News & Events | New Landscape Declaration

Cities for People, Cities for the Planet

June 10, 2016

Blaine Merker
Director, Gehl Studio

This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. Each of the 25 invited speakers was asked to write a 1,000-word “Declaration” of leadership and ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time and the next 50 years. These Declarations were then presented at the Summit.


Cities for People, Cities for the Planet

By Blaine Merker

In 1966, Americans were in the midst of abandoning central cities and leaving a trail of pollution and landscape destruction as we built into the countryside. But 50 years on, a new era has begun and we have turned back to many of those same cities. How we design them now holds the key to two of the most important questions humans face: how to live sustainably on our planet, and how to be happier doing so.

Cities have unlocked a secret in the last decade: the actions that are most sustainable and even healthy are actually the most enjoyable as well. They let us use our bodies, they give us greater freedom, they connect us to other people, and they fill our time with things we would rather be doing anyway. Cities give us access without the burden of ownership—access to mobility, to great amenities, to experiences. They are the ultimate innovation in resource efficiency.

Cities are experiments, and lately the distance between citizen and plan has shortened as guerrilla bureaucrats use tactical interventions that make change quicker and more nimbly. At a time when national politics is polarized and international agreements take decades, the creativity and economic might of cities have given them resolve and the clout—more than any other part of society—to take bold environmental action. Landscape architects play leading roles in this urban story, providing innovation and inspiration by fusing human and natural processes.

But cities offer something else as well: a celebration of the human condition. Good urbanism is humanism made physical. It is a celebration of the prosaic things that make us happy. Cities let us move freely using our own bodies, they engage our senses, bring us together physically and in spirit. It’s no wonder that cities are where talent and opportunity collect. But some are in such demand as to be exclusive enclaves. In fact, human scale urbanism—the thing that makes city life livable—has become so coveted, and is in such short supply that Silicon Valley runs its own commuter lines back to San Francisco because so many of its workers prefer to live there. We know from economists that income-diverse neighborhoods with short commute times create greater intergenerational economic mobility. But that opportunity is being eroded because we now have a supply problem: not enough good and green urbanism to go around. Those who can’t afford it are pushed to a kind resource-intensive landscape that not only threatens our planet, but doesn’t provide most of what people are increasingly looking for.

The energy intensive, dispersed, and functionally separated “modernist” city is the great ecological experiment of the last half century. It requires people travel long distances for daily routines. Isolated pleasant environments have been created in this experiment, to be sure, but access to collective goods and social connection here is a fragile privilege, propped up by highly subsidized individual mobility.

Along with the rise of the modernist urban form, America has become increasingly divided into two visions of how to live on the land and with one another: one dispersed and resource-intensive, the other increasingly connected and efficient. This divide is mirrored in our culture and in our politics to such an extent that it sometimes seems like Americans just miles apart see the world very differently.

Landscape architecture’s historic role in the modernist experiment has been to hide, bandage, decorate, and soften the profound impact of dispersal, resource-intensive transportation, and fundamental lack of human scale. It is an uncomfortable truth that our profession has often been beholden to anti-humanist economics. While we protect health and safety, the risks landscape architects mitigate are often the direct result of an inhumane urbanism operating at a scale just out of our reach.

Our experiment has exacted a signal sacrifice: the disproportionate use of resources, energy and time. Compare the footprints of Atlanta and Barcelona, two cities of roughly 5 million people. Atlanta uses 25 times more land and produces more than 10 times the carbon dioxide (CO2).

But this isn’t just about the transportation sector. It is about the additional design problems we take on when we then must manage stormwater from acres of pavement or try to make mechanized landscapes safe for kids to walk to school. These are, frankly, problems we chose and which now consume much more of our design attention than they should.

The final accounting of our landscape choices is being done in our climate system, though the urgency of this too depends on which Americans you talk to. Where climate change is seen as a threat devastatingly corresponds to the fault lines in our politics, culture, and our built environment. The kind of place we live, its political culture and its built form, determines what we believe about our global climate system. The places with the most staked on dispersed, energy intensive landscapes are the least likely to believe there’s a problem.

We don’t know exactly how Americans will be impacted by climate change. We do know that the dispersal, separation, and mechanization of our landscape causes an experiment in CO2 not seen in over a million years. Is it affecting us yet? 2016 is on track to be the hottest ever recorded on earth. As of this April, the global high temperature record has been broken every month for the last year. Warming is not happening everywhere equally. One place that’s cooler is the southern tip of Greenland where its glaciers are turning to liquid and flowing into the Atlantic.

Our charge is not just the safety of individual people, but the safety of humankind. Our envelope of best practices simply isn’t wide enough to address the real scale of the challenge—we need a new mentality that radically refocuses our vision.

Our changing climate is a warning that the experiment we’ve been running not only threatens the stability of our global ecosystem, but actually is leading us further from happiness. The U.S. has the third highest commute times on the planet, behind only Bulgaria and Hungary. And while the option to commute is tied to economic opportunity, commutes beyond 20 minutes correlate with increasing personal misery.

And it’s easy to see why. Mobility takes time, and our time is limited. When we separate destinations too much, we displace nourishing mobility—the kind that makes us feel excited and free—with a “junk mobility” that makes us bored, trapped and stressed out. We have less time for the stuff we choose that makes us happy: exercise, relationships, and building community.

Junk mobility is also making us broke, requiring more investment than it pays back. Expensive highways subsidize far-flung trips for low value economic activity. They sap central cities of the residents who could support a more efficient, compact transportation system. This is not a call to divest from infrastructure, but to consider carefully the long-range future our infrastructures lock us into. The more energy our landscapes require, the less freedom we have to solve problems other than managing energy.

Four design principles for the urban landscape will move us towards a future that makes us happier, safer, richer, and will at least give us a shot at minimizing catastrophic changes to our climate system:

  • First, celebrate the human dimension. A city built for people provides texture, delight, and usability for all ages and abilities. It is messy, and its dimensions smaller than most of what we build now. Human bodies, in all their idiosyncrasies and limitations, should be the client for every project.
  • Second, connect people better and concentrate human activity into places that create vitality and convenience. Connecting with one or two modes of transport isn’t enough—multiple systems using minimal energy are required for real choice and freedom.
  • Third, give future generations alternatives. If we don’t build the cities our children and grandchildren need, they’ll have to use their own resources to rebuild what they inherit. Don’t lock them into costly redesigns. Before sinking millions into parking garages which can’t be retrofitted or new schools miles from neighborhoods, give the future room to maneuver: Consider that the values of the future will probably be different from our own.
  • Finally, build common ground by creating places that draw diverse populations together. We found that more than half of the users of New York’s street plaza program said they had gotten to know more people because of these spaces. People making under $50,000 were even more likely to say that. This is a model for how we can use place to create opportunity and connection and bridge divides in our culture.

The good news is the things that make us happiest—like deep relationships, human scale environments, and a sense of kinship with those with whom we share place—are practically carbon neutral. Deep sustainability and happiness reinforce each other at every planning and design scale.

There is much work to do across all sectors of society, and landscape is but one part. But without place as an organizer and cities leading the way, other solutions—like alternative power sources and better resource management—will fall short. Landscape architects’ expertise and more importantly, their values are essential. There is much work to do, and the moment to do it is now.