Op-Ed: Landscape Urbanism

To discuss the formation of Landscape Urbanism let us fist discuss the appropriation of the terms Ecology and Resilience by Urban Design; words that are brandished as a ‘correct’ form of environmental and social conduct – pitted against the autonomy of architectural objects over an urban game board whose goal is to pass go and collect two hundred dollars.


The term Ecology finds its roots as far back as John Muir’s drawing of Manahatta where an intricate web of relationships visualise the fragility of an ecosystem before colonisation. Felix Guttari later juggles the term as a verb in The Three Ecologies to construct architectures position within an ecological ensemble of social order. This pivotal point however shifts Ecology from being used as a noun to a verb, a metaphor used to describe other complex phenomena through an epistemological lense. What Guttari lacks is the deployment of the term as an analytical or problem construction mechanism, instead favouring the distanced perspective offered by philosophy, metaphorical abstraction and the formation of the Ecosophic Object.


Landscape Architects and later, Landscape Urbanists offer Ecology as a way to untangle sites. The practical knowledge of interdependent systems mixed with design knowledge to intervene allows Landscape Urbanists the faculties to pick apart flows of energy, material and social reciprocity within larger scale territories. Although the term has re-entered the profession as a noun through the fields of Landscape and Ecological Urbanism it’s conceit is that no projection of ecology onto any given territory or site is a truly factual attestation of the complex forces that play out. What the perspective of these fields offer is a more sensitive and considered way in which to construct urban interventions.


Steward Picket’s criticism at the Critical Ecologies symposium in 2010 carefully depicts the conceit that accurate ecological maps cannot be determined of the world, where, ultimately only conceptual models or best-fit scenarios are formulated. This fact is compounded of course by the introduction of the Anthropocene Era where any formation of an ontological distinction between society and nature is destroyed. Standing in it’s stead is an adulterated quasi-(in)organic material palate.


“Here the modifier projective is both important and suggestive: with it we recognise the constructed nature of ecologists’ models for the physical and dynamic aspects of the natural world, as well as the limits of science in separating the observer from phenomena observed.” (Reed, Pg 16)


What the term projective offers the design profession is an idea of emergent nature, ideologically and physically constructed. “A world increasingly recognised as a hybrid of culture and nature, where old dualisms are being supplanted by transdisciplanary thinking, uneasy synergies, complex networks, and surprising collaborations.” (Reed, Pg 17) Within this, and as a result of this ecological entanglement we are confronted with what Timothy Morton refers to as Hyperobects in Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World; describing climate change, storm activity and sea level rise. Events that operate over such large time scales that they question the capacity of designers to comprehend them. (Lisa Moffitt, Question, (Perry Kupler Lecture) 2015).


The introduction of Resilience to the discipline through Landscape Urbanism and Ecological Urbanism offer a method of problematizing such large scale and severe events. An alignment of large scale events that threaten our costal urban regions require projective ecologies be formulated for their fruition so the discipline can operate reflexively in what Donna Harroway calls the belly of the beast – to project designed futures that allow large scale paradigm shifts and design solutions be formulated. As the profession considers resilient strategies it allows projects to be constructed in purely pragmatic terms, shedding all previous theoretical conjecture. (Adams, 2014, Pg 127, Log).


As Landscape Architecture entered Urban Design it introduced larger scale of systems thinking to architects and urbanists who had been preoccupied with the static and autonomous object. However, Olmsted’s fatality in design was his clear-cut distinction, and oftentimes opposition between nature and the city. The methodology of scalar territorial relationships (Belanger, landscape as infrastructure) offered by ecological thought allows seemingly complex entities such as climate change to be autopsied and intersected by landscape interventions across large timescales. The introduction of the Anthropocene to Ecological Urbanism creates a telescopically blurred line between what was once considered urban and non urban. Where Landscape Urbanism and Ecological Urbanisms agency lies today with the aid of Bruno Latour is a more articulate way to deconstruct the planetary and urban mechanics of climate change (which itself is a projection of urbanism) and offer projected futures in which to interrogate new urban paradigms for how society interacts with and anticipates potentially catastrophic events, stemming what was formerly considered non-urban and is now denatured.


1 Reflexivity is a continuous loop between cause and affect across time. If we introduce Jean Baudrillard’s concept of Reflexivity in Simulacra and Simulation to the Anthropocene thesis urban designers can design reflexively for catastrophic events within the frame of projected futures.



The demilitarized zone between the urgency of climate change and our current toolset set out above in Ecological Urbanism belongs to Capitalism:


“Capitalism is no doubt incompatible with an ecologically responsible existence. The profit motive that quantifies value and captures desire has so successfully integrated with the great outpouring of technological innovations of the last century that the entire global infrastructure now depends on perpetual growth. The assumed good in-itself of “economic growth” has metastasized with the help of a very complex array of cold calculations, mostly done through computers. Growth is believed to be a constant variable by those at society’s helm regardless of the colossal extraction of resources and speedy transport needed to sustain it. This kind of growth is unsustainable on a finite planet and, not only that, it is ruining the lives of the animals inhabiting it presently. The biosphere itself may be damaged beyond repair (beyond repairing itself) by this not-nearly-questioned-enough project of regulated, steady capital growth. A post growth economy will have to be sensitive to the instruments that lock growth into a uniformed march of death: usury, interest-rates, debt-slavery.”



Though I have wrestled with this mental problem for the last few years, and continue to do so it becomes increasingly difficult to find ways to marry what must be done with what can be done within the boundaries of an urbanism puppeteered by capital flow beyond what Keller Easterling outlines in Interplay (Harvard Design Magazine No 39) where “urbanists, landscape architects, and regional environmentalists could rate properties for their complimentary risks and benefits or their counterbalancing attributes.” (pg 137) Here in Keller’s typical theoretical fashion (brought into climate change) climate risks and functions are swapped around as commodities between designed objects, incentivising developers to think systematically – a capital ecology if you like.





Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects: Ecology and

Philosophy After the End of the World. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Reed, C, 2014. Projective Ecologies. 1st ed. NYC: Actar Publishers


Mostafavi, M, 2010. Ecological Urbanism. 1st ed. Harvard: Lars Müller Publishers


Turpin, E. (2013) Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy. 1st ed. Open Humanities Press.


Journal Article:

Adams, R. (2014) ‘Notes from the Resilient City’. Log Journal, vol 32: pg 123-130


Easterling, K. (2014). Interplay. Harvard Design Magazine, 39: pg 135-139

Waldheim, C, (2011). On Landscape, Ecology, And Other Modifiers To Urbanism. Topos, 71, 21-25


Conference Papers:

Olmsted, F, (1870). Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns. In American Social Science Association Address. Boston, February 25, 1870. AIA.

© Hayden White