Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 12:30 UK

Urban planning needs green rethink

Martha Schwartz
Martha Schwartz

The focus on greening homes and offices is ignoring the wider landscape of our towns and cities, argues Martha Schwartz. In this week's Green Room, she says 21st Century urban spaces must undergo a green revolution.

Inflatable globe statue (Getty Images)
The landscape is the canvas upon which we live our lives, join together as communities and build our cities

When it comes to environmental concerns, there has been altogether too much fragmented talk of buildings.

We have consistently failed to recognise that buildings are situated in wider landscapes that desperately need greater attention.

As I go about my work as a landscape architect, I regularly deal with our profession's role within the green agenda.

Unfortunately, I have found that we lag behind architects when it comes to participating in the conversation around sustainability; in fact, we are often relegated to presiding over green roof technology.

This is most ironic, because landscape architecture is, in fact, the profession that deals with the "green" part of the agenda.

The reason for the focus on buildings, as opposed to that of the surrounding landscape, is down to the fact that the uses of resources and energy can be addressed with a degree of simplicity and directness.

Meanwhile, landscape architects are left outside looking in on the discussion because our professional remit rests outside these technologically oriented and building-focused discussions.

This is problematic because the nature of our profession is to focus on pressing environmental issues in a holistic fashion, in what I call the Softer Side of Sustainability.

This approach involves creating a sense of place, identity and belonging, in order to develop sustainable communities and - I hope - improve the environment.

Living landscape

We seem to have forgotten that sustainability itself is a cultural notion, and that a building or a place must have value to people if it is to be used sustainably.

Exchange Square, Manchester (Image: BBC)
Encouraging people to live side-by-side more closely will help the local ecology to flourish

It is therefore vital that landscape architects assert this both in our advocacy and in our actual work; for so long as we trail behind the architects by topping their buildings with green roofs, we are simply fiddling while Rome burns.

The landscape is the canvas upon which we live our lives, join together as communities and build our cities.

Embedded and integral to the landscape are the ecological systems that must be understood and respected, as well as the infrastructural systems connecting us all together.

I am not simply referring to gardens and majestic wildernesses; in fact, the most sustainable form of human habitation is the city.

This is where we collectively need focus our activities, and this is also where landscape architects can be of real use.

Encouraging people to live side by side more closely will help the local ecology to flourish, because the community can utilise superior water stations and sewage treatment plants, as well as improving electricity consumption patterns.

Cities also inspire a collectivisation of wealth, allowing local governments to better build and equip schools, libraries, and performing arts buildings.

So the reward of collectivisation can be true sustainability. City inhabitants, from a variety of backgrounds, can be quickly made aware of environmentally friendly ways to live.

This planning process should include measures to encourage compaction of the urban landscape, along with more efficient public transportation

This, in turn, can result in people influencing one another as they incorporate progressive lifestyle changes into the fabric of their diverse daily lives.

Landscape architects ought to help to make cities better places for all who live within them through the establishment of good connectivity and open spaces, the promotion of public transportation and, very importantly, ensuring water is used responsibly, with run-off being managed and put back into the ground.

In addition, landscape architects ought to ensure developers plant as much as possible so that we have an abundance of trees and permeable surfaces.

Careful and inspired design can make all the difference between a place that is viewed as no real significance to anyone, and a place that attracts people, creates vitality, and is cherished by its inhabitants.

The design of Exchange Square in Manchester, UK, is a good example of how careful attention to a community's history and a site's geology can foster the sort of intellectual and emotional investment in a place that leads to real sustainability.

Exchange Square is a wonderful outdoor living room created from a space that was formerly an ignored and ugly traffic intersection, bombed by the IRA in 1996.

The revamped square is now hugely successful; a vibrant and well-used space for everything from watching soap operas during the lunch hour to greeting the Queen.

10-minute rule

Currently, some urban authorities, such as New York, fall short of implementing the issues around the Softer Side of Sustainability, but they are heading in the right direction.

New York street (Getty Images)
New York is one city that is heading in the right direction

For example, PLAN NYC, the sustainability agenda for the eastern US concrete jungle, includes a proposal to ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

But this reference to parks is the only mention of the landscape in the NYC sustainability agenda.

PLAN NYC is certainly a marvellous commitment to improving the lives of citizens by giving them access to fresh, green, open spaces. But it does not push the envelope quite far enough.

It does not advocate the vital commitment to landscapes that reflects the most forward visual thinking, through dynamic, inspirational design, and structured attentiveness to community histories.

The role of landscape architecture is once again one of green embellishment, adding parks here and there, rather than sustainability agenda-setting through thought-provoking design.

Although NYC embraces its image as the centre of the global contemporary art scene, it has supported neither adventurous architecture nor landscape architecture.

For the best examples of this, we have to look to areas like Germany's Duisberg Nord Parc in the Ruhr Valley, or the beautiful green spaces of the Park Andre Citroen in Paris.

So how are we to implement The Softer Side of Sustainability?

First, we should incorporate the expertise of landscape architects into the planning process leading up to the establishment of sustainability agendas such as PLAN NYC.

This planning process should include measures to encourage compaction of the urban landscape, along with more efficient public transportation.

Secondly, we should increase sustainability education for students of landscape architecture, architecture, and urban development.

Finally, American builders should learn from the design overviews used in much European urban planning, but extend their minds to reflect the sophistication of landscape thinking.

Three straightforward steps, but they are key to deciding whether cities can develop effectively for the 21st Century, or remain mired in yesterday's thinking.

Martha Schwartz is a US-based landscape architect specialising in master plans, art commissions, urban renewal, reclamation and redevelopment

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Martha Schwartz? Is there too much focus on "green" buildings and parks, at the expense of the wider landscape? Will more compact cities improve the sense of community? Or are there more pressing needs, such as affordable homes and crime reduction?

Good article, although it seems a little light on simple, practical steps that can be taken to improve the situation. It's all very well talk about co-ordinated, holistic solutions but that does not and will not happen everywhere so there must be other things that can be done.
DaveJ, London

The idea of having more parks in the cities is fine but begs the "real" question. Physical closeness does not make a community. Nor is bigger necessarily better in terms of schools and socialization of our children. Size allows them to blend into the crowd, while at the same time encouraging ever stranger ways of stating their individuality. I personally have opted for life in a very small town of 1000 where individuals are still that, an individual. My background includes a Master's degree, development work, teaching, extensive world travel, living in several world capitals and a couple large American cities. Yes there is less intellectual stimulation (conversation) here but with the web, cell phones and travel I certainly don't feel "left out". My range of friends is much wider and I am learning things that simply would not be available in an urban or suburban situation. And my use of resources is down due to the enforced simpler life style. Thank you.
Beve Teasley, Arco Idaho USA

Time someone pushed this further in the public forum. absoultely agree with the opinion. Crime reduction will happen automatically if we have compact cities with a sense of community..
Gaurang Khemka, singapore

Although much of what Ms Schwartz say is relevant and enlightened I find her statement below to be complete trollop. "Although NYC embraces its image as the centre of the global contemporary art scene, it has supported neither adventurous architecture nor landscape architecture." NYC is the most adventurous experiment in architecture and landscape architecture on the planet.
ANTHONY, auckland NZ

Ms Schwartz is absolutely on target-most sustainability talk is focused on hardware and gadgets large and small. The next stage in the sustainability discussion should be about our human resources, the young who are our future, and the disaffected, who are the greatest threat to our future-in seeking to direct their energies to positive means. This means designing education and justice systems that address the human potential in those goven over to their care.
Frank Greene, New York, NY

Martha accurately conveys the erroneous perception of our work -- that we essentially decorate outdoor spaces conceived by others. I think the reality she is conveying rightly implies that "landscape thinking" is a conceptual framework for applying a systems view of the workings of nature and culture in the urban environment, much the same way that "landscape ecology" implies a scalable spatial and temporal framework to the study of ecology, and the way that "landscape urbanism" applies (at last!) a natural systems view of the workings of the city to solving urban spatial issues. This framework will inform allocation and design issues at a range of scales including buildings and parks predominantly in my view by what is happening at both higher and lower orders of scales. Certainly there are pressing needs, but I think our sense of connection is the keystone need that will lead to other needs being experienced as feeling met. Our sense of connection IS a Softer Side of Sustainability, as Martha describes. The human part of the equation, and the intuitive/feeling side of our minds, are where connections are made and are often lost in our formulaic, hyper-rational culture. We often neglect to consider that our original connection to the land and the landscape has not likely been evolved out of our consciousness of being. The systems that support us globally and in our cities are all connected. Sadly, our cultural dispositions drive us to sever connected natural systems and connections with each other. If we were to include these concepts in our notions of sustainability, we might then propagate a culture tolerant of diversity in nature and cities, of honoring the half of our minds devoted to how we feel about our world and others, and we ! might begin a less destructive journey into the future.
Jeff Lakey, Denver Colorado USA

"The landscape is the canvas upon which we live our lives, join together as communities and build our cities" Good. However compaction and efficient transport just makes the green spaces a weekend event. Young people need to develop away from the public gaze otherwise they clump together in packs in the squares and malls for self-confidence against authority. Young couples need to be able to have spontaneous sex away from families, friends and again, public view. Children need to go out and play for an hour or two. These are fundamentals. Compaction and transport do not address the spontaneity or the inertia in most people. Unfortunately the reality is, developers have limited funds, architects are constrained by this brief and what is natural and normal for people will ALWAYS come last in the search for profit and the compromise of legislation and planning rules.. So so sad. The youth of Britain becoming feral?? This is where it stems from.
Rod Mcleod, Ostrava czech Rep

I work in a planning department in central London dealing with landscape issues and I think although what Martha says is true, the value of green roofs if focussed on biodiversity should not be underestimated. In a densly inner city area this is one landscape feature which should be exploited to the maximum.
Alex, London

I agree, sustainable landscapes are a cultural notion, but a notion which is learned through exposure and education. We can talk and write about encouraging urban compaction, but the first thing policy makers can't visualize is what happens to MY parking space, MY yard and MY two acre lot. Landscape architects, planners, and architects need to educate policy makers by exposing them to real examples and conditions of compaction not through photos, but first hand experience. Urban space is much more dynamic than what a photo or article can ever capture. Sincerely, Eric Schuchardt University of Wisconsin- Madison Landscape Architecture Student
Eric Schuchardt, Madison, WI USA

So many words to say nothing. "Plant more trees". Amazing! Its no wonder the architects ignore her.
John, Hereford

I agree with your views that landscape architecture is important to the development of livable urban spaces. I cannot agree, however, with your brash statement that landscape architecture has been ignored in PLAN NYC, and that New York "has supported neither adventurous architecture nor landscape architecture." PLAN NYC contains explicit reference to increasing greenery throughout the city, with benchmarks for the number of trees planted in each neighborhood (crude, but implementable and measurable, much like the 10 minute rule). NYC parks and recreation have been involved in many substantial projects including extending waterfront access around Manhattan, the new Brooklyn Bridge park, etc. The High Line is in my opinion one of the most innovative public spaces developed in a major city in recent years. Finally, the notion that New York hasn't supported adventurous architecture is laughable.
Matthew Blaschko, Tübingen, Germany

As a LEED Certified landscape designer, I certainly agree that much of the sustainability attention goes to buildings and structures. There's a bigger idea out there that's getting over looked and that's how the buildings relate to each other and to the people and landscape....Oh and we need to start planning the Car-Free city soon too.
Eric Sargeant, Portland, Oregon, USA

I absolutely agree. I live in a rural area of Washington State that is so behind the times. The city is stressful to navigate, rather than a pleasure. This is one reason why people, in my opinion, choose to live away from the city and commute, which increases global warming gases, and decreases time with family and friends. I have looked for a city in which I can walk to the store, library, etc. Often there aren't even sidewalks and when there are, I have to breath the combined exhaust of noisy traffic. Not healthy or fun.
Lorie Phillips, Yakima, WA USA

Every space in cities that can harbor living plants should do so. If community fruit trees were planted about for people to enjoy, the sense of health and community would increase. Crime exists because of ill health, disconnect and desperation. What color do they paint a room to calm people down? Green.
Vivian, Victorville, USA

Martha, I agree with you entirely. Too many decent residential and commercial developments in NYC are ruined by uninspired asphalt parking lots on the street level. Ecellent landscaping and public space has to become a higher priority because it is so essential to quality of life, and Plan NYC needs to reflect this. More high-quality parks need to be implemented and connected by greenways for cyclists and pedestrians as well as high-quality public transport.
Jonas Hagen, New York City

Some insightful comments on the use of urban landscape to improve the environment for humans, however Martha's definition of 'sustainability' is extremely narrow. It is hard to see how the concrete coated, neon lit Exchange Square with its massive plasma screen tv contributes to sustainability. Sustainability, in any meaningful definition means practices, construction, activities which can be continued indefinitely with the resources available to us.
Ewan, Cambridge, UK

Council Planning departments do little more than legitimise the activities of 'developers' and farmers to make a quick buck at the expense of local communities. Local Area and Structure Plans are a load of hogwash and waste of money - I suspect developments go ahead on the basis of profit to the developer and bribes to planners, councillors and politicians. Ever tried to oppose a development on 'environmental / amenity gounds' - you just get labelled a 'nimby'
mike, scotland

Ms Schwartz's comments on the contribution to the sustainability agenda that can be made by Landscape Architects is to be welcomed. I think from a UK or European perspective the article does not tally with the importance of the planning process in shaping one's environment. The British planning system is an intricate set of laws dating back over 150 years that is designed so that decisions are made in the best interests of the public, including those affected by development. However, the planning system can only deliver sustainable, progressive and positive development if members of the public participate in it. Too often County Halls across the UK ring to the voices of NIMBYist closed-mindedness and the vocal minority. The principle of sustainability, using the Kitzhaber definition, means to deliver changes that improve the environment, the economy and the community. This can only be achieved by community participation, and by embracing the need for change not only in the environments we live in, but in how we live and how we work.
Kris H, Cardiff, UK

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