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)

Introduction

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.

Continue reading

Urban Design is Now a Stand-Alone Category for the ASLA Awards Program

by Thomas Schurch, PhD, ASLA, PLA

ASLA 2018 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Chicago Riverwalk | State Street to Franklin Street. Sasaki and Ross Barney Architects. / image: ©Christian Phillips Photography

The American Society of Landscape Architects’ Honors and Awards Advisory Committee has crossed an important threshold for the profession by recently acting to add urban design as an awards category for submissions of suitable work by professionals and students of landscape architecture. This necessary and welcome development commences with the 2020 ASLA awards program, which is now open for entries, and will allow our colleagues in practice and education to demonstrate to the world landscape architecture’s unique capabilities in the 21st century’s growing and rapidly changing urban realm.

In implementing this change, the ASLA Honors and Awards Advisory Committee—in partnership with the Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN)—concluded that in our era of urbanization the great work done by landscape architects in enhancing urban environments is deserving of focused recognition. And, of course, landscape architecture’s shaping of urban form reflects not only recent professional practice, but dates to the earliest days of the profession. This significant addition to the national awards program gives ASLA members the opportunity to be credited for outstanding work concerning urban design, urban form, and meaningful place within an urban context while implicitly reminding us of our design legacy.

Therefore, it’s not a matter of urban design being new to landscape architecture, but to underscore the profession’s ability to shape growing urban environments in the 21st century, continuing a longstanding contribution towards truly dynamic and meaningful outcomes in which quality of life, sustainability, and ecological resilience are paramount. It is largely for this reason that landscape architecture came to the fore in the 19th century, given the needs of the time. And currently, when compared with the allied professions of architecture and urban planning, whose professional associations—along with the Urban Land Institute and Congress for the New Urbanism—already identify urban design for award recognition, one can say that the needs today are more demanding and challenging than ever.

Continue reading

The Atlanta Beltline: An Interview with the Principal Landscape Architect, Part 2

By Thomas Schurch, ASLA, AICP

Atlanta BeltLine Inc in partnership with Trees Atlanta is establishing a 22-mile linear arboretum unlike any other in the world. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

In this second of the two-part interview with Principal Landscape Architect Kevin Burke, ASLA, Kevin addresses facets of the BeltLine’s construction, funding and construction costs, social impacts, and public participation that he has been involved with. As stated in Part I, this urban design project is remarkable for its ultimate transformation of Atlanta that includes 22 miles of pedestrian friendly rail transit, 33 miles of multi-use trails, 1,300 acres of parks, 5,600 units of affordable housing, public art, historic preservation $10-20 billion in economic development, 30,000 permanent jobs, and, of course, sustainability.

CONSTRUCTION

What is your role in “post construction oversight”? 

We believe that the upkeep of public funds investment is a basic parameter of our responsibility. However, a significant level of our funding comes from a Tax Allocation District (a.k.a. Tax Increment Financing) tied to local real estate values on commercial/industrial/multi-family properties. This source was legislatively created to spur economic development and specifically precludes utilization of these funds for O&M. As such, we are somewhat hampered in our ability to do what most landscape architects would consider basic maintenance needs. The Parks and Recreation Department assists us, especially with graffiti removal, as resources permit.

To aid our efforts, we established a “Fixit Line” that facilitates the public letting us know matters needing attention.

Continue reading

The Atlanta Beltline: An Interview with the Principal Landscape Architect, Part 1

By Thomas Schurch, ASLA, AICP

The integration of stormwater green infrastructure into the park has facilitated a walkable neighborhood and has led to the construction of over 2,500 housing units within a half block. / Image: Tom Schurch

The Atlanta BeltLine is one of the most comprehensive urban design efforts in the current era and rivals others today such as San Francisco’s Mission Bay, Manhattan’s Battery Park City, New York’s Fresh Kills, Boston’s Big Dig, and the Orange County Great Park. As such, it is transformative for Atlanta, a city known for poor land use practices over the past quarter century. The BeltLine will ultimately connect 45 intown neighborhoods through 11 nodes within a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails, light rail transit, and parks – all based on abandoned railroad corridors that encircle Atlanta. As an engine of economic development, it is demonstrating remarkable outcomes in adjoining areas comprising infill, compatible mixed land use, including urban housing, and thereby exemplifying transit oriented development.

As with all urban design projects of this scale, identifying one firm or one individual to credit for the achievement is impossible. With regard to urban design and landscape architecture, however, a key individual who has guided the BeltlIne’s unfolding is its Principal Landscape Architect, Kevin Burke, ASLA. The following is the first of a two-part interview in which Kevin shares his experiences and insights concerning this remarkable achievement. Part I provides a general project overview and design considerations. Part II addresses construction, funding and construction costs, social impacts, and public participation.

Continue reading