Alex Krieger to Andres Duany: Urban Design Still Lives at GSD

Let me assure all those concerned about the ‘coup,’ that Urban Design at Harvard – where the name was coined and the discipline began – is alive and well.

My friend Andres Duany is as clever as can be, and so, surely timed his Metropolis obituary for Harvard’s Urban Design Program to correspond with our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Urban Design Program, at which he is to speak [this week, November 12, 13]. Why not a shot across the bow a week early? It certainly got our attention. Though how he intends to defend this theory in front of several hundred people looking ahead to participating in the second half century of the discipline of urban design will be interesting to observe. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. While, yes, an increased interest in environmental stewardship is surely in our future. It would be utterly irresponsible for it not to be so during these next decades of the 21st century.

Those of us who teach and practice urban design welcome an environmentally-based broadening of the discipline, which at times has been perceived as too narrowly aligned with architectural sensibilities. Addressing urbanism wisely in its many contemporary guises, we now know, requires a multiplicity of arrows in our intellectual quivers – ecological considerations being among the ‘sharpest’ of these. Why should not the landscape architecture profession re-assert its voice, as concern about ecological footprints gains broad public notice. It has been the design discipline that has most consistently retained consciousness of humanity’s impact on land and environments. We at the GSD even recall that the birth of American urban planning, as a serious academic discipline, begins with the lectures at Harvard of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in the 1920’s.

Duany is correct in describing the urban design program at Harvard as having an international orientation. It always has. But the assumption that we will now abdicate the study of the North American city to the “landscape/ecological urbanists,” as he puts it, is, well, a sign of uncharacteristic insecurity on his part.

I suspect Andres’ postulating a nefarious ‘coup’ at Harvard, in which Urban Design is erased in favor of something called Ecological Urbanism, is actually a cover for a personal worry that the term Landscape Urbanism will soon supplant New Urbanism amongst the purveyors of design sloganeering. The arrival of a new oracle, timely draped with environmental virtues is unsettling. The fear has been building up for awhile among the New Urbanists. Especially since Charles Waldheim, my colleague at Harvard, and certainly affiliated with the spread of the term Landscape Urbanism, has been quoted as saying that: “Landscape Urbanism was specifically meant to provide an intellectual and practical alternative to the hegemony of the New Urbanism.” Well, those are fighting words, I guess, and so a counter-offensive campaign among the New Urbanists has been ordered.

Consider a recent article in Planetizen by Michael Mehaffy entitled “The Landscape Urbanism: Sprawl in a Pretty Green Dress?” This is a play on a frequent observation, sometimes attributed to me, of New Urbanism producing “sprawl in drag”. Or, consider a yet unpublished (I believe) essay by Emily Talen making its rounds among the New Urbanists, entitled “Tire in the Park,” whose opening sentence reads “It’s easy to poke fun at landscape urbanism.” The essay then delights in lifting various jargon-filled quotes that Talen finds in the Waldheim-edited The Landscape Urbanism Reader, commenting, “Do they not see how unoriginal it is to find ‘structure out of chaos’, or to view cities like ecosystems?”

Granted, that does seem a bit unoriginal. But when Talen remarks that Landscape Urbanism is “strangely uncritical of its own self-inflated propositions,” one can only smile at how easy it has been to poke fun at the New Urbanists as they have remained so strangely uncritical of their own self-inflated propositions.

Meanwhile, as my mail box fills with panicked “Is it True?” queries, let me assure all those concerned about the ‘coup,’ that Urban Design at Harvard – where the name was coined and the discipline began  – is alive and well, and celebrating its 50th year as a post-professional degree program. Let the slogans and sound bites, conspiracy theories and laying down of gauntlets, semi-militaristic analogies of conquest of intellectual territory swirl. It’s fun. Within the Urban Design Program we savor insightful debate (and irony, too): certain that renewing the centers of cities, building new ones, restoring the parts of old cities worthy of preservation, postulating models of equitable growth, husbanding resources, and managing peripheral spread are diverse mandates, thus unreceptive to being conquered by singular view of urbanism.

Categories: Design Education, Landscape