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The Landscape Urbanism Reader, Charles Waldheim

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environment
Wordcount: 4027 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 Landscape Urbanism, in a globalized capitalist society, argues for an ecological integration as a cultural and social relief to urban environments. Charles Waldheim explains the emergence of landscape and the need for ecological integration within the urban planning and urban landscape practices and the available methods to reach ecological connections to the contemporary city. Within “The Landscape Urbanism Reader”, the author aims to describe the ever changing American societal context and the interest for an alternative approach to the current city environments.

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 Since the 1970’s, the architectural profession has expressed itself with an emerging aspiration for ecological integration to the urban life through numerous architectural historians, critics, and architects alike critiquing modern architectural planning “for its inability to produce a ‘meaningful’ or ‘livable’ public realm”, described by Kevin Lynch, “and its failure to come to terms with the city as an historical construction of ‘collective consciousness’”, expressed by Aldo Rossi in The Architecture of The City.(38)1 Both architects express a strong concern for the architectural practice and the urban planning field with a weakness that derives from the industrialized economy of the nation.  Less than a decade later, the 1982 Competition for Parc de la Villette showcased prime examples of what landscape urbanism was to become. The 125-acre site in Paris served as an urban transformation “in which landscape was itself, conceived as a complex medium capable of articulating relations between urban infrastructure, public events, and indeterminate urban futures for large post-industrial sites.” (40)2 A wide range of architectural figures took part in the Paris competition of which two winners laid out the strong potential of landscape urbanism and the landscape practice. Bernard Tschumi, winner of the competition, was able to reinterpret the social approach to landscape urbanism by addressing though programmatic order that would be adaptable to societies needs over time. Alongside Tschumi was Rem Koolhaas who strongly followed Louis Sullivans “Form follows function” aspect of design through “function” that became increasingly popular in the 20th century. The primal idea behind such approach to design was to design for human activity which he applied in his entry for the Parc de la Villette competition. The unbuilt project linked relationships between park programs that would be adequately adaptable for future use. Both projects approached an urban infrastructure design that aided for future social changes developing a sense of timelessness to the layout of the projects that would adapt and thrive throughout time. Rachel Carson, American author and biologist, describes the agricultural land as soil that “exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end”.  (53)3 The adaptation of the landscape Urbanism practice requires more than the awareness of change in society and needs to address the change in soil life simultaneously. A dual task that is unique to a rare few professions but contributes greatly to the reintroduction of neglected spaces.

 The ecological approach to many of the sites in todays developed landscape urbanism practice includes the rehabilitation of abandoned and toxic environments as a useful framework for landscape practice. Infrastructure can be described as a backbone for landscape urbanism that is gradually making a greater presence in the built environment. Contemporary landscape urbanism should “use infrastructural systems and the public landscapes they engender as the very ordering mechanisms of the urban field itself, shaping and shifting the organization of urban settlement and its inevitably indeterminate economic, political, and social futures”. (39)4 Victor Gruen, Austrian born architect, stated that landscape, for him, is the “environment in which nature is predominant”. (26)5 Practicing Urban landscaping is described as a new found relationship that aims to integrate a broad range of professions simultaneously such as civil engineering, real estate development, as well as other design professions while addressing social factors simultaneously. Alan Berger’s essay “Drosscape” proposes an analytical framework for de-industrialization (industrial abandonment) similar to the architectural scene of adaptive reuse that further explores the ecological capabilities of abandoned sites.


Charles Waldheim, chair of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design has achieved several major editorial and co-editorial works including “Constructed Ground”, “The Landscape Urbanism Reader” and “Stalking Detroit and Composite Landscapes”. Waldheim obtained his education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and Bachelor of design from the University of Florida 1986. His research focuses on landscape architecture and its relation to “landscape urbanism” through analysis of environmental conditions and addresses to the working practice as “a lens through which the contemporary city is represented and a medium through which it is constructed”. (15)6 Before Waldheim, similar studies on the hybrid concept of both “landscape” and “urbanism” were brought forward to the table by numerous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and his agrarian Broadacre City urbanism master plan, Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1949 text “New Regional Pattern”, and Andrea Branzi’s “Agronica” and “Territory for the New Economy”. Collectively, the texts and projects “signaled the role that landscape would come to play” in the present reality that is being practiced in the field. Richard Weller argues in favor of this and states that, “what is meant by landscape cannot be considered unless one works through what can be meant by ecology, and it is perhaps there that we find new conceptual imaging of landscape, one which landscape urbanist sensibilities apprehend as a hybridization of natural and cultural systems on a globally interconnected scale”. (73)7

In parallel with this has been the development of the field of urban ecology, the investigation of the characteristics of the plant and animal communities in the urban landscape, subject to natural processes but profoundly shaped by the impact of humans and development. This has led to new design strategies that are based on an acceptance of the disturbed and hybrid nature of these landscapes and the idea that landscape design can be instrumental in working with natural processes to make new hybrid ecological systems. It is clearly not about the making approximations of pristine natural environments, but rather making functioning ecologically based systems that deal with human activity and natural processes in the urban environment. Bringing all of these factors together is complex, requiring a synthesis of social, political, and economic factors, as well as issues related to urban wildlife and water management. (170)8

 Architecture and its responding practices, including landscape urbanism, are in correlation to societal context and the urban design response can be seen as a result of the vast industrialization that changed the nation drastically. Charles Waldheim argues that through the design of urban landscape, the city in turn can become a healthier living environment that will reflect the language of the city in context and culture. The essence of unifying urbanism and landscape is what Waldheim is pursuing through the “Landscape Urbanism Reader” as a response to the failures and remains of the industrial modernist movement. “As the tide of Chemicals born of the Industrial Age has arisen to engulf our environment, a drastic change has come about in the nature of the most serious public health problems”. (187)9



 The reaction brought forward by Grahame Shane in “The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism” stated that Fordism and the industrial revolution “allowed cities to break beyond their former bounds” with the application of the assembly line. With the new technologies of the era, travel, factories, and living were aspects that were beneficial but as a capitalist society, the focus was on production and income gained through mass production and construction without the realization of the negative impact. The industrial movement in large cities initiated what we now know as “sprawl” or “urban sprawl” that caused decentralization. Decentralization in the design field is referred to as the shift from inner city living to exterior city limit housing development and industrial movement that left voids within the city as leftover spaces. Charles Jencks described this movement as the “death of modern architecture” and a “crisis of industrial economy in the US”. (38)10 Waldheim continues to describe the ongoing sprawl movement to this day despite the counter movements being practiced by architectural field.

James Corner in “Terra Fluxus” derives to four main points in which he describes the emergence of the urban landscape practice. 1)ecological and urban processes over time, 2) the staging of horizontal surfaces, 3) the operational or working method, 4) and the imaginary. With these points, Corner argues that the formulation of the contemporary city must derive from the imaginative reordering of the design practice. Waldheim reinforces Corners ideas on the emergence of the landscape profession with his essay “Landscape as Urbanism” focusing primarily on the economic force of the Western continents and the industrial revolution which impacted the development of the Urban setting. Consumption, global capital, and production are all factors from which the city evolves and landscape urbanism comes forth as a response to the social, economic and cultural aspects of the industrialized city. As an attempt for efficient green design continues to grow within the nation and around the world, an increase interest towards sustainable environments has sparked an interest in the general public gearing the landscape urbanism profession into a growing direction that would otherwise not have happened without the historical movement of the industrial revolution progress.  “The reappearance of landscape in the larger cultural imagination is due, in part, to the remarkable rise of environmentalism and a global ecological awareness, to the growth of tourism and the associated needs of the regions to retain a sense of unique identity, and to the impacts upon rural areas by massive urban growth”. (23)11 As cities continue to grow, the population is becoming aware of the needs for healthier living and the consequences that were left as remains from decentralization that only a reinterpretation of space could remedy the issue.

Within the nations education system, society is taught of the advantages of the industrial revolution and the great advancements that transcended society to a modernist context while failing to address the environmental issues that came along. Richard Weller in “Thinking Through Landscape Urbanism” sates that, “postmodern landscape architecture has done a boom trade in cleaning up after modern infrastructure as societies, in the first world at least, shift from primary industry to post-industrial information societies”. (72)12


Although decentralization and the industrialized city were not a beneficial factor to urban living, Elizabeth Mossop in “Landscape of infrastructure” is able to reiterate the movement as an optimistic element for landscape urbanism in which infrastructure, abandoned or not, is a viable tool for the profession. Mossop argues that the infrastructure can provide spaces within the city for any sort of circulation, vehicular or pedestrian, and can set the foundation for urban life. Rem Koolhaas, although a neo-pragmatist, supports the realization that an increase in urban landscape will be the dictating feature of the modern city. “Architecture is no longer the primary element of urban order, increasingly urban order is given by a thin horizontal vegetal plane, increasingly landscape is the primary element of urban order”. (42) 13

Similar to Mossop, Alan Berger in “Drosscape” argues that, “as deindustrialization proliferates, and as industry relocates from central cities to peripheral areas, America’s cities will enjoy a net gain in the total landscape available for other uses”. (205)14 The profession of landscape architecture is notably an anti-industrialization influence that is now making its way towards the urban scape as an opportunity to engage livable conditions not only for plants and animals but humans as well. “Landscape has emerged as a model for contemporary urbanism, one uniquely capable of describing the conditions for radically decentralized urbanization”.

Berger then argues that reclaiming constructed sites known as brownfield sites, whether contaminated or not, can allow favorable environmental conditions. Contamination may be seen as a negative effect for society but in the landscape field, these sites have come to be known as viable platforms to study urban ecology. At the same time, the reclamation approach of such sites allows for a positive transformation of ecosystems that is beneficial for its users and its wild life inhabitants while framing the profession as a practice that achieves equilibrium in the built environment. “Adaptively reusing this waste landscape figures to be one of the twenty-first century’s great infrastructural design challenges”. (199)15 The opportunity arrives in landscape urbanism as a form of nurturing a space and allowing the space to be used instead of remaining a toxic unhealthy environment for the city and its inhabitants.

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Contamination and abandonment may also bring favorable ecological surprises. Ecologists often find much more diverse ecological environments in contaminated sites than in the native landscapes that surround them. Because of their contamination, industrial contexts, and secured perimeter, brownfields sites offer a viable pattern from which to study urban ecology while performing reclamation techniques. These sites have the potential to accommodate new landscape design practices that concurrently clean up contamination during redevelopment, or more notably where reclamation becomes integral to the final design process and form. (209)16

Lars Lerup, dean of Rice University’s School of architecture, examines the origin of the term “dross” in “Stim and Dross” reflecting on the critical design potentials that were left unaddressed by the changing forces that drive our economy. Lerup describes the city as a “vast stretch of urbanized landscape surface as a “holey plane”, the “holes” being currently unused areas.” (201)17 Much like the ever-changing society demands and the economic and political shifts, the city reflects the movements of the economy and the contextual society within leaving only the remains of a capitalistic society in inferior conditions usually unfavorable and unhostile for living conditions.


 Charles Waldheim along with other scholars noticeably express their interest for the built environment and the urban landscape as a social factor that will improve society and the bio ecosystems within. “As the discipline of landscape architecture is examining its own historical and theoretical underpinnings, the general public is increasingly conscious of environmental issues, and thus more aware of landscape as a cultural category”. (43)18 The importance of educating the general public not only of the profession but to integrate a sense of place within the living environment is the ultimate goal of the landscape urbanism profession. Much like architecture, landscape architecture integrates a variety of context subjects that are beyond the study of a site and transcend to the impact of lives and society overall. The principle goal, to address the “waste landscape” of industrialization and decentralization in an effort to revive the abandoned spaces into a living ecosystem. A principle idea is the aspect of ecology. Ecology as a form of design is challenging but the infrastructure and the remains all but aid the movement of the increasing landscape urbanism profession.

 “It’s broadest meanings are derived from history of capitalism and evolving patterns of investment and disinvestment”. (205)19 Charles Waldheim along with Alan Berger, Elizabeth Mossop and “Silent Spring” Rachel Carson have a similar approach to their conception of architecture. The main issues are of capitalism, the reaction to the industrial modern movement and their ecological and agrarian approach to the urban fabric are all illustrated within the “Landscape Urbanism Reader”. Their social interest for healthier environmental improvements sets their social agency agenda to reintegrate spaces of decay into livable aesthetic landmarks that will not only revitalize the space but apply the sense of timelessness that Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi applied in their Paris competition projects. It is imperative for landscape urbanists to design to the shifts of the capitalist society that they contradict and set everlasting environments as primal examples of what the profession of landscape urbanism is to become and how it is to adapt to society.


 Through extensive precedents, scholar articles, and historical criticism, Charles Waldheim is able to deliver “the Landscape Urbanism Reader” as a foundation of landscape urbanism practice that has the capability to transform and comprehend the issues behind past, present and possibly future economic shifts that are unforeseen but likely to occur. Designing towards timelessness is described by Aldo Rossi as setting the framework for the city as a whole in “The architecture of the City”. The adaptation of the profession is unique as our capitalist economy is ever changing and as sprawl continues throughout the nation, but as we know that such aspects of society will continue to grow, we then can assume that landscape urbanism will continue to have a field in which to develop and continue to contribute in the improvement of the urban city and its living conditions that were rendered poor from industrialization. “Cities are not static object, but active arenas marked by continuous energy flows and transformations of which landscapes and buildings and other hard parts are not permanent structures but transitional manifestations”. The profession must deviate from the small scale analysis that it now performs and take ahold of the strategies that are able to improve the urban realm in a regional scale. For long, the landscape profession was a consultant for the micro scale projects but its manifestation in the large scale realm has given them an impulse towards ecological design that will educate and continue to expand the growing idea of sustainability.  Drosscape is introduced as a potent element that must be integrated fully within the profession. It is “dependent on the production of waste landscapes from other types of development in order to survive” and through design strategies, these same sites can be reintegrated as livable spaces.

Landscape was itself conceived as a complex medium capable of articulating relations between urban infrastructure, public events, and indeterminate urban futures for large post-industrial sites, rather than simply as healthful exceptions to the unhealthy city that surrounds them. (140)20


The goal for urban designers is to integrate not only healthy living conditions but also to provide contextual connections to the surroundings in both a past present and future setting. Setting the framework for how urban living is articulated, landscape urbanism is a flexible design medium with numerous benefits to society. The application of landscape urbanism goes beyond creating the living space in an aesthetical form. The profession involves the mixture of practices and precise study of external elements all of which influence the living urban conditions. James Corner in “Terra Flux” states, “so it seems that certain elements within each of the design professions-architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and planning-are moving towards a shared form of practice, for which the term landscape holds central significance”. (23)21

The field itself has experienced a dramatic shift away from an understanding of systems that attempt to achieve a predictable equilibrium condition to systems typically in states of change, adapting to subtle or dramatic changes in inputs, forces, resources, climate, or other variables. Adaptation, appropriation, and flexibility are now the hallmarks of “successful” systems, as it is through their ability to respond to contextual and environmental conditions that they persist. (280)22

 Elizabeth Mossop argues that, “the discipline has always struggled with it perceived subordinate role to architecture in any discourse on urbanism”. (167)23 While this may be true for the past in the landscape urbanisms field, the economic need for regeneration of spaces has called upon a demand and the rise of this profession in the larger context. For long, the profession was a consultant to other design works but as the economy and society shifts and with sprawl and decentralization at an unforeseeable halt, the landscape urbanism profession sees a future in revitalizing the built environment and stepping into the design field as a dominant profession for ecological design.


  1. Waldheim, Charles. The landscape urbanism reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 2006;2012;.38. 
  2. Waldheim, The landscape, 40
  3. Ibid., 53.
  4. Rachel Carson. Silent Spring. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1962:1962.,39.
  5.  Waldheim, Charles. The landscape urbanism reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 2006;2012;. 26.
  6. Ibid., 15.
  7. Ibid., 73.
  8. Ibid., 170.
  9. Rachel Carson. Silent Spring. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1962:1962.,187.
  10.  Waldheim, Charles. The landscape urbanism reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 2006;2012;. 38.
  11. Ibid., 23.
  12. Ibid., 72.
  13. Ibid., 42.
  14. Ibid., 205.
  15. Ibid., 199.
  16. Ibid., 209
  17. Ibid., 201.
  18. Ibid., 43.
  19. Ibid., 205.
  20. Ibid., 140.
  21. Ibid., 23.
  22. Ibid., 280.
  23. Ibid., 167.


  • Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1962:1962.
  • Waldheim, Charles. The landscape urbanism reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 2006;2012;.


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