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Why are the new urbanists and the landscape urbanists at war?

31th July 2014

By Rob Cowan


Why are the new urbanists and the landscape urbanists at war? The new urbanists’ prime enemy is suburban sprawl. Before suburbs sprawled, the new urbanists point out, development in towns and cities was not dominated by the car, and it made walkable neighbourhoods. We must relearn how to build this traditional urbanism, they say.

Landscape urbanists insist that their approach to planning places is superior to new urbanism. They start by analysing and understanding the landscape, and they say that they design in the light of ecological principles, rather than imposing predetermined architectural forms. The landscape urbanists accuse new urbanists of deluding themselves in thinking that sprawl can be prevented or remedied.

In the UK hardly anyone advocates suburban sprawl. In the USA, though, the advocates of sprawl see low-density, car-based development as the American way – as what most people want and what the economy needs. They are opposed by the new urbanists, who say that sprawl creates soul-destroying places whose carbon-based transport is a threat to the planet.

According to the new urbanists, certain types of development work, and others don’t. We can learn what works where by looking at successful places, they say. Some types of street work in a city centre, some types work in a suburban setting. Every element of a place, from the overall layout of a town to the relationship between front doors and the street, needs to be planned and designed by people who understand these things, the new urbanists say. They point out that builders and developers used to do this instinctively.

New urbanism evokes a vision of traditional community life. Here’s some marketing material from Celebration, a new town built in Florida on new urbanist principles in the 1990s by the Disney Corporation. ‘There once was a place where neighbour greeted neighbour in the quiet of summer twilight. Where children chased fireflies. And porch swings provided easy refuge from the cares of the day. The movie house showed cartoons on Saturday. The grocery store delivered. And there was one teacher who always knew you had that “special something”. Remember that place? Perhaps from your childhood. Or maybe just from stories. It held a magic all its own. The special magic of an American home town. Now, the people at Disney are creating a place that celebrates this legacy. A place that recalls the timeless traditions and boundless spirit that are the best parts of who we are.’

That sort of prose convinces the landscape urbanists that the new urbanists are living in a world of fantasy. The new urbanists say: don’t blame us, shoot the copywriter from Disney.

House builders know that the new urbanism brand can be good marketing, so it’s not surprising that some people who build suburban sprawl should seek to borrow new urbanism’s clothes. Some new urbanist planners and designers get accused of selling out to the merchants of sprawl – of designing places that have something of a traditional appearance but are at heart car-dominated nowherevilles.

On both sides – among the new urbanists and the landscape urbanists – there are people of integrity who understand how to make successful places. And on both sides there are some people who don’t know how to make successful places, or who are willing to sell their professional integrity to the highest bidder.

Why are the new urbanists and the landscape urbanists at war? Forming tribes is what professionals do. They can’t help it. One of the reasons why so many places are badly planned and designed is that the people who plan and design them have been tribal and narrow-minded. The architects design buildings that they hope will get illustrated in the architectural magazines. The highway engineers design streets to keep the traffic moving. The planners allocate what they hope will be the right land uses in the right places. The landscape architects are brought in at the end to arrange the planting. Too often no one thinks about what sort of place they are trying to create, what qualities it will have, or how to work with others to achieve that. Each set of professionals speaks its own tribal language. If you seek their monuments, look around you.

In the past few years urbanists have had some success in changing this state of affairs and persuading the various professionals to collaborate. The best urbanists are planners, architects, highway engineers, landscape architects or any other type of professional who know how to work in an urban context and who work easily together. But some of them have tribalism in their genes, and if they are not competing against other professions, they will find other movements to oppose. Some new urbanists and landscape urbanists just love to hate each other.    

The new urbanist Michael Mehaffy has dismissed landscape urbanism as ‘sprawl in a pretty green dress’. Harvard architecture professor Alex Krieger has countered by dismissing much new urbanism as superficial beautification: in his words, ‘sprawl in drag’. We’re back in the school playground. ‘My gang’s better than your gang.’

Planning and designing great places is a complex business. No one sector or interest or movement or profession can do it on their own. We need is to look at the few successful places that we have created in, say, the past 15 years – places that aren’t perfect, but which are impressively better than what usually gets built. Let’s say to the new urbanists and the landscape urbanists and the tactical urbanists and the ecological neo-structural urbanists, don’t show us your labels, show us what you’ve built. Show us who lives there and how they live and how far they have to travel. Show us how much carbon they create and how safe they feel in the streets at night and how much they enjoy life. Don’t preach at us, don’t tell us; show us.

This is the script of a Plandemonium video: see www.plandemonium.org.uk

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