to use plants to remediate and modify climate conditions; and to create beauty are what we learn and teach at school. As landscape architects, learning to design with “green” in mind is core to what we do as a profession.

So how does “ecological urbanism” expand the core values to a profession that is essentially focused on the role of the landscape- a field whose basic ethos is to work within an ecological framework? How does this really differ from basic training?

“Ecological Urbanism’” through the eyes of a landscape architect, pushes the focus of building cities to the forefront of the discussion. The topic of the landscape and even ecology is much broader than architecture, but most people do not put landscape and city together nor ecology with urbanism. The word “landscape” is often mistakenly thought of as “nature,” not something to be found anywhere near the city! It exists outside of the built environment, somewhere out there in “the wilderness. It is precisely the friction between the words, landscape and city, and ecology and urban that generates the power and radicalism of “landscape ( ecological) urbanism.”

The more robust role of landscape architecture in sustainability does not materialize unless we start to think about cities- –the much larger aggregation of resources found in the habitats we create for ourselves. It is when of cities are thought of as living organisms rather than aggregations of buildings, that the landscape becomes a major player in discussions about sustainability.

“Ecological Urbanism” forces us, as landscape architects, to not only consider the workings of the landscape–the geology, topography, soil structures, phenomenology and plant and animal ecologies–but to understand more specifically how the landscape functions within the city. We start to better understand the interrelated systems , that influence the use, governance, economy and social structure of a society that is underpinned by a specific urban landscape. As with the study of ecology, unless we truly embrace all these systems, human and natural ,we will not be able to design so as to create optimal cities for people. Ecological Urbanism shifts the focus of the profession from the suburbs to the city, and to include human systems as part of ecology.

Collectivization is the best means we have to conserve natural resources and slow down global warming, so a vital role of Ecological Urbanism is to encourage people to live, and help them thrive, in cities. The highest and best use of our training as landscape architects lies in our ability to create dense population centers that people will choose over living in our vast and wasteful suburbs. Landscape Architects must now learn to pay attention to not only natural systems, but human systems if we are to build sustainable cities that will both be light on the land and create conditions that offer good quality of life across the socio-economic boundaries. The goal is  to achieve true balance– socially, economically and environmentally. The topic of how landscape urbanism may actually change the landscape will take another conference (at least) to open this rich area of enquiry and investigation. It must build upon the first layer of investigation so vigorously presented in this conference. I embrace the term “Landscape Urbanism,” because, finally, these two often diametrically opposed terms stand side-by-side. It is my belief that our profession is more surely rooted in society and culture than in technology and science. If we are to deliver a sustainable, built environment, we must create places that people will value and to which they can emotionally connect. Without human connection to a site or a city, even our best efforts at creating sustainable environments will not succeed. We must build constituencies of devoted users to the places we build, and recognize that the public landscape is one of the most fragile components of our cities, but perhaps the most critical; without it, the natural and social systems cannot function.

The urban landscape, the platform upon which we humans share with ecological systems and plant and animal habitat, build our buildings, connect to each other, and provide the environment in which we humans live, forms our identity as individuals and becomes the image of the city itself. It can be degraded and ugly, or glorious in its diversity and beauty. It can determine the health of the earth itself, determine the liveability of a city, support (or not support) a city’s economy and help to create health and happiness for its citizens. This is what “ecological urbanism” can be.

Martha Schwartz

in: Mohsen Mostafavi (ed.), Ecological Urbanism, Baden: Lars Muller Publishers, 2010