The urban park was a 19th-century concept, its invention necessary to provide relief to the urban victims of the new, untamed metropolis. (…) Planning, real estate development, and the poetic presence of nature were combined. Properly regarded, these were the purest forms of landscape urbanism—or landscape-as-infrastructure.
This Olmstedian principle seems still to be the ideal of landscape urbanism, although in practice hardly any critical attention is paid to some of its weaker aspects. Why is it so easily taken for granted that the green of parks will bring a better world?
First, the steadily increasing area of suburban green structures is of a dubiously hybrid character: they are often loud statements of overdesigned park architecture expressing a desire for liveliness, and for the cultural significance of beloved 19th-century city parks; but on the other hand, they attempt to create an idealistic wilderness. Realization of these plans often results in a strange nonworld of cultivated innocence. The essential characteristics a park needs to survive, so exhaustively described by Jane Jacobs, are almost always lacking. According to her analysis, for parks and greenery to succeed, a good context is fundamental. Many city dwellers see peripheral green zones as valuable green background, but also as potentially dangerous, and as places to be avoided. There is simply too little activity and no mixing of user groups. Park designers have not succeeded in giving these parks the allure of nature and wilderness.
Second, landscape architecture is fundamentally linked to nature, to mother earth. But the perception of “nature” is a cultural phenomenon, quite different from one country to another. The elemental forces of nature have also, through prosperity or privation, shaped behavioral second natures— yielding national identities, religions, livelihoods, and even wars. From these basic conditions cultures are formed, each with its particular perceptions of nature. When you talk with di erent nationalities about nature, you are confronted by deeply rooted feelings and cultural convictions, all of which are assumed to be a matter of “common sense.”
Finally, the pretension often is that parks are the result of ideology and craftsmanship, and are therefore inherently unique and valuable. However, landscape architecture, in contrast to architecture, is concerned almost exclusively with the public realm—parks, boulevards, riverfronts, streetscapes, and so on. To reach decisions and establish nances, we must work with politicians, local citizens, and bureaucracies with diverse legal systems. Landscape architecture will always focus on outreach, public opinion, interaction, public policy, implementation, and compromise. The discipline cannot avoid responding to sociopolitical contexts.
Economists have an acronym to identify the forces driving development: PESTEL (politics, economics, sociology, technology, environment, and law). It is critically important that contemporary planning initiatives explicitly take these factors into account. Clearly such diverse issues as governance and legislation, high- and low-tech implementation strategies, grassroots advocacy, and megaprojects all are attendant on public policy. So in practice landscape architects and park designers work in a realm between illusion and public policy, and our work is inevitably the most banal and compromised among the design disciplines. At the end of the day, are the built realities anywhere close to the dreamt-of parks and artist’s impressions?