Urban Villages, Town Design, New Urbanism: Where Does Landscape Architecture Stand?

by Thomas Schurch, ASLA, PLA

The GRID is a mixed-use redevelopment project planned for the former Texas Instruments campus in Stafford. / image: TBG Partners (courtesy of Gensler)


Landscape architecture has remarkable bona fides in the practice of urban design, and practitioners and students of landscape architecture continuously embrace this important dimension of the profession. Recognition of this fact is reflected in the ASLA’s recent adoption of urban design as a separate category in the national awards program for practitioners and students. Of course, urban design is a competitive endeavor in the greater environmental planning and design community, and landscape architecture—while offering much regarding urban form in the twenty-first century—is a relatively small profession.

However, a compelling case can be made that of the three professions sharing urban design “ownership,” landscape architecture has the most to offer in our emerging “green century.” In this respect, the range of urban design the profession engages in is enormous and can be the subject of a separate article. Nevertheless, one significant example of this range is the focus of this post, and comes under different and somewhat synonymous headings, e.g., urban villages, neighborhood design, new towns, community design, and what Kevin Lynch referred to as “city design.”

New Urbanism

This discussion would be incomplete without considering New Urbanism. With its emergence 35 years ago, and subsequent growth and development, landscape architecture’s longstanding contributions predating New Urbanism are diminished and underappreciated. Moreover, recent history demonstrates that design of communities is often being relinquished to others, particularly our colleagues in architecture.

New Urbanism deserves credit for fostering a discourse at a critical juncture of human settlement. Questions of urban quality of life vis-a-vis numerous post-World War II developments are at the heart of this conversation, including attention to sprawl, monotonous and homogeneous housing developments, outmoded zoning ordinances, automobile dependence and problems associated with traffic engineering, loss of a sense of community, tower housing, “big box” retail, etc.

Since New Urbanism’s inception with the development of Seaside, we’ve seen—within the discourse of the founders and current followers of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)—an ongoing and interesting evolution. For example, its original moniker was “Neotraditionalism” and that change in identity to “New Urbanism” is attributable to architecture’s eschewing much of anything traditional. This “newness” has a certain cachet within the architectural community because New Urbanism’s evolution includes the likes of (ironically) Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), Transit Oriented Development (TOD)—however, predated by Shaker Heights in the 1920s—and their adoption by local governments—welcome change indeed. More recently, the introduction of the Transect has reached beyond urban areas to exurban environments, and therefore New Urbanism’s ostensible attention to ecology’s focus on natural systems. Nevertheless, the Transect is largely object-focused and “ecology lite.”

The Historical Record and the Role of Landscape Architecture

Landscape architects are familiar with remarkable precursors of New Urbanism dating to the nineteenth century such as Olmsted’s Riverside; John Nolen’s Mariemont, Madison, and Venice, FL; Henry Wright’s role with Radburn and Sunnyside Gardens; and Elbert Peets and other landscape architects’ design of Depression-era greenbelt towns. This history is addressed in an illuminating article in the November, 1999 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine by Frank Edgarton Martin titled “American Civic Art.”

Other early and iconic developments predating New Urbanism include those of George Kessler, particularly around Dallas, and Sarasota’s St. Arandt’s Circle, developed in 1923 and designed by landscape architect John J. Watson, again bringing into question how new New Urbanism is. Nevertheless, each of the historic examples referenced here is enduring and exemplifies a maturity on the part of landscape architects in conceiving designed communities. To the credit of New Urbanism, its followers, including Andrés Duany, have modestly acknowledged seminal contributions by landscape architects in town planning and civic design.

Continuing the Legacy in Landscape Architecture: Contraction, Resumption, and Expansion

With a loss of influence is town design and “urban villages,” understanding why this may have occurred is not entirely clear. A possible cause is the size of the profession and ASLA in comparison with its counterparts in the AIA and APA. The emergence of the CNU is a factor as well, all of which point to landscape architecture’s visibility in the greater design and planning world.

A third factor regarding contraction was focus on the Environmental Movement of the 1960s. Landscape architecture was well positioned to be exemplary in this movement, and it was. Design with Nature, published in 1969, staked out the profession’s capabilities towards integrating human intervention with natural ecological systems. Perhaps unfortunately, however, Ian McHarg did not include community design in this seminal work, although this was later compensated for in The Woodlands. Nevertheless, much remarkable work was to follow with such figures as John Lyle, Phil Lewis, Clarence Stein, Erv Zube, FASLA, Julius Fabos, FASLA, Michael Hough, Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, Frederick Steiner, FASLA, Rob Thayer, FASLA, and others contributing to the profession’s stature. This was a time when Gifford Pinchot, George Perkins Marsh, John Wesley Powell, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and William Whyte were embraced by the profession, all of whom were well ahead of the UN’s 1987 Brundtland Commission advocating for “sustainability.”

The point here is that with considerable foundation in environmental sustainability, resilience, and therefore low impact design (LID) and green infrastructure, landscape architecture is in the avant garde to realizing truly meaningful design of communities today. And at the time Village Homes in Davis, California demonstrated linkages between nineteenth century achievements and the Environmental Movement while predating The Woodlands by a decade, it was prototypical for our era. More recently, there are firms continuing and building on a long and complex historic trend, and performing as lead consultants. Among these are Sasaki, WRT, EDSA, Studio-MLA, and Design Workshop, the latter of which is particularly exemplary (Figures 1 and 2). Remarkably, however, other high profile firms are not following in like kind, i.e., as prime consultants in design of communities.

Furthermore, it’s encouraging to observe that other firms—along with those cited above—have lead roles in urban design with town and mixed neighborhood focuses, including TBG Partners (Figures 3 and 4) , MKSK (Figures 5 and 6), and SeamonWhiteside (Figures 7 and 8). Furthermore, in expanding on progress arising from the Environmental Movement—not to mention the profession’s achievements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—addressing public health, public safety (CPTED), habitat conservation and restoration, energy conservation, adaptive reuse, and brownfields are further evidence of the profession’s capabilities and leadership within consultant teams. The likelihood of enduring outcomes greater than those of years ago is imminent and underscores landscape architecture’s venerability.

This begs the question: “Is this enough in a competitive world?”

Fig. 1. The site plan for the Daybreak Parks and Open Space System in one of the development’s villages is Design Workshop’s repurposing of a vast abandoned open-pit copper mine. Integrated beauty and function of natural systems with a manmade framework are at the heart this work. Click here to view plan at a larger size. / image: Design Workshop
Fig.2. Master planned by Design Workshop, Daybreak is a new community on 4,100 acres of reclaimed mining land in Utah, with 20,000 residences and 9.1 million SF of commercial space within a multi-village complex. Extensive green infrastructure results in significant stormwater management cost savings while allowing each home in the development to be within a five-minute walk of the community trail system. / image: Design Workshop
Fig. 3. Landscape architecture firm TBG Partners led the “re-purposing” of the iconic Seaholm Power Plant in Austin. A former blighted brownfield, the power plant, including an historic Art Deco structure, was reimagined to contextually fit its location while applying principles of urban forestry. A diversity of outdoor spaces draw a diverse user group for daily activity. Click here to view plan at a larger size. / image: TBG Partners
Fig. 4. An aerial view of Seaholm captures TBG Partners’ successful application of contextualism. As part of the adaptive and human-scaled reuse of the complex, mixed uses include offices for a healthcare entity in which daylighting is applied, as well as residences, restaurants, and a grocery in a core area of the city. / image: TBG Partners
Fig. 5. MKSK, a landscape architecture, urban design and planning firm, developed the comprehensive LEED-ND certified master plan for the 125-acre Grandview Yard in Grandview Heights, OH. Responsibilities included recreating a traditional urban framework to arrange mixed land uses, buildings, circulation, and parking. Click here to view plan at a larger size. / image: MKSK
Fig. 6. Acknowledging its urban roots, MKSK’s Grandview Yard is rich with amenities within walking distance of area residences and boosts economic growth for commercial tenants and the adjacent city. Significant to the design is brownfield remediation, mitigating urban heat island effect, and water conservation. / image: Infinite Impact | Mike Cairns
Fig. 7. Currently in the initial construction phase, Morrison Yard by SeamonWhiteside is a mixed-use redevelopment in Charleston, SC, including residences, office space, retail, and podium parking. Planning for sea level rise was at the forefront of the design program. Click here to view plan at a larger size. / image: SeamonWhiteside
Fig. 8. Through application of sustainable principles and in response to the site’s location in a flood zone, SeamonWhiteside’s design for Morrison Yard has extensive applications of green stormwater infrastructure. / image: SeamonWhiteside

Growing Landscape Architecture’s Role in Urban Design

Whether referring to town design, neighborhoods, urban villages, and mixed-use community design, landscape architecture’s legacy and the achievements of firms such as those cited in this blog post are highly impressive for their quality. Nevertheless, within a competitive marketplace and with the allied professions of architecture and engineering, along with urban planning, inclusive of the AIA, ASCE, and the APA, both ASLA and landscape architecture are comparatively small. But we know that our contributions and potential at a critical juncture of life on Earth are enormous and place landscape architecture well in realizing quality of life in built urban environments. Nevertheless, landscape architecture can and must grow in this regard. Moreover, our professional viability and integrity demand it. Therefore, to substantively guide sustainable and resilient mixed-use urban environments and address a full realm of quality of life, here are five initiatives that the profession might proceed with:

  1. Web Presence – Landscape architecture firms’ webpages—as well as ASLA’s—could include a “Legacy Link” which documents historic work cited above and other of similar nature. This would showcase the profession’s precedents, bona fides vis-à-vis city design and urban villages in meeting the “test of time” standard.
  2. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)TCLF could include achievements of landscape architecture of the type of work discussed in this blog piece. A separate category identifying city, town, neighborhood, community design or the like, would place them within the list of other landscape categories that TCLF has catalogued.
  3. Professional Community Assistance Teams – The profession is small when compared with architecture and urban planning, both of which have community design assistance programs—the AIA has the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) program and the APA has a Community Planning Assistance Teams (CPAT) program. Nevertheless, ASLA, the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), and the profession at large can “reinvent” ASLA’s previous assistance efforts tied to annual conference locations. ASLA and CELA can compete in this regard, and if community assistance is best reinstated at—or done in conjunction with—the ASLA chapter level, good! Retrofitting of urban environments to address sprawl, urban habitat revitalization, and urban agriculture—rather than greenfield development—could distinguish landscape architecture from its allied professions.
  4. Engaging CELA – As an adjunct to community assistance teams, practicing professionals, possibly through state chapters, could partner with accredited programs that are member institutions of CELA to conduct charrettes, workshops, and related community based work regarding human urban settlement. While the academy already does much of this nature, it is too often internal to the profession through student awards programs, does not adequately engage the professional community, and therefore lacks the visibility.
  5. A Sustainable Communities Initiative – The Sustainable SITES Initiative® (SITES®) is a great accomplishment and poignant for our time. As follow-up to SITES, a Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) would underscore landscape architecture’s capabilities unique to the profession, e.g., urban form inclusive of natural systems. Additionally, a SCI could provide instruction in architectural design and the code regulatory form-based determinants in urban planning, given the cross-professional nature of urban design practice.

In conclusion, and responding to the question posed in this blog post’s title, landscape “stands” fundamentally well. Whether we reference design of neighborhoods, urban villages, communities, or towns, urban design in landscape architecture has been historically significant, and reflected in work done by many firms today. However, where other professions grow, so should landscape architecture. Doing so would demonstrate how the profession can act on precepts of urban sustainability and resilience unlike any other profession and provide leadership in this regard.

Thomas Schurch, ASLA, PLA, is Professor of Landscape Architecture+Urban Design at Clemson University and immediate past co-chair of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN).

2 thoughts on “Urban Villages, Town Design, New Urbanism: Where Does Landscape Architecture Stand?

  1. phil barlow May 15, 2020 / 5:00 pm

    you make some great points Tom.
    Hopefully this is getting published beyond the landscape architecture world

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