School of Thought

As a school of thought, landscape urbanism compresses the polarisation between design and planning in an effort to combine the strengths of each. It shifts the landscape architectural project from an art (or craft) of making beautiful landscapes to one of interdisciplinary negotiation and the seeding of strategic, development processes. Just as it has been inspirational, the landscape urbanist polemic has also been grandiloquent. Accordingly, I have tried to condense the rhetoric into a set of basic principles without falling prey to reductionism. In short, as I interpret it, landscape urbanism claims to do the following:

include within the purview of design all that is in the landscape—infrastructure and buildings, etc., and shuffle across scales so as to bridge the divides between landscape design, landscape ecology, and landscape planning.

bring greater creativity to planning operations and greater rationality to design operations.

• conceptualize and then directly engage the city and its landscape as a hybridized, natural, chaotic ecology.

emphasize the creative and temporal agency of ecology in the formation of urban life as opposed to envisaging an ideal equilibrium between two entities formerly known as culture and nature.

understand and manipulate the forces at work behind things and less with the resultant aesthetic qualities of things.

interpret and then represent landscape systems so that these systems can in turn influence urban forms, processes, and patterns.

prefer open-ended (indeterminate and catalytic) design strategies as opposed to formal compositions and master plans.

Richard Weller, Landscape (Sub)Urbanism in Theory and Practice (2006)

Dirk Sijmons + H+N+S, Coastal Urban System Flanders (2017)



With modern Dutch urban planning’s almost religious dedication to function, every site, every millimeter, is given a specific, dedicated meaning. Planners, terrified of spatial non definition and other forms of perceived anarchy, organize the city with rigid efficiency. Easy-to-define, one-dimensional spaces and “experiences” are arrayed on the shelves of the urban super-supermarket waiting to be “bought,” consumed and shat out again by the modern city dweller. The result is a perpetual and numbing sameness. Xerox cities, urban cloning, planning laws, and regulations have jammed the city dweller’s global positioning system. His sense of address/identity has been eroded and with it the awareness of, and ability to decode, his environment. Within this contemporary landscape -a world of commerce,  functionality, efficiency, and eye-candy- the rules for urban this-and-thatness have already been written in stone and are not about to be erased to satisfy the whims of designer A, B, or C. The point, then, is for landscape planners and urban designers to lose their fear of the cloned metropolis and offset the weight of repetitive similarities embracing oddity and strangeness as part of the design toolkit. The introduction of off-beat and introverted spaces, unique objects, and indefinable elements, in addition to the freedom to play with indigenous natural elements and forgotten local flavors, offers the city dweller a refresher course in the identification and definition of specific places. The tree in the middle of a concrete desert; a rock balancing precariously above a stainless steel bridge; the simplicity of a water pool as  to a million marble slabs- perhaps the result of daring site manipulation become “addresses” of interest which the individual incorporates into his perpetual dream about a place of his own (different from the futile and nostalgic effort to recreate a place where he has been) a platform for exhibitionism, a world (or even just a zone) brimming with apocalyptic sensations, somewhere to relish the beauty of silence.

Adriaan Geuze, Colonizing the Void (2005)

Adriaan Geuze + West 8, Interpolis gardens (1998)


And if it was…?

And if it was vegetation that ordered urbanization? And if it was the garden that generated the city, what allowed the city work?
Here are the surprising questions that are at the origin of this book, seemingly paradoxical questions as it is difficult to conceive that the organization of complex urban fragments where people live and work can be conditioned in any way by spaces few “serious” as gardens. Is not urbanism at last the art of construct buildings whose organization must allow social life to flourish through an association of housing, shops, and activities of all kinds?
It is observed, however, that plant communities have always been linked to the composition of the city. They are so important that they have influenced his development decisively. Always available, open to all, they offer the plots for dreams and moments of pleasure, a certain luxury after all, that is said to be reserved for the privileged only; they create the image of the city, provide the necessary flexibility for its harmonious development, allow it to adapt to the random …

Caroline Stefulesco, L’Urbanisme Végétal (1993)

Raderschall, Multi-tiered Vine (MFO) Park (2002)


MFO Park’s design hybridizes the dynamism of the vegetal medium with the scale and volumetric effect allowed by the matrix of steel cables. The resultant effects are many, but perhaps the most dramatic is the striking temporal transformations that the vegetated volume embodies and within which visitors are immersed. With each seasonal cycle the structure shifts from a bare steel armature into a spectacular display of foliage and flowers. With each year, the vegetation consumes more of the skeletal steel structure, which slowly recedes into breathing, rustling, color-shifting and growing materiality.

Liat Margolis + Alexander Robinson, Living Systems. InnovatIve MaterIals and technologIes for landscape archItecture (2007)


By and large the virtues of the planning I was taught were orderliness and convenience, efficiency and economy. The first set contains minor virtues, and the second set contains less than noble ones. These virtues have little to do with survival or success of plants, animals, and men in evolutionary time.
A fallacy is that planners plan for people. Actually this is not an assumption at all; it is a presumption. The planner who comes from out of town and is prepared to solve problems is a menace.
I prefer to think of planners as catalysts. The planner suppresses his own ego and becomes an agent for outlining available options. He offers predictability that science gives him about the consequences of different courses of action. He helps the community make its values explicit. He identifies alternative solutions with attendant costs and benefits. These vary with different constituencies, as do their needs and values.
This sort of planning might be called ecological. It is based on an understanding of both biophysical and social systems. Ecological planners operate within the framework of a biophysical culture.

Ian McHarg, Ecological Planning: The Planner as Catalyst (1978)

Ian McHarg et alt., Master Plan of The Woodlands (1973)


Since the late 1960s, suburban development in the United States has been criticized for causing ecological damage and environmental degradation. Various community development alternatives were put forth, including a noteworthy one that is an ecology-based land use planning approach, proposed in Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature. For more than four decades, ecological planners have been using ecology as the basis for planning and design in projects of various scales and focuses. Among these projects, The Woodlands, Texas (a 29,000-acre town development) is an excellent example of ecological planning that followed McHarg’s nature-led design approach. McHarg, himself, considered The Woodlands as “the best example of ecologically based new town planning in the United States during the 1970s”.

This 29,000-acre new town was created at the peak of the 1970s environmental movement as an alternative development model in lieu of suburban sprawl. Located 50 km north of Houston, The Woodlands currently has eight subdivision residential villages. Its population in 2009 exceeded 90,000 and the project is expected to be completed by 2015.

The Woodlands received numerous awards, with a particularly significant award from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that championed the new town’s great success in environmental planning. A number of studies have documented The Woodlands development history and evaluated McHarg’s planning approach. McHarg and Sutton (1975) first featured The Woodlands ecological planning concept, with a focus on stormwater management.

Bo Yang, et alt., Ian McHarg’s Ecological Planning in The Woodlands, Texas: Lessons Learned after Four Decades (2015)