May 17, 2004

Landscape Architecture

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine focused on landscape architecture, and there were some interesting tidbits in there about suburbs and planning more livable communities.

Community planning always involves the tradeoff between private and public spaces. For example, someone who lives in Manhattan (unless they're very wealthy) is trading the possibility of a larger and nicer private space (i.e. they can only afford a closet-sized apartment) for world-class public spaces -- stores, restaurants, museums, theater, etc., all within easy walking or public transit. Someone who chooses to live in an exurb is likely choosing a beautiful private space -- larger house, larger lot, more affordable -- over a shared, high-energy public space (yes, there might be a beautiful park or woods nearby, but it's more likely there's nothing much within walking distance except more tract housing).

In car-dependent America, "the asphalt is our landscape. The streets are our landscape. The landscape is everything out there, and it looks like hell," Landscape architect Martha Schwartz says in a Q&A. "People spend more on their bathrooms than on their grounds. And they spend ore per square foot on their kitchens than they would ever put into an open public space. The problem is that our notion of the quality of life ends at our front door."

Also, Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities, points out in an essay The Greening of the City, that "suburbinzation conceals many hidden or denied expenses: heavy costs are downloaded on car-dependent workers and their families. Many other costs, including the redundant infrastructure that comes with low-intensity land use, fall on the taxpayer."

She also believes that "the modern suburbs it [the planning profession] has devised and constructed bring to mind the worst features of the great plantations that have dominated most of human history." That is, organized around a single "crop" or use (ONLY housing, ONLY retail, etc.) Meanwhile, the latest trend in urban architecture is adding more green, including some impressive roof gardens.

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