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stoss landscape urbanism

Landscape urbanism: The challenge of implementation

Urban vs. rural, architecture vs. landscape, man vs. nature—these design dichotomies seem to have served professionals well. They are not only useful intellectual constructs dating back to Adam and Eve but also effective regulatory tools. By defining realms of authority in an understandable way, they allow complex projects to be funded, approved and built in an orderly fashion. 

Practitioners of landscape urbanism, however, question whether these distinctions remain meaningful in an era of limited resources and environmental threats, suggesting we can devise more-sustainable approaches to development by emphasizing the inter-relationships of ecological systems and urban construction. And they say no one is better equipped to distill a design direction from these fluid patterns than landscape architects. Recognizing environmental interconnections, however, challenges not only the usual architect-on-top hierarchy but also the property lines and regulatory sectors that define how we design and build.  


Stoss Landscape Urbanism’s Botanic Overlook on the Minneapolis riverfront uses waste heat from a nearby power plant to heat a series of communal pools, greenhouses and community facilities.

Chris Reed, founder of Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism, says there is no choice. “We need to do more with less. Cities and public agencies are hungry for proposals that move multiple agendas forward. Flexible and productive open spaces that cleanse water, generate energy, structure development, create new habitat and adapt to climate change will be the only way to go for cash-strapped administrators.”  But, he acknowledges, turning bold ideas into buildable realities requires a commitment to research and experimentation, and a governance structure that will support ambitious proposals. 


Beneath the fluid forms and pastoral landscapes of Diller Scofidio + Renfro/James Corner Field Operations’ High Line are a vast array of drains, pipes, cables and beams that are engineered to make it all work.

To get traction within and beyond academia, landscape urbanism has developed an evocative language to convey its aspirations. And like most design “-isms,” it uses a family of forms to metaphorically suggest how those aspirations can be implemented. Sweeping curves, continuous ribbons and folded planes represent the kind of dynamic systems that landscape urbanists are trying to channel, with iconic projects such as Manhattan’s High Line (a park in New York City’s West Side that was formerly an elevated railroad track) offering tantalizing visuals. But without the High Line’s endless influx of high-society financing, can the landscape-urbanist principles of integrated design survive in a sliced-and-diced world?

Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA of Ground Inc., a Somerville landscape practice, says a series of incremental improvements can add up to make meaningful changes—especially in dense urban environments. “With enough green-roof or groundwater-recharge projects done by individual landowners, we can make our cities more comfortable to live in and more compatible with the ecosystems they are part of.”  But, she adds, it may take zoning incentives or monetary subsidies to reach a critical threshold where we can provide a public return on private-sector investment.

For better or worse, vast bureaucracies stand between even the most-benevolent vision and its realization. In a democracy, public support is required for economic or development initiatives, and the public hardly speaks with a unified voice. Regulatory agencies moderate the debates and try to find common ground.

Ben Lynch, program chief for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Waterways Regulation Program, deals daily with the state’s forward-looking requirements for waterfront development. “Regulations and incentives are blunt instruments at best,” he admits. “If the public sector wants the private sector to pay for infrastructure improvements and the private players are trying not to lose their shirts, it will be a challenge to stay true to a landscape-urbanist agenda because there are so many agendas to balance.”

Although this agenda is at the cutting edge of land-use policy, many of its aspirations are firmly embedded in standard practice for engineers and bureaucrats. Fred Yalouris, director of architecture and urban design for Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project, or “Big Dig,” says that the massive highway-burial project was in tune with the precepts of landscape urbanism, even if it plays down didactic ambitions. “A fifth of the project’s $15 billion was mitigation, ranging from the creation of 46 parks to over a billion for mass transit. We got rid of the rusting hulk of overhead highway and planted over 20,000 trees, and acres and acres of lawns and gardens. Rain gardens and urban agriculture can always be added as the icing on a pretty sustainable cake.” 

Landscape urbanism’s inspiring rhetoric and compelling forms provide a strong, poetic evocation of a more sustainable way to build. But if both the formal and practical ideals are to be implemented, they need to be harnessed to a more prosaic set of tools, such as building codes, zoning ordinances and engineering calculations. Designers will need to team up with scientists, sociologists and engineers—and bureaucrats and bean counters, too—if sustainable design solutions are to be pushed beyond the commonplace. The tendency to let poetic forms become stand-alone statements risks ceding the prosaic work of making real change to others.


David_Eisen_AIADavid Eisen AIA is a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners in Boston.  He is the author of Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention and writes frequently on design issues for a variety of publications.  He received his architecture degree at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Top image: Lighting, landscaping and pedestrian passageways are woven through an existing transportation infrastructure at the Queens Plaza Improvement Project by Wallace Roberts Todd, Margie Ruddick Landscape and Marpillero Pollak Architects.

Curious about landscape urbanism? Read more in the recent issue of ArchitectureBoston, Turf.

Greening Government Center

Boston has been selected as one of five U.S. cities to receive an EPA Smart Growth grant called Greening America’s Capitals. It is a project of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities between EPA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to help state capitals develop an implementable vision of distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods that incorporate innovative green building and green infrastructure strategies.

These pilot projects could contribute to citywide actions, such as changes to local codes and ordinances to better support sustainable growth and green building.

The first of many events to come was the Greening of Government Center held last Thursday at the Boston Public Library. The event was a panel discussion intended to generate public dialog on how to make Government Center a more sustainable place. The discussion was moderated by Ted Landsmark, President of the Boston Architectural College. According to Landsmark "we have an opportunity to think about what it is we can do and Mayor Menino is committed to making it happen."

Presentations by the six well-selected panelists, including Robert Fox Principal of Cook + Fox Architects, Alex Krieger Principal of Chan Krieger Siniewicz + NBBJ, some were inspirational while others were quite sobering.

Bob Fox, the architect responsible for the first tower to obtain Platinum LEED certification presented the audience with the facts. According to Fox 73% of the carbon produced on Earth is from our buildings. It is interesting to note that Mayor Menino and the City of Boston is addressing this issue, the Mayor has already put a plan in place which aims to reduce the carbon footprint 80% by the year 2050. Most of Boston’s building’s are in need of an update to meet this criteria, meaning we need to think critically NOW about how to transform our existing buildings to make them most efficient. Fox suggested generating power on-site as a strategy for City Hall, he said "underground steam occurring in that location would easily support a 50 megawatt co-generation plant."

Landscape architect Chris Reed Principal of Stoss Landscape Urbanism presented a wonderful variety of simple, flexible landscape schemes which were the result of what he describes as the "creative coordination of agenda." Chris also addressed using the steam under City Hall -- but not just for energy. Chris sees steam as a natural method with which to create an interesting aesthetic by releasing it intermittently onto the plaza to produce an interesting, ambient clouding effect.

Matthias Rudolph of Transsolar a climate engineering firm with offices in Germany and now New York City addressed the importance of the quality of the outdoor space; such as wind control, shade and heat control. Comfort is the most important thing for the pedestrian -- if the space is not comfortable the pedestrian WILL NOT be there. According to Matthias "we need to find more efficient ways to do things, we need to find relationships from which to borrow and exchange resources. For example in Helsinki, heat that is generated by large ships is collected and used to heat the city."

Bob, Chris and Matthias encouraged the audience to carefully consider the use of existing resources for new possibilities, using something as simple as STEAM, a readily available resource which could truly benefit City Hall and its plaza.Let’s find a way to use this steam, let’s make energy with it. Let's also give the plaza some ambiance -- how about releasing it and lighting the plumes during the evening? How about using it to heat the plaza during the frigid winter months? Let’s
not only use this time to reimagine but let’s begin the transformation. We can develop these innovative techniques further and make Boston’s government center a model for the rest of the city and others cities around the world.


Kim Poliquin is executive director of SHIFTboston.

Photo: Boston City Hall, 1981. From the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Survey number HABS MA-1176. Lebovich, photographer.

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