Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Valuing Contested Landscapes in Growing Cities

In a working paper that became the precursor to his seminal work 'A Pattern Language', Christopher Alexander, along with Serge Chermayeff, speculated on the problems concerning the way suburban cities were built in the immediate post war era. Their concerns about the distribution of buildings in the urban landscape were not so much about the environmental costs of sprawl, but rather the need to reconcile opposing forces of designing for community and designing for privacy. They suggested in a working paper for the University of California in 1965 that the city has a density pattern that expresses society's attempt to reconcile the desire for space and the desire for access. This tension remains today as city governments and communities debate about the ideal urban form needed to house the global migration into cities. Many landscape architects find themselves on the space side of the equation in this ideological contest.

It seems logical that the spaces between the buildings need to be defended against the compact city agenda, whether it is pockets of green grass and trees or, like many ancient European cities, the paved squares and piazzas-replete with ornament-that reflect the essence of the local culture. Yet this defense of the urban open space presents a paradox. How do we decide what space must be retained on environmental grounds, and what spaces are better used for housing the new urban migrants? Should all urban landscapes be retained as reservoirs of urban ecological services, or are some just taking up space that would be better served as sites for affordable housing close to services, jobs and educational institutions? This issue is equally vexing and unresolved in Australia as well.

Photo Credit: ToryHo/flickr

Landscape Architecture in Australia has, in recent years, positioned itself as the profession most capable of inserting a green legitimacy into the policy approaches required to meet the demands of an urbanising world in and through the valuing of urban landscapes. In recent years, terms such as "green infrastructure" offer promises of a policy fix that will place landscapes at the centre of solutions needed to meet the structural demands of cities struggling to house burgeoning urban populations. Yet, landscapes have been intuitively valued in cities for centuries. So, as governments attempt to contain sprawling suburbs by pursuing a more compact urban form, landscapes in the greenfield developments on the fringes of our cities are becoming less valued, while other landscapes closer to the city centres are defended from opportunistic developers using tenuous eco-resource provision arguments.

Both of these approaches are supported by the appropriating of landscape values into a narrowly defined econometric discourse. Green infrastructure is used to create a metric to create a green value for urban landscapes in this way. The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) advocates that cities 'focus fiscal measures on strategic incentives for enhancing and supporting green infrastructure potential' by 'tailor[ing] existing funding capacity and structures towards 'value-added' development'. AILA defines value by using terms such as 'ecosystem service provision' to 'enhance the effectiveness of responses to climate change at local and regional scales'. In all, these goals, if not a little weasel speak-sound noble in the battle to address climate uncertainty, but not necessarily in the battle to provide affordable housing in serviceable locations for social good. As a result, certain landscapes of dubious social or cultural value are defended using green metrics often created to serve the interests of those protecting their local green patch. Other landscapes, such as those on the urban fringe are 'value managed' out of the equation using the same metrics but for very different outcomes.

Photo Credit: Hubomb/flickr

Take for example a local park on the northern edge of Canberra's CBD. Just over ninety years ago a pine plantation was planted to provide a wind break to reduce the dust blowing off the degrade grazing land and newly constructed residential subdivisions. The parks department of the time was run by very accomplished foresters who essentially created a pine forest. Almost a century later, the pines are coming to the end of their useful life and the urban edge is now over fifteen kilometres away. Today few people would be prepared to venture into the park at night, it is well known locally for the high number of assaults that occur after dark. Apart from the rows of trees there are very few other facilities available to the local community. However, this old wind break is fiercely protected by locals who don't want to see such spaces turned over to high density development. As a result, the ageing pines are being replaced and the opportunity to locate a large number of affordable houses in the area is rapidly slipping away.

Yet, on the urban fringe of Australia's national capital, affordable housing stock is being built in new housing estates, where cottages are squeezed onto tiny lots, many kilometres away from workplaces, public transportation and services.

Photo Credit: National Archives of Australia

The contests over the value of these landscapes unfold over many cities around the world. It is an essential part of a democratic society and professional organisations need to position themselves in these debates by providing sound, evidence based policy that supports intelligent debate. Green infrastructure doesn't do this. The use of such terms occurs in a policy vacuum with little empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of such an approach, often relying on isolated signature projects rather than successful planning outcomes.Urban design in Australia increasingly advocates for compact cities and the supporting containment strategies would suggest that the community's desire for access is replacing the desire for space. It is, of course much more complex than a simple binary between two competing forces and urban designers have to come to terms with this complexity by examining the socially constructed notions of landscape rather than simplistic interpretations of green technological based metrics.

In this quest to find the balance between access and space, cities need to think seriously about they apportion value to all urban landscapes and be open to all possible interpretations of 'value'. In the end most of these spaces are public land that should provide a balance across all the positive manifestations of landscape value held by all members of the community. This approach should and will uncover the conflicting values held by the community in these contested landscapes.