Ecological Urbanism: An Introduction and Assessment – AKA the cumulative result of all this research

Posted: 2011,December 2 in Uncategorized

Ecological Urbanism: an Introduction and Assessment

Gordon Lackey     

LA 8731     

Seminar in Community Based Planning



1.0   History and Background

2.0  Overview

3.0  Terra Fluxus

3.1  Professional Definitions

3.2  Four Provisional Themes for Landscape Urbanism

4.0  Critiques


1.0 History and Background


Ecological urbanism is the name given to a philosophical approach to urban design that has been put forth from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) following a 2009 conference and subsequently published volume of writings of the same title. The purpose of the conference was to articulate the evolved status of, if not simply rebrand, the slightly more established movement known as Landscape Urbanism. According to Mohsen Mostafavi, the goal of the discourse was to explore a “new ethics and aesthetics of the urban” in an ecologically literate context, and in order to do this the design profession would have to “incorporate and accommodate the inherent conflictual conditions between ecology and urbanism”.(Mostafavi, 2010) Mostafavi expounded upon this to indicate that previous design strategies have been too narrow in scope and that an “adjustment of scale beyond the site and interdisciplinary strategies to accommodate the larger contextual framework in which they operate” will be necessary in order to truly integrate urban and ecological systems.

 The ecological urbanism summit at Harvard in 2009 was orchestrated by Charles Waldheim and Mohsen Mostafavi, who along with James Corner, were founding proponents of the Landscape Urbanism movement which has been shaped over the past 15 years (Waldheim, 2006). The beginnings of the landscape urbanist movement can be traced back to Pennsylvania State University in the late 1980’s when Waldheim, Mostafavi and Corner were affiliated with the graduate design program there as students or faculty, in the case of Mostafavi. (, In these formative years, they were interested in “the artificial boundaries of landscape architecture, architecture and urban design and planning, searching for better ways to deal with complex urban projects.” (landscape urbanism, In 1997 the movement was officially set in motion with the Landscape Urbanism Symposium and Exhibition which was conceived and organized by Charles Waldheim as “a proposition of disciplinary conflation and unity” (Corner, 2006) Waldheim also has asserted that landscape urbanism was originally a discourse on urban design that originated out of a blurring of disciplinary boundaries between design professions (Waldheim, untitled lecture) The dissolution of traditional professional definitions is a reoccurring theme in landscape and ecological urbanist writings. James Corner described this disciplinary collusion as a new way of speaking of urban sites as landscapes, as opposed to “through the nineteenth century lens of difference and opposition”, but instead as a unified entity. (Corner, 2006) In the following years, a range of publications on the topic emerged, further articulating these ideas (Corner, 2006). In 2006, a collection of essays entitled The Landscape Urbanism Reader was published and contained an essay by James Corner entitled Terra Fluxus, which has become a seminal writing in defining the landscape urbanism movement. Around this time period, several projects falling under the categorization of landscape or ecological urbanism have been built, perhaps most notably High Line Park in New York City. There has also been an impressive number of international design competitions won by landscape urbanist design groups whose submissions often deal with ecologically oriented approaches to repurposing abandoned urban waste and industrial sites (Waldheim, untitled lecture). This recent dominance in international competitions is perhaps what has prompted Mostafavi to organize the 2009 Harvard conference in order to further articulate the identity of landscape urbanism.

2.0 Overview


Both landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism writings seem to indicate that their purposes are a hybrid mixture of articulating an already underway and organically arrived at trajectory that the design professions have been moving toward over the past quarter century (Corner, 2006), and an attempt to focus those trajectories. Waldheim’s writings continually seem to center on defining landscape urbanism, whereas Corner’s essay Terra Fluxus, seems to lay out specific themes and paradigms of the movement.

So much of ecological urbanist theory is predicated upon landscape urbanist theory that it seems impractical to try to distinguish between the two. Also it may be that, as previously stated, ecological urbanism is simply a new moniker for landscape urbanism, if not a better descriptor. Waldheim has stated that it is imperative to “We have an ongoing need for re-qualifying urban design as it attempts to describe the environmental, economic, and social conditions of the contemporary city”. (Waldheim, TOPOS) This is a calculated response to a rapidly and ever changing context. He has also stated that the term ecological urbanism better describes the landscape urbanism movement in its “middle age”. (Waldheim, untitled lecture)

Contrary to a perhaps superficial assumption, ecological urbanism does not focus solely on the biological systems present in the urban environment, although these systems do play a central role. The term ‘ecological’ seems to be used as a metaphor to describe the intricate and interdependent relationships that exert influence on the urban environment. In this sense, ecology is used as a system of organization by which to understand and approach the myriad of environmental, cultural and social frameworks that play integral roles in shaping the urban environment. (Mostafavi, 2009) Thus it is argued that the inherent scale of landscape, as opposed to architecture, is a more appropriate medium through which to organize and understand urban systems. (Corner, 2006) In a more literal sense, ecological urbanists strive to holistically integrate ecological systems into the urban environment in order to achieve a truly sustainable city. Mostafavi points to the fact that although site specific techniques for achieving sustainability, such as green building technology, are becoming increasingly topical, “the issues surrounding the sustainability of the city [as a whole] are much less developed”. (Mostafavi, 2009)

 Landscape+Urbanism blogger Jason King describes ecological urbanism as “[not] prescriptive of any type of city, or a blank plea for more open space” (King, More on Ecological Urbanism). King says that instead “it addresses the city as an organism or a collection of organisms and processes acting in concert, interrelated and interdependent.” Viewing the city as an organism, EU designers concern themselves with flows of energy and materials, both in and out of the urban system and the dynamic forces that apply pressures on, and consequently shape, the urban and associated environments. (Mostafavi, 2009) Stated more simply, it is a systems approach toward urban design and planning. Furthermore, subscribers to ecological urbanist theory see the delineation of “urban” and “natural” environments as counter to each other as an antiquated notion. (Corner, 2006) Instead they choose to view man-made environments and the human actions that shape them as part of the overall ecosystem. In other words, humans do not exist outside of nature, but rather are a part of it. This central idea underpins the ecological urbanism philosophy and serves as a practical approach to integrating urban systems and ecosystems.

            Waldheim has asserted that landscape urbanist theory can be traced to postmodern criticisms of modernist architecture and planning such as “its inability to produce a meaningful and livable public realm” and modernisms failure to address the city as a “historical construction of collective consciousness”. (Waldheim, 2006) He also points out that postmodernist approaches, in turn, were unable to address “the structural conditions of industrialized modernity that tended toward the decentralization of urban form” and so “they retreated to the comforting forms of nostalgia and seemingly stable, secure and more permanent forms of urban arrangement.” (Waldheim, 2006) Waldheim claims that landscape urbanism offers a “culturally leavened, ecologically literate, and economically viable model for contemporary urbanization alternative to design’s ongoing nostalgia for traditional urban form”. (Waldheim, Topos) These statements are a direct indictment of new urbanist practices, which he puts into the category of postmodernist urban design strategies. In a presentation at the University of North Carolina, Waldheim states that landscape urbanism was conceived as “an attempt to provide an alternative to Eurocentric urbanism in a way that was more context specific to the American condition” and more specifically “a more practical alternative to new urbanism.” (Waldheim, untitled lecture)


3.0 Terra Fluxus


In his essay, Terra Fluxus, James Corner seems to assert that landscape urbanism was a more organically arrived at conclusion of the design practices. He claims that the idea of landscape has re-emerged in the cultural imagination due to the “remarkable rise of environmentalism and global ecological awareness, to the growth of tourism and the associated needs of regions to retain a sense of unique identity, and to the impacts upon rural areas by massive urban growth.” (Corner, 2006) The title, Terra Fluxus, translates from Latin as flowing land ( and stands in distinction of the commonly used Latin description of terra firma, or solid land. This title indicates not only an emphasis on flow, but also a changing landscape which could be applied not only to describe the changing “landscape” of urban design and planning, but also the nature of the urban environment itself.  


3.1 Professional Definitions and Boundaries


Corner points out the fact that more progressive landscape architects have traditionally “expanded their professional boundaries across complex urbanistic and programmatic areas” and “understood the scope of landscape as a model for urbanism, embracing large scale organizational techniques, alongside design, cultural expression, and ecological formation” (Corner, 2006) Corner observes that in recent years, other design professionals have also increasingly begun to understand the larger conceptual scope of landscape. In this sense, landscape has the “capacity to theorize sites, territories, ecosystems, networks and infrastructures, and to organize large urban fields”. (Corner, 2006) However, this has not always been the case historically. According to Corner, some have argued that landscape tends to be repressed by architects as a “bourgeois aesthetic” or a “naturalized veil” and implemented only as it “frames or enhances the primacy of the urban form”. On the other hand, according to Corner, many ecologically oriented landscape architects have viewed urban systems as counter to nature. Certainly this resistance to the blurring of interdisciplinary boundaries still exists and presents itself as an obstacle to the mission of ecological urbanists. The fact of the matter however, as Corner explains, is that all of the design disciplines are increasingly marginalized as “vast developer-engineering corporations are constructing today’s world with such pace, efficiency and profit” and are relegated to decorative practices “literally disenfranchised from the wok of spatial formation”. (Corner, 2006) This facilitates an exclusion of ecological and sociological function from urban form and process. Landscape urbanists recognize these realities and attempt to understand the various forces that act in shaping the urban environment in order to act accordingly.

            These historic delineations of professional domains not only persist in regards to practice, but also in the result; the built environment. Ecological and landscape urbanists striving to truly integrate urban and natural systems are combatting the long standing perception of ‘urban’ and ‘natural’ as counter to each other and the precept that landscape is something to merely be situated in the city. Corner points to a couple of early landscape architectural precedents that transcend mere aesthetics and cross into the realm of ecological function: The Back Bay Fens of Boston which also serve as hydrological and stormwater systems, and the greenway corridors of Stuttgart Germany that allow for the infiltration of mountain air as “both coolant and cleanser”.(Corner, 2006) He posits that these sites embody fundamentals of landscape urbanism such as “the ability to shift scales, to locate urban fabrics in their regional and biotic contexts, and to design relationships between dynamic environmental processes and urban form.” (Corner, 2006) However, these precedents also contain the afore mentioned contradictions to landscape urbanist theory in that they embody and conjure an idea of “nature” that is a man-made construct, not only manifested in traditional aesthetics of the “pastoral”, but also as a counterpart to the urban, as an “antidote to the corrosive environmental and social qualities of the modern city” and existing in exclusion of “building, technology, and infrastructure.” (Corner, 2006)

3.2 Four Provisional Themes for Landscape Urbanism



After describing the current professional situation in which landscape/ecological urbanists are working, Corner lays out four provisional themes of landscape urbanism to move forward with. These themes are processes over time, the staging of surfaces, the operational or working method and the imaginary. The first of these themes, processes over time, illustrates an aspect of landscape urbanism that most readily lends itself to comparison to ecological systems via metaphor. Corner reminds us that ecology demonstrates that all life on our planet is connected through dynamic interrelationships and suggests that “individual agents acting across a broad field of operation produce incremental and cumulative effects that continually evolve the shape of an environment over time.” (Corner, 2006) Corner states that these interrelationships are so complex and dynamic that “linear and mechanistic models are inadequate to describe them”. (Corner, 2006) This line of thinking parallels landscape/ecological urbanist theory as it pertains to the interrelationships that shape urban environments. Corner argues that the spatial forms associated with urban systems play a much less significant role in shaping the urban environment than do urban processes such as capital accumulation, distribution of political influence, globalization, environmental protection trends and so on. To Corner this suggests the need for a shift away from object driven design to a focus on the systems that “condition the distribution and density of urban form” (Corner, 2006) He explains that this shift in emphasis is not meant to ignore or deny spatial form but rather “seeks to construct a dialectical understanding of how it relates to the processes that flow through, manifest and sustains it”. (Corner, 2006) This approach is in sharp contrast to previous approaches to urban design, namely modernism and new urbanism. Corner explains that the modernist notion that new physical forms would lead to corresponding patterns of socialization has failed due to the fact that they tried to “contain the dynamic multiplicity of urban processes within a fixed, rigid, spatial frame that neither derived from, nor redirected any of the processes moving through it.” (Corner, 2006) Essentially Corner extends the same argument to the approaches of new urbanists who, he claims, confuse the ends with the means.

            The second provisional theme is, as Corner defines it, the concept of staging of surfaces, or more precisely horizontal surfaces. Corner says that horizontal surfaces constitute the entirety of the urban field when considered at a wide range of scales. This is a concept of horizontal surfaces as the entire matrix of urban infrastructure in which roofs and the ground plane are conflated into one entity. This is a somewhat philosophical construct by which to illustrate a continuous theme throughout landscape/ecological urbanism which is indeterminacy. Corner posits that architecture “consumes the potential of a site in order to project”, whereas urban infrastructure “sows the seeds of future possibility, staging the ground for both uncertainty and promise.” (Corner, 2006) This concept of “staging” signifies an approach to urban planning which acknowledges that the urban environment is in a constant state of change and attempts to plan for and accommodate this change. Corner uses the grid system as an example in which the grid is an “abstract formal operation” that “characterizes the surface and imbues it with specificity and operational potential” without trying to determine with absolute certainty what the end result will be. (Corner, 2006) Corner explains that the staging of surfaces differs from single surface construction in that it “emphasiz[es] means over ends and operational logic over compositional design.” In one particularly poetic sentence in reference to the grid system, Corner summarizes the idea by stating: “this stages the surface with orders and infrastructures permitting a vast range of accommodations and is indicative of an urbanism that eschews formal object-making for the tactical work of choreography, a choreography of elements and materials in time that extend new networks, new linkages and new opportunities.”

This leads to the third theme which is the operational or working method. Corner poses the questions of on the one hand how to conceptualize “urban geographies that function across a range of scales and implicate a host of players?” and on the other “how does one actually operate or put into effect the work of the urbanist, given the trends in contemporary urban development?” (Corner, 2006) This is essentially the idea that a “reconsideration of traditional conceptual, representational and operative techniques” will be necessary in order to accomplish these things. Corner argues that all designers are interested in the quality of the urban environment but the only ones who actually accomplish creating such quality have to use the “typically unimaginative and uncritical techniques of design as a service industry.” This is because, according to Corner, so many utopian visions lack an adequate operative strategy. He posits that such a strategy will have to include working with developers and engineers, and what he terms “the imaginers of contemporary culture”, the poets and artists of our time.

The fourth provisional theme of landscape urbanism set forth by Corner, the imaginary, seems to be a comment on an ongoing debate over the roles of science versus art in the design professions. It is also the least developed of the four themes. Corner states that the primary motivation behind any creative endeavor must continue to be imagination. Although this may seem a given, Corner believes that “In many ways, the failing of twentieth century planning can be attributed to the absolute impoverishment of the imagination with regard to the optimized rationalization of development practices and capital accumulation.” (Corner, 2006) He goes on to say that public spaces, in addition to requiring imagination to build, act as facilitators of the collective imagination and that they are “places for geographic and social imagination to extend new relationships and sets of possibilities.” (Corner, 2006)

Corner goes on to argue that more so than architecture, landscape and ecology are overarching forces that shape cities by stating that “landscape drives the process of city formation”. (Corner, 2006) This is evident when one considers the fact that variables such as proximity to ecological services or defensible positions in the landscape have accounted for at least the location of most major cities in the world. Food and agriculture, which could be argued as ecological services, have historically played central roles in the physical manifestation of such venerable cities as London and undoubtedly all pre-industrial urban areas. (Steel,





4.0 Critiques


Ecological urbanism has drawn several sharp criticisms, especially from proponents of new urbanist theory. Ecological urbanism has been criticized for being too avant garde and lacking real world applicability. Due to questions over density and other points, it also draws critiques that Jason King summarizes as “a new methodology for ecologically oriented sprawl” (King, “more on ecological urbanism”) which he, along with Waldheim, claims are inaccurate (Waldheim, untitled lecture). Another criticism that Waldheim refutes is the assertion that ecological urbanism is simply what landscape architects and urban designers have been doing for the last 45 years, as set forth by forerunners such as Ian McHarg. (Waldheim, untitled lecture)

Landscape urbanism was originally intended as a critique of modernist and post-modernist urban planning and design practices. As previously mentioned, the founders of the landscape urbanism and now the ecological urbanism movements classify new urbanism as one of these post-modernist approaches. Charles Waldheim has stated that landscape urbanism offers a “culturally leavened, ecologically literate, and economically viable model for contemporary urbanization, alternative to design’s ongoing nostalgia for traditional urban form”. (Waldheim, Topos) This is an indictment of New Urbanism practices which Landscape urbanists point to as a failure of modern planning because they do not acknowledge ideas of temporality, indeterminacy, flux and change. (Waldheim, TOPOS) Ironically, these are precisely all of the conditions that led to the formation of the traditional urban environments that new urbanists aspire to create. Additionally, landscape urbanism advocates point to the fact that new urbanist approaches are just as capable of creating sprawling greenfield developments (King, “more on ecological urbanism”) Furthermore, Waldheim views new urbanism as while perhaps well intentioned, ultimately misguided because it uses “a tool of nostalgia through which to critique the fundamentals of North American urbanism”. (Waldheim, untitled lecture) Mohsen Mostafavi, however, describes new urbanism in a more favorable light and perhaps a more accurate assessment. He views new urbanism as “a vibrant set of theories and rules” that, in application, are “disconnected from what seem like good base principles”. (Mostafavi, 2009) Because of these positions, a divisive rift has grown between subscribers to new urbanist and landscape/ecological urbanist theories.

Andres Duany has criticized practitioners of ecological urbanism for being overly concerned with ecological processes, specifically their refusal to disturb natural streams and wetlands stating that Manhattan has 2,700 streams in pipes and that the density it enjoys would not be possible if all the original wetlands of Manhattan were left untouched. (Steuteville,

Duany argues that a dense and walkable urban core is achieving ecological performance elsewhere by not consuming that land. In a sense this argument is in favor of completely compromising the ecological processes of a relatively small area in order to preserve the ecological processes of a greater area. It seems that this point of disagreement is directed at a deep and underlying principle of landscape/ecological urbanist theory. This principle is that natural and urban processes should be guided in a way that both coexist in the same space. On the other side of this argument, Waldheim claims that the single minded pursuit of density, as he describes it as attempting to aggregate enough architecture in order to “put the toothpaste back in the tube of auto-mobility” has largely failed to transform the way our cities work. (Waldheim, untitled lecture) Waldheim’s point is that new urbanist architectural aggregations are too small in scope to affect national urbanization practices. In this sense, projects like Seaside serve merely as examples or demonstrations of the experience of living or being in dense urban environments. The attempt to remake the entirety of our decentralized urban or suburban environments by relatively small scale aggregations of architecture has for the most part failed to take hold because of the deeply layered and rooted economic and political frameworks that are in place that facilitate decentralization. And so part of the landscape/ecological urbanist strategy, in light of the lack of public will, financing and political leadership necessary to enact such a sweeping change, is to “grow the public realm” in the same image as succession by going around planning bureaucracies and planting metaphorical seeds that will have a ripple effect on the urban condition. (Waldheim, untitled lecture) This last statement ties back into the basic premise of landscape urbanism which holds that landscape and ecology hold the most power to shape or influence urban form. Another shortcoming of the single minded pursuit of density through aggregating architecture is that, according to Waldheim, density alone is not a cure all for all the problems facing cities (Waldheim, untitled lecture) especially in regards to energy usage, pollution other than carbon emissions from automobiles and rapidly changing trends in social patterns. According to an ecological/landscape urbanist perspective, an adaptive design approach is necessary to deal with these issues. Such an approach is defined by as  “an integrated, whole-system, learning-based approach to the management of human-ecological interactions, with explicit implications for planning interventions an design forms, which must be both adaptive and resilient.” So with regard to the claims that ecological/landscape urbanists promote, or at least are not interested in fighting suburban sprawl, it is clear that this is not the case. Instead they attempt to make an honest assessment of these urban phenomena, in an attempt to understand it for what it is, in order to counteract unsustainable trends.

            Another criticism of ecological/landscape urbanist theory is that it is really no more than what ecologically oriented landscape architects have been striving for the past 45 or so years in the wake of the teachings of Ian McHarg, to which Waldheim replies that it isn’t. (Waldheim, untitled lecture) At Penn State, Waldheim, Mostafavi and Corner would have been well acquainted with the legacy of Ian McHarg and his revolutionary incorporation of ecological principals into urban planning. In addition to the fact that they refute McHarg’s ideas that man exists counter to nature, they arrived at the conclusion that the approach put forth by McHarg’s “canonical” Design With Nature has largely failed. Waldheim explains that McHarg was enormously successful in terms of influencing two generations of landscape planners and influencing international discourse on the subject and that he was successful in creating a premise of “organizing ecological knowledge and applying that spatially to the decision making process about the built environment”. (Waldheim, untitled lecture) Waldheim also points out, that, overall, McHarg’s approach failed because it relied on, what Waldheim calls a “robust welfare state” that relies on planning bureaucracies capable of delivering the public realm, which he concludes has “largely been abandoned as a cultural aspiration in the North American context. Waldheim points out simply that “we have decided not to plan our cities”, citing economic influences as having as great a role in shaping the urban environment as anything by positing that “flows of capital dictate urban form”. (Waldheim, untitled lecture)





Works Cited

Corner, James. “Terra Fluxus”. Landscape Urbanism Reader. Ed. Charles Waldheim. Princeton Architectural Press. 2006. Pgs. 21-33. Retrieved from google books on 11/19/11.

Definition of Fluxus. Retrieved from on 11/29/11

James Corner, biography. Retrieved on 11/20/11

King, Jason. 2010. “Ecological Urbanism Introduction Part 1”. Retrieved on 11/7/11.

King, Jason. 2010. “Ecologjical Urbanism Introduction Part 2”. Retrieved on 11/7/11

King, Jason. 2010. “More on Ecological Urbanism”. Retrieved on 11/7/11

“Landscape Urbanism”. Retrieved on 11/7/11.

“Mohsen Mostafavi is Named Dean of Design School”. 2007. Retrieved on 11/20/11

Mostafavi, Mohsen. 2010. “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?”. Ecological Urbanism. Ed. Mohsen Mostafavi. Lars Muller Publishers. 2010. Indirectly quoted from

Steel, Carolyn. 2009. “How Food Shapes Our Cities”. Retrieved from on 11/18/11.

Steuteville, Robert. 2011. “Street Fight: Landscape Urbanism Versus New Urbanism. Retrieved From on 11/29/11.


Waldheim, Charles. 2006. “A Reference Manifesto”. Landscape Urbanism Reader. Ed. Charles Waldheim. Princeton Architectural Press. 2006. Pgs. 13 – 19. Retrieved from google books on 11/19/11.

“Waldheim Appointed Professor Chair of Landscape Architecture”. 2009. Retrieved on 11/20/11

Waldheim, Charles. “On Landscape, Ecology and Other Modifiers to Urbanism”. Topos the International Review of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. No. 71. Retrieved from on 11/15/11

Waldheim, Charles. Untitled lecture presented at the University of North Carolina. 2010. Retrieved from on 11/11/11.


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