What “Urbanism” is most appropriate for landscape architects?

Ladera Ranch in Orange County California
Ladera Ranch in Orange County California
image: Kristian Kelley

Hypotheses are plenty when the discussion turns to urban or suburban design, the segment of landscape architecture we find ourselves engaged in.  Every decade, it seems, is met with a new notion that promises to transform development patterns into utopia.

A few years ago at the height of single family development across the United States, I had the opportunity to lead the design efforts for a large master planned community outside of the metropolitan Phoenix area.  I was busy carving thousands of acres into small bite sized pieces, designed to be attractive to the nation’s homebuilders, allowing them to take down 60 to 100 finished lots at a time.  This method of entitling, designing, constructing, and disposing of lots was down to a science and was working well for all parties involved.  As I designed neighborhoods inside of villages inside of communities I was tuned in to the advancing philosophy of New Urbanism and praised the benefits my clients could enjoy in the form of increased profits due to smaller lots, increased density, and reduced pavement widths.  All seemed to be right with the world and I believed my designs were virtuous as I could argue, using the writings of the best minds in the industry, that the result of my pen would create strong, walkable communities benefiting the residents who ultimately use the spaces and mixed use environments I envisioned.

One evening as my firm was busy entertaining a group of architectural consultants, I had a conversation with a young haughty architect that has remained with me ever since.  During a tour of the office we stopped by my desk strewn with trace paper, a variety of Sharpies, and the latest rendered conceptual layout of a 500 acre village on which I had worked tirelessly.  My drafting lamp was turned on and positioned over the rendering to highlight the creative accomplishment.  He surveyed the staged scene for a moment and then, pointing to my masterpiece, asked, “How do you know this is right?”  How do I know this is right?  The question rang in my head as the insult it was surely intended to be.  Years of experience designing tens of thousands of residential units across the United States and extensive reading of New Urbanist literature surely must have positioned me to know how best to create a new community.  This question continued to bounce around in my cranium for days as I came to grips with the possibility that maybe I didn’t know what was right.  Maybe I owed more to the eventual inhabitants of communities that I design to simply rely on my experience and the hypotheses of New Urbanism.  These people deserve more of us in this profession as they will, to some degree, design their lives around the structure of the community we envision.

Hypotheses are plenty when the discussion turns to urban or suburban design, the segment of landscape architecture we find ourselves engaged in.  Every decade, it seems, is met with a new notion that promises to transform development patterns into utopia.  From the CIAM ushering in Modernism to Calthorpe and Duany ushering in New Urbanism, the goal is the same; writing prescriptions for the creation of successful urban environments.  To attempt to classify urban design thought into theory appears to be the placement of ego over intellect.  Today, a new form is arising in urban design circles with a moniker that appeals to the profession of landscape architecture, one that promises to elevate a systems approach to solving urban design challenges, blending human interests with the needs of maintaining healthy ecosystems.  Landscape Urbanism is certainly en vogue at the moment, yet the artifacts of this brand of thought are few.  James Corner’s High Line is raised up as the prototypical example of everything Landscape Urbanism strives to be; however, upon critical examination it is simply the recreational reuse of existing abandoned infrastructure.  In fact, this precise medium for landscape intervention has been actively repurposed since the first rails-to-trails project in the 1960’s.

Landscape architects working in Housing and Community Design have found guidelines for practical application of New Urbanist strategies useful in the formation of new development.  The Smart Code offers a simple drag and drop tool box which eases the process of creating urban form.  The resulting environments are comfortable nostalgic places that have instant appeal to our market.  The question remains, does New Urbanism actually function as intended?  Are the products right?  The claim that a community designed with front porches, narrow tree lined streets, and a close proximity to commercial services will result in a walkable, sociable, active place is as of yet unproven.  In fact, some research has pointed to an ineffectiveness of these strategies in fostering community.  For instance, Iconne Audirac and Anne Shermyen in their article An Evaluation of Neotraditional Design’s Social Prescription: Postmodern Placebo or Remedy for Suburban Malaise? Published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, looked at the relationship between neighborhood walkability and sociability.  They found that increased foot traffic due to task oriented walking did not positively impact sociability.  Essentially, when we walk to a destination, we are less likely to stop and have a conversation with our neighbors.  Another study by Barbara Brown and others titled Neighbors, Households, and Front Porches: New Urbanist Community Tool or Mere Nostalgia published in Environment and Behavior, looked at the benefits of the front porch in encouraging community interaction.  They found that residents have shifted their use of outdoor space to more private locations such as rear patios or decks.  This study maintains that there remains a positive link between front porches and sense of community; however, this may be a result of nostalgia over function.  Audirac and Shermyen add that the front porches associated with the homes in Seaside by DPZ, have been abandoned or modified to provide a greater degree of privacy.

Those of us who strive to create vibrant sociable communities should not focus on the Urbanism du jour to set the framework for our design.  Our goal should be to design with evidence, focusing on increasing our resident’s length of residency, the leading correlate for generating community and sociability.  While New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism may continue to be effective generators of ideas for community design worthy of study, it is imperative that landscape architects not be relegated to the sideline of these discussions, but take active roles in the development and testing of environmental design interventions.  To this end, I believe it is necessary to engage as a profession in renewed research vigor, specifically utilizing Mark Francis’ A Case Study Method for Landscape Architecture.  With this tool, landscape architects working in the realm of housing and community design should begin to evaluate places within our individual contexts and disseminate the results amongst our professional colleagues.  While it is important to underscore the benefits of aesthetics when evaluating places, it is more critical for the evolution of place-making that we focus on what works from a social perspective.  Do we witness use of public streets and parks by residents, do the people who live in a neighborhood know their neighbors, and do people appear to be occupying their front yards?  I believe if we let the question that was posed to me a few years ago, “How do you know this is right?” to be our litmus test, our profession can make a more significant contribution to the built environment through design and research.

This typical suburban Phoenix home sits in a sea of concrete, asphalt, and granite ground cover; not surprisingly, this community is void of pedestrian users.
This typical suburban Phoenix home sits in a sea of concrete, asphalt, and granite ground cover; not surprisingly, this community is void of pedestrian users.
image: Kristian Kelley
Ladera Ranch in Orange County California provides a mix of densities and a beautiful pedestrian corridor; however, it remains a pedestrian desert.
Ladera Ranch in Orange County California provides a mix of densities and a beautiful pedestrian corridor; however, it remains a pedestrian desert.
image: Kristian Kelley

by Kristian Kelley, chair of the Housing and Community Design PPN

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