planning, design, urbanism, landscape and resilience blog
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(Image from aedas.com – google image search “urban design”)

I’ll let you into a bit of a trade secret; many landscape architects harbour a lingering resentment against “urban design”, which they perceive to have stolen work that is traditionally theirs. I know this because I was one of them.

The past decade has seen a worldwide surge of interest in the design of urban spaces and the public realm. However, during this time period, the UK has only seen a limited upturn of work for landscape architects and little wider recognition of the role of profession. In contrast, the UK has seen a massive growth in the number of urban designers, both within the public and private sectors, a wide variety of writing on the subject of urban design, including policy and guidance, and even members of the traditional professions, such as architects, rebranding themselves as urban designers. You can see why landscape architects are looking on with some envy.

As someone who has trained as a landscape architect, studied architecture and planning, worked in the field of urban design and is now carrying out research for a PhD in the theory of urban design, I think I’m well placed to consider the issue. So is urban design stolen from landscape architecture?

Certainly, there is a fair degree of overlap between subjects. Landscape architecture is fundamentally about the design of space, whereas urban design emerges from the composition and arrangement of built form, of which the space between buildings is often the key component.

I think it’s also fair to say that the perceived urban setting of urban design, is probably inherently more exciting and easily understood than landscape architecture, which is more conventionally associated with plants and gardening. Further, there is increasingly an unfortunate dichotomy emerging, where the design of space within an urban context is seen as urban design, whereas only the green bits are regarded as landscape architecture.

But, no, I don’t think that urban design is stolen from landscape architecture.

Despite some notable historic precedents, landscape architecture is also a relatively new profession, but one which (despite its diversity) is still focused on the design and to a lesser extent, management of spaces.

By contrast, I take the view that urban design as a profession emerged from the period following the collapse of modernist ideology, when planning diverged from the process actually getting stuff built. It is involved with a variety of professions and processes, which occupy the space between planning and design/construction (of which landscape architecture is one element). Similarly, much of what we think of as urban design, does not actually involve picking up a pen and designing.

Accordingly, I rather like Oc and Tiesdell’s (2007) definition of urban design, which describes it as occupying the “interface between disciplines”. However, I think the fact that you can have a favourite definition of urban design is very telling and demonstrates from where the problem emerges.

Urban design has a clear understanding of its purpose, borne from a body of literature that extends back to the writings of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford. Similarly, the process of urban design is set out in the analytical tools of Kevin Lynch and further elaborated by Christopher Alexander. Finally, the objectives of urban design are illustrated by the work of Gordon Cullen, and explained by guidance, such as Cabe’s (2000) “By Design: urban design in the planning system towards better practice.”

By contrast, landscape architecture, as I was taught it at University, has none of these.

I appreciate, that there is actually a body of landscape architecture theory out there, some of which is increasingly coming back into fashion (such as the work of Ian McHarg). However, landscape architecture courses, and the professionals they produce, are much more concerned with the practicalities of doing.

This explains to me why landscape architecture is always struggling to justify itself in the UK. And similarly, why canny “urban designers” are often able to cherry pick the best work (I guess this is also a good example of why it is important to study theory).

That said, I do think that landscape architects are very often better designers than their urban design compatriots. The reason for this is simple; landscape architects study for 3 years as an undergraduate, take a year working in practice, before returning to study for a postgraduate qualification. The majority of these 5 years are spent designing stuff (to become a Chartered Member or CMLI, requires a further two years of practical experience). By contrast, the standard qualification for urban design is a 1 year MA, during which they study theory, planning and design. The background of urban design students is also pretty varied, with many coming from geography and planning backgrounds. Important skill sets, but not necessarily the making of great designers.

However, I’m personally not too concerned about the future of landscape architecture, as the general trajectory of urban planning and development seems to be shifting towards it. Environmentally informed concepts of urbanism, such as landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism, are gaining increasing prominence. Similarly, ideas once considered only amongst the green fringe,  such as urban agriculture, are becoming more mainstream. At a policy level, I foresee that concept of social-ecological resilience will be increasingly important, whilst there is a strong body of support gathering behind environmental limits as the driver for spatial planning. I also think that what is commonly assumed to be good urban design, is well overdue a rethink.

Of course, whether landscape architects are able to actually take advantage of any shift to a more environmentally informed urbanism is another matter. I fully expect that the next decade will see a rise in new professions and individuals specialising in other emerging areas of practice. Ultimately, what is important is not the job titles of these individuals, rather it is what they contribute to the design and function of our cities and environment.