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?

More information: Sustainable Cities Collective