Can Landscape Urbanism Help Shrinking Cities?

Landscape Urbanism — letting nature lead?

You know, what I find most interesting about the Detroit Future City Plan that I’ve commented on in recent weeks is the acknowledgement that all of Detroit’s land may never be restored to its previous uses, and that alternative land uses need to be strongly considered.  As I’ve said, that is an incredible admission for any city in America, the world’s leader in the “growth is good” mantra.  The Plan then goes on to demonstrate ways to incorporate open space and natural features woven into the urban landscape – parks, preserves, productive open space, and water and land management techniques (i.e., the blue/green infrastructure referred to in the Plan).  Indeed, the Plan identifies these alternative uses as the foundation for Detroit’s revitalization.
This stands in stark contrast to the dominant planning paradigms of the last fifty years – the suburban growth model first established after World War II, and the New Urbanism model of the last couple decades.  Both paradigms propose very different physical development outcomes for cities – auto-oriented, low density development on one side, and walkable, mixed-use, higher density and transit-supported development on the other.  Both, however, also assume that a functioning economy will always be in place and will lead to the design desires of a given community.
But what if there is no functioning economy?  Enter Landscape Urbanism.
For me personally, I’ve always had somewhat negative feelings toward conventional suburban development (too auto dependent, unsustainable, but we have to deal with it), but mixed feelings about New Urbanism.  I’ve always had an affinity for the development types that New Urbanists sought, but they never seemed to have an adequate answer for the redevelopment of our ravaged inner cities.  There are hundreds of neighborhoods in dozens of cities across the country that were built utilizing the principles that today’s New Urbanists espouse – yet they languish with issues of crime, unemployment, poor housing – and excessive vacant land.  To me, I heard New Urbanists saying they wanted to create communities that looked like those disinvested ones, only functioning.
Meanwhile, over the last 15 years or so the discipline of Landscape Urbanism emerged as a challenger to the New Urbanism paradigm.  I’ll let the world’s authority on everything, Wikipedia, describe Landscape Urbanism for you: 

“Landscape Urbanism is a theory of planning and design for urbanism arguing that landscape, rather than architecture, is more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban experience. Landscape Urbanism has emerged as a theory in the late 1990s. Landscape Urbanism describes “the ability to produce urban effects traditionally achieved through the construction of buildings simply through the organization of horizontal surfaces.”

My initial impression of Landscape Urbanism was less than meh.  I saw it as a movement so devoted to environmental sustainability that it was ultimately promoting continued sprawl development in the name of the environment.  I still largely believe that; I don’t know if the leaders of the Landscape Urbanism movement have made the switch to implement the discipline’s principles for other uses.
But the creators of Detroit Future City have.  In a Plan where residential land is recommended to decline by 17 percent, and where open space is expected to quadruple, the planners got very creative in the implementation of alternative uses and appeared to borrow heavily from lessons learned from Landscape Urbanists.
I’m beginning to think that Landscape Urbanists may be on to something.  In the absence of an economy, something must be done in communities that still have some semblance of urban fabric.  It might be counterintuitive, but why not let nature play a role in the revitalization of cities?

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